Honest Abe: A Look at Lincoln
Martin Wallace has never been afraid to tinker with the way we do things. Consider, for instance, the impact of A Few Acres of Snow. By marrying deck-building to a map, Wallace redefined an entire genre. Its legacy includes some of his own games (Mythotopia, A Handful of Stars, A Study in Emerald) and those designed by others (Cry Havoc, Hands in the Sea, even Clank!).
Now Wallace’s tinkering has led him to attempt the opposite of deck-building, focusing instead on something he’s calling “deck destruction.” The game in question is Lincoln, on Kickstarter for the next few days. And in an echo of the “Halifax hammer” that ruined A Few Acres of Snow for some, it’s already being accused of game-breaking imbalance.
Let’s begin with Lincoln’s more innovative aspect: deck destruction.
Unlike a deck-builder, where you begin with a small set of cards and gradually fold new and better options into the mix, Lincoln provides the Union and Confederacy with fully realized decks right away. More than fully realized, actually, since both sides start with around forty cards.
But all those cards are going to come in useful. Whenever you want to deploy something — an army, some politicians to Europe, a fleet to blockade the South — it’s going to have a permanent effect on your deck. In addition to discarding the cost of the card, you’ll also destroy the card itself, tossing it into the box. Over time, your deck will find itself thinned of options as forts and high-value armies are removed, never to return.
It’s a powerful concept both mechanically and thematically. Every deployment is presented as a trade-off, especially since you’ll want to hold onto cards that provide powerful combat bonuses and the possibility of moving any armies already in the field. And the statement it makes, that civil and martial strife are wearying and ruinous and gradually sap a nation’s best and brightest, is subtly profound. Losing a tough regiment means it’s out of the game, and the thought of entering the game’s final act — divided by when you shuffle through the Union’s deck — without any of your best troops in reserve is a sobering one.
Or, well, it’s sobering in theory, because I’m not sure the game can actually reach that point.
As I mentioned, the shuffling of the Union deck divides the game into acts, gradually mixing a few additional cards into the deck. Over time, the Union gains a handful of increasingly powerful options, while the early Confederate advantage is slowly sapped.
But the big problem, the one being dubbed the “Manassas Mallet” by alliterative agitators, is that the Union isn’t very likely to survive past that first shuffle. Early on, the Union is under pressure to play aggressively. If they aren’t in possession of two victory points by the time that first shuffle steams around the bend, their defeat is immediate. And picking up those two points is a tall order, especially because even the slightest pause of military buildup in Washington can mean that an uppity Confederate player can recruit a huge stack into Manassas, then march directly onto the capital to win the game outright, without even the need to swing around for an attack from the more mildly-defended Gettysburg.
As the Union, you’re presented with a host of options. You can march from Washington into the battleground regions north of Richmond, battle farther afield in Nashville and Atlanta, or attempt a naval invasion of New Orleans, Savannah, or Fort Monroe. It seems as though the tempo of the war will be established by the beat of Union drums. Then you realize that naval invasions are unlikely to succeed because of the superior defensive capabilities of the South, while actual marching campaigns will probably be delayed by a strategy of gradual Confederate withdrawal — and anyway both details are academic when you’re all but forced to build a massive defensive army in Washington or lose it. Across my handful of plays, only once has the Union survived their first shuffle. And the very next turn, Washington fell to an inch-tall stack of Confederate grays.
It’s a shame, because the rest of the game is as stout as a conscripted Irisher, at least apart from a few squirrely moments after too many months of hardtack and goober peas. Rather than fastidiously simulating the conflict, the game is pitched as an examination of the anxieties and pressures that afflicted Lincoln. The South looms large, there are too many problems that must be mitigated by too few resources, and the specter of Britain assisting the Confederacy is a constant reality rather than a pipe dream. It’s bad enough that fallen troops are difficult to replace, but losing too many may secure the Confederates their European ally.
The movement and battle systems take some getting used to, especially the first time an army is cut off and can’t retreat to anywhere. Most of the time, though, logistics and conflagrations are briskly handled, with both battles and withdrawals filling important roles. And it’s hard to deny the appeal of the deck destruction system, which makes every single card the focal point of its own agonizing decision.
Unfortunately, most of that won’t be visible beneath the smoke of a burning Washington.
That’s how it currently stands, anyway. One of the pesky limitations of writing a preview is that the final product may diverge from what publishers sent out, for better or for worse. In this case, Martin Wallace has stated that he’s aware of the Manassas Mallet and is working on a solution. Whether he’ll figure out a way to fix Lincoln is anybody’s guess — and whether it’s something worthy of backing on Kickstarter comes down to how much you trust that all will be resolved.
For now, Lincoln remains a game of contradictions. Innovative and interesting, certainly, but also woefully unlikely to move past the crescendo of its first act.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. With your help, we will eliminate balance issues from every game in existence.)