Over the last year or so I have been learning Volko Ruhnke’s Levy and Campaign wargame series by GMT Games, specifically his 2022 release, Almoravid. Almoravid covers a particularly intense high middle age period of struggles between Muslim and Christian forces in Spain, with the conquest of several cosmopolitan Muslim provinces/lords by the Christian king followed by a fierce counter invasion with powerful Muslim forces from North Africa attempting to push back the Christian gains. I have been surprised how much I enjoyed the series, after a rocky start, and I reckon the game/series ended up being my new game of the year for 2022.
The core flow of the system is highly structured: levy, then campaign for 40 days, for the length of a scenario or full campaign. Almoravid maxes out at a two-year campaign scenario. Pushing against the common wargame experience of pushing units around being the densest period of decision making, in my experience most of the crucial decisions are contained in the levy preparation stage, which is essentially your pre-turn prep phase, rather than the operational campaign stage. I was under several substantial misconceptions about the levy phase that only repeat play cleared up, all of which made me more and more appreciative of the system as I internalized the ruleset. The interesting and agonizing levy decisions, played out in the subsequent resolution of the fast-paced operational model, are what make me recommend the game and system.
The cloudiest aspect of the decision-making for me was that Levy and Campaign is essentially about asymmetrical sides and unique player powers, as fundamentally as any modern troops on a map game that might hit Kickstarter with off-the-wall fantasy species models or fighting tentacle things. This is not obvious! The player powers are devastating, and you ideally need to have some idea of your opponent’s deck as well as yours. But the whole thing is greatly confused to the beginner because player powers are contained in a face down card deck. Every gamer’s initial thought when encountering a face down card deck is that its contents will serve to randomly provide jolts to the system or balance of power when drawn. And indeed, the top of half of each card, the events, are used in this fashion. But the more important part of this deck is the bottom half of each card, which contains “capabilities.” These capabilities (e.g. battering rams, siege towers, crusader reinforcements, camels, superior light horse archers) are bought at the beginning of each turn by your lords with full freedom to choose among any card in their sides’ deck. The capabilities, moreover, are essential to the basic strategies your side can pull off and choosing them are fundamentally baked into play and balance of the game. Once I wrapped my mind around the fact that this deck was better conceived of as a face-up menu of special powers, I began to understand the system a lot better.
Once out of levy and all its engrossing attendant decisions, the game is a much lighter lift than you might think. Pleasingly so. Your lords take actions in order according to a command stack of cards made in the levy phase, introducing a desirable amount of chaos with respect to how a given 40 days will play out, preventing analysis paralysis. The operational aspect is tightly focused on the difficulty of medieval supply and the challenges of siegecraft, particularly on key level three castles contained in every Muslim Taifa in Almoravid. Castles can take a truly staggering amount of time, luck and/or bodies to overcome. Field battles make up a tiny amount of what you will generally do during a given 40 days of levy and campaign. They’re incredibly high risk and can be avoided automatically at a cost---many 40-day periods will not see any battles at all. This is a good thing because, in my view, the battle system is not really worth the amount of effort it takes. I know why it is there---people like to bash armies into each other in detail and mechanically the capability cards need different levers to pull to increase or decrease a particular army’s strength---but I personally believe the battle system is far more trouble than it’s worth and contains, essentially, 0 interesting decisions. I am willing to forgive the system this flaw since battles are rare, but I wish there was some way to get some of the granularity of the current system into the battles in a single roll or contested roll.
It is hard to give Levy and Campaign a full-throated recommendation to a wide audience. There should be no doubt that this is full complexity wargame which requires multiple plays to come to grips with. The rules are quite comprehensive but they make no effort to provide context, like any classic Avalon Hill style numbered and bulleted rulebook. That means that the details of the highly procedural rulebook are extremely consequential, but it is left to players playing enough to appreciate how small differences and windows in the procedure dictate and narrow how campaigns are conducted and what is possible. In this way, the playbook and examples of play included in the box are urgently necessary---almost all the context to understand how to use all the subtle levers you are given is contained in the playbook and not included in, say, little fun bubbles next to the rules like a Eurogame.
On the other hand, when I think about the levy and campaign ruleset as a whole, now that I’ve come to grips with it over an intro scenario and half a campaign, I cannot help but remark on its systemic economy. My Almoravid partner and I were remarking that, despite its withering early learning curve, this game probably can be a weeknight game. It can certainly be played in a weekend afternoon session, even a longish scenario. Operational phases, except for the occasional battle, are a punchy breeze in terms of pace of play. Levy, while requiring a lot of thinky decisions, limit the number of those decisions quite severely by the “lordship” value of your commanders, such that it also would not outstay its welcome in a game-night situation. So despite any gripes about its rules, don’t mistake this game for a monster wargame. The system is far, far from that. Indeed, the longer campaign or year-long scenarios are playable in a realistic timeframe and are where I think some of the most interesting decisions pay off the most, particularly regarding trying to keep your lords in the field and what tradeoffs you must make to keep your army strong enough to remain fighting.
While this is a review mostly about Levy and Campaign as a system, my experience is admittedly all through the lens of Almoravid in particular. Almoravid has some very important extra chrome (e.g. Taifas and Taifa status, which are the Muslim provinces paying--or no longer paying---protection money to the Christian king), but the definitive thing I can say about Almoravid as a specific Levy and Campaign game is that it is very clearly signposted in terms of its narrative. Year one, Mutamid and any Taifa lords he can raise will be on their heels barely holding off the immense power of the Christian king and his retinue. After year one, the odds even up and the tide can but does not always turn as the Almoravids arrive from Africa and are paid and cajoled into bringing their massive forces against the Christian lords, with the local Taifa lords often serving to shuttle the Almoravids around and pay them with taxes when they can’t provide them supply. So in the broadest sense, the overall narrative beats of Almoravid are quite clear and set in stone. I haven’t found the game to be overly scripted in detail, as there is a lot that can go wrong or less than ideally in either year one for the Christians or year two for the counterattacking Muslims that will change up the game. But this is an issue I could easily see as quite bothersome to an audience expecting a more consistently evenly contested balance throughout the game.
Overall, I came in quite skeptical of the Levy and Campaign series and Almoravid. My brief experiences with the venerable COIN series, also by designer Volko Ruhnke, were fairly meh and streams I’ve watched with more experienced players didn’t appeal either, despite the exciting variety of settings and themes. In many ways, I feel Levy and Campaign is the exact opposite of COIN---filled with highly consequential long-term planning with a lot of complete information, all mixed up with just enough chaos introduced by the card stack tactical execution mechanics to not feel deterministic in any way.