Board Game Gumbo: Lincoln by Martin Wallace and PSC / Worthington
There is a fellow game enthusiast in my hometown who plays traditional war games each week with his small gaming group. The group has been marching through long hex-and-counter campaign style games for many, many years. I do not play those type of games, but I love hearing his stories about the planning that they take and the depths of the minutiae that the designers put into the rule sets.
But, I have neither the time or frankly the envie to want to play those style contests. My sons and I did enjoy Memoir ‘44, the very light card driven war game from Days of Wonder designed by Richard Borg. We even bought some of the expansions and played through a ton of scenarios. I credit Borg in part for one of the reasons why I discovered my regular board game hobby. Way back in the early 2000s, my brother in law received a Christmas gift, the Battle Cry board game from Borg, and we played every single scenario. We liked it so much that we started downloading fan made content that we read about on BGG. Checking out BGG turned me on to the Dice Tower, and Puerto Rico, and then Carcassonne and….
But back to war gaming. The above is the extent of my war gaming experience. But, there’s always a little part of me that loves to sit down with my friend Mark and hear his stories, and maybe, just once try out one of those games. Is there a small box war game that could at least give me a taste of the tactical and strategic nature of these chit style games?
If you are looking for a fun to play, easy to learn, light but engaging card driven war game, then join me in a quick look at Lincoln from Worthington Publishing and PSC Games. Lincoln is out on Kickstarter right now for a few more days, so check it out here.
As stated above, I am not a war gamer, and my regular blog readers for the most part are not either. So, I will do my best to use the terms as I know them, and if I say anything that the grognards (war game fans) don’t approve, I am happy to edit if you post a comment or send me a tweet @boardgamegumbo.
The first thing to know is that Lincoln is a game designed by acclaimed designer, Martin Wallace. For many board game fans, Wallace is one of the top designers in the world. One thing I like about Wallace is his diversity. He has such a varied stable of board games that he is very hard to pin down.
In this case, he has designed a card driven light war game, similar in vein to Twilight Struggle in some respects. Players start out with a campaign map of the area of America circa 1860 between Washington DC and New Orleans, and will have separate decks of cards to draw from to build units (“deploy”), move units, attack, discard cards, take card actions or pass. This is a two player game, with one side playing the Union and the other side playing the Confederacy.
The goal of each side is victory, and the two players have different win conditions. The Confederacy ideally wants a quick victory, by smashing into Washington and taking over the Capitol, or by preventing the Union from earning two VPs by the time that the Union player has to reshuffle her deck. The Confederacy could also win a longer game by playing enough European influence cards (or winning battles) to convince Europe to enter the war on its side, or if the Union player does not score five VPs by the time of the second reshuffle or even has to shuffle for the third time (which is an auto win for the South.)
Flip to the Union player. Obviously, she needs to keep winning victory points (in fact, she is the only player that counts them). If she has 12 or more VPS after she runs out of cards the third time, she is victorious. The Union player also has an auto-win condition if she can hold Richmond and Vicksburg at the same time at the end of the Confederate player’s turn.
The Union side will have a few units placed out with lots of ability to move units by rail and by ship. It will also start with a larger hand simulating the economic strength of the Union during the conflict, and that hand never gets smaller. On the other hand, the Confederacy starts with a slightly smaller hand, and as the game goes on, that hand size can be reduced by game play.
The designer is quick to point out in his notes in the rule book that this is not a historically accurate simulation of the war. (And it does not seem to have much to do with Lincoln, either.) He calls it a “game…(that) recreate(s) the pressure under which Lincoln operated, unaware of the real weakness of his opponent.” As he says, the Union player must play a great game or risk losing a quick battle here or there that could be an auto win for the Confederacy, or leave the Union player without enough VPs to win. On the other hand, the South player has to carefully manage its resources and its deck, because his hand size will be a problem as the war progresses.
I love the size of this box. It comes in a game box about the size of your standard Euro games, and has a beautifully illustrated game board depicting the eastern half of the game. For a non-war gamer, the designer has eschewed hexes and instead has large colorful representations of the cities, forts and ports for the main battles of the game.
Any student of Civil War history will recognize places like Manassas and Fredericksburg, and seeing the rail lines intersect, and the ease by which the Union player can move around the board using the sea routes, brings a little life into the historical underpinnings of the war. The sturdiness of the board shows that a lot of care went into the production of this game.
You also get a lot of tokens / chits representing the two sides, with army tokens ranked from one to three in strength. Finally, you have control markers for when an army wins a battle on the other player’s side of the board, and two separate decks for each army. The decks have essentially the same card effects, but with different leadership strength on some of the cards.
All in all, this is a great production for this style of game, and it looks very good on the table.
The game is easy to teach. Players will take two actions (and any number of free actions that may be associated with card play) in an effort to put out units on the board, move them into position to attack, and play card effects to strengthen their position or surprise the enemy. The players are limited to the cards that they have at the start of the turn, unless a card played says otherwise (like reinforcements).
Why is this important? Because of the battle nature of the game. When two armies are in the same city or fort, a fight breaks out. The attacker plays a card face down, and then the defender chooses to stay and fight, or retreat. The player will have to count up the strength number of each unit in the battle, and any defense modifiers given to the defender by the city. (For instance, attacking Washington DC by rail from the south gives the Union player four points of defense)
If the defender stays to fight, that player also plays a card. The cards are flipped, and the leadership modifiers on the cards are added to the army strength and place modifiers. The winner loses a few units, but the loss is more devastating on the loser, who always loses more units and has to retreat. If no retreat is available, the units could be lost entirely.
The battles are quick, easy to understand, and have a little bit of gamer surprise in them with the face down cards. Since it is not a perfect information game, and has no dice, it will not appeal to some segments of the gaming crowd, but we enjoyed the tactical nature and the little bit of chaos that comes with a drawn deck of cards and the play of the cards.
Unfortunately for the defender, there is no redraw of cards at the end of the attacker’s turn for the defender. A player must carefully decide if they will use any cards in battle or in free actions, because when it comes back to the player’s turn, that player does not refill his or her hand until the end of their turn. Most of the cards are multi use cards -- they may have a leadership potential, or an army build potential, or naval movement, or even a special action -- but only one use can be played before the card is discarded. That makes for some very delicious decisions! There is a great tension especially as a defender of whether to play a card now that could be useful on the action phase of your own turn.
One last thing about the game play. Wallace describes the game as a deck destruction game, which is apropos. There is no market of cards to buy, so your deck only gets larger at the end of the deck. When a player exhausts his draw pile, and needs to draw more, the player has two chances to add new cards into his deck to reshuffle, but these are small additions. On the other hand, during the game, any time you build a larger army and deploy it on the field, that card is actually trashed from the game. Those larger army cards can only be used once, so if there is a cool special power or big leadership bonus for battle, you will lose out on that ability for the rest of the game. As you can see, even though a player gets a small refill during the reshuffles, the decks are progressively getting weaker as the army strength on the board gets stronger. It is an interesting twist on the deck building mechanism.
BUT IS IT FUN?
I have to give a few personal biases here before I say. First, I was a history major in college, and loved studying European and American Civil War history. So, a hybrid game with some euro card play mechanics and American style war game tactics that plays in about an hour and a half is particularly appealing to me. Admittedly, the name is kind of a misnomer, as we do not see Lincoln anywhere in the game other than the game box and the rule set, but since it is such a high level strategy game, I could see where the game is really about Lincoln’s decisions to press the war versus the Confederacy’s response.
Second, as I stated early in the blog post, I am not a war gamer. I like meeples and game boards and fantasy elements and farming in the Mediterranean. That being said, a game with some of the typical euro elements (managing your card play, scoring victory points, throwing resources at a game tracker to defeat your opponent or weaken his position) that has a strong theme is also appealing to me.
Given those caveats, my son and I really enjoyed this game. We at first just explored the game play and the rules, but once we were familiar with the set, we really got into the strategy of each player. We’ve talked for days about different combinations that could be performed using the cards, and the relative strengths and weaknesses of each side. We’ve talked opening and late game strategies, and debated which side is stronger at the start.
Any game that can get us talking that much about strategy is a winner in my book. I think I still like the hybrid aspects of the game more, so I am probably not looking to join Mark’s war game group any time soon, but if I have the itch for a tactical night of gaming, I’d much rather play Lincoln then Memoir ‘44 at this point. As my son said, the limiting factor of the three zone play of cards in Memoir ‘44 can lead to some frustration. In this game, you are free to develop your units on any side you choose, and the game board is an open sandbox as to how you want to achieve victory.
If you are the Confederacy, do you push the Union to score points on the western side of the board, all the while trying to grab the perfect combination of cards that will allow you to rush into Washington for a victory, even if it takes a little bit of luck? If you are the Union, will you attack Vicksburg, or build up your defenses at Washington? Will you choose to split the Confederacy, or try to control the sea ports and steadily move to the interior? Or will you take the middle and the march to the sea? There are so many ways to play that replayability of this game should be very high.
The game is still out on Kickstarter for this one last week. The owners of Worthington, who apparently are co-publishing the game with The Plastic Soldier Company, have released some great how-to videos if you have any questions. Plus, my fellow Punch Board Media member Moe’s Gaming Table wrote up a great review that goes into a lot more detail about the gaming aspects.
So, that’s Lincoln from PSC and Worthington. It is out on Kickstarter right now for the rest of the week. I want to thank PSC for sending me this review copy to try with my son, as it brought us a lot of joy this week. Let me know in the comments below if you are interested in this card driven war game, or maybe whether this blog post whets your appetite a bit for other types of war games. Maybe you could convince me to try another one!
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!