Updated: Jul 12, 2020
Published by PSC Games and launched on Kickstarter on 9 May, Lincoln is the latest title from prolific designer Martin Wallace. Though it has military units and a board featuring an abstracted map of connected locations representing key sites in the American Civil War, Lincoln isn't a wargame. It's a card-driven game where both players are competing to make the most effective use of their asymmetric deck of cards. Shown here is a prototype of the game; if it does well on Kickstarter, the likelihood is that the actual components for Lincoln will be an upgrade on those shown here on Board’s Eye View.
In Lincoln, players each have a hand of cards and, on their turn, they can use these cards to take two actions. The Union player’s hand size is always 6; the Confederate player starts with a hand size of 5 but this can be reduced to 4 and eventually 3 as a result of Union progress on a blockade track. Most cards can be put to two or more alternative uses. If they are used for their primary function (usually to build an army or fort), they are mostly single once-per-game use (they are played and then removed from the game) and most have to be paid for by the player additionally discarding other cards from their hand. This can lead to difficult and delicate choices as players will almost always be depleting their supplies and sacrificing potential opportunities in order to take build actions.
Martin Wallace refers to the game mechanic in Lincoln as a ‘deck destruction’ rather than a deck building game. It’s an apt description and the cards ‘burnt’ and those cycled out of use serve too as a metaphor for the grim arithmetic of attrition that characterised this conflict, just as they do in PSC’s other card-driven wargames, the excellent Quartermaster General series by Ian Brody. The rules for combat mean battles are likely to be heavily affected by the cards added to that battle to represent the impact of leadership. Nevertheless, they involve losses being taken by both sides, encouraging players to treat low-value units as mere cannon fodder; again, a perhaps apt abstraction of the war.
Both players have several alternative victory conditions in Lincoln. The pressure is on the Union player to have scored a net advantage in victory points (usually by making territorial gains) before they shuffle and recycle their discard pile. Additional cards are shuffled into the discard piles the first and second time they are recycled. These too are asymmetric: making the Union notably stronger over time as the Confederacy gets weaker. The Confederate player’s scope for action can be greatly curtailed by Union progress on the blockade track, but a parallel Europe track offers one alternative route to a Confederate victory (in effect, recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and other European powers).
With a range of different victory conditions, each player has a seemingly free hand on how they play the game. That said, just as Chess allows a Fool’s Mate trap, so the Union player in Lincoln can leave themselves open to losing on the Confederate’ player’s first turn! The rules specify that the Union player goes first and allows them free reign to take any actions they like. Be warned, however, if the Union player doesn’t use at least one of their two actions to reinforce their position in Washington, the Confederate player may, on their turn, take the opportunity to build another unit at Manassas and then take a movement action to try to take Washington on this first turn. If they succeed, it’s instant Game Over! Although Washington gives the Union player a +4 in defence, the Confederates can top this if they are able to boost their attack with a high-value leadership card. I was able to chalk up a Confederate win in this way on my very first play of Lincoln. And this wasn't due to my having an especially fortuitous hand: there is quite a high chance that the Confederate player will hold a high-value leadership card and a relatively low chance that the Union player will hold one (the Confederate deck starts off with fifteen +4 and +5 leadership cards in a deck of 38; the Union starting deck of 47 includes just four cards with +4 leadership). The very real risk of this quick Confederate victory doesn’t make this game ‘broken’, it just means the Union player has to be wise to the fact that their capital is vulnerable from the start of the game.
The various options and the clever balance of very different forces all make for a thoughtful and engrossing strategy game with rather more of a ‘euro’ feel than you’ll find in a more conventional war game. If you’re a traditional war gamer, Lincoln is a game that will certainly make you think; if you don’t usually consider war-themed games, then you really mustn’t let the Civil War setting put you off giving this game a try. Lincoln is a subtle hand management game that offers the opportunity for some intriguing cat and mouse tactics. Definitely one to check out.