After a gap of a couple of years, I got the urge to get the First World War collection out for another game. This was partially because Scrivs was back in the country with his substantial collection of minis that we’d used for our Verdun campaigns back in 2015-16, and partially because I’d liked the sound of the Bello Ludi rules after catching a post about them on Instagram. After a bit more research I decided to take a punt on the rules and bought them from Caliver Books along with a set of cards and a couple of the game-specific command dice.
Bello Ludi are a Dutch publisher that has created a core set of rules based around the command dice and cards – which are transferable across the various BL games. A large part of their business is using wargaming as a team-building activity, often for non-wargamers, so the rules are designed to be simple and easy to pick up.
I was surprised how slim the Bello Ludi WW1 rulebook was – just 24 sides of A5. It contains all the core rules with some additional rules for flamethrowers, tanks, planes and so on. There are no force or platoon organisations – I would have appreciated even just a couple of sample platoons for the Western Front as an example of where to get started. As an experienced gamer, it wasn’t too hard to put together some French and German lists of my own for our first game, but I did feel that a newer player might have been put off by this. (Stats for different nations’ artillery and vehicles are available on the BL website).
One of the big attractions of Bello Ludi was the fact that the game has been designed for multiple players a side, each controlling a ‘group’ of units, without the complexity of some rules systems. I put together a scenario loosely based on the struggles for the village of Fleury-devant-Douamont during the battle of Verdun: two French machine-gun teams were holed out on the outskirts of Fleury but the Germans were mounting an attack with three platoons supported by flamethrowers to drive them out. The French HMG teams had a pair of platoons in reserve but would be outnumbered by the Germans.
The standard unit in the BL rules is given as 12 miniatures, and although historical sections varied in size, I stuck with this for the basic rifle units, but created 8-figure units for the French grenadiers. Some sections had LMGs, bombers (qualifying them as ‘Assault Troops’) and VB rifle-grenades – more of which later.
One interesting feature of the BL rules is that, although 1 model = 1 soldier. the overall model count in a unit is used as a combination of casualties and morale – so a Rally order (and certain cards) will restore a soldier to a damaged unit. There is no separate ‘shock’ (as in Two Fat Lardies’ games) which provides a fast game, albeit with less granularity. One dice per figure is rolled when shooting or fighting with modifiers for close range, cover and the like, but any hit removes a model without a ‘saving throw’ or other mechanic. Again, this keeps the game cracking along.
We got the game underway, with the French getting the initiative for the first turn. Units activate using the special Bello Ludi commander dice – a d20 marked with a B (Blunder), and a number of 0s, 1s, 2s and 3s. The digit rolled determines the number of actions the unit can undertake, with a Blunder resulting in a roll on the blunder table (very similar to the one in Black Powder). Actions include movement, taking cover, rallying and throwing grenades, although shooting and close combat happen later on in the turn as a free action. The system is quite random in the number of activations you get, but leaders within 12″ can use their actions to activate units as well.
The French HMGs failed to make much impression on the Germans, but the platoons of Poilus activated well and advanced up in support. As we worked our way through the shooting sequence, we found that the French VB launchers were rather more effective than we expected! Despite their shorter range, they caused havoc in the German ranks. As the French player, this was obviously welcome, but as the game went on it became clear that they were a little over-powered. (Grenades and rifle grenades use a 2″ template and the command dice to see if they hit, deviating by up to 3″ – which isn’t a great deal if you place the template right in the centre of a unit. The resulting blast then wounds each soldier under the template on a roll of 3+ – hefty stuff, and more powerful on average than an HMG or artillery piece). This felt odd – possibly exaggerated because some of the French sections had two VBs each – and we adjusted it later in the game.
Moving on, the Germans surged forwards towards the ruins of Fleury, where the French had a Hotchkiss firing from a low window. After a brief firefight where the HMG struggled to hit anything, German grenades cleared out the house. Objective 1 achieved!
On the French right, the other Hotchkiss team perished after multiple rounds of German rifle and LMG fire. Working on a d6, shooting and combat hits are usually scored on a roll of 5+ with some simple modifiers, e.g.+1 shooting at 8″ or less, -1 shooting at dispersed troops, -1 shooting at troops taking cover, -1 at units in cover etc. However, a roll of 6 always hits. This left us with a slightly unusual situation where an HMG team in a sandbagged dugout would be hit on a roll of a 6, and the Germans they were shooting at (in the open but taking cover) would also be hit on a 6. Although the HMG had the longer range, once the Germans were within 24″, they were shooting on better terms than the dug-in Hotchkiss (German section with LMG shooting with 13 dice; Hotchkiss with 6). I had no problem with the HMG being taken out, but I’m not sure that a WW1 section would have fancied their chances in this situation.
Despite the village of Fleury being taken, the French had reinforced the position on their right and had the Germans pinned in front of the wood with their VB fire. Lunchtime was approaching, so we took a trip to the pub, where we enjoyed a couple of beers and some tapas while discussing the game so far.
We all agreed that we were enjoying the simplicity of the game – things were moving along at a pace with little reference to the rule book – but that we didn’t feel the balance was quite right for WW1. Inveterate tinkerers that we are, we resolved to play on after lunch with the following tweaks:
- Grenades and VBs would cause hits in the open on a 5+ (and only 3+ in an enclosed space).
2. Units in hard cover such as dug-in positions and trenches would ignore the first hit from each round of shooting.
3. Units hit by HMGs, flamethrowers and artillery would become Disordered if the hit dice had more 6s than 1s (a common mechanic in Two Fat Lardies’ rules).
To try these out, we played out the second phase of the battle. The Germans brought on their third platoon and both sides dragged up a 75/ 77mm gun as well as another Hotchkiss for the French.
All three amendments worked pretty well – the French in the sandbagged position were far more resilient with the extra cover bonus, the VBs felt less over-powered, and a number of units became Disordered from shooting – the flamethrowers were particularly effective.
Becoming more familiar with the rules, we also had some fun with the cards in this section of the game – effects like units shooting at half strength due to lunchtime drinking added a dash of colour. Another card that extended a unit’s range by 6″ was used by Scrivs to great effect with a German flamethrower team – clearly a crack unit with the latest equipment!
Despite a brave resistance, the Germans eventually rolled up the flank by the wood and cleared the French position, forcing the others to retreat.
Bello Ludi gave us a fun, fast-moving game as promised. We picked it up very quickly and I had some excellent support on the run-up to the game by messaging BL to get clarification on the rules. That said, I felt that it needed some adaptations to get the right balance for WW1, and the lack of army lists of any sort required some work before the game. I applaud the simplicity of the rules and the willingness to engage new gamers, but feel that its potential is not quite being delivered by its current incarnation. I will definitely play again with our amendments and look forward to seeing how the Bello Ludi line of games develops.