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Review: Thunderbolt / Apache Leader (GMT)

Posted by Denny Koch on December 1, 2010

Game: Thunderbolt / Apache Leader: Joint Attack Weapons System

Publisher: GMT Games
Published in: 1991
Designer: Dan Verssen
Era and Topic: Contemporary / Close Air Support combat / Aircraft and attack helicopters
Components: 110 full-color two-sided cards, 300 full-color two-sided counters, one 22×17” full-color combat display, one 10-sided die, 20-page rulebook, Sector Map, Pilot / Crew experience log, aircraft & pilot damage chart
Game Type: Solitaire or coop / card-driven / counters

HFC Game-O-Meter: C


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 7
Rules: 7

Playability:
8
Replay Value: 9.5

Overall Rating: 9

PRO Can be played solitaire or in cooperative team-play, rules contain background information about CAS warfare, high replayability, various difficulty levels, tactical and strategical level, challenging and tough decision-making required, resource management, clever combat system
CONTRA Rules somewhat cumbersome here and there

Introduction

Planning, calculating, and conducting CAS missions together is challenging and fun!

We love cooperative games! We enjoy the card game Space Hulk – Death Angel, we love cooperative board games like Arkham Horror or video games like Too Human or Borderlands on Xbox 360. Thunderbolt / Apache Leader isn’t a cooperative team-game in the first place, it is primarily a solitaire game, but it offers variants for cooperative team play, so one weekend we decided to give the game a try… together!

We own a number of solitaire wargames, for example the Ambush series, London’s Burning, B-17, Carrier, Patton’s Best, even SASL (Solitaire ASL) which are designed to be played by one player “against the game system” or Paper AI. Fortunately, many of these games can be played by two players as well who team up against the enemy. And some of these games even offer specific rules or instructions for playing the game cooperatively. A great example is the modern air combat simulation “Thunderbolt / Apache Leader” by Dan Verssen.

This review doesn’t only deal with the coop variant but is a general in-depth review of the game. So if you are a dedicated (or involuntary) solitaire gamer, this review is also for YOU. In addition, we will tell you something about flying cooperatively (which works excellent, btw!), so if you are a fan of wargames supporting team-play, read on!

What is Thunderbolt / Apache Leader?

Thunderbolt / Apache Leader (TAL) is a wargame depicting modern tactical air combat, utilizing a combination of card- and counter-based mechanics and a combination of tactical and strategical planning and gameplay. It was published by GMT Games in 1991 and is part of the “Air Leader series”. Since players have to conduct a good deal of math calculation and consulting of several tables, the game is definitely not a “light wargame”, but effectively a consim with medium complexity.

In the game, the player commands single A-10 Thunderbolt fighter aircraft and AH-64 Apache attack helicopters. In addition, he can use AH-1 Cobra attack helicopters and AV-8B Harrier vertical takeoff fighter aircraft as support. The game is scenario-based and takes place in various cold-war and contemporary hot spots all over the world: Operation Desert Storm Iraq, Korea, Germany, Russia, Libya. The focus lies on air-to-ground combat, but in the course of a campaign, players can also possibly face opposing air units in air-to-air combat.

Operation Desert Storm in full progress

The objective differs with each campaign. Basically, players have to defend their air base and destroy opposing ground forces before they overrun the base. Enemy ground forces consist of various different unit types, for example SAM sites, Anti-Air-vehicles, heavy armored tanks, infantry, APC, or non-armored trucks. In addition, friendly ground forces (AFV and Mechanized battalions) engage the enemy ground forces, but the player’s main task is to provide air support and to soften the ground targets before the friendly ground forces encounter the enemy.

Players can choose between various types of munition for their aircraft. There are three types of attacks, cannon attacks with board cannons, strike attacks with various rocket types (rocket pot, cluster bombs, Mk.82-84), or stand-off attacks with laser-guided missiles (Hellfire, Maverick). A focus lies on resource management; players have only a restricted contingent of “Air base points” with which they have to “pay” aircraft, pilots, and ammunition for each of the daily missions. So you cannot simply put all the cool stuff into your jets and helicopters – you have to plan carefully and in advance if you want to fly and fight another day.

 

AH-64 "Apache" attack helicopter card

Players also have control over different pilots (jets) or crews (helicopters) with various skills and special abilities. Pilots are humans, though, and suffer from stress during flight missions. Choosing the right pilot for the right task is another challenge of the game. Pilots can get lost or end the day in sick bay or shaken, so they cannot fly the next day. Optional fatigue and experience rules add even more realism to pilot management.

The map (“Combat Display“) is a sheet printed with several tables, turn record tracks, and terrain space which consists of randomly placed terrain cards. You see the combat area from high above – from an aircraft’s perspective. There are two types of combat resolutions each day – a primary (mandatory) mission which is resolved tactically in aircraft vs. single units of ground vehicles, infantry, or enemy aircraft, and a secondary (optional) mission which is resolved strategically by comparing attack and defense strength, troop quality, and several other scenario-specific modifiers.

All in all, Thunderbolt / Apache Leader is a quite simulative game with lots of mathematic calculations and cross-referencing of combat and effect tables. This sounds very technical and dry, but in fact the game accurately portrays air warfare from the perspective of a squadron leader which feels very cool and authentic.

Graphic presentation and production quality

TAL depicts modern air warfare, so the overall game design corresponds with the topic.

The box art shows photos of the A-10, the AH-64, and infantry soldiers during Operation Desert Storm. The box contains a paper map sheet, several additional displays (a sector sheet and the air base sheet), log sheets for pilot fatigue, counters for several game effects, enemy ground units, friendly ground units, ammunition types, combat results. There are several card decks – double-sided aircraft and pilot cards as well as draw decks for random events. Campaigns and combat conditions are also printed on small cards. The design is somewhat technical and abstract, but all in all, the game looks modern.

The AH-64 Apache helicopter in action

The card quality is the same quality used in the first two Down in Flames games by GMT games. They are not glossy coated, but simple cardboard cards, slightly smaller than the average poker card.

The Combat Display is a large paper sheet with several areas for card decks, reference boxes, informational counters, and a center area for terrain cards and is designed in a technical aircraft-style look. It is not the strongest paper and somewhat flimsy – you always see where the sheet was folded. But it serves its purpose and didn’t cause any problems during play because gameplay is quite abstract and most of the time you don’t move your units around on a map (except when flying a primary mission).

The mapsheet displays a detailed Sequence of Play, but the three final steps of the Sequence are missing: “Check for Overrun”, “Check for Victory” and “Advance Day Marker”. During gameplay, this isn’t a problem at all, but we simply didn’t see the reason why these three steps were excluded from the otherwise very detailed and extensive Sequence box.

The game contains one 10-sided die. This is used for all die rolls and a roll of “0” is considered to be a “10”, not a “0”.

All in all, the components are not too shiny, but they do their job just fine and are sufficient in capturing the topic of the game and creating the atmosphere. The cards could be of a somewhat better quality, but the graphics and overall design is okay.

Rulebook

The rulebook consists of 22 pages. It is printed in black-and-white, and in a small font-two column layout, so there are actually many rules condensed into the rulebook.

The game itself isn’t too difficult (once you understood where to look and when to roll), but the rules are extensive and there is much cross-referencing between several chapters and pages. The rules structure is logical, following the Sequence of Play, but since many aspects are dealt with in several chapters, you cannot stick to the Sequence but have to flip pages back and forth while learning the game.

The black-and-white rulebook is printed in a 2-column-stype with a small font and with few illustrations. Examples are printed in grey boxes. Functional, but not very shiny.

Some wordings are somewhat cumbersome, but all in all, the rules are doing a good job. The game is complex and you have to take many aspects into consideration during play, but everything is explained in the rules… somewhere. There is no alphabetical index, but after a while, you know where you have to look.

Again (as in many games by Dan Verssen), you have to read all the examples because they often include information not mentioned in the rules text. As in Down in Flames, you simply have to get accustomed to the fact that examples not only explain a certain rule, but sometimes are the rules themselves.

What we like about the rules is the extensive explanatory section. All ammunition types, enemy vehicles, and pilot abilities are explained in detail, so after reading the rules, you know the differences between a Hellfire and a Maverick missile and when to use which. You know why cluster bombs are effective against infantry, but stand-off ammo isn’t. You know why a SAM is more dangerous to your aircraft than a tank. Even if you haven’t any knowledge about modern aircraft and air-to-ground combat, you will learn everything you need to know. This adds greatly to the atmosphere and player immersion.

One minor complaint, though – a player aid sheet which summarizes the different effects would have been quite helpful. When your pilot or aircraft suffer a hit, the results are explained in the rulebook, so as long as you don’t know them by heart, you have to refer to the rulebook each time you draw a chit. After a while, you know what a “Rattled”, “Dive!”, or “Tracking” means, but while learning the game, this means a lot of page-turning.

All in all, the rules are doing a good job. They would certainly profit from an index and additional illustrations, but there are no “black holes” or anything like that – everything is explained in the rules and once you understood the game, there is almost no need to refer back to them. Any questions raised during the game are answered somewhere in the rules, there is no need to consult internet forums in search for an answer, which is very positive (we played games which were close to unplayable without browsing the internet and discussion forums, and sometimes, even there questions were not resolved but caused unresolved, almost religious debates). TAL is an example of a game you can play “out of the box”, rulebook at hand. You will have to search for your answers from time to time because the rulebook is somewhat complex, but in the end, you will find them.

You should, of course, use the official rules clarification (PDF) while playing because this document contains errata, clarifications, and adds new advanced rules, for example “attacking while moving slowly”. A rulebook scan (PDF) is available on the GMT website (the scan resolution is not too good, but it does the job).

Playability and Gameplay

Differences between solitaire and coop play

Apache crew (with callsigns, combat abilities, and skills)

TAL can be played solitaire or in two-player-coop.

The rulebook suggests three different Two-Player-variants: if you own only one game, players share the distributed aircraft in whichever way they prefer (for example, as we do: one player controls all helicopters, the other controls all jets), they share the resources and plan and fly the missions together. You could also double the aircraft and resources available, but then you have to double the enemy forces as well. As a third option, if you own two games, both players could play a full game simultaneously on two mapsheets, but we prefer the one-game-option because sharing aircraft, mission targets, and resources on one mapsheet requires more cooperation, discussion, and team play.

There are no differences  concerning the rules or general gameplay, regardless of whether you play alone or cooperatively with a friend. The only difference is that you will have to discuss how to spend your resources this turn and which targets will be attacked by whom. The game works perfectly both ways and remains, in fact, the same game.

Personally, we prefer the cooperative variant because the game requires tough decision-making – and deciding together, discussing the options, agreeing on the targets, objectives, and aircraft is very suspenseful and demanding.

So everything described in the following sections is true for both solitaire and coop gameplay.

Selecting a Campaign and Situation

"Desert Storm" is the introductory scenario ("Novice" Difficulty Level). Nevertheless, Saddam's forces can kick your a**...

The game is scenario based and contains several scenario cards (“Campaigns”). Campaign cards list the location (Germany, Europe) or operation (Operation Desert Storm), show a map of the country where the campaign takes place, list the categories of enemy forces, terrain quality (clear, obstructed), a break number indicating when the opposing forces are defeated, a reference chart where the enemy’s troop quality, advance speed, and initiative are determined, and a difficulty level.

Yes, the campaigns are rated according to difficulty, from easiest to most difficult in the following order: Novice, Beginner, Skilled, Advanced, Expert. If you are new to the game, it is strongly recommended that you start with “Novice”, regardless of how “experienced” you are as a wargamer. The difficulty levels are not printed on the cards for decoration, you will soon learn that Saddam’s forces in Operation Desert Storm (the Novice scenario) can really be a pain in the a** if they are of a good or even elite troop quality. Jumping right into an “Expert” scenario is suicide. Trust us, if you are new to the game, the “Novice” scenario will be challenging and fun! They will even be challenging to a more experienced TAL player because the enemy forces can vary from “poor” troop quality (=easiest to beat) to “elite”, even in a Novice campaign. We recommend starting the game with Operation Desert Storm (this is perfect for learning the rules, and getting to know your aircraft, pilots, and weapons) and then gradually working your way up the difficulty levels once you beat a scenario with a satisfying result (“Complete success” or at least “success”).

In addition, each campaign is further modified by the “Situation” which is selected randomly. There are four types of general situations available: “General War”, where the US had enough time to prepare for a large-scale conflict, “Holding Action” where war is going poorly in the area and the US is pulling back, suffering from scarce resources, “Rapid Deployment” where resources are limited because forces were moved quickly into the region, and “Show of Force” where the US had time for preparation and the objective is to hit the enemy hard.

Each situation has a strong impact on the campaign because it determines the amount of US ground forces, the victory level and condition, and the chance for recovery of friendly forces. This strongly enhances the replayability of the game.

Once you chose a campaign and a situation, the game begins.

Setup

During setup, you determine the other conditions for this campaign.

First, you determine the enemy battalions you will have to fight. There are three types of enemy ground battalions: attack, support, command. You don’t know the exact composition of the battalions, this will be revealed later when you actually fly your missions against them. The campaign indicates how many battalions of which type you will encounter, for example 5 Assault, 3 Support, 1 Command battalion. You then draw the indicated number of battalions from three decks of “target cards” (Attack, Support, Command).

Each target card describes the general battalion composition (for example, “Mechanized”, “Armored”). Printed below an illustration is a table where the exact composition is determined during a mission. The table lists all unit types which could appear on the battlefield, for example tanks, AAA vehicles, infantry troops. A support battalion mostly consists of trucks and some APC while an assault battalion will most likely “spawn” infantry or armored vehicles.

The Sector Map

After determining the enemy battalions, you place their counters (indicating only their designation, for example 2A – “Attack battalion No 2”) on the so-called sector map. The sector map represents the strategical overview. It consists of 5 different zones or sector bands, each band representing roughly 50 miles. This map is used to show the relative position of enemy and friendly ground units in relation to your air base and the front line. You don’t really “play” on the sector map but use it as a  tool for tracking the movement (advance / retreat) of ground units and flight distance.

Then you determine the enemy troop quality by rolling a die and consulting the troop quality table on the campaign card. Enemy troops can be poor, normal, good, or elite during a given campaign. All enemy units are of the same quality and quality never changes during a campaign.

Fighting against poor enemies is easier than against elite enemies; poor troops lack equipment and training and will more likely miss in an attack or retreat, while elite units are very accurate with their weapons and will hold their ground at all costs.

Next, you choose your squadron composition. Here you have three different options:

  • 4 A-10s and 6 Pilots, or
  • 8 AH-64 and 10 Crews, or
  • 2 A-10s and 3 pilots and 4 AH-64 and 5 Crews.

 

Harrier aircrafts will support your aircrafts, but their pilots are not under your direct command

In addition, you get some support aircraft (Cobras and Harriers), but these are not part of your squadron and their pilots are not under your direct command. If you play with two players, you choose one of the above options and share the forces among you, or you double the forces and double the enemies. In our first coop game, we chose option number 3 where I took the A-10s and Harriers and Andreas got the AH-64s and Cobras. That’s more than enough if you are a beginner and want to learn the game.You can always double the forces in later games, once you learned the advantages and disadvantages of each aircraft type and weapon.

Last but not least, you place the “Air Base Points” marker and day marker. “Air Base Points” are your “currency” or resources with which you “pay” your aircrafts and weapons during your daily missions. You start with a certain number of Air Base Points detailed on your situation card and get some more points each day. You never have enough points, of course and always have to decide which aircraft will fly a mission and which won’t.

The game is measured in “Days“, one day is one turn. The less days you need to fulfill your objective, the better. If it takes you too many days, the mission is considered a failure, even if you eliminate the enemy. You will fly several “missions” each day, at least one primary mission and, if you wish to, an optional secondary mission.

At the end of the setup phase, you place your friendly ground unit counters on the sector maps. There are only 2 types of friendly ground battalions, AFV and mechanized. After your daily missions are conducted, these ground units will move and conduct ground combat. It is your job to provide air support and weaken the enemy before the ground units encounter them in combat.

Daily Missions

Each day, you must fly at least one primary mission (which is resolved tactically). You can fly more missions as primary missions, if you want to, but primary missions take some time and are quite elaborate, so it is recommended that you resolve your other missions as a secondary mission (which is resolved strategically).

The Air Base

When reading the rules for the first time, we didn’t know why we should ever resolve a mission as a secondary mission (time is not an issue for an experienced consim player who sometimes spends months on one game, so the argument that primary missions take much longer than secondary missions didn’t really convince us), but during our first game, we quickly discovered the elegance of this combination of primary and secondary missions – the combination of strategical and tactical elements. In the end, we were convinced that conducting one primary and one secondary mission each day is sufficient for having a great time and challenging gameplay depth.

The reason is that planning a tactical mission and a strategical mission each day is really demanding. Both missions are resolved in a completely different way (the strategical mission is abstracted while you attack single counters with single aircraft in the tactical mission), but nevertheless, it is the combination of both mission types and your scarce resources which really spice up the game. So, both primary and secondary missions are interesting and thrilling in their own way, and both systems are satisfying. Combining them in the optimal fashion (which battalion will be your primary target, which battalions will be your secondary targets, which aircraft will fly which mission etc.) is a tough choice and a great experience! Conducting one primary mission each day is more than enough if you use the standard setup and squadron composition.

 

Pilots are humans... and when the mission was tough, they can suffer from stress and become shaken

At the beginning of each turn / day, you plan today’s missions. Only pilots / crews in the briefing room or pilot’s lounge can be chosen (pilots end the day shaken or even in sick bay after a tough mission). Your A-10s and AH-64s need a pilot / crew in order to fly a mission, but you don’t need to choose pilots for your support aircraft, the Cobras and Harriers (these are considered to have inherent pilots). If you don’t have enough combat-ready pilots, you cannot use all of your aircraft (most of the time, you cannot use all of them each day anyway because sending an aircraft into combat is very expensive).

The Air Base point costs of each aircraft depend on the enemy’s position within the sector map (the closer they are, the more payload your aircrafts can carry because they need less fuel to reach the battlefield). A A-10 thunderbolt is more expensive than an Apache Helicopter but can carry much more ammo. Apache Helicopters are limited to board cannons, some rockets, and stand-off weapons like Hellfire and Mavericks, while Thunderbolts can use all kinds of weapons, from cluster bombs, rockets, stand-off weapons, to 1000 or 3000 lb bombs like the Mk 81 or Mk83, as well as technical gadgets and counter-measures (Pave Penny, ALQ-119). Both types of aircraft can carry anti-aircraft weapons like stingers or sidewinders.

Since the loading capacity is limited, you have to plan carefully which aircraft will carry which type of ammo. Hellfires or Mavericks are useless against infantry while a heavy armored tank will suffer no damage from bombs designed to eliminate infantry. There is a certain chance that you will encounter enemy aircraft, but it is possible that you won’t meet a single enemy fighter at all. Do you put heavy anti-air weaponry on board, just in case, or do you use your valuable capacity for carrying weapons against various types of ground units (soft armored, heavy armored, infantry) which are the units you have to destroy in order to win the scenario? Enemy aircraft don’t count for victory purposes, they are only there to annoy you and to protect their ground forces…

You must choose whether to send out scouts (it lowers the costs to attack successfully scouted enemy units, but sending out scouts costs Air Base points), and which aircrafts will participate in the primary and secondary missions. You choose one enemy battalion as a primary target and can then choose none, one, or more enemy battalions as secondary targets. All secondary targets will be attacked in one combined secondary mission.

After your planning phase is done, you send out your scouts. Then you fly your secondary mission.

Each turn you check for addition “Events” which may happen during the mission and after the mission. These can have a strong impact on the mission and they always “tell a story”, for example reports in the news, you get an escort, the enemy conducts an offensive etc.

Secondary Mission

The secondary mission is resolved strategically. This means, you don’t fly with your aircraft to the battlefield, you don’t choose weapons, you don’t attack single enemy counters. Instead, you calculate the strength of your designated jets and helicopters, combined with their abstracted weapon payload (which depends on range and aircraft type), add your pilots, special abilities, and skills.You have to pay for each aircraft participating in your secondary attack; support aircraft have fixed costs while the costs of your main force (A-10 and AH-64) depend on range and scouting success.

 

Tactical Situation: General War

After calculating the attack strength of your force, you calculate the combat value of the enemy. You can attack one battalion or combine several battalions into one secondary attack, but you never fly more than one secondary attack each day. The enemy’s combat value depends on troop quality, whether a battalion is at full or half strength, and their value printed on their battalion cards.

You then calculate the ratio of your attack strength and the enemy’s combat value. It’s best to attack with a ratio of at least 1.5 (the higher, the better). The ratio adds a die roll modifier to the effect against your aircraft as well as to the effect against the enemy forces. A ratio of 3:1 is best, you must try hard if you want to miss at this ratio ;). But achieving a 3:1 ratio is really really expensive, so you will most certainly sacrifice strength for your primary attack if you put all your efforts into the secondary mission. Again, tough decision-making!

After calculating the ratio, you first roll on the “effect on each aircraft” table which shows what happens to each of your attacking aircrafts. There can be “no effect”, but there is also a certain chance that your aircraft is shot down or severely damaged. The pilot / crew could also suffer from the attack by becoming rattled.

Then you roll on the “effect on battalion” table. You can get a “no effect” result, reduce the battalion to one step or eliminate it.

After the secondary mission is conducted, the aircraft return to base. It is checked whether damaged aircraft crash on their way back home, and if they crash, their pilots’ fate is determined. All returning pilots must undergo a “pilot check” because there is a certain chance that they become shaken or are even sent into sick bay because of the stress suffered during the mission.

Primary Mission

You know the "type" of enemy forces (here: Air Defense Unit), but you don't know the exact composition unless you fly a primary mission against them

Once your secondary mission is done, it’s time for today’s highlight: The primary mission.

As mentioned before, the primary mission is resolved “tactically” which means that you now actually see terrain and fight single counters on the map! Before take-off, you have to equip your aircraft with weapons. You have several different weapons at your disposal, but only limited portage capacity, so choose wisely. Players have to take a close look at the target cards and the different unit types which could be “spawned” by this special unit. You should also take into consideration that you could encounter enemy aircraft during the mission.

The rulebook gives a great overview over the munition types. The mapsheet shows the munition cost, range, and effects of all munition types and which aircraft can equip which ammo. Plan carefully – which aircraft will take care of which enemy type (tanks, infantry, soft vehicles…).

Munition is represented by munition counters which are placed on their respective aircraft card. Most of them are “one-shot” weapons, so the counter is expended after one shot. Only cannons and rocket pods have “unlimited” ammo, but this is only an abstraction because air combat is considered to take only a few minutes.

Pilots / Crews have certain skills, some are better with cannons, some are cool (which reduces the risk of suffering from stress), some are good at stand-off attacks, some are good with more than one weapon type. Some also have special abilities, for example a better protection against enemy attacks, or great command abilities which extends the time the aircraft can spend over the target zone.

The time scale of the primary mission is measured in “Loiter time“. Normally, one mission consists of 7 loiter turns (each loiter turn equals about 30 seconds real-time). After 7 loiter turns have passed, the aircraft must return to base. Certain pilots can add additional loiter turns however, so you have more time to take out the enemy.

When your aircrafts are armed, it’s time to lay out the terrain cards. The map consists of 10 spaces. There are three types of terrain (clear, light obstructed, heavy obstructed) and the campaign card details the types of terrain for the mission (for example, 3 light,7 clear terrain cards). You randomly choose these cards and place them into the terrain space. You then get a good impression of what the battlefield looks from high above…

One of my A-10s during a primary mission...

Before revealing the actual enemy ground units, you have to decide where you place your aircraft. Each aircraft is placed in one of the ten terrain cards (they can fly together, but they don’t have to). In this game, you have to take Light of Sight (LOS) into consideration. Hills and ridges block Line of Sight and there are certain rules when you can see an enemy – and when not. And watch out, sometimes, you cannot see the enemy, but he can see you! In contrast to ASL, LOS isn’t reciprocal in this game; units are not blocked by LOS in their own terrain card, while terrain in their card may block the enemy’s LOS to them.

When your aircraft are placed, you will learn who your enemy really is. The target card shows a table which is divided into several unit types. In addition, the target card has a “value” (which differs at full and half strength, for example 26+ and 13+). You now roll on the table and “spawn” the units you roll, for example, 2 infantry units. Then you read the unit value on the enemy unit table listed on the mapsheet. An infantry unit is worth 1 point, so two infantry units are worth a total of 2 points. If the battalion’s total value is 26+, you have to roll again on the table… and again, until the value of units rolled equals or exceeds the total value of the battalion. This means, you could easily spawn several infantry counters, AAA vehicles, tanks, command vehicles, APCs in one mission. The counter mix is the only limit; if you spawn another AAA vehicle, but don’t have any AAA counters left, you take the counters of the next unit type on your target card.

When all ground units are rolled, you put them on the map by rolling the 10-sided die. Each number corresponds with a terrain card, so you put the unit counters in their respective terrain cards.

After the enemy units appeared, it’s time for the first loiter turn. At first, you have to declare whether you want to establish a guidance lock into one of the terrain cards. You need a guidance lock for stand-off attacks (= firing Hellfires and Mavericks from the distance). When locking-on, you are at a certain risk of being spotted by additional ground units you didn’t see before, so you check whether enemy units “pop-up” in your terrain cards. Unfortunately, these units don’t count for success purposes; similar to aircrafts, their only purpose is to annoy you…

Then you roll for initiative. Whoever gets initiative attacks first, which could really hurt if you are in or adjacent to a terrain card with dangerous enemy ground units.

Aircraft attacks enemy ground units

The battlefield, as seen from high above

If you get initiative, you attack first. Your jets and helicopters can move to an adjacent terrain card (they don’t have to)  and then they conduct attacks. Cannon and rocket attacks can only be made within the same terrain card while stand-off attacks are conducted against any terrain card where you have a guidance lock to. Each aircraft can either conduct a rocket or a cannon or two stand-off attacks, but never two different types of attacks. Advanced rules allow for spending only parts of your ammo counters in single shots, but in the basic game, you shoot one munition type, you spend the counter.

The munition table on the mapsheet gives a detailed overview over weapon effects on different target types (infantry, non-armored, soft, hard vehicles). Each weapon is listed with a To-Hit-number for each target type. You have to roll this number or higher in order to achieve a hit. If you hit, the target is destroyed. This system is very elegant – it abstracts all kinds of information into one roll, for example the fact that you could attack a tank with a weapon designed to hit infantry, but your chances would be next to zero to damage the tank. Rocket pods can be fired in burst mode (less damage but you could use the same weapon counter over and over again) or salvo mode (higher damage, but the counter is lost after the attack is resolved). Each weapon type is represented in a detailed and quite accurate fashion in a very comprehensive combat system – something we greatly enjoy in this game! All abstractions and calculations work great and create an astonishing impression of accuracy and simulation.

If you destroy an enemy unit, it is flipped to the destroyed side.

The enemy attacks you!

Another enemy type: Motorized infantry

When you are done (or the enemy got initiative first), enemy units attack your aircraft. All enemy units attack automatically if they are in range and have LOS. If there are two eligible targets at the same rage, the target is determined by chit draw (“order of attack”) where a number indicates which unit is the target of the attack.

A table on the mapsheet lists all enemy unit types and their effects against aircraft at ranges 0 (= in the same terrain card) to 2 (only SAM can attack at a range of 2, most units attack on ranges 0-1). The attack system is very cool and very detailed: the table shows how “hard” an enemy unit hits an aircraft at a certain range. This is measured in “minor” and “serious” hits.

The game contains a number of hit counters with a yellow side (minor hits) and a red side (serious hits). If the chart tells you that a unit will apply 2 minor hits against your aircraft, you randomly draw two yellow chits from a cup. The chits detail the effects on your aircraft and / or pilots. They range from “no effect” (phew!) to “Dive!” ( your aircraft is forced by the enemy attacks to dive close to the ground with a chance of crashing). Effects could reduce your next attack or force you into a maneuver where you won’t be able to attack at all next turn. You could also suffer a “structure” hit which damages your aircraft, the enemies could hit your engine, rattle your pilot, inflict damage to your HUD (which will reduce your hit chances for the rest of the mission), enemies could get a solid lock-on to your aircraft which highly increases their chance to hit you with the next attacks, you could lose your guidance lock, force you to abort the mission immediately, kill your pilot (which will, of course, lead to a crash), or they could damage your Pylon which means that you (randomly) lose 2 munition counters. You could also be forced to draw a number of additional chits (minor or serious) which increases the chance of suffering damage.

 

Special Conditions for the day can be positive or negative

The combat effects are varied and drawing the chits is exciting. Fortunately, not each chit is an immediate death sentence for your pilot or aircraft. Most chits have a letter in the upper right corner (P, N, G, E) which symbolizes a certain troop quality. If you are fighting “poor” enemy troops, each counter with a “P” is considered to be a miss. Since poor troops are much worse in combat than Elite troops, there are much more counters with a “P” than with an “E”.

In addition, some counters list a certain aircraft type, for example “A-10” or “AH-1”. This is called “immunity”. If you are conducting an attack against one of your Cobras and draw a “AH-1” chit, this means that there is no effect on the Cobra (a Cobra isn’t well armored but has a high maneuverability, so chances are good that it escapes the attack). A-10 are heavily armored and have redundant systems, so they are more immune to system failure than a AH-64. This immunity system adds more realism and detail and nicely represents the different aircraft with their individual strengths and weaknesses.

After both sides have attacked, it is checked if enemy aircraft appear on the battlefield. The campaign lists an aircraft number and if you roll

this number or lower, an enemy aircraft (jet or helicopter, for example a Hind or a MiG) arrives. Enemy aircraft can be highly dangerous and they pursue you and try to hunt you down at all cost.

Harriers and Thunderbolts get the chance of moving a second time after the attacks are done (this symbolizes their higher speed), then the next loiter turn is conducted where you repeat all steps from establishing guidance lock to determining initiative, conducting combat, check for enemy aircraft and so on.

Saddam's ground forces strike back!

Your objective is to destroy as many ground units as possible. Each target card lists when the battalion is considered to be at half strength and when it is considered to be destroyed. You have to damage as many targets as possible, and – what is equally important – you should try to hit the most valuable targets because they have a higher point value. Combat is very intense, choosing which aircraft attacks which enemy unit is hard, and hiding from dangerous Anti-Air or enemy aircraft while attacking a valuable command vehicle is actually tricky.

After all loiter turns have passed, you must return to base. This is mandatory, you cannot stay as long as you wish to (no fuel…). On your way back home, you check whether damaged aircraft crash. At home, you determine the stress level of each pilot. Pilots who were rattled during the combat have a higher chance of failing the stress test.

The outcome of the mission is determined by counting the values of intact enemy ground units. Each unit is worth a certain number of points. If the total is equal to or lesser than the value listened for “half strength”, the enemy battalion is reduced. If the total is lesser than the minimum “half strength” number, the battalion is considered to have lost their combat effectiveness (=destroyed).

If you reduced the enemy to half strength, flip the battalion counter on the sector map to the half strength side. If it is destroyed, remove the counter.

Unfortunately, enemy units tend to move into cover once they were attacked. Elite troops will more likely move into cover than poor troops and units in cover are significantly harder to hit.

Strategic actions

 

Mission Events can happen at the beginning and at the end of a mission

Back in your air base, you get the daily number of Air Base Points listed on the campaign card (the number can be modified by certain penalties). You have the chance to repair damaged aircraft or to replace crashed aircrafts or dead pilots and crews.

Despite the fact that you are the leader of a fighter squadron, you can now decide whether friendly ground units move. They can move to an adjacent band on the sector map, attempting to attack the enemy or retreat towards your base (it is considered that they follow an overall strategy… which, in fact, is yours 😉 ). In most cases, your ground forces will try to attack enemy ground forces to weaken or destroy them.

Unfortunately, enemy ground forces have a chance of moving to an adjacent band as well. This depends on their troop quality (“morale”) and unit type. Assault units are faster and will usually move towards your base in order to overrun it. Command and support vehicles will try to stay behind. If a unit is at half strength, chances are better that it will stay or retreat rather than advance.

If, after enemy units moved, your ground units are in the same band as an enemy unit, ground combat ensues. This is conducted for both sides simultaneously by determining the attack modifiers of both sides which are listed in a battalion table on the sector map. Each battalion then attacks by rolling a die and adding their modifiers. The ground combat result table lists whether battalions loses none, one or two steps. You then freely apply your hits and the enemy’s hits to the participating ground units.

 

The Enemy Offensive almost crushed our forces in Operation Desert Storm

Beware. All enemy ground units on the sector map have a certain chance of recovering from the effects of your attack (=return to full strength). The chance depends on their troop quality and their position on the sector map.

Last but not least, you check for enemy “break“. If the number of enemy battalions is equal or lower than the break number on the campaign card, the enemy is defeated and you have won the campaign. If not, the game continues. You also have to check whether enemy units are in your air base band. If so, you have to dispose of them as quickly as possible; if there are still enemy units at the end of a day, you are “overrun” and lose the game.

When no victory or defeat condition is met, the day marker is advanced and you start again with planning today’s missions.

Beginning with day 2, your pilots in sick bay and shaken pilots can recover from their stress and wounds. Your “airbase sheet” shows detailed sections, for example a hangar where damaged aircraft cards are placed, a sick bay, a pilot’s lounge for shaken pilots, and the briefing rooms for ready pilots. This adds nice detail to the game and creates a cool atmosphere of actually being the squadron commander in a real air base. The combination of abstractions on the one hand and details and chrome on the other hand is well-balanced in this game.

This was the Sequence of Play in a nutshell. I didn’t point out all events that could happen in a game, nor all modifiers, options, and additional variants or advanced rules, for example pilot fatigue and experience, single shots, attacking while moving slowly etc – I just wanted to give you a general overview of how the game works.

Playability

 

A-10 Thunderbolt pilot

The game is not easy, to be sure. It is a fairly complex military simulation and you have to consult several tables for each aspect of the game, for each munition type, for each aircraft type, for almost everything. But this isn’t dry or boring at all – actually, the game is very entertaining, very thrilling and exciting because most of the game happens inside your head (and as part of the communication bteween the players when you play in coop mode) rather than on the game board.

The rules are doing a good job of introducing you to the game system. If you choose the Novice “Operation Desert Storm” campaign for your first introductory game, you will get a hang of the game system by Day 2. Once you understood the Sequence of Play, the difference between primary and secondary missions and how to calculate munitions and effects, you can concentrate on strategy. And the game has lots to offer in terms of strategy and tactics – game depth is very high, much higher than you might expect on first sight.

Playability is great with one player as well as with two players. The game system works very smoothly, it’s very harmonic and appears to be well thought-out and works with impressing abstraction models. All charts, maps, sheets are informative and you never get the impression of being “left alone” by the game.

The “Paper AI”, the artificial intelligence of enemy units, which is a crucial point in solitaire and cooperative games where you don’t play against a human opponent but against the game itself, works great. The combat system with minor and serious damage chits is very clever and works fine.

TAL is a game with a very good playability, it doesn’t feel cumbersome or repetitive at all, it is very atmospheric and true to the topic. We greatly enjoy each game, the variety is high, and each game remains challenging, even to an experienced player. The difficulty levels ensure that a beginner has a chance to “beat the game system” while a veteran will have a tough time fighting elite troops on expert difficulty.

 

Modern Warfare: Satellite Recon

Replay Value

Very high. There are many randomized elements which ensure that you face different combat situations each time you play the game. You can beat one campaign over and over again, with enemies ranging from “poor” to “elite” quality and with different tactical situations.

The terrain varies, the enemy units vary, and even if you are fighting against battalions you encountered last time, their composition will be different once you actually meet their ground forces on the battlefield. You can choose between different pilots or crews, you could play with jets or helicopters exclusively or combine both. Each day and each mission can also be modified by events which come into play by event cards.

TAL never gets old!

Creativity

In our opinion, TAL is a very clever design which utilizes very clear and manageable mechanics to create a surprisingly good and accurate impression of CAS combat (Close Air Support). The game isn’t buried in chrome – anything which is integrated into the game is functional and actually adds to gameplay.

The abstraction models used in this game are impressive, we really like how the game simulates different munition types, aircrafts, and enemy behavior. Small details, for example that Elite troops go into cover when enemy aircraft are adjacent to their terrain while troops of a lesser quality don’t react, are convincing.

The Paper AI works excellent. We think that TAL is a very creative game concept (it is even one of our favorite consims, so it must be cool!)

Simulation Value

 

Terrain with LOS-blocking mountains - as seen from high above

As we mentioned before, the simulation value is quite high. The game integrates an astonishing amount of accuracy, detail, and information into the game. You can actually learn a lot about modern air-to-ground combat. Much is simulated you don’t realize at first glance, but the longer you play the game, the more you discover.

The game uses clever abstractions which work great in simulating air-to-ground combat. The feeling of actually “commanding” a squadron is high, the “stories” told by the game are believable, and many events add to the atmosphere. In one game, we got the event “enemy offensive”… and during the primary mission, we virtually were smashed by a combination of unlucky die rolls, unlucky chit draws, and the appearance of three enemy aircraft. We lost our helicopters, our pilots were rattled beyond belief, and we had to admit: yes, this was a hell of an enemy offensive!

Solitaire Playability

Well, TAL is a Solitaire game in the first place.It works perfect as a solitaire game and it works equally perfect as a two-player-cooperative game. The artificial AI is handled by clever mechanics which work and which are very convincing no matter how the game is played.

It wasn’t the designer’s intention in the first place, but the game really shines as a coop game. We would even recommend to promote it as a two-player cooperative game, it doesn’t even need additional rules to work fine with two players, and since there is a certain demand for cooperative games, we want to point coop fans to TAL. They may have ignored the game because it is sold as a “solitaire” game, so they so don’t know what they have missed so far.

We explicitly recommend the game both for solitaire and coop gamers!

Can be compared to…

…other games from the Leader series (for example, its predecessor Hornet Leader). We didn’t play Hornet Leader, so we cannot point out the differences between both games.

TAL plays very differently from other air combat games (you cannot compare it to Down in Flames, for example) because you never maneuver on the battlefield or in air space in relative position to other aircraft. Instead, aircraft are moved on an abstract level.

Denny Koch’s conclusion

We don’t deny it – TAL is one of our favorite games of all times.

Sure, you have to do lots of math and calculations, but we aren’t fazed by tables and charts, we play ASL… TAL is a very clever, very functional, very accurate design which does many things right – an almost nothing wrong.

Minor complaints are some problematic wordings in the rulebook, missing phases in the printed Sequence of Play, or that the game could have included a player reference sheet for attack effects and other relevant information. But besides this, the game is close to perfect. Yes, I would go so far.

Pilots are humans, Part II: Beware of the Bar Room Brawl!

I especially like the combination of strategical and tactical elements with resource management, the great playability (solitaire and in coop), the variety and replayability, the tough decision-making. The Paper AI works flawlessly, the enemy behavior (depending on their troop quality) is convincing.

The game puts much attention to detail, from stress suffered by pilots, to each weapon and aircraft type. Abstractions used by the game are intelligent and well thought-out. The atmosphere created by the game is very authentic and gameplay depth is enormous. You are forced into decision-making constantly, and you have to take many variables into account when planning your daily missions. Nevertheless, the mechanics are not really difficult, once you understood how the game works.

I especially like that the game system is very detailed – without too much chrome, each detail portrayed in the game plays an important part within the mechanics and is fully functional. Having single aircrafts and single pilots which can be combined in whichever way you like is one of the strongest aspects of the game. Your jets and helicopters aren’t controlled by nameless, faceless entities but by humans with call signs, a face, certain skills, and abilities – humans which can suffer from stress and fatigue, but which can also be an asset to their team mates if they have special leadership abilities.

The airbase is an actual location on a separate sheet, showing a briefing room, the sick bay, hangar or pilot’s lounge and your pilots actually hang around on this airbase while they are not on a mission. When they are shaken, they are flipped to their shaken side where their skills are reduced. You can always send a shaken pilot on a mission but he won’t be as fit as a ready pilot and chances are high that he will suffer again. Deciding which pilot to send on a mission today is one of the interesting aspects during the planning phase.

 

TAL contains both historical and hypothetical contemporary scenarios (here: Germany during the Cold War)

TAL was published in 1991, but in contrast to many other games from this era, it doesn’t look outdated or “old”. The cards are printed in the usual style which was also used for Rise of the Luftwaffe or Eighth Air Force during the early 90s. Since the card design is quite technical, schematic and abstract, this looks better than in the first two Down in Flames modules. The cards are somewhat flimsy, but the design is still fresh and modern.

The difficulty levels are a great idea, and the high replayability is one of the strengths of the game. This is a game which could easily be expanded by add-ons which would bring even more variety (additional campaigns, more terrain cards, or additional combat options, for example night missions where everything is printed in night-vision-green). But the game is also great “out of the box” and offers almost endless replay value without any expansions.

TAL can be played cooperatively, something we greatly enjoy, and it creates a cool and believable atmosphere. An interesting, challenging simulation with different levels of gameplay (strategical, tactical), lots of aspects, accurate elements, and surprising events.

TAL is one of the best consims I ever played, and I recommend it to all fans of modern air combat. It is not an easy or “light” game, it is a full-fledged consim and you certainly need some dedication to work your way through the rulebook, but it is worth the effort!

If you only play “lighter” board games and have a problem with long, complex rules, you could be somewhat overtaxed by the game. The same is true if you hate calculations and rolling on effect and combat tables – this game is not for you because you will be calculating and rolling most of the time.

But if you are an experienced wargamer, you won’t have problems getting into the game, and even beginners who are willing to show some dedication should give it a try. Whether you like tactical consims or strategic games, you will find both in TAL – in a very intelligent combination. If you find another dedicated gamer, give it a try together, it is even better than playing alone!

It is generally inadvisable to eject directly over the area you just bombed.

— USAF Manual

2 Responses to “Review: Thunderbolt / Apache Leader (GMT)”

  1. Its one of my all time favourites too, and I fondly recall a tough North Korean campaign I played with a buddy once – he took all the helos and I had all the a-10s as I recall. They meant we had different roles for the aem overall tactical goals. Great stuff indeed!

    I will be REALLY interested to see what DVG’s new version will be like next year. I’m sure all the cards and graphics will be updated, and the DVG website talks ubout some updated weapons, but I’m not sure what will be in there mechanics wise.

    cheers
    Paul

    • Thank you Denny for your wonderful game review.

      This was one of our first game releases back when we started GMT Games some 20 years ago!

      Dan and I had worked together in the 1980’s when we did the “Modern Naval Battles” game series. When we started GMT Games I asked Dan to join our Design Team back then.

      Those were some great memories — thanks again 😉

      For the latest on our activities please join us at the C3i Magazine website…

      http://www.c3iopscenter.com

      Enjoy the Games and C3i,

      Rodger

      Rodger B. MacGowan
      Vice President, GMT Games
      Publisher, C3i Magazine

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