In the wake of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, a complex web of interlocking treaties led to powers both great and small taking sides in the Great War. Belgium, however, declared its neutrality. German war plans against France called for an invasion through Belgium, and they demanded free passage. When the Belgians refused, the Germans invaded…
Brave Little Belgium recreates this dramatic early campaign of the First World War in a lightning-quick introductory wargame with plenty of challenges for both sides. As the German Player, you must smash through the enemy’s defenses as quickly as possible, relentlessly advancing. But push your men too hard, and they might commit atrocities that will rally world opinion against you. As the Entente Player, you must stage a desperate defense against overwhelming odds. When and where to fall back, and where to take a stand, are decisions of vital importance.
Combat is fast and streamlined, while a clever take on chit-pull activations creates moments of tension and uncertainty. The result is an engaging wargame for new recruits and grognards alike from first-time designers and longtime friends Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw.
I recently have been very taken with chit-activation wargames which was part of the reason I picked up this game. In my first solo play the chit-pull mechanic certainly made it solo friendly, but that same mechanic also introduced a classic friction and fog-of-war into the campaign. A little bit of a push-your-luck mechanism also fit the theme to a tee.
Let me be clear from the beginning; Brave Little Belgium is an excellent game. I tip my hat to designers Ryan Heilman (@ryanheilman) and Dave Shaw for taking a single 22″x17″ map, 88 counters, and an eight-page (actually just over six) rule book and making a very tense and exciting game.
Knowing the history and looking at the set up, this looks like it will be a cake-walk for the Germans.
However, once the first movement comes those little lines between boxes suddenly become so restrictive. The straight lines cost 1 MP, the squiggly (“difficult”) cost 2 MP. Infantry can only move two and cavalry four. But it should be alright because the Germans are simply going to sweep across the board, just like the staff planning maps say, right?
This is where the chit-draw mechanic comes in. German armies can move when their chit is drawn. If the three Turn End chits are drawn before all the armies move there is an opportunity for each army to move, but at the risk of an Atrocity – too many atrocities and world opinion hardens against the Kaiser.
In my game, in the early turns the Turn End chits came out early. In order to keep the offensive going, the Germans had to risk Atrocities.
In order to win, the Germans must reduce the forts of Liege and Namur and get an infantry unit across the victory line to the west.
In the mid-game the chit-draws started favoring the Germans. Liege was being ground down while Namur was invested. The German First Army made a dash for Ghent.
The fortresses of Liege and Namur proved very formidable and the Germans threw themselves against the forts with little success. One of the German chits is Big Bertha that deals an automatic hit to a fort. It can be used by an army if it has already been pulled. In a fine example of timing not working right, many times the Big Bertha event was drawn after a sieging army was activated, thus rendering the event near-worthless.
Eventually, Liege fell but at the cost of effectively destroying the German 2nd Army. Namur held stubbornly. In the north, the German 1st Army attacked the British in Ghent but were repulsed although most of the British Army was destroyed.
The chit pulls again created an interesting flow of events. Before the German 1st Army could attack out of Brussels the British and Belgium armies moved with the Belgiums assuming the defense of Ghent.
In the end, the Germans simply ran out of chits and time. Namur held and the German First Army was unable to break the defenses at Ghent. Brave Little Belgium held!
The rules for Brave Little Belgium are super-easy to digest. This is a game that can be learned, or taught, very quickly. In my first game, I needed to reread the siege rules the first time through to capture a few nuances but it didn’t derail the game or cause a reset. My playthrough above certainly was not anything close to an “optimal” play but it was a wonderful exploration of the core gameplay elements.
The chit-pull mechanic really shines in this game. It creates tension every turn and moments of elation when the right chit comes out, as well as dejection when the chits aren’t pulled in the preferred order (I can’t count how many times Big Bertha came available after the siege combat has occurred).
Combat? Well, if you don’t like dice-chuckers then Brave Little Belgium is not your game. But the simple combat keeps the game moving without distraction from the tension of the chit-pulls.
Look at that map! It looks like a canvas map that a field commander would be using. Really helps with the immersive experience. Maybe next Christmas Hollandspiele will offer this one in a canvas map – AUTO BUY!
I have to admit it was a bit disconcerting at first to see dice faces printed on combat counters. What is this, a game? Luckily, any feelings of thematic disorientation quickly fade away as the dice on counters feeds the quick combat resolution system. Sure, putting a number would have worked too but the dice face makes sorting for combat go quicker. In Brave Little Belgium the design choice fits the ease-of-play approach well.
Some historical purist may accuse Brave Little Belgium of being “ahistorical” because, we all just know the Belgiums never stood a chance. Or did they? In Brave Little Belgium the Entente play wins if they delay the Germans, not defeat them. This is a great theme for a wargame to explore – victory is doing better than history, not necessarily changing it.
The hype is right; Brave Little Belgium is a great game for wargame newcomers or grognards alike. I wouldn’t call it a filler game but it plays really quickly and each turn and decision is engaging for both sides.
All images by self