We’re nearing the conclusion of the month of March, and I’m nearing the end of my backlog for these first-play session/impression reports. In case you missed it, today’s game of Nevsky made the cut for a 2019 Game-of-the-Year finalist – and part of me was secretly glad to find a Wargame that was able to make the cut (assuming you don’t count Watergate as a Wargame) in spite of my very recent plunge into those games. And this game is certainly one of those “hidden gems” of a game, with such a unique approach that I found myself really digging.
But this isn’t a review (yet) of Nevsky. No, I need more plays to get to that point and hopefully April will bring enough of those plays to get it there. Instead, here are some of the things I learned from my first success at Nevsky: Teutons and Rus in Collusion by Volko Ruhnke. Full disclosure; I still have not played a COIN Game, something that will be remedied at some point this year, so don’t expect there to be any comparisons between this and the other game system he made popular.
Insight #1: Feeding is going to limit the expenditure of your actions.
Right from the start I picked up on something: feeding my troops isn’t going to be an easy task. I should have known that my background playing Uwe Rosenberg euro games would come in handy eventually, as that is also a really common aspect in his worker placement games. Here in Nevsky, any movement or combat activation is going to require a feeding of your troops – even if your opponent is the one to trigger the combat against your army! I cannot overstate the importance of being able to feed your guys, as the impact of not feeding them is the associated marker will slide backward on the calendar track. If that Lord’s disc aligns with the current part of the calendar you are in (i.e., the turn track), that Lord and his troops are packing up and heading home for the time being and you’ll be stuck trying to pivot to figure out how to make it all work from there. And depending on when that happens, it could have all sorts of nasty ramifications that ripple down from there. Bottom line: feeding is very important. It is the economy of the game that will drive everything else along the way, and will dictate how you use your actions and even who you will be willing to activate.
Insight #2: Program carefully, and triple-check to make sure you have the right Lords in the right order
I blundered here on the second round, and fortunately it didn’t hurt me in the long run. Let me back up a moment: during the activation phase you are taking a stack of cards (there are 3 copies for each Lord, and 3 No Activation cards for each player) and choosing a variable number of them (for us, it was 6 because it was summer) and putting them in a face-down stack. So basically you are pre-planning which Lord to activate and when, as well as how many times. Choose poorly and you might be activating the wrong Lord at the wrong time (like I did), and be left trying to figure out how to do what you wanted. Not only that, but your opponent will get to activate a Lord after you activate a Lord, going in an alternating activation order, so what they do could drastically alter what you are faced with, meaning your initial plan for a Lord might have to change. Oh, and plan poorly (like I also did) and you might find yourself being unable to feed a Lord at the end of a movement or battle, forcing him to slide backwards. This could happen from using him too many times, taking movement that places you in an isolated spot you cannot leave, or even from your opponent initiating a battle against you so that you expend that feeding you needed for your own turn.
Insight #3: The calendar track sounds quite daunting at first, but ultimately is really simple and is one of the highlights of the game
There are aspects of the game that, in the abstract, sound confusing and daunting. Sometimes reading the rulebook doesn’t give a clear enough picture of what a thing does, how it operates, etc. The calendar sounded like it was going to be one of those really confusing things, and we genuinely expected to have it be a stumbling block. Setting up didn’t help either, as we set up for a 2-round scenario and it had us put things into spots on the calendar that were beyond what the game would last. It simply wasn’t adding up…until we started playing. Suddenly it became a lot clearer about how said calendar would operate, giving both a turn track and letting us know who we could recruit and see how long some of our current Lords would be in service. Once we realized the manipulation of those Lord markers on that track, it really clicked for us. The key here: you do not want a Lord’s marker to be on the same place as the Turn Marker, because then they leave and take their army with them. Not feeding = moving toward the Turn Marker. Giving excess Loot = moving away from the Turn Marker. Simple, right? The further you can push their marker, the longer they would stay (or the more you can “skip” feeding their army).
Insight #4: Being the defender in battle is nice. And, as always, the dice can rule everything
I genuinely felt bad for my opponent. I was stationed outside of one of his fortresses with two of my Lords, and was preparing to take it forcefully. He moved his Lord to stop me, initiating a battle. What happened from there was nothing short of a massacre. As the defender, I got to attack his army first which was a really nice perk that I wasn’t expecting. Well, I rolled well and he rolled poorly to save, and by the end of the battle he was down to 2 troops retreating away and I think I might have lost 2 total. It was a bloody massacre, and his unfortunate luck of rolling high to defend caused him to get completely crushed. I assume most Wargamers are used to the kiss of Lady Luck via die rolling – those bouts of bad beats are bound to happen – and unfortunately the scenario wasn’t quite long enough for him to recover from that blow. However…
Insight #5: There is more than one way to earn points
The scores are lower than you’d think. Ultimately, the introductory scenario ended with a crushing Teutonic victory at 2.5 points to 2 points. That’s an average of 1.25 points per round for one side, and 1 point per round on the other. In other words, every little point seems to matter here. And the MVP for the Russian side of things? Ravaging. It isn’t glamorous or anything, but it wastes away the opposing landscape, gets you a Provender for feeding your troops, and gains you a ½ point. After his horrible defeat, the rest of his actions were spent destroying the Teuton landscape and it came close to paying off, especially as a misplay on my part saw my highest-activating Lord stuck due to arriving at the wrong port – seafaring is a horribly expensive way to travel in Nevsky and one small mistake there can be costly (and nearly was!)
Insight #6: Prepare for a slog for the first Levy, but the game has flow after that
The first “half” of the first round took ages. Like, every time we had a glimmer of forward momentum, one or both of us would realize ramifications of how X affects Y, or that we could have chosen Z. For instance, I was the first to Levy and so I used almost all of my points to bring out their full continent of troops via the available Men at Arms. Then, as my opponent was working through his own issues, I saw that I would need to spend even more ships to transport a key Lord via the ports, meaning I couldn’t do what I had anticipated. Cue subtle rewind to take a card instead of one of those forces. And then the moment of “what do you mean I had a Lord I could have tried to muster onto the field?” realization which I didn’t opt to “rewind” to correct, but he did. So many little things can tie together and, on the very first turn, there are so many unexplored paths of what you can do and restrictions that you may not catch until later. The only reason we didn’t force a “too bad, you’re stuck” situation is we hadn’t actually left the Levy phase at any of those points, and it was very much our first go at this slog of a set of ideas – our heads weren’t completely wrapped around it yet. Once we hit the Campaign phase, it was half-speed ahead from there, with slowness due to thinking through options and consulting our player aid charts on what to do, etc., but that second Levy phase went nice and smooth because we had a better grasp on things. The first half of that first round took close to 45 minutes. The rest of the game took about the same time.
There is so much more I could mention about Nevsky, but I need to hold things back for an eventual review (right?) and these are the big lessons I learned from the initial experience with the game. There is a lot in here, but once you get the basics down there is a nice flow to things. It has some outstanding player aids, and there are counters to use instead of wooden bits if you want an easier reference on your mats/board. This feels like a really polished, highly replayable design that has me excited to visit this one more AND to be on board for the next upcoming titles using this system. That COIN system spawned a lot of games using a common system, and I imagine this could do the same. And as long it it stays in the Middle Ages or sooner, I’ll be 100% on board with checking them all out along the way based on my thoughts so far toward Nevsky.