Review – Thunderbolt Apache Leader, from Dan Verssen Games (DVG)
Designed by Dan Verssen
Artist – Uncredited
My awesome buddy Tony Bellringer takes a look at DVG Games latest offering!
note – DVG Games has provided a copy of this game for review purposes
Thunderbolt Apache Leader is a Solitaire Strategy Game of Close Air Support at an Operational level. It’s actually a re-implementation of a game by the same name and designer, published by GMT in 1991. As the commander of a close air support squadron in a modern warzone, you will run through a number of days of missions in a campaign, utilising your selection of pilots and aircraft to pound the heck out of enemy battalions, whilst trying to avoid picking up too much physical damage to your aircraft (and mental damage to your pilots).
You’ve got a nice mounted main board, on which most of the cards in the game will be stored during the game, and it also contains tracks for your Special Option Points, the Day of the Campaign, and Loiter time, plus lots of reference information tables for various factors you may well need to check during the course of the game. Crucially, this ‘Tactical Display Sheet’ also has a section showing at a macro level where the enemy battalions are located in relation to your home airbase, and dominating the centre of the board is your battlefield display, where you will set out the pieces to play out your current mission. Altogether what I thought was a good quality, efficient and effective main board. There is also stiff card ‘Air Base Sheet’, where you lay out your the cards for your currently selected Campaign, Situation, Pilots and Aircraft, plus again more quick reference tables for data you will need during the game. Then you get terrain hexes, a number of sheets of punch-out chits of various types, and lots of cards (gloss finish and of good stock) containing detailed info on Special Conditions, Mission Events, individual Aircraft and Pilots, Campaigns, Situations, and the enemy target Battalions. A 10-sided die and a player log sheet (which you will need to either photocopy or print more from the DVG website if you intend to play multiple games) round out the components. All very nicely produced IMHO.
OK, the first time you play this you’re going to probably set aside a fair amount of time to go through the rules and wrap your head around them. Quite apart from the punching and sorting of chits (I strongly recommend you get lots of baggies and/or a little tackle box with lots of sections so you don’t need to do the sorting again in future!), there is a fair amount of intricate preparation steps before you get to actually get to the exciting stuff of actually flying a mission. Still, combat success is 90% preparation right?
So, having sorted all your components out, first off choose a Campaign card. These are all very modern and even extend into the future. I admit to being a little squeamish at seeing some imagined future Middle East theatres (probably not helped by my coincidentally playing the game on 11 September) – God help us if we really do end up having to fight a hot war in some of these places! Anyway, as well as location and date, the Campaign card tells you the difficulty level of the campaign, how many points of ‘strength’ the enemy battalions for the campaign will have, the numbered terrain hexes you will need for this campaign, any special rules to apply, and an evaluation grid, so you can see how well (or not!) you did when assessing your VPs score at the end.
Then choose a ‘Situation’ card, which sets out some parameters for what you have to achieve and what you have available during the Campaign. Specifically: how many Special Option Points you have to kit yourself out with (and use for other good things during the game), how many days the Campaign will last, how many new SOPs you will replenish each day, any special rules and some flavour text.
You then draw random Battalion Cards in a fixed order from the Assault, Supply and Command Battalion decks, until the total of the Victory Points value on each card equals or busts the total from your campaign card. Each card tells you where its associated battalion chit starts in relation to your Air Base on the main Tactical Display board, what specific units are in that battalion, how much you have to take the Battalion’s strength down to get it to Half or Destroyed value, and any other special instructions.
You then start spending your available SOPs to ‘buy’ aircraft and pilots for your squadron in this mission. Each aircraft has a unique card, and most aircraft ‘types’ in the game have multiple cards (there are 10 ‘types’, though that includes two different models for each of the Thunderbolt, Apache, and Unmanned Drone types). Aircraft types and models can only be selected if the year of deployment to service (noted on the card) equals or pre-dates the Campaign year. You can also use SOPs to purchase ‘Scout’ aircraft, that take no part in the battle and need no associated pilot, but will likely extend the time you can ‘Loiter’ on a mission (i.e. extend the time you have to pound the enemy before you have to turn for home). Pilots can only be selected if their associated aircraft type (noted on their card) matches one of the aircraft you have selected . You automatically get two pilots for each aircraft at the ‘Standard’ skill level for the pilots. You can then adjust their skill levels within a six-point range from Newbie to Ace on a ‘one up – one down’ basis. Following that, you can spend SOPs to increase individual pilots skill levels further on a ‘one SOP = one pilot one step up’ basis.
Still with me? OK, place the relevant chits on the Tactical Display board to show your remaining SOPs (you did save some to purchase weapons didn’t you?), and the Days in the campaign, and you’re good to go…
So it’s Day 1 of the Campaign, and you draw a ‘Special Condition’ card to create some unique rules that will apply to any Missions flown that day. Then we decide which aircraft and pilots will fly which missions that day. A ‘Mission’ is a sortie against a specific battalion chit on the Tactical Display board. The number of missions you can fly in a Day is limited to the fact you can only fly each aircraft once each day. Beyond that, how (or whether) you split your squad up to take on multiple missions in one day is up to you. Having set aside the relevant aircraft and pilots for each mission, and allocated a Scout counter to any mission you are planning to go on (one per mission per day), you are ready to actually go on one of those missions.
Before you actually take off you have to deal with the small matter of tooling up. You’re not going to take out a tank column just by dusting it off are you? You will therefore need to select Ordnance chits for each aircraft. You are limited by three factors: Aircraft type, Armament Weight, and Cost. Aircraft cards list the only ordnance types they can carry, and also their maximum weight allowance (which may be reduced for a mission deeper into enemy territory, as you need to carry more fuel), and ordnance chits show their individual weight and Ordnance Point cost (every 10 OPs or fraction thereof costing you one SOP). Weapon chits also show other information relating to how and what they can attack (e.g. max/min range, altitude availability, target types, area of effect, and/or reusability), whilst there are also special ECM and Fuel Tank chits (respectively potentially negate hits against you, and extend your Loiter time at the mission).
Pilots and equipped aircraft assigned to missions on Day1 (top is mid-mission).
And you’re finally in the air! But before you get there, draw a ‘Mission Event’ card, to see if anything interesting happens on the way, and apply its effects. Once at the target, randomly place the designated campaign hexes in the middle of the tactical display, then randomly (with the dice) assign enemy unit chits as listed for that battalion into the hexes. Place the chit for each of your aircraft/pilots on this mission into one of the hexes around the edge of the battlefield and choose whether they start at High or Low altitude, make a die roll to see what the effect of your scout was, and adjust the Loiter track from the basic 5 turns as determined by the Scout die roll. Contact!!!
Compared with all the preparation you have done, actual battlefield resolution is pretty quick. At the start of each turn, you need to draw a ‘Pop Up’ counter for each of your aircraft that is at High altitude, which can be nothing, but otherwise will attract additional enemy units to the battlefield. So High altitude has its risk, but set against this is Stress points you accumulate for pilots flying at Low altitude amongst the ridges marked on some hexes. There are also line of sight issues to consider for attacking/being attacked when flying at Low/High altitude. Enemy ground units then may move into (or out of) the cover of any ridges in their hex, dependent on the result of a die roll. Any pilot with the ‘Fast’ speed noted on his pilot card then takes their turn: adjust altitude (if you wish), determine movement (according to aircraft type, and checking for Ridge Evasion stress if flying at Low altitude over ridges), then attack (once at any point during your movement), as long as you have line of sight, range and meeting any other weapon criteria (on the weapon chit). The number of targets you can attack will depend on various factors, including weapon type, whether the targets are in the same hex as you (a ‘Strike’) or further away (‘Stand-Off’), and if you are just using Cannons (always available for ‘same hex’ attacks, as they don’t require a specific weapon chit), whether you aircraft can Hover or not. Success is determined by a die roll (basic ‘to hit’ number specified on the Weapon chit, or aircraft card for Cannons), with various modifiers potentially applied. A single ‘hit’ destroys the targeted enemy unit, the chit for which is then flipped
After your ‘Fast’ pilots have gone, the enemy units get to attack you. Any enemy helicopter units will move towards and attack your aircraft, if they have line of sight and range respectively. Enemy ground units don’t move out of their hexes, but if they have line of sight and range, will again attack. Enemy attacks automatically ‘hit’ (though some may have no effect). Hit resolution involves drawing ‘Hit’ chits randomly and resolving what they say: Enemy chits with red attack markers resolve the red side of the chits, and yellow the yellow side, but each point of Evasion skill a Pilot may have allows them to either reduce a red hit to a yellow one or negate a yellow one entirely (in both cases before the draw). Negative effects can be physical (mostly to aircraft, reducing ability to operate effectively, or increasing likelihood of crashing, but possibly also instantly killing the pilot), and/or add Stress to your Pilot. After all enemy units have attacked, your Slow pilots take their turn. After that shift the Loiter counter down one space on the track to denote a new turn, and rinse and repeat from the ‘Pop Up’ phase. Drop below the ‘1’ on the Loiter track and you are seriously stressing your Pilot, as they’ll be flying on fumes to make it home!
Mission 1: My Thunderbolt and Fighting Falcon arrive to take out an Iraqi ‘Recon in Force’ Battalion. They think they’re pretty tough…..
A couple of Pop-Up units (marked with the red corner flash) appear on the scene too late and my boys head for home, leaving a scene of destruction in their wake!
At some point you’ll quit the battlefield and turn for home. Work out – from the strength points noted on any remaining undestroyed enemy units and the thresholds noted on the Battalion card – whether you have reduced that Battalion to ‘Half’ or ‘Destroyed’ status, and calculate your Victory Points from the mission accordingly. Draw and resolve another ‘Mission Event’ card for the trip home. If any aircraft in the mission was still on the battlefield by the time the Loiter track hit a ‘Bingo’ space, roll the dice and add stress equal to the number of points the die result was below the target number from the relevant Bingo space. If any aircraft Crashed during the mission, make a roll on the Search and Rescue (SAR) table, and apply the result (ranging from pilot recovered with at least minor additional Stress, to Pilot Killed).
Once you’re home work out each Pilot’s new Stress level from events that happened during the mission (including just going on the mission in the case of those into actual enemy territory or getting too close to home). Remember to reduce their stress total after each mission by any ‘Cool’ rating on their card. If their Stress reaches the ‘Shaken’ or ‘Unfit’ levels (as specified on their Pilot card), bad stuff happens: ‘Shaken’ means a -2 modifier to all attacks in combat; ‘Unfit’ means the pilot can’t be sent on a mission, and if the pilot hits ‘Unfit’ level during a mission will be unable to perform any attacks (and if flying at Low altitude will instantly Crash). Pilots gain experience from completed mission (1 point per mission per pilot, with bonuses available for particular Battalions, or destroying every single non-Pop-Up unit in the battalion). Once they have enough experience points (denoted on their card), a Pilot can advance to the next skill stage on the six-point experience scale. Reduce your Victory Points from the mission by 1 for each Crashed plane (not including Unmanned Aircraft) and/or Killed Pilot.
Conduct any other Missions scheduled for that Day the same way, then at the end of the Day any Pilot that did not fly at all loses 2 Stress, and you get you additional SOPs for that day. Unfortunately each remaining enemy Battalion in the Campaign rolls a die and checks the result to see if they move towards – very rarely away from – your air base on the Tactical Display board. Let them get too close and it’ll rapidly start falling apart, as they’ll start eating up your SOPs before you get to use them! You can purchase (for Victory Points) replacement Aircraft and Pilots at the end of a Day, and also use SOPs to repair aircraft and remove some Stress from Pilots. Once you’re done, advance the Day chit on the track and conduct a new day’s missions! Once you get to the end of the number of Days specified in your Situation Card assess how well you did in the Campaign by comparing your final Victory Point total with the rankings listed on the Campaign card. For you, this tour of duty is now over…..
Did it work for me?
Hmmm….. I am no combat veteran, so it is with a due sense of humility and hesitation that I offer the unqualified view that this does seem to give a very good simulation of what trying to run an effective close air support squadron in a combat zone must be like. So high marks there.
The trouble is, as mentioned above (and you can probably tell from the length of the walkthrough above), there is a lot of time taken up, not just with setting up the game in the first place, but fiddling around with your mission set-up in terms of pilot, aircraft, and ordnance load-out selections for EACH mission. That’s really going to mean a lot of time investment, just to complete one multi-day Campaign. It’s not the time itself, which a lot of seasoned wargamers will no doubt be used to. It’s more that this game, as both a solitaire game and one that is slowed down a lot by the amount of fiddly housekeeping and ‘accounting’ for constant changes to SOPs, Stress, attack modifiers, VPs, and so on, is absolutely CRYING OUT to be translated into a video game. There, I’ve said it – doubtless heresy on a website about boardgames, but I must admit to a conceptual difficulty with solo boardgames in the age of the videogame.
None of that detracts from the quality of the implementation of this particular game, which in my view is indeed excellent. But surely a basic videogame version would be less expensive to produce and buy, and would be much quicker and simpler to get into, thus significantly increasing the number of people likely to play (and the frequency of play)???
The Player Log Sheet on the bottom here gives you an idea about the amount of number tracking you’re going to have to be doing. :(((
Boardgames in Blighty rating – 8 out of 10 for being what seems a very accurate simulation of the theme, and setting aside my fundamental question about the choice of format for the game!
Family friendly? No – it’s a solitaire game! In terms of age, a reasonably intelligent (and very patient) young teenager could play this.
More information: www.dvg.com
Reviewed by Tony Bellringer (Tulfa on BGG), 14 September 2012