We have had a very good experience with games designed by Volko Ruhnke. The first two games that we played of his were Wilderness War and Labyrinth and we immediately fell in love with his style and the depth with which he tackled these challenging historical conflicts. Fast forward a few years, and multiple plays of his other games such as Andean Abyss, Fire in the Lake and Falling Sky, and we came to his first design that we weren’t sure would be our cup of tea with the Levy & Campaign Series and it’s first volume Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collision, 1240-1242. But, after playing, and then playing it again, and then writing some posts about it, I realized that it was yet another beautiful design that would go down as one of his best.
Here is a link to our video review and initial thoughts after our first play of Nevsky: https://theplayersaid.com/2020/05/09/video-review-nevsky-teutons-and-rus-in-collision-1240-1242-from-gmt-games/
Here also are links to the various Action Point posts that I wrote about the different aspects of the design:
We have reached out to Volko in order to get a better feel for where the system will now take us into the struggle for Spain in Almoravid: Reconquista and Riposte in Spain, 1085-1086.
*Please keep in mind that the materials used in this interview including the components, maps, player boards and cards are not yet finalized and are only for playtest purposes at this point. Also, as the game is still in development, although nearing completion, details about the game may still change prior to publication.
Grant: Good to speak with you again Volko. Have you been pleased by the community’s response to your new Levy & Campaign Series and it’s first volume Nevsky?
Volko: Hello! The response to Nevsky has been very exciting for me. The setting is obscure to gamers. And I had figured that a series about medieval military operations, with a focus on lordship and logistics rather than charging and bashing heads, would meet only a rarified taste. I did Nevsky for myself and what I figured would be a small set of wargamers out there like me. But players with all sorts of different tastes—including some who have not gotten into the COIN Series at all, for example—have found something to draw them into Nevsky. Positive critical reaction, including from The Players Aid, has similarly been gratifying!
Grant: What have you observed in the response that maybe has led to subtle changes in your design focus in Volume II of the series?
Volko: The positive reaction to Nevsky suggests an appetite for the Levy & Campaign Series that affirms including a larger volume: Almoravid which will be about 50% larger in area, lords, units, cards and so on.
At least one reviewer felt that the thinking that had to go into juggling Sleds, Carts, Boats, and Ships was too much relative to the simplicity of the decisions once you got into a battle; that affirms a choice already dictated by the setting (Spain instead of Russia) to have only two Transport types in Almoravid, Carts and Mules, each of which is usable on any Way.
A few other reactions to how powerful Marshals are and to certain high-impact Events in Nevsky dampened similar card effects in Almoravid a bit.
Perhaps most importantly, I have not been fully happy with play balance across scenarios in Nevsky. That led to a rededication to test and test to get balance right in Almoravid. At this moment, at least, I think we got there.
Grant: Why did you choose Almoravid and the struggle over Moorish Spain as Volume II? What about the history of Spain from 1085-1086 is so interesting and fits with the system?
Volko: I started out most interested in the edges of Medieval Europe, border areas where cultural differences would most affect military operations. You can see how Teutons versus Rus fits that. My original intent was to cover Scots versus English in Volume II, a Reconquista setting in Volume III, and a Holy Land Crusades setting in Volume IV. But what intervened was that Albert Alegre Jove, a resident of Barcelona, reached out to me and agreed to research the Reconquista volume. So, I jumped on that collaborative opportunity, and Almoravid came to be.
Grant: What does the name Almoravid mean to history?
Volko: Islam over the centuries saw a cycle of fading religiosity, some might call it decadence, on the part of ruling classes, followed by reformist or fundamentalist factions taking over, then over time themselves moderating again. This occurred in Muslim Iberia—al-Andalus—at least twice with great drama: fundamentalist sects conquered vast stretches of western Africa and, fueled by fervor and African gold, intervened and conquered the softer Andalusians.
The first such sect, al-Murabitun in Arabic, Almorabides to the Spanish, we know as the Almoravids. Their intervention into Iberia from the south in the late 11th-Century coincided with a great lunge forward by the Christians led by King Alfonso VI of León. The Andalusians at first invited the Almoravids in to push the Christians back—which they did with a great battlefield victory in October 1086. But soon the Almoravids turned on the emirs of Iberia and conquered them to create a new Muslim empire in Spain.
The game covers 1085-1086: not this later Muslim conquest, but the initial Christian push and the Almoravid counterattack. Thus, Almoravid gives each side the chance to be on the offensive.
Grant: What needed to change in the system to properly tell this story of medieval Spain?
Volko: Greater size I already mentioned: the theater of operations covers more miles side to side, with greater populations, fortifications, wealth in play. The terrain is rougher, in a way, lots of mountain passes; but the seasons are much gentler than in Nevsky’s Russia, and roads are much better. All these aspects of the physical environment will hit players of both games right away.
Then, the political underlay is quite different. There is no Papal Legate or Novgorod Veche. The Christian Kingdoms are rather straightforward feudal structures, but the Muslim states of the time, called taifas (“factions”) had a very complicated diplomacy with one another and with the militarily dominant but less wealthy Christian kingdoms. The main expression of that was a tribute payment system called parias that played a huge role in why and when states went to war in this period. So Almoravid required mechanics—Parias, Reconquista, Jihad—to capture these aspects of 11th-Century Christian-Muslim relations.
Grant: Do you have some recommended books on this subject that you used as reference?
Volko: Almoravid, like Nevsky, will come with a source list including comments on each. Among English-language works, those of Bernard Reilly have been the most useful. Classic historians of the Reconquista include Lomax and O’Callaghan. There is lively recent volumes on the Muslim side of things called Kingdoms of Faith by Catlos. For primary sources, see The World of El Cid.
A boon to the design, though, is that Albert worked from Spanish language histories and in consultations with historical experts in Spain. If any of your readers in Spanish are interested in recommendations on that side, I can direct them to Albert.
Grant: What challenges and opportunities did you find in this design?
Volko: The Taifa Politics rules took a lot of deep thought and even more test and tinkering to get right. Same went for how to include this volume’s version of Call to Arms, which covers the Muslim question of whether and when to invite the Almoravids, whether Frankish crusaders show up in response (a bit earlier than historically), and–especially tricky—how to model that tricksy mercenary nature of Rodrigo Díaz de Vivar, “El Cid”.
The great opportunity, as in any series that sees the same base system used in different settings, is to explore what was different and what held constant in operational warfare over 150 years earlier and at the other corner of Europe from the scene in Nevsky.
Grant: What elements are really important to model in this design to address the way battles were fought, armies were created and the logistics of the time?
Volko: I’ve already mentioned the Taifa Politics that had to be a part of a wargame in this setting. In addition, fortifications had to be more numerous and tougher: we are talking about the most advanced military architecture on the continent of the day. Roman roads had to matter. The weakness of the taifa armies relative to the Christian feudal hosts, the abundant presence of gold dinars, the prevalence of cattle rustling on the Iberian plains, the arid conditions, the less developed form of crossbows, the continued prevalence of light forces as the heavy knight was locally making his first appearance …. Well, there is a long list of what we had to put in Almoravid to ensure that it’s not just Nevsky on a bigger board!
Grant: Any changes to the way the feudal calendar works in this volume?
Volko: The first thing that players will notice is that the seasons are quite different and rather conventional: spring, summer, autumn, winter. You get more cards in Summer than before or after, but the difference is not as stark as in Nevsky. And the Ways—Roads and Passes—are all usable year round.
Though the winters were not as harsh in Spain as in Rus, of course, the opportunities for military movement across the excellent road network of Iberia the rest of the year meant that armies generally took the winter off as lords went home to govern. In Almoravid, only the full-length scenario includes Winter at all, and that is a largely administrative pair of turns.
However, the structure of the Calendar—40-day turns, Levy then Campaign, and so on—these basics remain the same.
Grant: The transport in Spain is better than in Russia as there were good Roman built roads. How has the strategy of transport changed?
Volko: It will make things easier, in the main. Carts or Mules can carry 1 Prov each across any Way any Season. The difference between them is that the relatively less efficient Mules require more animals, so you have to Feed your Mules along with your Troops. But the advantage to Mules is that they can more readily get across the Passes than can Carts. It’s a less complicated logistical puzzle than in the harsh landscape of Nevsky, but a puzzle nonetheless.
Because Almoravid’s logistical rules are simpler in the above way, I took the opportunity to add a little complication for more realistic Supply rules: in Almoravid you need Transport for each Way to each Seat, when you are using more than one Seat. In Nevsky, you may recall, Transport could do double duty to more than one Supply Source. This was to make accounting less of a pain when you had to track multiple Transport types over different types of Ways to up to four Sources. In Almoravid, the Supply situation never gets that complex, so we can afford a bit more fidelity.
Grant: Can you give us a bit more detail on Taifa politics and Parias tribute and how these guide military strategy?
Volko: There are seven Muslim Taifas with their own borders within Muslim territory. Each can be at either Independent, Parias, or Reconquista status, affecting whether they are Enemy, Neutral, or Friendly to the Christians. Strongholds within the Taifas can receive ½ VP Jihad markers in various ways, rendering them automatically Enemy to Christians. Parias typically results when a Muslim Taifa Lord Disbands: his Taifa territory becomes Neutral to the sides and the Christians receive 1 VP and Coin equal to that Lord’s Service. If they Conquer all the Cities and Seats within a Taifa (typically, they have just one), it becomes a Reconquista Taifa, given the Christian side 3 VP.
Grant: As you have stated, the map area for this volume is twice as large as in Nevsky. How has this changed things for the players?
Volko: They will notice that there is quite a bit more room for maneuver. However, there also are enemy Strongholds almost everywhere—and they are all stone, quite tough. To go with this larger environment, there are more Lords as well, up to seven Christian or nine Muslim (one of those on each side is Rodrigo, so it will never be all 16 out at once).
One refinement added to deal with the proliferation of Castles, Fortresses, and walled population centers is a new Bypass rule, giving Marching Lords the option to decline to Besiege an Enemy Stronghold if they want to use the rest of their Command actions upon arrival to Forage, Ravage, or such.
Grant: What does longer supply routes mean for the movement of armies?
Volko: Together with the fact that Forage out in the countryside is actually harder here (representing the difficulty in finding enough water), it will tend to amplify the importance of Friendly Strongholds. The larger Strongholds (Muslim Fortresses and Cities) have Gardens that guarantee Forage—even when Besieged, by the way.
Grant: What Christian and Muslim Lords are available and in general how do they differ from the Lords in Nevsky?
Volko: King Alfonso IV is the Christian Marshal. He has powerful Counts and Captains to Levy, and these are the mainstay of the Christian side. King Sancho of Aragon will see a lot of action, but he has a much smaller realm and is consequently far weaker. The Burgundian Count Eudes may show up as a crusader, a cameo role.
The Muslims have six Taifa Lords, most less potent militarily than any one Christian Lord, though the greatest among them, al-Mutamid of Sevilla, has more punch. The Almoravids can come in during the second year’s scenarios: Sultan Yusuf is the Marshal and Almoravid general Sir his second. Each arrives on the south coast with an immense force of African Horse and African Foot.
Then there is the Lord that can go both ways ….
Grant: The infamous El Cid may or may not make an appearance in the game. How is he levied and what does he bring to the table?
Volko: El Cid during 1085-1086 was in exile from Alfonso’s kingdom and had recently been in the employ of the Muslims, specifically, of the Emir of Zaragoza. He was not known to have participated in any campaigns those two years, though he well could have ended up doing so: Alfonso made a big but unsuccessful stab at Zaragoza in 1086, and he reconciled with and recalled El Cid to Christian service shortly after the great defeat to the Almoravids at Sagrajas in October that year.
In the game, the Muslims can pay Coin to Muster Rodrigo as “al-Sayyid”. But Events or certain Christian options can reconcile El Cid to Alfonso and remove him after the Muslims have paid. In those circumstances, the Christians can hire “El Cid Campeador” for themselves, but in that case Muslim Events might lead him to quit that service early.
Why pay to Muster such an unreliable character? Because he is quite capable, certainly faster moving than any Muslim Lord and harder hitting than any but the Almoravids. And he can acquire Capabilities unique to him representing his great skill in warfare cultivated from study of each military culture’s strengths. One such Capability, for example, enables him to draw his own Battle Events straight out of the deck; another enables him to force discard of enemy Hold cards.
Grant: What types of asymmetry are built into the design and how specifically do the Christians differ from the Muslims? What is the force structure of the various units comprising the armies? How does each side’s units differ?
Volko: The Christians have heavier troops—Knights especially—and a better-functioning feudal system to muster larger forces more quickly. They start with a Marshal, Alfonso. And several of their Lords are quite energetic: Command ratings of “4” and, for Alfonso, four Command cards in the deck.
The Muslims have the money. The Taifas still benefit from a near monopoly over Mediterranean trade and gold from Africa. So their Taifas box (similar to the Veche box in Nevsky) helps keep them going. They also have those tough Strongholds that I mentioned everywhere.
But, when the Almoravids arrive, all that can get flipped. Yusuf, while more sluggish in a strange land than is Alfonso (lower Command rating), also is a Marshal and has four Command Cards and comes with a fully mobilized force featuring two new Troop types that I mentioned: African Horse and African Foot. They have Javelins and bows, respectively, plus Evade for the Horse and light armor (representing giant shields of hide) for the Foot.
The Almoravid host can be quite fearsome in Battle, but they either have to be Fed—and they can eat a lot!—or will need to be paid from that Taifa gold to keep going.
Grant: For those that are not familiar with Nevsky, what role do the cards play in the design?
Volko: The Command cards work as before, except that some Lords have higher Command ratings (up to “4”). And, as mentioned, the Marshals each have four rather than three Command cards, so are even more important.
The Arts of War decks are bigger—26 rather than 18 Event/Capability cards per side—and no “No Event” blanks (which turned out to be unneeded). Here and there a card will seem familiar—Hills instead of Hill, for example. But most of the cards and their effects are entirely new, to help bring the particulars of 11th-Century Spain into play.
Grant: Can you show us some examples of cards and explain how they work?
Volko: Here is a set of three playtest cards: Muslim Arts of War. Their text should explain how they work, at least to anyone familiar with the cards in Nevsky. Left to right, they illustrate some of the tactics and weapons that show up in this setting, the Jihad mechanic that I described earlier in the context of Taifa Politics, and Christians fighting on the Muslim side (El Cid was not the only mercenary by any stretch!).
Grant: How does combat work? How did you go about deciding to assign relative strengths to different unit types? What is the best unit on the field?
Volko: The Battle rules are essentially unchanged from Nevsky, though the particular situations of Stronghold types, unit type and Capability cards, and so on will be different. A key change to Storm is that a side with more than one Lord can add one to the Front (not just change one out) during each Round, up to Stronghold Capacity. So, in a well prepared Storm on a City, for example, up to three Lords of a side could end up fighting on the walls.
The scale is different—units are about twice as large as in Nevsky—and Reilly and other historians provide decent guesses at how many fighting men mustered and fought at Sagrajas. Albert and I were able to work out from that what a plausible unit count would be within the Levy & Campaign Series format.
As before, Armored Troops hit about twice as hard as Unarmored, with Knights the toughest at twice that again when in the open field. The heavy knight had just made his appearance in Spain a couple generations earlier. Both sides still had light horse and other light troops in some abundance, especially the Muslims. Serf units in Almoravid represent instead baggage handlers and the like that the Christians tended to press into battle, per Reilly.
All the types we saw in Nevsky are present here also, with the addition of the African Horse and Foot already discussed. But the various Capability cards lend a great deal of new variety to the forces, more than I can readily cover here!
Grant: How do sieges work? What elements did you feel most important to include in the design? How does the better castles in Spain change things?
Volko: I’ve already mentioned the change to Storm, which is an expression of the generally larger fortifications at play, as well as just a refinement for a touch more realism. That change generally benefits the attacker. But on the other side, all Strongholds are stone: Walls 1-4. And, Garrisons tend to be a bit larger.
Sieges themselves can be tougher than in Nevsky, in three main ways:
- The larger Strongholds have Gardens that allow a Besieged Lord to Forage. This makes it quite difficult to starve out a Besieged Lord if the Besieged side dedicates Commands to restoring his Provender.
- At the end of each Campaign, stacks of Siege markers can be reduced by one, representing repairs to the walls and the like.
- Surrender of larger Strongholds requires each of 2 or 3 dice. For example, a City with three Siege markers will only Surrender on a roll of three dice, each “3” or less.
Among the facts that inspired this toughening of Strongholds in Almoravid was the successful resistance of Zaragoza City to a large army under Alfonso for months during 1086 and that, a few years later, it took the great Cid two years (the entire span of a full game of Almoravid) to reduce the City of Valencia.
Grant: What have been some changes that have come about through the playtest process? What still needs work?
Volko: Playtest is complete. We are now writing the Background Book and waiting our turn for GMT to assign Almoravid artists. Developer Wendell Albright, Albert, and I have enjoyed active playtest groups throughout. And the recent lockdowns actually helped us, I think, to make a final big push via Vassal to seek balance not only across the six scenarios but also in tuning the strength of Strongholds, the impact of various Events and Capabilities, and the Call to Arms mechanics for the Almoravids and for El Cid.
Grant: What are you most pleased about with the design?
Volko: I’m delighted with how well the Levy & Campaign Series system could accommodate a different time and place in the medieval world. And I feel that we can be quite confident in the historicity of the design that we were able to achieve via Albert’s diligence and access to native sources and scholars.
Grant: What has been the response of playtesters? How do they feel about the time period now?
Volko: Albert and I had chance to play with many Spanish wargamers at BellotaCon in Badajoz, Spain this January, including several playtesters. My thought was that, if this group did not get into the design, then we had a problem. I’m happy to say that Almoravid got a tremendous reception in Badajoz, including nine full playtest games over three days.
Grant: What will be the next location and time period for the Levy & Campaign Series?
Volko: Volume III of Levy & Campaign is in an advanced state of design and will accelerate once the Almoravid Background Book is complete. The game is a co-design with a veteran Italian wargame designer. The setting will be medieval Italy. Please stay tuned! And thank you!
Thank you for your time in answering our questions Volko and for the great care with which you approach your designs and their historical settings. I can admit that at first I was hesitant about this new Levy & Campaign Series and how much interest there would be from the wargaming crowd and whether or not the game would hit my table. After playing Nevsky and further exploring its mechanics and theme through writing various posts, I can now say that I am very much looking forward to the future volumes to see where the system goes and how much I will learn about a new historical period that I wouldn’t have necessarily explored save it was for this system.
If you are interested in Almoravid: Reconquista and Riposte in Spain, 1085-1086, you can pre-order a copy on the game page from the GMT Games website at the following link: https://www.gmtgames.com/p-861-almoravid-reconquista-and-riposte-in-spain-1085-1086.aspx