Getting White Eagle Defiant to the table involved a lot of dirt. First, there was dusting off my plexiglass sheet to sit over the paper map. It'd been a long time since I'd needed it. Then, punching out the counters which had this weird, gritty feeling from the printing that persisted all through the first play. I had to wash my hands afterwards. Then there was the faff of setup, stacking counters in boxes on an unfamiliar map of Poland. I felt untidy and begrimed by the time I sat down to play.
Which is kind of appropriate. White Eagle Defiant tells the story of how Hitler invaded Poland, in defiance of international law, and started World War 2. The Polish player cannot "win" in the traditional sense: rather, winning is about delaying the German advance for as long as possible. It's based on an earlier game from the same designers, Brave Little Belgium, which won acclaim for it's ease and excitement of play. With only six pages of rules, a half sheet of counters and a 45-60 minute play time, White Eagle Defiant is also very accessible for a wargame.
It's also very solo-able in the grand old tradition of playing both sides yourself, which is what I'm doing. Not knowing the subtleties I do the obvious and have the German forces north of Poland attack the border forts, aiming to capture victory spaces. Right away, it all falls apart. Combat in the game is as simple as it is capricious, with each counter having a hit number they must equal or exceed with a single roll to win an attack. The forts prove too much, and the Germans fall back, defeated.
There's more where they came from, though. This is a battle of attrition: the German forces are superior in both number and quality. It's all about staving them off. After the mandated start by Germany's Army Group North, I grab a chit from a cup to determine who goes next. Each formation has a chit in there, along with a number of events and four "end turn" counters. If all four come out before all the troops have activated, they're stuck until the following turn.
Southern Poland is next. There's only a limited amount the Poles can do right at the start of the game, mostly reinforcing forts and protecting weaker pieces. So I rearrange the martial furniture a bit and hope. When, a couple of chits later, the Southern German forces fall upon Krakow, it’s enough to repulse them. In the north, meanwhile, the Poles go on the offensive, capturing a German fort, which is worth a point to them.
After another turn of failure, the Germans are in trouble. If they don’t make headway into Poland early, they get combat penalties to simulate the allies coming to Poland’s aid. A six is always a hit, though, and Panzer units get to roll two dice, scoring two hits on a double. So a double six during an attack on a victory space saves German fortunes. With easy Blitzkrieg rules, it gets them back into the game.
Indeed, the game swings away fast for Poland from this point. By mid-game the Germans have triggered a second condition, having taken enough cities to bring the Soviets into the war. It strikes me that if this were a two-player game then, by now, the Polish player would have little to do but hope. Beleaguered from both east and west, it is White Eagle Defiant no longer, but a rout.
It’s a few days before I get the game out again. It’s fast-playing, taking under an hour, and the sense of grit has gone. But it’s still a pain to sort and set up. The lure is there, though: that first game was undeniably unpredictable, and I’m sure there are more strategies to explore. I get an old counter tray out of the loft, which helps, and go to it again.
This time, I look at the German situation more carefully. I make sure to guard the forts and paths in the north and assault the Poles from multiple directions. In the south, although an assault on Krakow is inevitable, it’s also possible to slip round it into the less defended Polish underbelly. Putting on the other hat, there’s a constant tension between defending the strongpoints and putting speedbumps in the way of German units. Looking at the point to point map, it seems incredible to have so much choice in such a small space.
A more measured approach gets early gains and stops the threat of allied involvement. But the Germans find themselves spread too thin and unable to make mid-game headway. Things get worse after two turns that end early thanks to the chit pull. In this situation, the Germans can roll to act but doing so risks advancing a “breakdown” track which will lose them the game if it reaches five. It gets to four, and it feels wise to stall the advance.
Warsaw becomes key. The Germans have it surrounded and it’s worth three points. If they can take it, not only will they be close to victory but it will bring the Soviets in for the final turns, putting more pressure on the Poles. For two turns the Germans throw everything they have at it. The pressure and excitement are intense. Finally, it falls but too late: a final turn that, again, ends prematurely, hands a win to Poland.
Of course, it’s a “win” only in the sense of delaying the inevitable. By the end, there’s barely a Polish unit on the map and I’m again left wondering if a real Polish player would be left bored. But the game denotes victory as holding out longer than their historical counterpart. It’s a great way to make a tight game out of a hopeless situation.
Reading a bit about the real history, I figure out that counters in this game are a rough representation of a corps: about 25-50k soldiers. I also learn that France really did send units into Germany to relieve pressure on Poland. So the threat of an allied offensive was real. Looking at maps of the fight though, I can’t transpose them onto the game board. I get no sense of the shape of history.
That doesn’t stop my enjoyment of White Eagle Defiant, and it’s likely a lack of imagination on my part. Over two more games, the shape I do see is one dictated by dice rolls and chit pulls but where decisions still matter. In the third, the Germans look to be rolling to victory. But they leave their southern gains weakly defended, allowing a single wounded Polish armour unit to limp in and liberate them. In the fourth, the Poles collapse in the south but hold strong in the north. It becomes a touch and go tussle to keep the Soviets out of the war: they enter, but too late, and the game ends in a draw.
There’s a lot in the slim case of White Eagle Defiant, excitement and detail slipped neatly away between bigger boxes. Four games, four different histories, all tight and thrilling down to the last turn. I’m sure it would reveal more with the creativity of a human opponent, but I can’t shake the sense playing Poland would prove a let-down after midgame. But again, maybe that’s as it should be. A game about the invasion of Poland mirroring the real-life let-down of Poland by its allies, who came too late to save it from bloodshed and horror.