While attending the World Boardgaming Championships in 2018, Alexander and I met up with the tag team duo of Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw to get a look at their initial design effort in a game called Brave Little Belgium published by Hollandspiele. We had a great time looking at and playing the game and also in getting to know both Ryan and Dave. Now that they have published that game they have moved onto their next project called White Eagle Defiant that takes a look at the initial action in World War II as the Germans invade Poland in 1939. This game is similar in style to their previous effort, and is intended as an introductory wargame that has something for everyone, from the beginner to the seasoned veteran. We reached out to Ryan and Dave to get some insight into the design and to see how their system has changed from their first effort.
Grant: First off, how have you enjoyed the success of your first game Brave Little Belgium?
Dave: Honestly, we are still in awe of how well the game was received. Even though Brave Little Belgium was released over a year ago, we still hear from folks who are discovering the game and giving us compliments on how much they enjoy it. It has been a pleasure seeing how a vague idea that Dave originally came up with over 25 years ago has now become a reality, and just how much people are enjoying it.
Grant: I also understand your new game White Eagle Defiant has been picked up by Hollandspiele. What are your thoughts on this and is it important to you who publishes your games?
Dave: Tom and Mary are two of the most wonderful people we’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Not only are they good at what they do, they’re also down to earth and very eager to listen and make suggestions when needed. Hollandspiele’s products are top-notch, and we are thrilled our second game will be published by their company. Also, we want to give a special shout out to Steve and the rest of the gang at Blue Panther, for their excellent production work.
Grant: What historical period does White Eagle Defiant cover?
Dave: White Eagle Defiant covers the opening campaign of World War II, the German invasion of Poland in September 1939. The game covers the action from the start of the campaign on September 1st and concludes in early October 1939.
Grant: What was most important for you to cover and model in the game?
Dave: Most historians, as well as consim gamers, see the Polish campaign of WWII as a one-sided affair that often gets overlooked. While the Germans certainly had the upper hand in the invasion, the Poles did not simply roll over and allow their country to be conquered without a fight. We feel that White Eagle Defiant is very similar to Brave Little Belgium in this regard – we wanted to show a historical campaign between unequal powers, yet highlight the possibilities of a David overcoming Goliath-like situation…not to mention, to shed light on the bravery of the Polish armed forces in the campaign.
Grant: What sources did you consult regarding the armies involved and their relative strengths?
Ryan: As I often tell my students, it is okay to use Wikipedia but make certain you double check what you read against other sources. I started there and then proceeded to check other sources for confirming information. These included an Army pamphlet written by Robert M. Kennedy called The German Campaign in Poland (1939) and the Osprey’s Battles of World War II Book Poland 1939. As I am a very visual person, I also consulted many maps including the ones in the West Point Military History Series.
Grant: Does this game use the same chit pull activation as Brave Little Belgium?
Dave: Yes. We use the same chit pull activation in White Eagle Defiant with one minor change. There are now 4 end of day markers instead of only 3. This is primarily because of the increased length of the campaign.
Grant: What new additions have you added to the game and why were these additions important?
Dave: Given the differences in warfare during WWI and WWII, it was imperative to us that we keep the same core mechanics but that we add some new items to show off this difference. In White Eagle Defiant, there are new units with special abilities, we have the ability to use supporting forces in combat, forces are allowed to recover during turns, and we added in a new Blitzkrieg mechanic which replaced the Atrocity mechanic from Brave Little Belgium.
Grant: What other games on the campaign inspired your design?
Dave: There are not a lot of games that cover this campaign, but I certainly looked at as many as I could to draw inspiration from. In particular, Ty Bomba’s Poland ’39, Brian Train’s Summer Lightning and Carl Paradis’ No Retreat!: Polish and French Fronts.
Grant: What time period does the game cover? What time increment does a turn represent?
Dave: The game covers the period between Sept 1, 1939 and October 10, 1939. Each turn represents 4 days.
Grant: What is the scale of the units and the map?
Dave: Like Brave Little Belgium, the units depicted are mostly armies with some of the armies split into two counters to better represent their size. There are in addition counters to represent Polish Cavalry Brigades and German Panzer Divisions. The map depicts the entirety of Poland and the bordering countries of Germany, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Lithuania, Latvia, and the Soviet Union.
Grant: Who drew the map? How does it contribute to the theme and narrative of the game?
Dave: Mark Mahaffey drew the final map. He is well known for doing maps for GMT, Compass Games, and Against the Odds Magazine. I have not spoken to him specifically about his design choices for the map, but it seems clear in looking at the design that he was looking to create something a bit understated and reminiscent of wartime posters. To that end, I believe that he was very successful.
Grant: What purpose does the Battle Board serve?
Dave: The Battle Board is there simply to provide a place to move the units to and conduct the battles. It is not absolutely necessary and, in some cases, when the battles are small and not very complex, we suggest leaving the units at their locations and conducing the battle there. One difference between this Battle Board and the one in ‘Brave Little Belgium’ is the division between Primary and Supporting forces. In ‘Brave Little Belgium’, there were only primary forces, one group of units from one point attacking another group in a different point. In ‘White Eagle Defiant’, we had added the use of secondary forces, a different group of units from a different point that can be used in an attack. The Battle Board provides a way to separate the two.
Grant: What purpose does the Chit Holding Box serve?
Dave: While again not 100% necessary, it does provide a nice place to store the chits that have been pulled during the turn so that both sides know what chits have been pulled and what chits still remain in the cup. Because we are both very forgetful, we will both place our event counters in front of us so as to remember to use them during the turn.
Grant: What number of chits are in the mix? Can you show us a few of these chits and tell us how they work?
Dave: There are 17 random chits in the game and they break down as follows:
3 Polish Activation Chits
3 Polish Events
2 German Activation Chits
3 German Events
2 Soviet Union Activation Chits
4 End of Day Chits
This is one of the Activation Chits used in the game, in this case for the German North. When drawn, the player has the ability to activate those units on the board and take actions.
This is the German Luftwaffe special event Chit. It reduces the Polish movement by -1 or allows for attack back against the Polish Forts. This Chit can be very important in making the German attacks matter and in getting into combat with the Polish units.
This is the Polish Armored Train special event Chit. Every game designed with Poland during WWII is required to have this included. It simple gives the Polish +1 in defense in Poland only. That +1 maybe doesn’t seem like much but it can be the difference between holding on or simply being overrun.
Grant: Can you show us the units and give us a breakdown of the anatomy of the counters?
Dave: There are 55 combat units in the game. They breakdown as follows:
20 Polish Units
18 German Units
16 Soviet Units
1 Slovak Unit
Here is a basic German counter. It looks very similar to the Brave Little Belgium counters. The grey color indicates that it is German. The NATO symbol obviously indicates that it is an infantry unit. The 4th above the NATO symbol indicates the army designation. The N to the left of the NATO symbol and the green color of the symbol indicate that it belongs to Army Group North. Finally, the die indicates the number equal to or above which is needed to score a hit with the unit in combat.
Grant: What different type of units are included in the game and what are their special abilities?
Dave: There are four types of units in the game: infantry with attached artillery, cavalry, light armor, and Panzer units. The infantry acts the same as it did in Brave Little Belgium. Some of the other units have new special abilities.
The Polish Cavalry get a first strike ability owing to the fact that they were fast and very maneuverable units. The German player must take all hits inflicted by the Cavalry before they are allowed to roll. This can be a game changer if Cavalry hits each time they perform first strike as it can even the odds in combat.
The German Panzers roll two dice. If either die rolled is equal to or greater than the number pictured, they hit. If the German player rolls doubles equal to or greater than the number pictured, they inflict two hits.
These special abilities disappear if they are attacking Forts.
Grant: What is the goal for each side? How do they best go about meeting this goal?
Dave: The basic goal of the German player is to get as many victory points as possible. The German player gets victory points by capturing designated cities. The German player loses victory points if the Polish player liberates designated cities or if the Polish player destroys any German Forts. To that end, the German player has to be very aggressive in invading Poland while making certain not to leave themselves vulnerable on the East Prussian front. The German player also wants to gain enough victory points to ensure that the Soviet Union becomes involved in the campaign. The Polish player has the difficult task of defending against the onslaught, pulling back into Poland, defending what they can, giving up what they must. The Polish player must also ensure that the Soviets never get involved and hope that they can hold the Germans back enough to get the Allies involved.
Grant: What is the basic Sequence of Play?
Dave: The basic Sequence of Play is as follows:
On the first turn only, the German North activates automatically. On every other turn after that, the activation is random. Chits are then drawn. If an event is drawn, the corresponding player holds onto the event and then they may use during movement and/or combat. If an activation chit is drawn, the corresponding player moves the units that match the chit that was drawn. Once all movement is made, if any units have entered a location with enemy units, combat occurs. Once all combat is complete, another chit is drawn. This continues until 4 End of Day counters are pulled. That then ends the turn.
Grant: How does Blitzkrieg work?
Dave: If the German player was not able to activate both of their Army Groups before 4 End of Turn Markers are drawn, they have the option to try to push their units into activating. In order to do so, they need to roll a 1d6 die. On a roll of 1-3, the group activates normally. On a roll of 4-6, the group suffers a tactical and/or logistical breakdown and must take -1 to all movement and -1 to all combat rolls.
Grant: What is the difficulty and risk with trying to activate Blitzkrieg?
Dave: In addition, on a roll of 4-6, the German player must move the Blitzkrieg Breakdown track up one. If the German player ever reaches 5 Blitzkrieg Breakdowns, the campaign is a complete failure and they lose the game.
Grant: Why do you feel this mechanic works well?
Dave: This mechanic served two purposes. First, it replaced the Atrocities concept that was present in Brave Little Belgium. While I thought about somehow trying to include the tremendous atrocities that occurred in Poland in 1939, I felt it better to not include them. In addition, the mechanic helps to simulate the uncertainty inherent in the relatively new Blitzkrieg concept.
Grant: What are Significant Battles and what role do they play?
Dave: There are three types of Significant Battles in the game: the German player taking a victory city, the Polish player liberating a victory city, and the Polish player destroying a German Fort. The German gains 1-3 victory points for taking a victory city while the Polish player takes away the same number of points for liberating the victory city. In addition, the German player loses 1 victory point for every German Fort destroyed.
Grant: What condition or event causes the Soviets to get involved?
Dave: If on turn 6 (Sept 17-20) or any turn after, the Germans have 6 or more Victory Points, the Soviet activation chits will be placed into the chit pull container and are eligible to be activated. Once the Soviets enter the game, they remain in for the rest of the game. Historically, the Soviets entered the war once they had resolved their border conflict with the Japanese in the east. This simulates the possibility that the border conflict took longer to resolve and/or the Polish performing better than expected in the campaign thus dissuading the Soviets from joining in the campaign.
Grant: What is Allied involvement and how does this effect the game?
Dave: If during the third turn or after, the German player has 1 or less victory points, the German player has to take reductions to their rolls (-1 at 1 Victory point and -2 at 0 Victory Points.). This simulates the reduction in forces necessary for the Germans to counter the opening of a front to their west. Historically, the French did advance into the Saarland in the early part of the war but did not commit to a full-scale assault. This mechanic simulates what could have happened if the French had seen the Polish achieving some success against the Germans.
Grant: How does combat work?
Dave: Combat works in basically the same way as in Brave Little Belgium. When units enter the same area as an enemy unit, combat ensues. Each player totals the number of units used and divides them into groups depending on the number needed to hit. Each player then rolls the appropriate number of dice and compares the rolls to the die face listed on the unit. Any dice roll modifiers from special events are applied. If the die roll is equal to or greater than the die pictured, the player scores a hit. Except in the case of Polish Cavalry, results are applied simultaneously to both sides. The battle is then over and the side that took the greatest number of hits must retreat with the tie going to the defender.
Grant: What is the reason for battles only lasting one round?
Dave: The primary reasons why the battles last only one round are scale and nature of combat. The units depicted are primarily armies and 1 hit to the army decimates the effectiveness of roughly half of that army. Multiple round battles would result in excessive reduction to units which of course would be historically accurate.
Grant: How does siege combat work?
Dave: Siege combat works very similar to standard combat with some exceptions. The first exception is that Cavalry and Panzers attacking Forts lose their special abilities. Second, the Forts themselves can fire back against the attacking units and in this game roll 2 dice per attack. Third, each Fort is a two-strength unit that must be completely destroyed prior to any units in the Fort receiving hits. Finally, if the attacking force does not completely destroy the Fort, the units can remain besieging the Fort and continue the attack the next turn. They must though be careful because without certain special event counters, the Fort can fire back on the attacker and the attacker will not be able to defend themselves.
Grant: What is the role of supporting units?
Dave: Supporting units are something brand new to White Eagle Defiant but something that we felt necessary to add given the differences between combat in WWI and WWII. An attacking force may move from up to 2 different locations into one area. In this case, one group is designated primary and the other secondary. It is imperative that they are kept separate throughout the attack and we have provided a place to do so on the battle board. Both forces participate in battle as normal, but the end of battle is a little different. First all losses must be applied to the primary force prior to any losses being applied to the supporting force. If the attacker loses, both forces must retreat back to their starting locations. If the attacker wins, the primary force may occupy the location and the secondary force must retreat back to its starting location. If the attacker qualifies for an advance after combat, the primary force only can advance, and the secondary force may take over the captured location. In siege combat, only the primary force may stay to continue battle the next turn.
Grant: What are the victory conditions?
Dave: If the German player can get to 9 Victory Points prior to end of the 8th turn or if the German player ever obtains 12 Victory points regardless of the turn, they win. Anything else is a draw or a win for the Polish player depending on the turn. The German player automatically loses if they get 5 Blitzkrieg Breakdowns.
Grant: What are you most pleased with about the design?
Dave: We are very pleased that we were able to model a campaign that many designers consider very difficult to model and that we were able to do so while being able to tell a unique story at the same time.
Grant: What does the design model well?
Dave: With hindsight, we look at the Polish campaign as a forgone conclusion – how could the Poles have ever overcome invasions from all sides? But looking at the situation as it existed on September 1, 1939, the world had no idea of the blitzkrieg concept. Even the Germans themselves were performing a highly experimental operation that had no historical precedent. As such, White Eagle Defiant allows players to view the experience as the birth of lightning warfare; while the Germans have a major advantage in weapons, the Poles will not go down without a fight. Both sides will be pressed to accomplish what their historical counterparts did, and even if Poland might not prevail, the Polish player has the opportunity to seriously hinder, if not outright derail, the German player’s objective of a quick victory.
Grant: When can we expect to see the game in print?
Dave: If not for Covid-19, I suspect that the game would have already been released. There has obviously been a little bit of a delay, but I still expect it to be released sometime this summer
Grant: What other projects are the two of you working on?
Dave: Honestly, I don’t have anything in particular on the drawing board. I have some ideas I’m thinking over, mostly on subjects that haven’t been covered very often. Several scenarios similar to Brave Little Belgium and White Eagle Defiant – Serbia and Romania in World War I; the German invasion of Denmark in World War II; the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863; and (in a more science fiction-fantasy vein) a game about the last man on Earth. Who knows if any of these ideas will ever see the light of day, but for now I’m happy working with Ryan and producing quick-playing, fun simulations.
Ryan: I am working on several games at once. The one closest to completion is Last One Standing. It is a science fiction sequel to Brave Little Belgium and White Eagle Defiant with some new tweaks to keep things interesting. Beyond that, I am working on a quad hex and counter game on the land battles of the Chesapeake during the War of 1812, a futuristic maze game called Relic Race, and a super-secret game code named Pizza Roll. Sorry I can’t give away any more on that.
Thanks Dave and Ryan for your time in answering our questions. I am very interested in this title as I really enjoyed Brave Little Belgium and thought the mix of mechanics made for a very interesting learning experience. I expect that White Eagle Defiant will have a similar effect.