Volko Ruhnke’s Nevsky is a fiddly that has its own quality

, | Game reviews

Wargame design has developed so profoundly over the past four decades that a collection spanning this era almost feels like a series of geological strata. From the perfunctory Nixonian arithmetic of military integers dressed up as history in early SPI games, to the multilateral multi-impulse area movement Avalon Hill games of the first Bush Administration, to the Clintonesque triangulation of the card-driven games that moved history from the rulebook to a little story you held in your hand, the chase of verisimilitude has seen a steady stream of devices meant to get us to that ultimate grail: to touch history. Modern designers have an impressive arsenal of mechanics to assist them in this quest. Yet the goal too often, for one reason or another, eludes them.

Right around the time of Obama’s re-election, a very talented game designer who had already given us one of the best card-driven designs to date – Wilderness War – developed a new system that essentially completed the metaphorical evolution of wargaming onto the dry land of the euro. Card-driven design had liberated wargaming from hexagons and fiddly mechanics by relying on point-to-point movement and offloading most rules onto cards with nice pictures and historical descriptions on them. The mechanics didn’t need to be evocative anymore, because now the components were. 

Volko Ruhnke’s COIN system removed the last elements of wargaming from the CDG – counters with numbers and the combat results table – and replaced them with wooden blocks and deterministic combat resolution. It was as big a step as the original card-driven mechanics had been in Mark Herman’s We the People. And probably as influential.

COIN eliminated the last of the Nixonian arithmetic and turned its subjects into socioeconomic area control games with some light worker placement. It worked better for some topics than others, but demonstrated pretty conclusively that you can model many conflicts without anything resembling a standard wargame toolkit. It was a bold move away from many of the things that old wargamers expected when they opened a history-filled box, and the de-emphasis of numerical optimization may have attracted people who would have declined the opportunity to figure out the best way to break the Luga River line with four 12-8s and a 6-6. And it gave rise to some comments about what actually constituted a euro game, such as “wooden blocks.”

But the development of a system that straddled these worlds so closely highlighted the different ways in which people’s historical imaginations work. To dismiss the whole thing as a nomenclaturekampf ignores, I think, a division between people who enjoy history as a general topic, and those who need their historical games to evoke their subject through consequential actions. The Siege Artillery card that helps reduce forts in Carl Paradis’ No Retreat is a great abstraction, and eliminates paragraphs of rules in favor of a one-time event that is meant to represent all the preparation and logistic achievement of moving cumbersome heavy artillery coming to fruition. What are the chances of that happening? Probably as high as drawing that card at the right time for it to be useful to the German player. So why make that player do all the planning and logistics him- or herself? For many, it’s a brilliant example of streamlining.

But for others, this is the equivalent of Yahtzee for Leningrad. To them, it’s a legitimate complaint: in order for them to feel historical satisfaction, they need their direct actions to pay off. If they are going to pull off a siege bombardment of Leningrad, they need to use the system as designed to get the guns there themselves. The retort that “do you want to drive every panje wagon yourself?” is a nonsensical answer, because the whole thing simply depends on what you’re looking for from a game. The lines aren’t arbitrary — they’re emotional.

So what happens when the focus of game mechanics points towards a euro, but their execution drifts into wargame?

It’s a question worth asking, as Volko Ruhnke’s Nevsky is now widely available, having been in the works for some time, and already having been the subject of some ridiculous controversies. It’s the first in what will be a series of games called “Levy & Campaign,” corresponding to the two main phases comprising the system’s mechanics. Ruhnke has managed to do what some of even the best designers have been unable to achieve, which is to step outside of a successful system of their own making and create another original one. This isn’t COIN II, or COIN-lite, or even a refinement of the CDG rubric. It’s completely its own game: a unique historical imagining of the conflict between the Teutonic Order and Novgorodian Rus’* in the middle of the 13th century. The events portrayed here include the famous Battle on the Ice from Eisenstein’s film, and the heroic figure of Aleksandr Nevskii. This part of the world, on the edge of both Europe and history, has rather thin scholarship in English, although this is being addressed. It’s precisely the type of topic that people who have had their fill of D-Days and Bulges should appreciate.

To Ruhnke’s great credit, the design, from the ground up, feels like an erudite creation with a purpose. This isn’t a case of someone reading a book about the Thirty Years War and throwing together a design, or flipping through Stephen Ambrose and making a Normandy game with cards and dice. It’s not an easy period to research, because not just the most extensive research, but most of the research is in German, Russian, the Baltic languages, and Polish. There is even some controversy as to whether the events depicted here happened on the dates specified, and what actually happened when they did. But it’s not Volko Ruhnke’s job to adjudicate academic disputes. His job is to make a game that takes you there, and boy, has he ever done that. This is as philosophically cogent a work of art as Nick Karp’s Vietnam: a game that takes the essence of the historical situation and treats everything about it that is relevant, while giving the player than ineffable but unmistakable feeling of “touching history.” Karp had the job of finding orders of battle for a conflict that America detested less than ten years after it ended, and then re-creating the entire conflict. Ruhnke had to settle on the very nature of the societal relationship to warfare in a place and period that is still not fully settled by modern historians. It just shows you how big the gap is between really great designers, and everyone else.

Ruhnke’s basis is that principalities in this period had a complicated relationship with the landed personages on whom they largely depended for defense, and that the politics of religious conversion ran up against the economics of survival: you have to eat not only to fight, but to not just stay at home. Gameplay focuses on lords, who are recruited onto the map for a limited time. After their service ends, they disband and go home. If you want them to stay around longer, you’ll have to pay them. Since the international banking system has yet to be developed, you’ll end up using the next best thing: coin and loot you stole by ravaging someone else’s towns. Hey – it’s historically accurate.

Nevsky takes place on one of the most evocative playing surfaces I have ever experienced, although you are talking about evoking this period for a reviewer who once took an entire graduate school course called Old Church Slavonic. Nevertheless, it’s remarkable how perfectly the image I have of the Baltic littoral and its environs and culture circa 1240 AD is reflected in the game’s presentation. The map is a wonderful artistic and symbolic system, in which the tiny text and icons emphasize just how isolated these settlements must have been in a landscape still ruled for the most part by wolves and weather. Armies are led by lords, who are on the map for a defined length of time. That’s their “service,” and is probably Nevsky’s singular historical mechanic.

The Teutonic and Russian sides are composed of different lords, each of whom has a separate mat, with their characteristics (you know, Str, Dex, Cha) and a defined starting force pool. Unlike the generals of Heeresgruppe Nord, though, they aren’t there until dismissed. Furthermore, after a series of reverses, they may choose to go home entirely. It’s up to you to keep them happy and in the field.

Each lord has a Fealty rating, which represents how likely he is to muster when called. His Lordship rating allows him to muster other lords, requisition transport, or gain special abilities. His Command rating governs his movement and logistics. But his Service rating is the basic premise of Nevsky: lords summoned to fight in 13th-century wars were not simply called up into an army like some sort of general staff officers. Instead, their contribution was their armed retinue, and in exchange, they needed to be paid. They could be paid in loot. Or coin. If they got defeated, they might go home early.

I suspect that this is the crux of the new “Levy & Campaign” series, which is that each lord has a service marker that exists on the calendar, which is a beautiful execution of a turn-record track. When the turn marker meets the space with the Service marker, you can pay to shift the lord’s service marker further down the track, thus extending the lord’s service. This is easier said than done. Furthermore, when lords lose battles, their Service markers get shifted the other way, hastening their departure. A lord who loses badly enough and has his marker shifted too far may end up quitting the campaign for good.

This kind of fundamental game construct that anchors all of the other points is rarely executed so well as it is here. Ruhnke has distilled the transitory nature of military service in this era and folded in the consequences without piling on a bunch of extraneous rules. Instead of prohibiting suicidal attacks, you simply won’t benefit from them, as your leaders will bolt the field. Service ratings not only reflect how long a lord will serve, but how long you will have to wait until he returns. A weaker lord may not stay long, likely representing his inability to stay away long from his domestic obligations, but can return quickly as his forces are small. A more powerful lord may need to stay away longer to muster his army, but once he does, he will remain longer on the field.

While there, he will be represented by an austere wooden cylinder with his coat of arms on it and an offboard mat for his pieces. His lordship rating tells you how lordly he is. And how many times he can do lordly things, like ravaging your town. Or moving.

Moving, as you may imagine, is not a straightforward endeavor in 13th-century Rus. The connections between towns and castles may be tracks, or waterways. To move along a track, you need a cart. To move along a waterway, you need a boat. But in the winter everything is frozen, so you actually need a sled. And in the “rasputitsa” (the springtime thaw in the game) even the tracks are flooded, so you can only use boats.

Each of these is a counter you put on the lord’s mat. When you move, you need to carry “Provender.” It’s absolutely adorable that it is not called “Supply” and thus specifically refers to animal feed. But whatever it’s called, you need to carry it, and if you have more Provender than Transport, you are Laden. This makes a big difference. Did I mention that at the beginning of winter, half your carts turn into sleds? You lose the other half, sadly. 

This is the point at which the evocative crux meets the game mechanics. Because while transport was undoubtedly of vital importance in a medieval campaign across widely varying terrain and climate, transport planning in the game becomes an exercise in euro-style pattern matching. Except without the necessary patterns. The interaction of the transport counters and the routes takes place in three domains: textual (cart/boat/sled on the counters), representational (the depiction of the ways on the map) and conceptual (the seasonal effects). Those are difficult rubrics to shift between. Worse, the color of the sled counters is almost the same as the cart counters. There isn’t anything to easily anchor your perception because even though the boat counters are blue, the water ways are white. It doesn’t end there: while blue boats are the only transport that works during rasputitsa, the rasputitsa seasonal color on the turn record track is … green.

This isn’t just airy theoretical ludology: it’s a big practical obstacle to the game’s attempt to evoke historical themes, because while the rest of the game does a terrific job with its art design in almost every other aspect (like I said, the historical art design in Nevsky is some of the best I’ve seen in any genre), the interface consequences of the mechanics at the crucial point of movement planning turn everything into an excruciating task of resources arithmetic that goes from separate lord mats to the game map and back again. Each time you do this, you have to recalibrate. It’s summer, so I need carts, but I need boats for the waterways. When winter comes, I will lose half my carts, the rest of which will become sleds, and the boats will be useless. Then in rasputitsa I can only use boats. But I have carts again.

Which would be manageable if this were just a part of the game. But transport, I would argue, is the game’s unifying element. Everything depends on transport. As a result, you’ll have to carefully calculate how far you can move, not just each turn, but each card. That’s because in each season, you have a fixed number of cards that you “program” to be order of play, much like in Angola. Each card is a lord. Each lord has three cards, thus, you can program the same lord up to three times per turn.

This, since a leader can move more than once per turn, you need to make sure he can reach each space you’re planning on moving to, and do it over multiple rounds. If you’re planning for the next turn, which you should be, you as often as not will also have to plan on a change of seasons.

Note that I am not suggesting that the transport system is somehow inappropriate, or overly complex, or should be omitted. It may very well be a solid historical representation of a crucial element of medieval campaigns. But its in-game effect is to take me so far out of what I was doing elsewhere that it seems to overwhelm the design. In a game like Tiny Towns, the yellow cube is grain. But nobody calls it that, because no one cares. It is “yellow” and when you put one together with a red cube and a blue cube to make a cottage, you pretty much forget what you’ve done as soon as you’ve done it. Not in Nevsky. The whole point of the game is historical evocation. The silver knight wedges and the blocky black men-at-arms bars take subconscious historical signifiers and build a game language out of them. Of course the wedge-shaped blocks are horses. Of course the lighter blocks are less armored. The whole thing is played out on a map that looks like you might have found it in the ruins of the castle at Bauska.

If only you could admire this during the game. But you can’t, because of that transport. Every turn you turn off your imaginative mind and turn on your calculational one. “Oh Bruce, you’ve met your comeuppance now,” you say. “All those games you foisted off on us these years past, with the little chits that have tiny numbers on them, and you can’t handle some make-believe boats!” But it’s not just the boats. It’s where they are (on the leader mat). And where they take you (the beautiful, evocative map). Which is where my attention is going each turn, back and forth, and to my leaders, and back to the map, and to my opponent’s leaders, and their little chibbles, and how many they have of the boats.

It’s at this point that I propose that a game of Nevsky is at least as strategically fiddly as one of the smaller OCS games, like Smolensk. Single points matter. Tremendously. But it’s also like a Napoleonic game with leaders, where you are always peering out from behind the leader screen, trying to figure out how many divisions Poniatowski’s corps has in it because you need to move by forced march. There are plenty of games that are way fiddlier than Nevsky, let me tell you. You know this, anyway, so let’s take a moment to appreciate that this might be the first thing in this piece we have agreed on.

So why do those games get away with all that fiddlesomeness? Because the payoff–and I’m now speaking from personal experience–is the verisimilitude of detail. Somebody (nobody really knows who) supposedly said that “quantity has a quality all its own.” But you know what else has its own quality? Fiddly. Yes, fiddly is its own special sauce, the way in which we drag the dragons of history out of our imaginations and make them dance to our own ideas of how battles were fought and kings were toppled. Adding a point of motorcycle troops to some giant battle on the Eastern Front makes sense because they were there, and if it gives you some minimal recon bonus, you nevertheless feel that you’ve recreated something meaningful. To you.

Nevsky gives you all that fiddly movement calculation, but pays it off with simple bag-of-dice rolls against armor protection. Knights are knights, and serfs are serfs. If you play the right card, you may get crossbows. But each round of combat is a simple test of hits (deterministically achieved) by a bunch of dee-sixes, made worse by the high variance introduced by the often limited number of rolls. It’s quite a disconnect, and to me represents a huge failure of payoff. The interface friction of mats with tons of representational pieces on them isn’t carried through to the combat system, or really anything else. It’s a huge attention tax that only Elizabeth Warren could love. And about as helpful.

For a game that seems to be striving towards simplicity, or at least elegance, it’s interesting to see how verbose the rules are. Ruhnke’s games are characterized by clarity of rules, with the caveat that they tend towards a Greenwoodian encyclopedic rubric. In Nevsky, this seems to have outdone its progenitor. It’s difficult to say when the line is crossed, but here I’m firmly located on the other side. It’s a complete nomenclaturefest. Furthermore, the organization is such that it is a chore to dig through the notes and examples to find exactly what you can do. There are eight things you can do in the Campaign Phase, but the rules wait to explain half of them for six pages, leading to tons of page-flipping for a single phase. I suspect the game is meant to be played off the player aid card, a shortcut assimilated from the COIN series, in which you only look up the rules after reading the sequence of play off the card. I find this kind of play to be lazy. Others find it “accessible.” 

And even so, I suppose it could be worse. “Levy Lords to Muster?” Why not “Levy Ready Lords to Muster?” After all, it says Levy to Muster Ready Vassals? Is there some implied ability of unready Lords to muster? 

Or maybe it could just say “Levy Lords.”

Criticizing a game because you made rules mistakes on your first playing is like saying chess is dumb because when you learned it you didn’t remember how all the pieces moved. So when I say that the second time I played the game, when my opponent forgot that the tracks he was planning to use carts to traverse actually were flooded during rasputitsa, and thus needed boats, and considered the map a long time before suggesting that he concede and we move to something else, I don’t fault the game. But I do wonder if it was clear in its intentions.

Nevsky’s rubric  of aspirational beautiful simplicity is something to behold. I Googled a word for “simple beauty” and couldn’t really find anything I liked. “Arcadian?” That’s not what that means. While I struck out in English, I did find the Japanese term “shibui” which seems to mean “simple, subtle, unobtrusive beauty.” You can never tell, though, because knowing the Internet, it could also be some kind of sexual fetish. But if Wikipedia isn’t leading me astray, it seems to be like the perfect description for what Volko Ruhnke tried to achieve with Nevsky, until it became clear that you have to move, and it goes without saying that sleds don’t work in summer. I’m tremendously conflicted about Nevsky, because I love the period, and everything that the game does to capture it. It’s a splendid interpretation of history. It’s a tremendous artistic representation of the same. And it’s a challenging decision engine with meaningful inputs that too often subverts these same inputs with dice rolls, and that takes too much mechanical grease to get where it’s going. It’s a shame, too, because the rest of the design is beautiful. Even maybe shibui. I’d just hate to get all that grease on the map.

*The word Русь in Russian is transliterated as Rus’ due to the soft sign after the s. I will omit this hereafter.

(If you want a tactical battle system that does a good job of evoking this period, try Hollandspiele’s Battles on the Ice and The Grunwald Swords.)

  • Nevsky

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  • So shibui! But then the seasons change or the dice start rolling.