Friday, 18 January 2019

Lincoln

Plays: 2Px1.

The Game

Lincoln was funded through Kickstarter. It's a Martin Wallace design, with some similarities to A Few Acres of Snow, mainly in the deck-building-like mechanism. I rarely back Kickstarter games. Lincoln captured my attention because of A Few Acres of Snow.

This is a game about the American Civil War. It's a 2-player game, Union (North) vs Confederate (South). The conventional winning condition (but not necessarily the most common one) is capturing and holding your opponent's capital. The Union capital is Washington, while the Confederacy has two - Richmond and Vicksburg. The Union needs to capture both to win. The Union is richer in resources, and will grow richer as the game progresses. However it needs to achieve enough victory points at specific points in time. Failing to do so means losing the game. When time runs out, the Union wins if it meets the VP requirement, and loses otherwise. The Confederacy has another winning condition. If it can convince European countries to recognise and support it, it wins immediately.

The game board is simple, with few locations, and few fronts. The coastal towns are a front too. The Union can launch amphibious attacks on such towns, so the Confederacy needs to watch out. The first track on the right is the naval blockade track. By blockading, the Union can reduce the hand size of the Confederacy and also gain VP. The second track is the Europe track, indicating how much support the Confederacy has from the European countries. Both sides may deploy politicians to affect European politics. Battle outcomes affect European politics too. By capturing Union towns, the Confederacy also gain European support. When the status marker reaches the bottom, the Confederacy immediately wins.

Martin Wallace calls this a deck-destruction game. You don't buy cards every turn. Instead you permanently remove cards from time to time, thinning your deck. Each side has two small decks of cards set aside at the start of the game. When you exhaust your draw deck, you shuffle your discard pile with one of these small decks to form your new deck. The Union gets better new cards, while the Confederacy gets worse cards. The Union's deck is the game timer. The first time the Union player exhausts his deck, he needs to have achieved 2VP, or he loses. The next time, he needs 5VP. The 3rd and last time he needs 12VP. The game length is the time it takes for the Union player to go through his deck three times, barring sudden death conditions. For the Confederate player, there is no limit to how many times he may shuffle his deck. It is just that he gets no new cards from the 3rd reshuffle onwards.

The Union has a hand size of 6. The Confederacy has a hand size of 5, but this may be reduced to as low as 3, if the Union does blockading well. At the end of your turn, you always draw up to your hand limit. The more cards you play, the more you'll draw. It just means you will go through your deck more quickly. That is not necessarily good. If you are the Union, you need to make sure you have enough VP before the next checkpoint. If you are the Confederacy, you will dread those new cards which are weaker.

A card usually has multiple abilities, but you can only pick one to use. This is a key element of the game, which makes juicy decisions. Icons along the top row are for deployment. In this photo, there are only army deployment icons. Things you can deploy include armies, forts, ships and politicians. Ships and politicians affect the blockade and Europe tracks respectively. You don't actually deploy a physical game piece on the board. Usually when playing a card to deploy something, that card is removed from the game permanently. Thus the deck destruction.

The stars are the leadership abilities of your generals. You play stars in battle to influence the outcome. The train icons are for army movement. Some cards have action text, you can play them to use the text.

The counters with numbers on the left are the armies. The number of counters in each denomination is limited. You may not freely give change, e.g. you can't swap a single 3 counter with three 1 counters. There's a reason to that. In combat, both winner and loser lose half their counters. This is different from losing half their army strength. An army with these four counters - 3, 3, 1, 1 - has a total strength of 8. An army with 2, 2, 2, 2 also has a strength of 8. However after a battle, the first army will lose both the 1's, retaining a strength of 6, while the second army loses two 2's, retaining a strength of 4.

Those at the bottom left are forts, which only the Confederacy may build. That card in the middle lets you build a fort if you use it to perform a deploy action. The card itself will be removed from the game. You also need to discard another card, as indicated by the card icon next to the fort icon. The discarded card goes to your discard pile, and will return to your deck the next time you reshuffle to make a new deck. You often need to discard cards when deploying, and it can be painful when you have many good cards in hand. Although you get to draw back up to your hand limit at the end of your turn, you may not get the cards you need for your current situation. You can't plan ahead well if you use up most of your hand. Sometimes you painstakingly gather a set of cards for that one amazing move, only to be forced to expend cards to react to a looming threat. Yet you cannot afford not to respond. This game has many such moments.

The Roman number I on this card means this is shuffled with your discard pile the first time your draw deck runs out. This particular Confederacy card is one with no function. It has no icons. It's purpose is to waste an action discarding it. One of the actions you can take is to discard any number of cards from your hand. Well, if you happen to need to discard a card when performing deployment, you can discard this card, and save that one action. That's a small consolation. This card is a good illustration of how the Confederacy's new cards suck.

The Play

I played with Allen, and both of us were new. I read the rules and knew the game better, so I had him play the Union, which was richer. As I played, I couldn't help thinking about how Lincoln compared to A Few Acres of Snow. Afterall, I bought it because they shared some similarities. Lincoln is a simpler game. There is no colonisation or development aspect. The fighting is direct, and urgent. There are only a few fronts, and they succinctly present to you the key dilemmas of this war. There is a pressing need to act and to respond to threats. On all fronts you feel you aren't completely safe. There are only a few hotspots, and they already keep you on your toes. While you are tearing your hair out over where to attack, where to defend, the clock is ticking. This game can be nerve-wracking.

At the top right corner you can see Washington, capital of the Union (Allen). If I attacked using my small army on the right, Washington would gain a defense bonus of 10, because of the +10 modifier printed on the path leading to Washington. There was no way I would attack. Furthermore, my army was too small. On the left, I had captured two Union towns (blue), and my Confederate army was threatening to attack Washington now. From this direction, Washington only gained a +2 defense bonus. Our army sizes were about the same. This was a real threat to the Union. Allen could not risk not buffing his defenses.

At the lower right, one of my port towns was captured by Allen via an amphibious landing. This was a precarious situation for me. This port town was adjacent to both of my supply centres, both of which were undefended. The supply centre to the north was one of my capitals too - Richmond. In the centre, my army was having a tough time fighting the Union army marching down from the north. I had built a fort to help in defense. Now I had another Union army in my backyard, sandwiching my army. This was not good.

We had a high-stakes dance near Washington. Our armies had ballooned to indecent sizes. We feigned. We probed. We retreated. We didn't fight much, and the arms race escalated. Eventually the armies did clash, and it was a huge bet for us, because it would be a huge swing on the Europe track. Many men would die, and the marker would move as many steps as counters lost by the loser.

If you look closely at each location, you will notice the two halves. When there is no fighting, they don't matter. You place your soldiers anywhere you want. If you are attacked though, you can choose not to fight, and instead concede half the town to your opponent, and retreat to the other half. The town becomes a contested area. If your opponent wants to capture the town, he needs to launch another attack to defeat you or to force you to retreat. Being the attacker comes with disadvantages. The attacker must commit a leadership card (a card played for its star value) when declaring an attack. The defender may decide fight or flight, and if it is fight, he may decide whether to play a leadership card. The attacker has a dilemma when choosing the leadership card. Choose a good one, and the defender may just retreat, wasting your card. Choose a poor one hoping the defender would chicken out, and he may instead decide to meet you on the battlefield. The defender also needs to guess the intention of the attacker. Is that leadership card just fodder or is it for real? You may decide to retreat now and attack on your own turn, hoping to catch your opponent unprepared, but the leadership card he is playing now may be a feint. He may be holding on to his star general, expecting your attack.

In the top right area, you can see that Allen (Union) had pushed me back. Washington was no longer under threat. On the right, Allen's expeditionary force had captured Richmond, and was now heading into that corner to bully my isolated army. In the centre, I had managed to defeat Allen's army, and my army marched south to liberate my port town. It's next mission was to liberate Richmond. This was crucial for me because without Richmond (my supply centre), I could not raise new troops on the right side of the board. New troops can only be deployed in locations connected to a supply centre you control.

On the right side, Allen's expeditionary force was thankfully vanquished, and I managed to recapture Richmond. I had a garrison in my port town at the lower right now, to prevent another nasty surprise. In the centre, my small army managed to push ahead and capture a Union (blue) town. This was good because it gave me one step on the Europe track. If I later lost this town, I would need to undo that step.

One thing we noticed during the game was the Confederacy had better generals. My best leadership card was a 5, while Allen's best was a 4. You need to be aware of this and be prepared for the worst. If your opponent seems to have spent much time setting up an attack, he is likely to have set aside his top grade general for it. I won quite a few battles because of my leadership advantage, all other factors being equal. This is an advantage the Confederacy should make good use of.

Eventually it was politicking that won the day for me. When the Europe track was down to just two steps away from victory for the Confederacy, I had these cards in hand. Two cards with politician icons, and two other cards I could discard to deploy these politicians. It was game over for the Union. Historically this was not likely to have happened. It was incorporated into the design for game balance purposes. I had not actively played the politics game, and neither had Allen. We were busy enough with all that fighting. It was through the battles and through capturing Union towns that I managed to push the Europe marker down this far. Allen did not do much blockading either, so I did not have too much trouble with hand size.

The Thoughts

Lincoln is a game with little preamble or niceties. You go straight to the action. It is blunt and direct. The dilemmas are staring at you right in your face. You see threats on all fronts, and you see opportunities on all fronts. There is a sense of urgency because time is on no one's side. The Union is under pressure to perform, much like a sales director is under pressure to hit sales targets every quarter. Fail once and you're fired. The Confederacy has lousy cards to look forward to. Time erodes its strength. Getting poorer and poorer and not being able to do anything to stop it is a scary feeling. I like how direct the game is. You see the results of your actions very quickly. There is no slow build up. You don't need to go through many steps to train one army. This game is like a busy executive - get to the point and don't waste my time. There aren't many rules, but they are not exactly simple either. I feel the rules could have been written better. I found it a little difficult to digest. A card having multiple uses is a fun thing. When a game makes you agonise over decisions, that's a good sign.

1 comment:

Paul Owen said...

Wow, this game sounds like a unique experience. I like the asymmetrical problems that the two players face - intermediate victory point goals for the Union, worsening deck composition for the Confederacy. Thanks for the great write-up.