I have an abiding fondness for Martin Wallace even when his games aren't that great- which sometimes, they really aren't. There are definte "A-sides" and "B-sides" in the Wallace ludography. Way back in the mid to late 1990s, his early Warfrog games were fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. Lords of Creation was my first Wallace game, and it was a little weird and wooly but it was also something I played before Settlers of Catan- and in a way, it sort of prefigures the attempts at melding wargame-y concepts with Eurogame-y mechanisms that has become sort of the Wallace stock-in-trade when he's not designing games where going into debt and becoming financially destitute is a key concept.
Having not played a Wallace game in a while, I picked up a review copy of Lincoln from wargaming's #1 ambassador Katie Aidley and the fine folks at PSG. I did this rather unadvisedly, as I have next to no desire to play games about the American Civil War right now. But I wanted to check out a new Wallace game, and I did like For a Few Acres of Snow, Mythtopia, and A Study in Emerald- a couple of his more successful card game-on-a-board designs.
Lincoln is fairly standard fare for a very light card-driven wargame, but where it excels is in condensing the big scope and multiple angles of larger CDWGs into a really tight, concise package. All of the asymmetry, multiple use cards, point-to-point geography, sieges, and nasty battles that can turn the tide of the game that you might expect from this kind of game are here. But it's all done up in a 45 to 60 minute package that plays at a brisk pace.
But what I like the best about the game is the touted "deck deconstruction" aspect of how it all works. As the game progresses, cards that are spent for recruitment get taken out of the game and additional cards are added to each player's deck. So over the course of it, the relative strength of the Union and Confederacy shifts. The Confederacy starts out strong but struggles with fighting a longer war as resources become strapped and it becomes harder to field larger units or mount focused attacks. The Union player gets stronger as the war effort ramps up in the North - and it becomes easier for them to impact the South with Naval Blockades and diplomatic finagling in Europe.
I like this game OK, and regard it as a very decent light wargame that is quite a bit more approachable than other titles in this design space- it is also more wargame-y than is usual for Wallace these days so Eurogamers should be advised that this is more GMT than Ravensburger. I appreciate that it is a humble, somewhat tentative design- it's a simple and inexpensive production with solid mechanisms and the usual queasy Wallace rules-writing, which means things are never as clear-cut as they seem to be on a first read. I very much appreciate the sophisticated way that the decks shift gameplay in a divergent way- we've seen this before in several CDWGs, but here it is as with all aspects of the design concisely managed for maximum playability.
But I'm just not particularly enthused by the subject matter, and to be quite honest after playing Root so much this past year, it's hard to avoid drawing possibly unfounded points of comparison. This is a more "classical" CDWG design with a couple of innovative ideas versus a very innovative CDWG design with a couple of "classical" ideas. But for a short, easy to play conflict game with high drama and some compellingly impactful decisions, Lincoln delivers a good experience and may be a nice toe-dip for those looking to dabble in wargaming.
Speaking of Root...this little $15 card game is a Dungeons & Dragons punch-up with great illustrations from that game's Kyle Ferrin. So it looks awesome. And, it turns out, it's a really fun 15 minute game packed with take-that violence and straight-to-the-face damage. It's also more smartly designed than these kinds of "comic shop counter" games tend to be, although it fits squarely into the genre with generally execrable games like Lunch Money, Kung Fu Fighting, Red Dragon Inn, Bang, and the like.
Each player is a D&D archetype- a Elf Paladin, a Tiefling Rogue, a Half-Orc warrior, and a Human Wizard. Everybody has their own unique deck with exclusive actions, imparting a sense of character and identity to each of the combatants. The goal is simple enough, be the last one standing when the scuffle is over, and to do this you simply play cards to beat on the other players and reduce their HP.
Where the game gets smart is in how it subtlely drafts a key mechanism from Dominion- the notion of chaining actions with +1 effects. On your turn, you play one card but if you have a +1 action icon on whatever you play, you can do more damage, draw more cards, or put out defense cards to protect you when axes and magic missiles start flying your way. We are not talking about intensely deep decision making here- this is a capricious, silly game- but managing your hand and playing your cards for maximum effect are what will find you on top of a heap of KO'd adventurers.
It's really a pretty dumb game, but that's kind of the point. It's obnoxious, light, and violent and that combination in this class of games usually leads to paydirt. It's definitely not one for beard-scratchers, Mentats, or insufferable min-maxers and it is best played at full volume with a rowdy bunch- and you do want three other tabletop hooligans on board with you although a 3 player game is fun enough if you enact a house rule to not allow two consecutive attacks on one player. If there's anything to fault this little game for it's that it could stand to support four more players with four more characters and it wouldn't miss a beat. Hopefully Wizards will see sales figures that warrant an expansion.
Yugioh Duel Links
Somehow, I've really gotten into Yugioh. I know, it's weird, right?
River got interested in it at school, and after watching he and his mates play it, I realized that not one of them had a duke of an idea about how to actually play it. So I downloaded the Yugioh Duel Links app to learn to play. This was a couple of months ago. I don't know how many duels I've played now...I've participated in all of the big events, including the 2018 Kaiba Cup where I did really well until I got into the second round and it was all of these Brazilian and Israeli players that had these impossible to beat decks.
Come to find out, Yugioh is really freaking complicated. It's messy and weird. TREMENDOUSLY unbalanced. There are goofy mechanisms that make little to no sense (I still can't quite sort out "Pendulum Summoning" or "Link Summoning" and I am not really 100% sure how "chaining" works). And the cards...good god, the text. Some of them are almost impossible to read because there is so much text on them. And then there are hordes of cards- maybe thousands, I don't know- that are as far as I can tell functionally useless unless you are using them with other very specific cards you may or may not have.
But here's the thing. Duel Links is sort of a streamlined version of the game where you have half the life (only 4000) and you only have three slots for monsters and three for traps and spells. The more complex mechanisms aren't even in the game. Duels tend to be pretty much decided in three turns- the first draw is crucial, as is leveraging super-tuned 20-30 card decks for extreme efficiency. And I kind of love it.
I am really digging how lean and aggressive it is in this stripped-down format. There's no tempo or control, it's all aggro. You have to punch first, hard, and fast and the margin for error is extremely small- you can turn a bad start around, but it takes some smart play and the right cards. I've really enjoyed tuning these decks down to just 20 cards and pulling off killer one-turn wins with all kinds of tricks to get around the restrictions to summoning monsters. I've also enjoyed seeing some higher level online play, where you go up against these guys and gals (almost all outside of the US, interestingly) that come up with these insane and wildly divergent strategies using a full deck of cards I've never even seen before. The events have been pretty fun, and significantly, this is a FTP/gacha game but it practically showers you with free stuff including the gem currency you use to buy boosters and structure decks. Virtually every time I play, I get new cards, new characters, or other awards- I've been at it for a couple of months and the only "paywall" is that it does become somewhat harder to make specific decks due to having to get cards from special events. It may get worse once you get up closer to King of Games rank...but I ain't that good.
With all my newfound Yugioh expertise, such as it is, we sat down to play some F2F duels with some decks River got for Christmas, and I wasn't really feeling it at the table. Then it felt too cumbersome, slow, and overly complicated. Reading cards and trying to figure out how and when to play them was pretty boring, and the rules on some things just aren't clear. I got spoiled with the app enforcing them. The good news is that the Duel Links format is apparently now supported on the table as "Speed Duels" and they have some 20 card starters coming out for that this month. I'm pretty interested to see how they work out.
But yes, every single time I get on Duel Links, I admit that I have a moment where I am like "WTF am I doing." But then I'm stuck in playing a very, very solid card battler with a probably well-deserved and maybe outdated terrible reputation and totally enjoying it- as much as I liked Hearthstone or the Elder Scrolls TCG. Plus I am like an elder sage to River's friends now...they come up to me with these garbage decks to look at and I'm like "cut out half of the cards, you don't need this many traps, this 3000 ATK monster is garbage, why are you running Dragunity and Destiny Heroes together, you are never even going to be able to summon this, you are going to lose in two turns with this..." I may have just lost all of my "hobby" cred by daring to sing the praises of Yugioh, but down at the schoolyard I am a dueling god.