Growing up, I read about air combat all the time. I once ordered a catalog from the Israeli Defense Force so I could save up for one of the Kfir attack jets they were selling. The first game I got for my Commodore 64 was Microprose’s Gunship (along with Pirates (what a spectacular way to kick off my computer gaming hobby)), which modeled an AH-64 Apache in glorious 16-color 640×480, and let me fly it using an old Atari 2600 controller. I became smitten with flight sims, and have played nearly all of them.
Until recently. Modern stuff, like Eagle Dynamics’ DCS: A-10C Warthog sim, is so complex that I don’t have time to learn how to take off, let alone manage the plane once it is up in the air. It made me frustrated and forlorn.
And then along came Thunderbolt Apache Leader.
Playing the Game
TAL puts you in charge of a close air support (CAS) group assigned to raining death from the sky in one of many historical and fictional campaigns. You pick the aircraft. You choose the pilots. You decide what weapons to use and who to send where. It is amazing.
The most amazing thing is the amount of depth extracted from a minimal and intuitive ruleset. Each game begins when you select a Campaign card that tells you what circumstances you’re operating under and what enemies and terrain tiles will be in play throughout the campaign. Then you select a Situation card that dictates the type of action you’re involved in and grants an initial bolus of special operations (SO) points that you may use as you see fit. As you will soon find out, everything revolves around SO points, and your ultimate success depends on how well you manage them.
There is also a Special Condition deck, and you draw one card from it each day. These give you or the enemy an advantage that day, and often cost SO points if you want to activate a benefit or avoid a detriment.
Once the campaign, situation, and special condition are settled you draw cards from Assault, Command, and Support Battalion decks to determine the enemy forces you will face during the campaign. These are placed in various range bands on the board, and generally the Assault Battalions are up front while the Command and Support battalions are in the rear. Traveling behind enemy lines imposes weight and other penalties, while fighting closer to your base induces more stress in your pilots. Stress ain’t good.
Each Battalion Card has a number of enemy units printed on it. Some are tank-heavy, while others have buildings or are packed with soft targets like infantry and trucks. There’s a lot of variety, and since you must assign your aircraft to attaching one battalion at a time it is important to pay attention to their composition so you can arm them properly.
First, though, you have to buy some planes and helicopters, and good luck deciding. There are two flavors of A-10 Thunderbolts, two flavors of AH-64 Apache’s, AV-8 Harriers, AH-1 Cobras, an F-16 Falcon, armed and unarmed Predator drones, and even an AC-130 Spectre (it makes things go BOOM!). Each aircraft has a service date so that you can’t use, say, an AC-130 or A-10C during the 1991 Persian Gulf campaign, so that narrows your choices a bit. Still, it is a blast to choose which aircraft will work best against your enemy. Do you take an A-10 that costs 8 SO points, or grab two Apache’s for the same cost (or one Apache and two Cobras)? The F-16 is zippy and carries just about anything, but the Harrier can hover and maybe keep out of danger. Should you budget for Predators, which don’t do much damage (if any), but make all your other planes operate far more efficiently? Do you pay for the Spectre, or … yes, you pay for the Spectre.
So after you spend a long, awesome time selecting planes, you get to pick who flies them by selecting pilots from a deck. Each one has three two-sided cards so they can level up from Newbie to Green to Novice to Average to Skilled to Ace. All of them start on Average, and you can dump levels from one to pump levels on another on a one-for-one basis. They gain a host of skills as they gain experience, including the crucial Fast (which lets them shoot and move before the enemy attacks), bonuses to point-blank strikes and/or stand-off attacks from range, etc. They all have cool nicknames and you will love and care for them and curse the sky when they go out and get themselves killed.
When you’re done buying pilots you can level them up by spending one SO point per level. This is tempting, especially if you can bump a pilot to Fast, but SO points are priceless so the decisions here are never easy.
You have your planes, and you have your pilots, so the next step is giving them destructive things to hurl at their foes. Oh, the fun you will have.
Each individual weapon is represented by a counter, and there are a lot of them. Mavericks and Hellfires, dumb bombs and smart ones and cluster ones, rocket pods, air-to-air missiles, fuel tanks and electronic countermeasures (ECM) pods. The weakest weapons, like the dumb bombs and TOW missiles, don’t cost anything but the weight they take up. The good stuff, though, comes at a price. Here you can trade SO points for weapon points on a 1-10 basis, which seems insanely generous until you realize you need to arm a lot of things that can carry an absurd amount of weapons. You don’t want to squander all your SO points here because they often come in handy in the next phase.
Once you’re locked and loaded you assign your screaming death machines to specific battalions, creating one or more missions. It’s tempting to overkill the enemy here, but often you must destroy at least two battalions per turn to meet your campaign condition, so you must get comfortable splitting up your forces and using them efficiently. You can also spend SO points now to buy Scout aircraft on a one-for-one basis. Scouts can give you additional time over your target and other advantages, and are always worth it if you have points to spare.
Kick the Tires & Light the Fires
With the aircraft assigned you begin the first mission by flipping a Mission Event card that often lets you pay an SO point to soften up an enemy or gain some other advantage (or makes you take some lumps before you get to the target).
Next you gather up the ten hexagonal terrain tiles indicated on your campaign cards and randomly place them on the board (three on top, four in the middle, and three on the bottom). Then you gather up all the units indicated on the enemy Battalion card and roll 1d10 for each one of them, placing them in the corresponding terrain tile. It seems stupid and random, but the map is so cramped and there are usually so many units on it that it often leads to interesting and challenging force distributions.
Another thing you’ll notice is that the some of the terrain tiles have ridges printed on some of their edges. These determine line-of-sight for aircraft at low altitude, and also cause stress checks for low-altitude pilots screaming over the tops of them.
Now you place the planes assigned to the mission in any of the map’s edge hexes, and it’s party time. Combat is simultaneously simple, brutal, exhilarating, agonizing, and triumphant.
First you place the loiter marker, which tells you how many turns you have to blow stuff up and get off the map before running out of gas. You get five just for showing up, but every aircraft with a fuel tank gets two more, and you can get several more on top of that from a successful Scout roll. Extra turns are particularly important for A-10s and the Spectre since they can chew up targets indefinitely with their massive guns. They also come in handy for choppers as they move so slowly they can easily get caught in the middle of the map without enough fuel to egress.
At the beginning of each turn, if you have any aircraft at high altitude (they can be either high or low), you must draw one Pop-Up counter for each of them. These either say “No Enemy” on the back or have a random unit printed there, which is placed on the map randomly. These little monsters don’t count towards the number of units you must kill to destroy the battalion, and can be a real thorn. It pays to stay low for this reason, but going high is sometimes necessary for line-of-sight or weapon firing parameter reasons, or forced due incoming fire. Note that Predators and the Spectre can fly at high altitude without forcing you to draw Pop-Up counters.
After resolving Pop-Ups you roll for enemy cover, which turns out to be one of the most critical points in the game. Enemies in cover move to the nearest ridge in their hex and are immune to stand-off attacks, which sucks, sucks, sucks. There are few things worse than loading up an A-10 with Mavericks that can hit from three spaces away, Hellfires that can hit from two spaces away, putting a pilot with a stand-off bonus in the cockpit, and watching as a clump of enemies slinks off the the nearest ridgeline and makes that pilot work up close. (This is doubly bad for planes laden with Mavericks and Hellfires, as those missiles can’t hit targets in the same hex as the firing aircraft. It’ll remind you of Iceman in Top Gun: “TOO CLOSE FOR MISSILES, I’M SWITCHING TO GUNS!”.)
If you’re lucky no enemies will hide, and if you’re really lucky you’ll roll a ten and force some out of hiding. Then, if you have any Fast pilots, they can move and attack after selecting an altitude (which lasts until the beginning of their next turn).
Attacks can be made once per turn before, during, or after a move, providing a lot of flexibility. You can also shoot as many weapons during the attack as you have eligible targets, making it possible to drop a couple Rockeye cluster bombs in the hex you’re in while lobbing a smart bomb into an adjacent hex and shooting a Sidewinder at an enemy helicopter halfway across the map. The only exception to this is a cannon attack, which precludes you from using any other weapons. Late-model aircraft or aircraft flying missions with Predator drones are also Linked, letting them share targets with other Linked aircraft and mitigating line-of-sight issues.
Weapons have a single attack rating and you must roll it or higher to destroy your target. Weaker weapons have higher numbers, and the best laser-guided bomb has a rating of zero. You’re still not necessarily out of the woods, as pilots may have negative ratings that subtract from your roll, planes may have damage that does the same, and enemy tanks always get a -2 bonus. One weapon, the Rockeye, lets you roll to hit every enemy in the hex, and dropping a few of them on a mass of enemies really brings the shock and awe.
The importance of the A-10’s cannon should also be noted here. It has an attack rating of 4, giving you an 70% chance of destroying nearly anything as long as it’s a single target in the same hex. It’s a terrific mop-up weapon for late in the mission when all the good weapons are expended. Apache cannons have an attack rating of 7 but hit everything in their hex, making them great against trucks and other soft targets.
Once the Fast pilots have had their turn the enemy gets to go. Enemy helicopters that have line-of-sight to a target move one hex closer to it, and then every enemy that can hit something shoots at it. Most units can only hit aircraft in their same hex, but anti-aircraft units, helicopters, surface-to-air missiles (SAMs), and a few other units can hit at range.
Hits are either light (yellow) or red (heavy). To resolve them, you draw counters with red and yellow sides and apply the damage listed on it. Some pilots have the Evasive ability, which lets them negate one light hit or turn one heavy hit into one light hit for every point of skill they have. ECM pods can also be activated to avoid enemy hits if you roll well.
Some hits do nothing at all, and others have aircraft names printed on them. If the aircraft being hit matches the one listed on the hit counter, it avoids that damage completely (this is a bit counterintuitive, but makes the A-10 and Apache much hardier since a lot of the counters that mitigate damage seem to apply to them). Most counters simply do damage. They may induce pilot stress, damage the engines, punch bullet holes in the aircraft, cause attack penalties, or outright kill the pilot (this is exceedingly rare). The worst kind aside from a pilot death is structural damage, as aircraft can only absorb so much of that before they are shot down.
After the enemy gets his licks in, the Slow pilots select their altitudes for the turn, resolve Pop-Up counters, and move and attack. When they are done the loiter counter goes down one notch and the whole process begins again.
Planes can leave the battlefield by exiting any edge hex, and should do so before the Bingo Fuel spaces of the Loiter track are reached. These force you to do fuel checks during the outbound phase of your mission, and if you miss the check the plane crashes. Anytime a plane crashes a search-and-rescue (SAR) check is resolved, and you may lose the pilot along with the aircraft. This costs you a victory point, plus, losing pilots stinks.
You also must flip a Mission Event card on the outbound leg and do what it says on the bottom of the card. Sometimes it’s a good thing, and sometimes it’s bad, but no matter what it always adds a little bit more to the story your campaign weaves.
Once a mission is done you start another one, and when all are finished you move the Day counter down a notch and start planning for the next day. Enemy Battalions creep closer to your base. You get a small allotment of SO points and can use them to remove pilot stress, patch up planes, and buy new stuff. Then it’s once more unto the breach, dear friends. Unless you’ve already blown the conditions of the campaign, which has been known to happen quite often under my sorry command.
Is it Worth Your Time?
Three main things will make or break a game for me:
Are the Decisions Interesting?
Every single one of them, and there are choices aplenty. Aircraft, pilots, weapons, focusing on close threats or going deep, spending SO points or conserving them, divvying up your forces without spreading them too thin, attacking targets in a sensible order, flying high and putting up with pop-ups or staying in the weeds and risking pilot stress, sticking with the mission or bugging out due to damage. Oh. My. God.
Is There a Clear Sense of Accomplishment or Failure?
Yes, on both a tactical and strategic level. You feel good just for putting together a nice weapons package. You feel great for keeping your pilots alive. You feel awesome for taking out masses of enemy equipment with only a few badass flying death machines. You feel awful when you fail at any of this. There is also a campaign scoring system to give you an idea of how good or bad you do overall.
If There is a Theme, is it Tightly Integrated with the Design?
There’s no real job like the one you get to do in the game, but I don’t care. Making you responsible for both mission planning and execution gives this game depth that others lack, and it all meshes together so well that the decisions regarding what simulation elements to jettison in favor of smooth gameplay seem perfect. Planes and weapons have subtle, simple differences on paper that make a tremendous difference during combat and lets them serve the same roles in the game that they do in a real war. This sort of elegant realism that doesn’t get bogged down in chrome is the mark of a superlative design.
This is one of the best games I’ve ever played, solitaire or otherwise. If you already know a lot about the weapons and aircraft involved you will pick it up in no time, and if you don’t this game can teach you a great deal of things in a short order. It does a great job of showing how modern-day CAS equipment has evolved dramatically in a relatively short timespan. Playing the Iraq 1991 campaign with older Thunderbolts and Apaches is completely different from choosing a modern campaign and using newer models of those workhorses, plus adding in things like Predators (which cause all planes to be Linked and all pilots to be Fast), and the Spectre (which people on the receiving end of its guns probably assume is an angry Scandinavian god who is very upset with them) changes the whole ballgame.
I love that the combat engine is powered by a single d10. It makes percentages easy to work out when you’re selecting weapons and simplifies things a great deal. That they set things up so that same d10 randomizes everything is icing.
I also want to point out that although this game is expensive, you get some amazing components for your money. The board is designed to look like an attack aircraft cockpit and has all sorts of useful player aids printed on it. The terrain tiles are thick, and the hundreds of enemy and plane counters are clear and easy to tell apart. You also get several decks of high quality cards. While the art on most of the counters and cards is functional instead of inspiring (the fact that all the pilots look the same is particularly disappointing), you will definitely not feel ripped off when you open this depleted-uranium-shell-proof box.
I don’t know enough about modern carrier ops to find Hornet Leader interesting, but can’t wait to get my hands on Phantom Leader and U-Boat Leader to see how they stack up relative to this bit of divinity. My only regret is that I didn’t buy it sooner. Don’t make the same mistake.