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Subject: LINCOLN – Decision Tension rss

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and symo
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Martin Wallace had me at, ‘A Few Acres of Snow’. Its form of deckbuilding in combination with multi-function cards uncannily captured the delayed communication and changing needs of the French and English colonies in North America and their European homelands during the French Indian War. Without fail I would look at my hand of cards and be faced with a range of resources representing some half-baked strategy that may have helped a number of turns ago but were now clogging hand preventing the deployment of my latest half-baked strategy. Martin Wallace achieved such a powerful marriage of theme and mechanics that I was imprinted like a baby duck. Any future Mr Wallace designs in the historical department would have my undivided attention.

Cue, ‘Lincoln’. The American Civil War has its fair share of entrants in the board game beauty contest but Martin Wallace, in typical style, has brought a number of novel mechanics to his take on the conflict. ‘Lincoln’ sees players once again juggling hands of multi-function cards, 2 actions from a range of about 5 and has them primarily battling to control key Civil War locations. Interestingly, locations are split into 2 halves which impacts dramatically how combat plays out. But first let’s talk about the multi-function cards. In ‘Lincoln’ these revolve around primarily - troop creation and deployment, rail movement, commander strength and secondarily - port blockades and sea movement as well as a number of unique event cards that enhance deployment, movement or provide a battle advantage. The Union and the Confederacy both have their own unique decks that weight these elements towards each side’s particular strengths. The Confederacy, for example, has cards with the highest leadership rating and slightly superior tactics cards.

Also reflecting the changing fortunes of the Union and the Confederacy over the course of the war, each side have 2 additional smaller decks. The first two times a side’s draw decks is emptied, one of the stacks is added to the reshuffle. So, as the war progresses, the added Confederacy cards introduce more weaknesses (fewer additions and reduced options per card) as their access to resources diminished while the Union’s 2 decks see them grow in strength with greater access to rail and troops.

While everything appears rosy for the Union, there’s nothing like a little Victory Point time pressure to ensure the Union doesn’t dawdle or turtle. Before the Union deck is emptied the first time they must earn 2 Victory Points. By the second deck emptying: 5 VPs. And the primary way to earn Victory Points? Yep, you guessed, it capturing locations.

So let’s get to Martin Wallace’s design wrinkles, and boy are there some neat ones. The primary ones is what he has termed, ‘Deck Destruction’ designed to model the short and long term effects of diminishing access to resources and supply. Thus when a player utilizes a card for a key resources - say deploying 2 or 3 strength armies or building a fort - that card is permanently removed from the game as well sending 1-2 cards to the player’s discard pile. These deployments therefore have an immediate impact on the player’s hand options as well as a permanent attrition cost. As the cards have multi-functions, these losses are agonising - that 3 strength card unit deployment also has a highly rated general AND rail movement. But my immediate is need troops to press forward and claim territory… But that also means I have to discard 2 cards bringing me closer the bottom of deck… But I need that 3 point army because when I draw that last card and I can see the table, I need to have claimed those victory points.

Excruciating.

And, of course, troop strength is critical in combat. Combat in Lincoln is fairly straight forward but with a requisite number of Martin Wallace wrinkles. You compare the total unit value plus a hidden leader card value with that of your opponent. So far, so standard fog of war. Winner is the highest value with half unit losses for both sides (rounded up for the loser, down for the winner). The first wrinkle is that the leader card is mandatory for the attacker but optional for the defender. Not a big deal – yet.

Wrinkle 2 is the kicker. Remember in that cheap attempt at dramatic foreshadowing I mentioned that each location is split in 2? Well, before combat is joined, the defender can choose to withdraw to the vacant half of the location before a shot is fired. Not only does this move save the defender a leader card, but has made the attacker sacrifice a leader card and also deprived them of control of the location (and potential VPs) for at least another turn. Ouch. Combat itself has an even greater cost. If the battle is joined, the loser must retreat from the location all together. This raises the tension of the bluffing game to a whole other level where the attacker must weigh up the potential loss of a high value leader card via a defender withdrawal versus the loss of the location if they bluff low and the defender chooses to engage. It is a decision that burns every time.

‘Lincoln’s’ play is definitely accessible and easy to learn. Its one major mental hurdle is the split locations. Unfortunately the rules don’t help, underestimating the number of edge cases around the split locations, rail movement, forts and combat creating a lot of rules gaps. It’s disappointing because such a unique mechanic should have been addressed with far greater rules rigor.

Ultimately, ‘Lincoln’ is another great Martin Wallace historical design with a unique and elegant blend of mechanics that reflect the key themes of the American Civil War. Everywhere there is decision tension. Tension to use the right card for the right resource at the right time. Tension over deploying a resource that, with the deck destruction mechanic, leads to it being removed forever. Combat bluffing adds yet another layer of tension with the loss of valuable leader cards or locations at stake. And all the time the clock is ticking for both players – resource drain for the Confederates, VP time pressure on the Union.

Each of our games have ended with that desire to go again, wanting to apply our learnings into new strategies and tactics with the hope of achieving a greater level of mastery. And if that’s not a sign of a good game, I don’t know what is.
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Rasmus Helms
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Interesting. This game intrigues me, and this review did not move my wallet further away - on the contrary.

I see you've only rated two games, but Twilight Struggle is one of them.
I'm not sure it's a fair comparison, as they appear to be quite different, but I did not like my play of Twilight Struggle.
Would you say they appeal to the same audience? Do you think that dissatisfaction with Twilight Struggle would somehow indicate lack of enjoyment from Lincoln?
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Sean McCormick
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It's a slick design and it plays at a good clip. I do think the novelty of the deck destruction mechanic can be overstated, however--just about any CDG with events causes you to remove them by playing them, thus weakening your future deck. It's quite a standard mechanic.
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Jay M
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seanmac wrote:
however--just about any CDG with events causes you to remove them by playing them, thus weakening your future deck. It's quite a standard mechanic.


The more typical is play it for the unit strength value (ops points, etc.) and it stays in, play it for the event and it goes out. Whereas Lincoln, if you play it for the unit strength (the Deploy action), it goes out of the deck. The size of your deployable army is literally in your deck, and it shrinks as the game goes on. Not so in CDG, and I'm not sure this Lincoln mechanic has been done before (probably has, I don't know it).
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Sean McCormick
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Race Bannon wrote:
seanmac wrote:
however--just about any CDG with events causes you to remove them by playing them, thus weakening your future deck. It's quite a standard mechanic.


The more typical is play it for the unit strength value (ops points, etc.) and it stays in, play it for the event and it goes out. Whereas Lincoln, if you play it for the unit strength (the Deploy action), it goes out of the deck. The size of your deployable army is literally in your deck, and it shrinks as the game goes on. Not so in CDG, and I'm not sure this Lincoln mechanic has been done before (probably has, I don't know it).


True.
 
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and symo
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RHelms wrote:
Interesting. This game intrigues me, and this review did not move my wallet further away - on the contrary.

I see you've only rated two games, but Twilight Struggle is one of them.
I'm not sure it's a fair comparison, as they appear to be quite different, but I did not like my play of Twilight Struggle.
Would you say they appeal to the same audience? Do you think that dissatisfaction with Twilight Struggle would somehow indicate lack of enjoyment from Lincoln?


Although Twilight Struggle is my fave game it is much heavier with more complex systems. As a result it has quite a steep learning curve coupled with a hefty playtime. Lincoln is much more accessible and its systems more streamlined so it is much easier to understand the interplay of its mechanics. The brain burn comes from mentally maintaining the options in your hand for your 2 actions as well as which cards to potentially discard.

If you are looking for a combat driven historical wargame I wouldn’t rule out Lincoln based on my love of Twilight Struggle.
 
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Mathias Augustsson
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Very unique feeling. Playing the confederecy. Knowing I will get weaker as the game goes on but still have some control over the deck. Its deeper than one might think. The only game I played that feels like this is Axis and allies pacific where the japanese starts strong and can be really aggresive but have to think about preparing to derail the US advance. I love the fact that the attacker has to play a card when attacking and not knowing if the other player will withdraw. The tension of seeing how enemy stacks builds up and having to make hard choices. This game is much about sacrifice wich fits the theme of the war. Great game.
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Claudio Hornblower
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"And all the time the clock is ticking for both players – resource drain for the Confederates, VP time pressure on the Union."


The whole review is spot on, but to me that single quote nails it down with admirable concinnitas. Other strategic ACW wargames I'm used to enjoy (from The Civil War - gold standard imho - to Herman's well-known CDG For the People) possess a sort of "slow" narrative, say a "pastoral" and dramatic rhythm.

While here Wallace has distilled the point of the iceberg, so to speak. Lincoln is "ACW - The Highlights".
And that accounts for a short & focused, albeit meager (by design) gameplay. But while you're faced with key decisions every turn in game terms, inevitably you're on rails: only that much locations to care about, no feeling for the political cabals (I mean those around the 2 presidents, so important during the ACW), and so on.
Also to me personally the +10 def in Washington is way too comfortable (I feel a +7 could be more sound): we play it that way and find it tense enough for our tastes (not a big deal anyway).

While I do agree that the "deck deconstruction" may sound novel, I really don't feel it that way, in practice. You find that "army in your deck" feeling also in Paths of Glory, to name one of my favs CDGs: play Russian Reinforcements, deploy 2 corps and 9th + 10th Army, and remove those cards from play. Sure (in POG) you have RPs to bring eliminated units back - but here (in Lincoln) that sounds to me like playing a 1-army card (that's always available).

But all of that isn't really crucial. Lincoln doesn't pretend to be a "proper" wargame or an accurate simulation (although history *is* there). It must be valued for what it is.
And it surely is a pleasant design. A shorter, focused alternative to A House Divided. It's in the "2 out of 3 stars" league, in my book.
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