Shall we stop this Bleeding? A Lincoln Review

No score and seven years ago Martin Wallace brought forth on this hobby, a new game, conceived in cunning, and dedicated to the proposition that all decks are not created equal.

Before we proceed the hour calls for a little history.

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I’ve not lost my mind. What I’m talking about is the nigh wonderful A Few Acres of Snow. This is a game that uses Dominion-style deckbuilding to bootstrap a game about the French Indian war. This conflict has always fascinated me, mostly due to my sheer enthusiasm for Daniel Day Lewis. So I was all in, natch.

Then the Halifax Hammer happened.

If you don’t know what this is, you’re a lucky one. Basically the game had an issue that could be exploited which resulted in an untenable balance. It single-handedly cannon balled the design and relegated it to the back alley, a dark place where geeks online could wage the forever war of insults and fiery discourse on the battleground of the internet.

No worries, for Martin Wallace would revisit the concept and present an entirely new design of the deckbuilder war-game mashup. This one would be known as Mythotopia and it showed great promise. Promise won’t fill a pot with piss, however.

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Mythotopia’s issue was a protracted end game which played out with all the delightful grind of a resurfacing pavement. The bulk of the design was great, but that climax petered along like a bespoke victim slowly bleeding out from a pencil jabbed in the neck.

But wait, there’s more.

A Handful of Stars was the next opportunity for Martin to recover and finally pull it all together. Yes, another game about building decks and waging war, although this time it took place in the stars. And the problem this time…? Well, I have no idea because I haven’t played it. Part of that was because of its muddy distribution and part of it was a bizarre decision of using very on-the-nose faction names such as Aggroloids.

You win, you have me chuckling at your game and shaking my head. However, you shouldn’t want this unless you’re peddling something with a more relaxed set of systems such as a party game.

Have I mentioned that my relationship with Martin Wallace was shakey?

So here we are, back to the present of 1861 with another appearance by Daniel Day Lewis. Mr. Wallace has another chance, and by god, he may have finally done it.

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Lincoln is cut from a similar cloth as A Few Acres of a Handfultopia, but it’s also a very different beast. Of course the surface is one of the United States embroiled in civil war with an abstracted strategic level macro-view. This isn’t fantasy nor sci-fi but a return to history; a more stately endeavor.

But beyond that, Lincoln is unusual. It’s a simulation, but it’s not. It’s a deckbuilding game, but it’s not.

Martin has labeled this a “deck destruction” design. It’s earned that moniker because you shed cards as you go, sacrificing options from your multi-use deck to enlist stronger units and acquire strongholds. Since these cards are also utilized in battle, great emphasis is placed on managing your deck as a whole and properly timing the acceleration from slow burn to fiery inferno.

The concept of the game–and thus the war–eating your cards over time is a fantastic metaphor. As the close of bloodshed draws near, you’ll look to the side of the board and eyeball that pile of annihilated cards. It’s a harrowing message lying in the shadow of a streamlined and effective mechanism.

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Cards are never purchased from an offer or public display. Instead, you add a chunk of pre-defined cards when you reshuffle your deck. This acts as a timer for the game with regular scoring intervals occurring upon the Union reshuffle.

The strategic system at play here is fantastic. You must fight the constant adversity upon the board as well as carefully expend your resources, cards in this instance, to keep the fight alive. When you hit that significant moment of injecting new life into your deck you get a bit of a boost and some reprieve.

Or so you thought.

One of the most compelling aspects is the interplay between asymmetry and victory conditions. As the war rages on and time begins to slip away the Confederate war engine stumbles. You’ll add cards to your deck that are worthless, clogging up the machine and simulating your waning economy. But you begin the conflict potent, possessing five strength battle cards that will have Lincoln and his generals wincing. There’s a pendulum here just waiting to descend and lop off your head. It’s glorious.

The way each deck diverges provides a very strong directorial command of tempo. It fuels the pace of play and helps maintain a solid level of suspense.

The other half of that is the victory point system. This isn’t a simple affair of both sides vying for precious points to measure up at end game. No, here the struggle is mighty. The onus is on the Union player to meet specific victory point thresholds. If the Union player has not earned a certain victory threshold at each of their deck reshuffles, they instantly lose. Yeah, that’s heavy.

What this feels like is a constant mandate of assailing the Confederate lines. You can fortunately supplement your VP total by shoring up the blockade and tightening the grip on your country-wide siege. This requires gyrating the ol’ noggin and performing some agonizing decisions regarding hand management.

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The perspective of the Confederate player is entirely different. You’re hanging on, constantly on life support and fighting for your dear life. Each tactical victory is a flush of blood to your cheeks and a thumping of the chest. A clever thrust here and deflection there and you may hold out just long enough.

Or, you’ll be crushed under the Northern juggernaut as I was in my first play.

So here we are, at the point in this editorial where I must divert the wagon and we need to discuss the crucial failing of this game, Lincoln’s Halifax Hammer if you will.

It doesn’t exist.

It’s still early days as this game hasn’t been out long enough to pick apart and sift through the granules. What I can tell you is that my only major misgivings relate to the rules booklet. It does an adequate job in teaching you the game at a high level, but much like the game it seeks to present, it lacks quite a bit when drilling down into the details. Concepts are too abstract and many edge-cases–some large and some small–are never addressed.

It may require a little bit of elbow grease to work your way through these thorns, perhaps visiting the forums on BoardGameGeek to sort it all out. This is unfortunate, but it’s not enough to sink the Moniter.

As stated, the largest factor that could dissuade the would-be patron is the level of abstraction. This is not a game that will allow you to simulate key moments or strategic considerations of the war. It’s a very high-level design focused on playability with a mechanical toy-factor as you fiddle with deck manipulation.

Besides that wonderful escalating tension and devious asymmetry, Lincoln makes its stand on simplicity. Its core is extremely lithe and easy to internalize. You play some cards and draw some more. Each such action fuels movement and recruiting or battle and death. You vie to control areas and it’s all very direct and sensible.

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There are some conceptual rough spots, but they’re mostly worth the trouble. Areas are divided into two spaces for instance, but your troops occupy both such slices when they’re controlling the space, the detail only requiring fuss when an enemy moves in or you build a fort.

This extra level of specificity allows for a clever game of stalling and close proximity withdrawal. The strategic benefit is the ability to cause friction upon the opponent’s advance, as well as facilitate an interesting supply line sub-system. The headaches this causes when trying to divine Martin Wallace’s intention, such as sussing out a retreat and leaving a fort in the sub-section where the battle did not occur, well these moments of furrowed brow are mostly worth the tactical intricacy on the other end.

Lincoln is a marvel. As a 90 minute two-player card driven war-game, it’s not quite the best of its ilk. But that’s perfectly fine, for it has enough panache and charm to wiggle its way from the shelf and lay a barrage of cannon-fire upon the table. This is one of those titles I’ve engaged in many more hours of cognitive exercise than actual playtime. It works its way into the brain leaving a constant hunger.

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