Lincoln by Martin Wallace takes a birdseye view of the American Civil War in a tactical simulation for two players. One of you will take on the mantle of America’s arguably most famous President, marshalling the forces of the Union south. The other will assume the role of the Confederacy, trying to hold off against the Union’s advance long enough for their morale to give out. I’m a big fan of card-driven historical games (Twilight Struggle is still my number one of all time), so how did this one stack up?
Before we delve into a game, I think it’s important to recognise that games which try to abstract complex periods of history into an ‘enjoyable’ and manageable experience can be problematic. It’s important because of how sensitively and respectfully the subject matter is dealt with can seriously affect our experience of a game. With Lincoln, one player is being asked to root for a version of history where the Confederacy won.
To its credit, Lincoln does have some means of mitigating this distasteful aspect. In his designer notes, Wallace explains that the game is not a historical re-enactment, but a simulation of the pressure Lincoln faced – believing the South to be stronger than they actually were. This is borne out in play. The focus is squarely on Lincoln and the way the game is designed means that a victory for the Confederate player is not triumphalist. Rather, you thwarted the Union player winning, if that makes sense.
At the set up of the game, things can look pretty dire for the Union player. The South will control much of the board and the blue chits will be clustered in a few cities in the north. Lincoln is very much an asymmetrical game and this is one of the things that have compelled me to return for repeat plays.
In terms of goals, The Union player must push south and take enough territories and thus victory points before their deck runs out for the third time (as well as meeting victory point requirements at each deck reshuffle). They can also win by taking the Confederate stronghold of Richmond and extending their reach as far as Vicksburg.
Meanwhile, The Confederacy is trying to slow this progress enough to ensure the Union misses its victory point goals or by encouraging Europe to enter the war or by seizing Washington. These latter two were historically unlikely to have ever happened and are suitably difficult to pull off in the game (it’s never been won this way when I have played). Again, the inclusion of these victory conditions is more about the fear Lincoln would have had of such an outcome, meaning you do have to watch them and spend resources to prevent them, particularly the Europe track.
The game is played in turns, with players using the cards in their hand for a variety of actions: deploying troops, moving troops, fighting battles etc. The cards have multiple uses and one of the strategically intriguing aspects of the game is the mechanism that Wallace calls ‘deck destroying’.
Whenever a card is used to deploy more than one troop, build a fort or influence the political tracks it is not just discarded, but ‘burnt’ from the game. This doesn’t just affect the ability to muster troops in future turns. The card might also have had a hefty combat bonus or other ability that is now lost. Balancing building up forces withholding firepower back for later in the game provides tough and meaningful decisions.
Playing cards also requires discarding other cards from your hand to the recycle pile. This is less a problem for the Confederate player who can reshuffle their dwindling hand as many times as they like (albeit the cards they add-in on the first and second reshuffle are weaker than the Union player’s). However, the Union player must achieve their victory point requirements by each reshuffle and have enough victory points by the end of the third cycle through their deck to win. Time is of the essence, so managing the rate of discard is hugely important for the Union.
Fog of War
If I have one major criticism of Lincoln, it’s the rulebook. What is actually a fast-paced and fun tactical battle, seems complex and convoluted in the rules. Combat, in particular, could do with some streamlining or better play examples. It was only halfway through our first game when we realised what some of the concepts actually meant in practice. If you do decide this game is for you, I would recommend not stressing too much. Set up a game and follow the rules with the physical pieces on the board as it makes far more sense this way.
Once over the hurdle of the rulebook, I found Lincoln a great head-to-head game that handles its source material well. Just writing about it now has made me eager to get it back to the table soon. The ‘deck destruction’ mechanism is superb and the asymmetrical aspects are done well. I love the way it dumps the impetus to win on the Union player and tasks the Confederacy with mounting a defence with ever-dwindling resources to thwart that win. If you’re a fan of historical games, I think Lincoln is an underrated gem.