Prior to the release of Brave Little Belgium by Hollandspiele, my co-designer, Dave Shaw, and I thought a lot about the sequel. Dave had several ideas, including the Romanian Campaign of 1916, the Italian invasion of France in 1940, and the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania in 1863. Initially, I worked on the Romanian Campaign, designing a map and developing an Order of Battle, but ran into difficulty due to the lack of research material. I thus set that aside and worked on other games hoping that maybe eventually something would strike me.
One of the possibilities that Dave and I discussed was the German-Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. I really liked the idea, but Dave was a bit more hesitant, concerned that it would not make for a very interesting game. It seemed like a good match to Brave Little Belgium due to it also being a “David vs. Goliath” story and also involving the beginning of a war, this time World War II. The difficulty was with how to deal with the fact that there were now two encroaching armies, the Germans and the Soviets, surrounding Poland.
One solution, which has been employed in several games, was to focus only on the German invasion of Poland and to end the game prior to the Soviet invasion on September 17, 1939. The goal in this scenario would be for the Polish player to hold on to key cities while disrupting the German player’s rapid invasion. While this may have been the easiest way to handle this problem, it felt like a bit of a cheat to me. I wanted the Polish player to have to deal with the invading Soviets and also wanted the German player to have to deal with the possibility of an Allied invasion, if only in an abstract way, on the Western Front.
After doing research on the order of battle, the flow of the invasion, and the map of Poland, I quickly designed a map, some counters, and rules to test whether the idea would work. As the basics of the game were based on Brave Little Belgium, this came together fairly quickly.
There were some differences, however. The goal of the game was still for the German/Soviet player to do better than their historical counterparts, but victory was now determined by the control of six victory cities. Instead of six-sided dice for determining hits, I initially used ten-sided dice to help to differentiate between the strength of the units; additionally, special event counters had changed to now include events for the Luftwaffe, Blitzkrieg, and Armored Trains. Finally, I removed the atrocity track and included a new track to determine whether the Allies and/or Soviets would get involved in the game.
At this point, this track was very simple. If the German/Soviet player pulled one of the involvement counters, the track advanced towards Soviet involvement or away from Allied involvement. If the Polish player pulled the counter, the reverse would happen. If the Soviet involvement counter was in the red area by Sept. 13-15 or after, the Soviets would invade. If the Allied involvement counter was in the blue area by Sept. 7-9 or after, the Allies would attack the Germans on the Western Front, requiring the Germans to divert forces. In game terms, that translated to reductions to die rolls. “White Eagle Burning”, as it was then called, was ready for its first test.
The initial playtests were promising, but it was clear that the game needed some work. First, I needed to add the line that would separate the German and Soviet portions of Poland as agreed to in the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. If the Soviets entered the game, their forces would not be able to proceed beyond that line and the German forces would have to retreat to the west of that line. In addition, some of the event counters needed to be modified. The Luftwaffe event counter was modified either to be used to bomb rails and roads and thus decrease Polish movement, or to allow for attack back against the Polish forts. Also, a forced march event was added for the Soviet forces and a sabotage event was added for the Polish troops to decrease German movement by destroying bridges. It was time to test again.
It was during this time that we started searching for a new name for the game. While we liked the concept of the “White Eagle” as the emblem of Poland, we did not like the image of the Eagle burning. In a similar vein to Brave Little Belgium, in which the Belgians were painted in the heroic light, we wanted to do the same for the Polish. After much brainstorming, Dave came up with White Eagle Defiant, which was perfect.
As for the game itself, many changes were needed. Historically, the Polish army retreated to Romania once the Soviets invaded. Some of the forces reformed in France and eventually in the United Kingdom. I thus added a retreat spot in Romania to which the Polish forces could retreat throughout the game. The more armies that made their way to Romania, the fewer victory points the German/Soviet player would receive. To offset this slightly and to allow for the Soviet forces to have more impact on the victory conditions, I added six additional victory cities.
In addition, I completely revised the Allied/Soviet involvement mechanism to make it much less random. Now, the track is adjusted based on the results of combat, particularly significant battles. If an army is destroyed, a victory city captured by the Germans or Soviets, or if the Polish player prevents the capture of a victory city, the involvement counters are moved closer to or further away from involvement. The thought behind this was simple. If the Allies see the Polish are doing well in the war, they would more likely get involved on the Western Front. Likewise, if the Soviets see that the Polish are easy to defeat, they also would be more likely to settle the conflicts on their borders and become involved in the campaign. Finally, since the game felt a bit too vanilla with just armies, I decided to add special Panzer Units with increased movement and slightly better attack capabilities. Playtesting continued.
While all of the playtesting done so far had been in person, Dave and I needed to speed it up. Time to create a Vassal module. While doing that, there were also some changes that need to be implemented into the Vassal module. First, I had to get rid of the ten-sided dice. While we initially thought that they were helpful to differentiate between the varying strength of the forces, they were starting to feel awkward and unnecessary. I thus spent time converting all the forces to six-sided dice, which worked much better. In addition, I added counters to represent the independent forces in Danzig, and the Polish Coast Defense group in Gdynia and Hel. Finally, to offset for the fact that we had removed the atrocity mechanism and it was not possible to end the turn without activating units, I allowed for the German/Soviet player to set aside one unit to be activated immediately at the start of the next turn.
Testing slowed down dramatically over the next six months. While we were still testing regularly with Vassal, we were not doing so as frequently as much of our testing at that time was done by sending moves through email. In addition, Brave Little Belgium had just been released and much of our focus at that time was on promoting that game.
Testing did begin to speed up once we started to run live Vassal playtests. By July of that year, that game had changed quite drastically. I shortened the game to ten turns by making each turn represent four days instead of three. I added more mobile units, including additional German armor and the famed Polish Cavalry. Each of these units had increased movement and special abilities. I enabled the player once per turn to flip a unit back to full strength. I revised the victory conditions and Soviet/Allied involvement tracks and tied them together. The concept of a significant battle was still there, but now they were employed to track victory and Soviet/Allied involvement. The German player received victory points for capturing a victory city while the Polish player received victory points for defending a victory city, liberating a victory city, or destroying a German fort. As the victory points increased for the Germans, the Soviets were more likely to invade and the allies were less likely to get involved. The reverse was true for the Polish player.
Finally, one of the major changes had to do with creation of the Blitzkrieg Breakdown track. In Brave Little Belgium, we resolved the issue of a turn ending without allowing the German player to activate all of their units by incorporating an Atrocity Track. The player could activate an unactivated unit at the end of the turn, but they risk causing atrocities. Five atrocities committed results in an instant loss for the German player. I certainly could have migrated this concept over to White Eagle Defiant, but frankly the atrocities committed in WWI were very different than the atrocities committed in WWII. We both felt uncomfortable incorporating this into the game. We brainstormed for other ways to handle the inherent problem and eventually came up with the Blitzkrieg Breakdown mechanism. As the concept of the Blitzkrieg was still mostly untried by the start of the Poland Campaign, what would happen if it didn’t work? That’s where the concept of the new track came from. Instead of an atrocity occurring if the troops are forced to activate at the end of the turn, in this case a breakdown in the Blitzkrieg concept can occur. The German player must roll a six-sided die for any unactivated unit. A roll of 4 or greater causes a Blitzkrieg Breakdown. The player can still activate the unit, but movement is reduced and there is a reduction in the combat roll. Five BlitzkriegAt this point, the game was ready enough for its debut at the 2019 World Boardgame Championships. The only minor change we made prior to the WBC was to add special event counters for the PZL P.11 and the Ju 87 Stuka planes. We already had planned a video interview with The Players’ Aid and a demonstration for Tom Russell of Hollandspiele. Anybody else who stopped by and wanted to give the game a try would be a bonus.
All went very well at the WBC. Alex and Grant of The Players’ Aid were both very impressed with the game, and Tom was there when we demoed the game for them. He was also very interested, but needed to get Mary’s A-okay before agreeing to a deal. In the demonstration and playtesting we did at the WBC, we noticed some flaws in the victory track, the need to adjust the victory conditions, and the need to add supporting units in combat.
The penultimate version of the game involved many of those changes. I changed Warsaw to a 3 victory point city and adjusted the victory points to win to 9, with an automatic win at 12. To better simulate World War II combat, I allowed for the attacking player to overstack at a point through the use of supporting units. This allows for the attacker to bring more units to bear on one particular point. If the attacker wins the battle, their primary units may stay at the point, while the supporting unit retreats back to the spot from which it attacked. In addition, in order to simulate the start of the campaign, the German North Group activates automatically at the beginning of the first turn, thus beginning the invasion. Finally, I revised how victory points were determined, focusing simply on the capturing and liberating of victory cities and the destruction of German forts.
At this point, we wanted to send the game to Tom and Mary at Hollandspiele because we knew that they were very interested in the game, but unfortunately it still was not quite ready. It was close, but there still needed to be some final tweaks, so we pushed and pushed, testing frequently in hopes of getting to the final product. One thing that was not working well was the Polish troops fleeing to Romania. I wanted to keep this concept, but it was proving to be too gamey. The Polish player could move all of their forces to points surrounding Romania, wait until Warsaw fell, then move the forces into Romania, thus winning the game. The German player in turn could take every point but Warsaw, thus not allowing the Polish player to flee from Poland. As much as I wanted to keep it, it had to be removed for the game to work.
Finally, the order of battle needed to be adjusted. Although we wanted to stay below a half-sheet of counters or 88 counters, the infantry units needed to be subdivided further to better simulate their strength and numbers. That would put us above 88 counters, but then we realized that if we removed the victory counters from the counter sheet and used small plastic or wood discs for counting victory points, we could stay below the magic 88 number. In order to facilitate the addition of these units, we did need to readjust stacking slightly so that infantry could stack together but that other units could not. After some quick testing, we realized that the game was ready, and we produced the final prototype to send to Hollandspiele.
Tom and Mary loved the game and agreed to publish it as the follow-up to Brave Little Belgium. White Eagle Defiant is in final development now and will be available from Hollandspiele sometime in early September 2020.