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After their work is done, the lumberjacks gather around the large pile of logs and play for the championship. To do this, they each take turns selecting logs and erecting them in front of themselves in the most profitable way possible. The players' clever color selection, shrewd tactics and close observation decide whether they win or lose.
- 100 wooden logs in 5 colors
- 10 treetops
- multilingual instruction booklet
One hundred logs in five colors are arranged randomly in a quasi-cylindrical stack. Each turn, you can either: (a) pluck an uncovered log from the stack, and build with it (you can build three towers of logs); (b) discard an uncovered log to initiate scoring for its color (each tower with that color earns its owner a point for each log in it); or (3) declare the cessation of building on any tower, to earn double its height when scoring. After scoring, discard the top logs of scoring towers. Rules for three other games are included. Although technically this game doesn't belong in the "manual dexterity" category, players are warned to avoid sweeping hand motions.
After their recent string of successes, it's almost a "gimme" to pick up a new Moon and Weissblum game even without knowing anything about it. Lumberjack consists of 100 colored wooden logs in a box that shows manly and effeminate characters wearing flannel shirts and toques, while in the background others are busy felling fully developed large trees. Curious, to be sure.
The hardest part of the game is getting it set up, as all 100 logs must be carefully stacked into a single tower consisting of six-log rings. The logs are not very stable and getting the tower set up without it toppling, or more likely dropping a log into the center mid-way through, is a challenge. This has nothing to do with the game, but is required as the setup and thus the game includes its own start-up puzzle.
The game play is simple and nicely designed. Players alternate taking an unrestrained log from the tower and using it for one of two purposes: to build one of up to three towers, or to cause a scoring. Each player can build up to three towers in front of them, stacking them as desired with no restrictions on color matching. When a player chooses a log to score instead, the towers in front of all players with that color as the highest-placed log score for that player. The score is equal to the total number of logs in the tower and then the top log (the one that matched the color of the scoring log) is removed. When the tower ends, the game is over and any towers not yet scored are worthless.
Instead of taking a log from the tower, players can place a "treetop" on top of one of their towers. This has two effects: no more logs can be placed on the tower until after it scores and its score will be doubled. When the scoring happens, the top log (as usual) and the treetop are removed. The basic game feels a bit like Capitol, in that you are building towers in front of you and deciding when and if to cap them. This is a stretch, but the comparison has popped in my head on every play of the game.
Lumberjack plays well until the endgame, as deciding which log to take, where to build it, or whether and when to score makes for some interesting choices. Often your scores will help others, but of course typically you will choose to score when you get the better end. The game is deeper than this, though, since the log you take helps determine which logs will be available for the next players, and thus careful consideration of other players' options is essential as you make your pick. Placing the treetops is also a strategic and clever option, since it immediately doubles the value of your tower and perhaps changes the strategy of the next player. Say for example that I have a three-stack tower with a black log on the top and the player to my left has a five-stack tower with a black log. On my turn, I probably don't want to score black by taking a black log, but I may not be able to deny my five-stack opponent from getting a black log. So, I place a treetop on my stack and immediately my stack now is worth more than his. If he scores, I gain, so either he lets the black go, uses it to build higher (or on a new tower), or caps his own. If the latter, other players will try to take the black so that black does not score and we both get stiffed. Clever stuff from a seemingly simple design.
The game breaks down in the end game, though, since everyone can see the effects of the final moves and ensure that the scoring is well controlled. A kingmaker problem is highly likely and to solve this Aaron Weissblum has proposed a simple fix by essentially flipping a coin once a log is taken from the second to last tier. On one option, the game ends, otherwise it continues for another turn at which point flip again. This works but adds an odd randomness to an otherwise strategic game and thus it leaves you scratching your head a bit.
Fortunately, the rules suggest a few other variants for the game that do not suffer from this problem (but all still require the awkward tower building up front). The first is for everyone to build up to five towers, one in each of the five colors. Scoring happens only at the end and the highest tower in each color scores, plus the highest absolute tower scores. Think of this as the "Manhattan Variant". The challenge is that any tower that topples during the game is lost, so there is a continual risk of building higher by stacking end-on-end or building more stably by building lengthwise for a time. The next option is for players to build pyramids and score the square of the all sets of similar colors. I think of this as the "Headquarter Variant", after the Theta game that scores the same way. The last published variant is to build "log cabin foundations" in each of the five colors, scoring for specific formations. Each of these options is worth a try, but after the setup the "highest tower" option seems the most natural since it somewhat continues the dexterity element.
Lumberjack is a creative concept that suffers from poor production. The components are nice quality, but the logs are too short and oddly shaped which contributes to the clumsiness in the setup. The theme as depicted on the box cover is marginally politically incorrect and this seems odd given that many other themes could have been adopted for an otherwise abstract game. The use of simple but effective mechanisms that the Moon/Weissblum team has used so well in San Marco and Capitol is evident here, but it would be best for Schmidt to publish a new edition that fixes that log problem with or without a new theme.