Moe's Game Table: Lincoln Preview
Game Designer: Martin Wallace
Playing Time: 90-120 minutes
Kickstarter Price: $38
War Between the States
PSC Games and Worthington Games have teamed up to bring the latest Martin Wallace title to Kickstarter called Lincoln. The game is a low-complexity strategy game centered on the American Civil War, with the main drivers being point-to-point movement, hand management, and smart card play. It’s an accessible game that offers enough layers of depth and strategy to keep things interesting for both grognards and non-wargamers alike in its 90 minutes to two-hour play time.
I recently did an unboxing upon receiving the prototype and as you can see this looks very much like an already published title. There are still some areas of work needing to be done with regards to a few rules clarifications, which were sent as an addendum, but these look to be fairly easy corrections.
Two Hour Rebellion
Unless you’re new to the hobby, Martin Wallace’s prolific design portfolio needs no introduction. With dozens of games to his credit already, Wallace revisits the American Civil War in Lincoln. Despite the theme, Lincoln is not a wargame in the strictest sense of the word but does share the combat and strategic area-control aspects of said genre alongside deck-builder elements to create a unique mashup. Wallace deems it a deck-destruction game, due to the continuous whittling down of each player’s decks over the course of play.
The components on this look amazing, with a bright and lovely illustrated map that has a fantastic touch I really love. Players sit at opposite ends of the map, to the north and south obviously, and each side’s cities are facing them straight on. No more playing a game with one person stuck reading the map upside down, a pet-peeve of mine. This is not only a very smart layout decision but also very welcome! The cards have excellent art and the counters are nice and chunky with rounded corners.
All actions in the game revolve around cards played from the hand, six for the Union player versus five for the Confederate. While the Union player’s hand remains fixed at six, the Confederate hand size can vary based on other effects. The first time that each side’s deck is exhausted, a second smaller deck is added and shuffled in. This is repeated once more for the third shuffle, but the third time that the Union deck is exhausted marks the end of the game, unless one of the other win conditions is met prior to this.
Both decks are continually thinned by removing cards out of the game to build units, while discarding a set number to build those units. This is for army strengths of 2 and 3, 1 strength army units are built with a simple discard and are not removed from the game. That explains why Wallace sees this as a deck-destruction game rather than a deck-builder but it works along the same concept.
Regarding card play, the decision problems for both player’s stems from determining which other cards to discard from their hand to pay for building units. Since many of them provide other abilities such as movement by rail or sea, or giving boons to combat with leadership bonuses these decisions can be quite tough and can force you to change strategies on the fly. These actions are not just beneficial to prosecuting the campaign but also affect the European and blockade tracks, which we’ll get to later. For the Union player, there is also the added ability of naval movement, allowing quick transport of armies down the coast or a retreat back to Washington.
While the Union deck improves as the game wears on, the Confederate’s gets weaker. The Union has an edge with more 2 strength armies at the outset but this is balanced by the stronger Confederate leadership, reflecting the do-nothing Generals of the Union in the early stages of the war.
This really puts the pressure on the Union player who cannot sit back but instead has to go on the attack fairly aggressively. If the Union fails to gain 2VPs by their first deck shuffle they hand the Confederates an easy win. While the Confederates can set themselves to a more static defense with the occasional foray into the North, the Union cannot dally.
There are multiple win conditions, with most of them centered around scoring of Victory Points but there are a couple of objectives as well. As just mentioned, failing to score 2 VPs by the first shuffle or 5 by the second shuffle results in a Confederate win. By the third and final shuffle (the Union is only allowed three shuffles, while the Confederate’s are unlimited), if the Union player has 12 or more VP then the Union wins.
The early war VP requirements can be harder to attain than it seems because a good combination of Confederate leaders along with well-timed play of action cards can swing even a lopsided battle in favor of the rebels. The Confederate player needs to stymie the Union player for an early win while the Union player must press early and often, leading to some fun punch/counter-punch action throughout the game.
From an objective standpoint, the Confederates can use political cards alongside victories in battle to gain support from Europe and win. They can also win by controlling Washington, while the Union can win by controlling both Vicksburg and Richmond, at the end of the Confederate player’s turn.
During each turn, players can take two actions from six possibilities; deploying and moving units, attacking, taking card actions, discarding and passing. Most often, players will be splitting their actions between deploying new armies and moving existing ones on the point-to-point map, to contest areas and commit to combat. Travel is handled by rail, with the option for naval movement available to the Union player in both the offense as well as retreat.
Speaking of offense, the combat mechanisms in Lincoln are interesting. While simplified, combat in the game is a little more nuanced than you would take it for at first glance and I found it quite interesting. It’s not simply running into a location, dropping a beat down combo of cards, kicking the other guy out and taking the VPs. Once you move into a location and announce you’re attacking, the defender has the option to stand and fight or withdraw. Both options present compelling choices for the defender, depending on cards in-hand alongside overall strategy.
The attacker must commit a card to the combat, which will usually be a leadership bonus but action cards can also be played from the hand if applicable. Values from cards played are added to the combat strengths of the army’s present, along with any defense modifiers from the location itself or a fort if one has been built there. Whoever has the greatest overall strength wins the battle. The hidden card play adds some fog of war to the combat and can cause some unexpected results. I’ve won victories while decidedly outnumbered simply due to good cards, especially as the Confederates.
While it’s great to be the winner, neither side emerges from the fray unscathed. The winner loses half of their counters in the battle rounded down and the loser loses half of their counters rounded up. Make sure to keep a good number of those 1 strength armies on hand when a battle is brewing, they’re great bullet sponges. The Europe track is adjusted up or down by the number of counters lost by the loser and the Confederate’s gain an extra spot if they take Union territory.
Where things get really interesting is the withdrawal piece since you don’t immediately surrender the location. Instead, you move back across your side of the line in the contested location and operations cease. If already in your half of the location, you can then withdraw to a connected location you control or have units in.
Without firing a single shot, you can delay your opponent for a couple of turns. By delaying, you not only frustrate their attempts at gaining VPs but also allow yourself time to get better cards and possibly turning the tide on them during the next turn. This can be a good way of drawing your opponent in, forcing them to waste valuable time and cards if you’re the Confederate player. The Union player needs to be mindful of this and not press along just one avenue, as tempting as that may be.
Another aspect that I like about the combat is the hand-management piece, not just in the decision you face but in how you can manipulate your opponent’s hand as well. When cards are played in combat, only the active player gets to refill their hand, allowing you to diminish your opponent’s hand by attacking which limits both their offensive and army building capabilities for their next turn. Combat in Lincoln is, as I said earlier, simplified but as you can see there are some interesting layers of strategy to exploit.
Now let’s circle back to something I mentioned earlier, the Europe and blockade tracks. The Europe track is continually in flux through political cards played and battles won by either side and cannot be overlooked. If the Confederates couple a strong push with political cards and combat victories, the Union player could be in trouble pretty quick. European influence is an aspect often overlooked in ACW games and as with the blockade track, causes both player’s to not think too linearly in their strategy.
The blockade track is an abstract way of allowing the Union player impose their naval dominance against the South, isolating them from trading and their most important avenue of supply. This produces two benefits for the North, in limiting the size of the Confederate player’s hand while also gaining VPs the further down the track you go. I really enjoyed how all of these different pieces function together to present an abstract yet cogent strategic experience that’s good fun and has strong replayability.
Mechanically, Lincoln works well on all levels making Wallace’s treatment of the US Civil War a good way to introduce non-wargamers to the genre without having to wade through OOBs and CRTs. What I find most enjoyable is the card interplay and the fog of war they bring to combat and I’m hard to sell on that since I don’t generally like deck-builders nor diceless combat.
What looks like an easy win by the odds can be quickly turned in your opponents favor with the right card combinations, making battles a slightly unsettling gamble to take, as they should be. This is most apparent early on for the Union, when they’re pressured to gain victory points but suffer from weaker leader cards. The Confederate player deals with it the longer the game goes on, modeling the historic swings of the Civil War nicely.
Both sides have an equal opportunity at winning in Lincoln. If the Confederate player can slow the Union advances and force them to throw away troops and cards by bottling up transit points and using delaying actions, an early victory can be theirs. On the other hand, the Union can force the rebels to fight a two-front war by pressing down the coast and clogging up Confederate troops in ports, limiting their offense in doing so.
There is a lot of interesting play and subtle layers of strategies to explore in this one and easily stands repeated plays. Both PSC Games and Worthington Games have proven track records at delivering quality games and I’m confident that Lincoln will be no exception. If you’re interested, you should hurry up as there are only ten days left on the project!
Company Twitter: https://twitter.com/worth2004
Note: A prototype copy of this game was provided to me for this preview.