It was 2018 when I first learned about Alexander Nevsky, the Prince of Novgorod. They don’t teach this sort of history in Canadian high school, and while I had heard about the famous Battle On The Ice, I had no real insight into it until Harold Buchanan’s inaugural episode of his podcast “Harold On Games” with his guest Volko Ruhnke. It was there that I was first introduced to Alexander Nevsky, and the game that Volko was designing bearing his name. I followed this up by watching the 1938 black and white film “Alexander Nevsky” from Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein. Of particular interest in that film was the wonderful 30-minute Battle On The Ice sequence, which used some pretty advanced movie-making techniques (for the time) and cinematography tricks that would later influence films such as Henry V, The Empire Strikes Back, and Mulan.
In 1240 Alexander Yaroslavich was the prince and defender of Novgorod. In July of that year, the Swedes landed near a settlement on the Neva river (presumably the beginning of an invasion), and Alexander attacked and defeated them – earning him the sobriquet of “Nevsky”, meaning of Neva. Subsequently the region of medieval Rus (in the modern day areas of Belarus and Ukraine) found themselves under threat of invasion from the Livonian Order. The Livonian Order was a group of Teutonic Knights situated in the regions of Denmark and Estonia. They would invade and take the town of Pskov in 1241, a neighbouring settlement of Novgorod. The authorities in Novgorod sent for Alexander’s assistance, and together with Prince Yaroslav II, he drove the Teutons from Pskov and ended up fighting them atop a frozen Lake Peipus in that famous Battle On The Ice in 1242.
Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collision 1240-1242 is the first entry in GMT’s new “Levy & Campaign” series. The game itself is operational in scale. It’s played on a beautiful and modestly sized 17″x22″ point-to-point map of the Baltic frontier, circa 1240. Similar to GMT’s COIN games, many of the player pieces are wood, giving the game an atmosphere of accessibility. I imagine this has some COIN enthusiasts wondering how much the Levy & Campaign games parallel those in the COIN system. The visual style, however, is just about where the similarity with COIN ends.
Levy & Campaign attempts to simulate a number of things in game terms that are particular to medieval warfare. First, because kingdoms didn’t have “standing” armies at that time, Kings or Leaders needed to levy assistance from the lords within the realm, who in turn would muster their forces from their principalities. Promises were kept or compensation would be agreed to, and in this way soldiers would be recruited to march on the campaign. Often, this was only for a period of time agreed upon ahead of time, and any extensions would be determined by the ability of the campaign leader to keep them fed and paid.
In Nevsky, this is managed through the Calendar, a kind of turn track that measures the years and seasons, as well as the length of service of individual Lords. Each Lord has a service rating that determines how many boxes on the calendar you will get with them. If you wish to levy Andrey, Prince of Suzdal, he will assist your campaign for 5 turns (each representing 40 days of time). When you get to the end of those 5 turns, he’ll pack up his things and go home, unless you can pay him a little something extra to stick around, moving his marker further up the calendar. This isn’t always a bad thing, since that lord will become available again in so many turns, and their forces will reset when they come back into the campaign.
The second thing Nevsky tries to simulate is the limited command and control available during medieval warfare. There was an obvious lack of timely communication across any kind of distance, which put severe restrictions on command and control. You can imagine a group of lords sitting around a table or perhaps in an expeditionary tent, making battle plans well ahead of time. Lords would carry off their orders and attempt to fulfill them to the best of their ability, coordinating themselves in whatever way possible with the limited intelligence and communication they had available. The best commanders might be able to adapt to evolving battlefield circumstances, but orders are orders, and when it’s your turn to act, you act.
This kind of rigidity is achieved by way of a deck of “Command Cards”. The concept here is almost like programming actions, except you’re just deciding who gets to take actions and in what order. You pull cards from this deck to build a hand of locked down actions every round. This will decide what lords will act, and when. You’ll try to be as prescient as possible, guessing at your enemies next moves and carefully crafting your own. Invariably, however, the situation on the map has evolved and changed dramatically by the time you near the end of your hand. If you planned well or got lucky, everything is coming up roses at this point. More often than not, your plan is falling apart right now because of this limited command and control. There is also an “Arts Of War” deck. This is a set of tools you can attempt to recruit into your service, which provide additional, crucial benefits.
It’s a lovely dance. You have objectives that are difficult to achieve, compounded by a limited command and control situation, and you’re racing against the clock to get things done before your army gets fed up and leaves, or you can collect enough coin or loot to keep them in service a little longer. You also have the winters to worry about.
Typical actions in Nevsky include marching around the map, besieging or storming strongholds (towns, fortresses, etc), ravaging villages, or meeting an opponent on an open field. This last one happens less often that you would expect, as typically a stronghold is involved (someone is trying to get in, or out). These sieges are played out over a number of turns with the besieger trying to starve out the stronghold, and the besieged trying to hang on (often for reinforcements), ideally sallying out to meet the enemy only when the odds shift in their favour.
During a campaign, you will have the opportunity to earn coins by either taxing your locals (while you’re at home), capturing a stronghold, or taking them from your opponent as spoils of war. Loot (which is essentially livestock) can also be gained by ravaging an enemy location, but can only be used to pay for a lord’s service at a friendly location, so it’s all about those coins. If you prepare poorly, you’ll risk losing all your forces, and defeat will come swiftly.
Nevsky is a different kind of creature in the wargaming space. There’s certainly combat here, but it’s not necessarily the focus. There’s an equal amount of planning and logistics to contend with. Some people will enjoy that, and others might find it tedious. I find it fascinating, and it makes me eager to see how the system will evolve with future instalments, and there are plenty of those in the works. If COIN was Volko Ruhnke’s attempt to entice the euro gaming crowd toward wargaming, Levy & Campaign is his love letter to medieval wargaming. It’s a system that explores a side of the story that rarely gets told with games set in this time frame – and that’s refreshing.