Final Thoughts on Lignum

At first blush, Lignum is a hard sell. The name alone is esoteric not to mention the setting. 19th century logging? Not exactly the most scintillating topic. And then there's the artwork. It tries to pull off a wood motif that just ends up looking muddled. But I'd heard positive things from people I trusted and was willing give it a try and see what kind of experience it provided. I'm glad I did.

Design : Alexander Huemer  Art : Christoph Clasen  Publishing : Capstone Games

Design: Alexander Huemer Art: Christoph Clasen Publishing: Capstone Games

This is a follow up article to a game covered earlier in the month. As such, it assumes that you are familiar with the game and how it works. If this game is new to you, check out the Initial Thoughts video to see if it's a game you would be interested in.

The distinction between and work and play is a lot blurrier than it would seem at first glance. Work generally being described as boring and tedious while play is fun and exciting. All too often, I find that play is most rewarding when there is an element of work. Practicing your jump shot might not be the most fun, but hitting the game winning shot is exhilarating. Biking up a mountain might be grueling in the moment, but the view from the top is spectacular. Effort and struggle breeds satisfaction. I want some struggle in my games. I want to be challenged so that if I win I feel as if I've earned it. Lignum makes you earn it.

It's certainly a fine balance. A game fraught with complicated rules and unforgiving systems can seem burdensome and punishing with no relief in sight. Doesn't sound all that appealing. But the recent trend in video games of high skill games that punish the smallest mistakes such as Dark Souls have shown us that, when done well, these games can offer something that no other game can: a sense of accomplishment. It's the difference between winning a game of Bingo and a game of Poker. Sure they are both exciting, but Poker makes you earn it. So to does Lignum and it does it well.

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Lignum is first and foremost a game about planning. Without a good idea of what you aim to accomplish, you'll find yourself floundering and destitute. There are no grand sweeping, game changing moves to be had. Instead, it's a game of inches, slowly plodding along until you hit your goals and only then can you sit back to enjoy the fruits of your labor. For a little while at least. The importance of planning is perhaps best exemplified with an example.

Tasks can taken on one of the spots along the path. Tasks are essentially contract in which you are promising to deliver a certain amount and type of wood. When you do, you'll gain a generous amount of money and they are vital to winning the game. Let us imagine that I take a task to deliver two pieces of milled firewood and a piece of aged, milled hardwood. And would you look at that? There's a forest spot with three firewood and one hardwood waiting to be felled. Now the choices stat coming hard and heavy. There's some food on the space, making it more enticing than usual and I'm not first in turn order. If someone else also chooses that spot, I they're likely to take the wood I need. I take a chance and pick the spot anyways. Lucky day! I was the only one to choose it and I have rights to all that wood. Now I just have to cut it down.

First order of business, I'll need at least two wood cutters. They're limited in number and if they get hired before I can reach them I'm out of luck. But wouldn't you know? The wood bearers come before the wood cutters on the path. So before I even know how much wood I can cut down, I have to make a decision on how much wood I want to transfer. Hire too few and my economy stalls as I have lumber just sitting around. Hire too many and that's valuable money down the tubes. In a game where winning scores can be in the 40's, every coin matters. And this is only the first of many steps to try and accomplish your task.

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Every coin counts when the economy is so tight.

While Lignum is a game that demands foresight, you can't be rigid in your execution if you want to be successful. Good tactical decisions are necessary to achieve your long term strategic plans. Nothing in Lignum happens in a vacuum. Your opponents are competing for the same resources and their plans will often clash with your own. Let's look at the selection of the cutting areas as an example. This is done as a blind selection. Players secretly select one of the six forests to stake their claim. If you are the only player to select that area, lucky you. You can all the food there and rights to all the wood. If multiple people select the same space, it becomes a mad dash to be the first person to reach the end of the path and leave the scraps for the others.

What unfolds is a tense game of double think. Do I take the space with low quality wood, but lots of food? But do my opponents need food too? There's a spot with great wood and tons of food. Surely everyone would pick that spot. Right? Or maybe they'll be scared off, thinking there's no way they want to split it. Do I risk it? Furtive eyes dart around the table trying to glean information from your opponents' faces without giving away your own thoughts. To play Lignum is to play your opponents and that's what a great game is all about.

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Specifically Universal

Without fail, when playing Lignum I was met with comments like, "Is really a game about cutting wood?" or, "They'll make a game about anything." Yes, Lignum really is a game about cutting and milling wood. And, yes, I think that sounds fascinating. Perhaps there's a bit of hipster-dom involved with extolling the virtues of a game that his little mass appeal, but I find that niche subject matter tends to be more personal, more specific, and more appealing. Designer Alexander Heumer could have certainly designed a game with magical beasts and fantastical structures, but instead he made something more intimate.

Was I sitting around hoping for someone to design a game about the logging industry? No. Am I glad that someone did? You'd better believe it! I now know something about a topic that hadn't ever crossed my mind and that's neat. But more importantly, it gives Lignum an identity. It stands as its own game with its own flavor. It's a crowded field and standing out is no small feat.

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Lignum is a specific kind of game about a specific kind of work. If you're not a fan of long term planning in your games, there's not much for you here. Flying by the seat of your pants will only get you so far and you're sure to be crushed by an opponent with some actual strategy. But if you're open to the idea that your actions will build off one another and come together as your master plan unfolds, you're in for a real treat. Sure, the art is muddy and the graphic design is pedestrian, but they are small blemishes on an otherwise stellar game.

Review copy provided by Capstone Games

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