Brave Little Borby
Brave Little Belgium, about the violation of Belgian neutrality by Germany at the outset of World War I, positions itself as an entry-level wargame, perfect for teaching newcomers the ropes of this rich — and often intimidating — sublevel of the board games basement. Beginners can expect to learn:
- The basics of point-to-point army movement and the value of scouting.
- How chit-pull activation works.
- That more seasoned wargamers will laugh when you complain about paper maps.
- Precisely what qualifies as “solitaire suitability” among grognards.
Not bad! Let’s evaluate how well it succeeds.
Here’s the scene. An erroneous translation has the Germans thinking that the Belgian declaration of “neutrale” means “invade the crap out of us right now, pretty please,” and therefore launching the Schlieffen Plan through Belgium and into France. Now there are three massive gray armies looming on the border, a fourth mere days away, and the Belgian Garde Civique is feeling very unprepared for the coming storm. Fortunately, Entente French and British forces are also nearby, ready to shore up Belgian defenses.
Think of the ensuing struggle like a race, if a race features one person trying to cross the finish line while someone else attempts to tackle them head-on. Maybe that isn’t a race. The point is, the Germans hope to smash two strategic Belgian forts and successfully march their infantry across the “victory line” in the west, as quickly and efficiently as possible, while the Belgian, French, and British forces do everything in their power to delay them. Victory is measured in calendar days, where the difference between the 21st of August and the 22nd might be the few hours that spell disaster for either side.
Right away, this conflict highlights two important details about Brave Little Belgium. The first is that this is very much an introductory wargame, and only one side feels fully fleshed out. The Germans must advance carefully but swiftly, picking avenues of approach to avoid bogging down in rough terrain, scouting with cavalry to determine which face-down Garde Civique units are threats and which will crumble at the first sight of a gray uniform, choosing the right moment to commit to a siege, and eventually protecting their flanks from disruptive attacks while still sprinting for the border. Playing as the Germans requires an even mix of caution and foolhardiness. How you measure them out makes all the difference.
The defenders, on the other hand, are why the game’s “solitaire suitability” is so high. Other than randomly-placed Garde Civique, there’s no hidden information, but these local forces are entirely static, either fighting or fleeing of their own volition. Entente armies, meanwhile, tend to behave in a straightforward manner, seeking to reinforce forts or lodge themselves in the path of the German advance. Not that there’s any proper solo mode — rather, it’s simply so easy to make good decisions for the defenders that the initiative nearly always lands squarely on German shoulders.
If that sounds entirely negative, it isn’t. Or not quite; it’s more of an it depends what you’re looking for sort of thing. But we’ll return to that, because the second detail is far more glowing.
Chit-pull. It’s either something you recognize or something you don’t, which makes it very much like every other tidbit of knowledge in the world. Basically, you have a cup — in my case, a Reading Rainbow mug — and into that mug you pour a bunch of chits. Rather than alternating turns between players, “turns” are determined by pulling a chit from the cup. Pull a German army and the German player gets to activate their corresponding units; pull an Entente army and — hey, you’re a smart cookie. You get it.
There are a lot of advantages to a chit-pull system, but one of the most immediate is that it carves a sharp line between what you can control and what you can’t. In other words, this is no game of careful optimization. It’s about taking advantage of the openings offered to you and mitigating those offered to your opponent. Sometimes the German player draws all their armies in a tidy row, letting them scout enemy positions and launch sieges without risk of rival reinforcement, while other times they’re stymied by delays and early French maneuvers. It’s simulative, to a degree, of the realities of war. Sometimes your supplies arrive on the hour, other times you’re delayed by rain or a bad case of diarrhea.
In addition to army activation, Brave Little Belgium fills its chit-cup with two wrinkles. The first is the inclusion of minor events, like a forced march pushing a German army farther or a big stonking howitzer inflicting automatic damage during a fort battle. There are only five, three for Germany and two for Belgium, and they’re a bit flatter than I would have liked — it would have been nice for the defenders to receive something more dynamic than “we move faster” and “enemies move slower” — but they still provide little glimpses of excitement and agency that can be used to great effect if deployed at the right moment.
The other wrinkle is more loaded, both mechanically and because it makes an argument about the German atrocities committed against Belgium while carrying out the Schlieffen Plan.
It works like this. While pulling chits, drawing three Turn End markers means the round is over, sometimes even before every army has activated. Rain, diarrhea, you know how it goes. German command is still permitted to activate their truant armies, but each requires a roll that may or may not increase the “atrocities” their soldiers have visited upon the Belgians. Commit too many atrocities and everybody is galvanized against Germany, prompting an immediate victory for the Entente.
Mechanically, this is an effective bit of mitigative risk, allowing the Germans to continue their race toward France but possibly rushing so hard that they trip over their shoelaces and are impaled upon their own pickelhaube. Early on it seems like an obvious choice, trading miles for a few unfortunate “accidents.” Later, however, a German general stuck between too many delays or the possibility of disastrous public opinion may be forced to gamble.
Wargames are no stranger to making difficult arguments, and designers Ryan Heilman and Dave Shaw have done something laudable by confronting the reality of these atrocities. There’s some niggling vagueness there, raising the question over whether the savageries of the Schlieffen Plan were incidental, conducted by soldiers made over-stressed and paranoid by tough deadlines and constant fighting, or premeditated by German command to instill terror in the local populace. The invasion and occupation claimed the lives of over 20,000 Belgian civilians, displaced many more, and systemically demolished industrial centers and libraries. In that light, Brave Little Belgium’s take on these atrocities might seem like a half-measure, a downgrading from deliberate to unfortunate oversight. But at least it thinks to include them at all, remarking upon the oft-ignored consequence of these army stacks, bombarded forts, and occasional zeppelin raids. As commentary, it’s all the more surprising and welcome for the game’s lightness.
Speaking of lightness, I mentioned earlier that Brave Little Belgium’s quality depends on what you’re looking for. As an introductory game, it teaches a few basic considerations with ease, especially its chit-pull system and the need to push Germany’s troops to the breaking point in order to achieve your aims. But after three plays, I’ve seen what it has to offer, and I suspect many veterans will feel the same. Perhaps a robust solo mode would convince me; as a competitive affair, I’m left wary of playing as the Entente, with their limited operational agency.
Still, there’s something to be said for clarity of vision, and Brave Little Belgium has that in spades. Thanks to its slimmed-down systems, this is a valuable hour-long introductory wargame, both precise in its gameplay and clear-eyed about some of the dourer aspects of its history. Think of it like a Schlieffen Plan into further wargaming and you’ll get the gist.
A complimentary copy was provided.