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Review: Hornet Leader – Carrier Air Operations (DVG)

Posted by Denny Koch on February 3, 2011

Game: Hornet Leader – Carrier Air Operations

Publisher: DVG
Published in: 2010
Designer: Dan Verssen
Era and Topic: Contemporary / Historical and Hypothetical / Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground warfare
Components: 330 Full Color Cards, 2 Full Color Counter Sheets (352 counters), 8 Full Color Campaign Sheets (Libya 1986, WWIII North Atlantic 1986, Iraq 1991, Israel Defense 2003, North Korea 2007, Taiwan Defense 2008, Russia 2012, Iran 2014), 11″x17″ Mounted Tactical Sheet, Full Color Player Aid Sheets
Game Type: Mixed: Board, counters, card-driven

HFC Game-O-Meter: D


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9.5
Rules:
7
Playability:
9
Replay Value:
10

Overall Rating: 9

PRO Awesome presentation; excellent production quality; heavy box crammed with cool stuff; historical and hypothetical scenarios; solitaire game which can be played as 2-player cooperative game; tough decision-making; interesting mix of tactical and operational gameplay; large variant of aircraft; world-wide missions; various adaptable difficulty-levels for beginners up to experts; Navy and Marines variants; lots of “chrome” adds to the atmosphere; rulebook includes background information about weapons and friendly aircraft…
CONTRA …but no information or design notes about enemy units; no hints about coop gameplay included in the rulebook; service years and aircraft type should have been printed on the counters for easy reference; only one log sheet in the game box


Introduction

We are big fans of Thunderbolt Apache Leader (GMT), so we were looking forward to Dan Verssen’s Hornet Leader – Carrier Air Operations, the latest game in DVG’s Leader Series.

Believe it or not, the "Solitaire game" Hornet Leader is one of the best cooperative wargames ever!

We are also notorious for our special interest in cooperative games, so we were really delighted when we discovered that Hornet Leader (HL) isn’t only an excellent solitaire game but also a very challenging 2-player cooperative game experience which requires much teamwork, planning, and tough decision-making.

In Hornet Leader, you are in command of a Navy aircraft squadron, stationed on an aircraft carrier. The game is scenario based and offers historical and hypothetical contemporary scenarios ranging from Libya 1986, Iraq: Operation Desert Storm 1991, Israel Defense 2003, North Korea 2007, Taiwan Defense 2008 up to WWIII North Atlantic 1986, Taiwan Defense 2008, Russia 2012 or Iran 2014.

Scenarios (“Campaigns“) come in various difficulty levels, ranging from introductory to expert. You can also “tweak” all scenarios if you want them to be easier or more challenging by adding “advantages” or “disadvantages”. In addition, you can choose to play each scenario as an US Navy or US Marines squadron which means that you have different aircraft at your disposal (because Marines carriers are smaller and operate closer to the shoreline) and different rules regarding the target zones of your attacks. You can also play each Campaign as a short, medium, or long campaign, depending on how much playing time you have at your disposal. Combined with the fact that you face different enemies each time you play the scenario, this system ensures a very high replay value.

There are different types of mission, you don't destroy targets day in, day out - sometimes, you also fly Search & Rescue Missions or protect your own fleet

The main objective of the game is to fly “Missions” where you destroy enemy ground units, for example tanks and convoys, stationary installations (Radar stations, factories) or fight enemy fighter squadrons or fleets. There is a large variety of available targets which have different special traits as well as variable numbers of protective ground units and/or fighters. Some are easy to destroy, some are tough nuts. Some can be destroyed in addition to a primary mission as a secondary target. Each destroyed target is worth a certain number of Victory Points, so you have to pick your targets carefully.

The game is an interesting mix of card game with a game board (“Tactical Display Sheet”) and counter system. Aircraft are represented by cards (and counters while flying a mission), their weapons are counters. Random events and the composition of enemy forces are determined by card draw, the main target is represented by a card, but you fight ground forces and enemy aircraft which are randomly drawn counters on the Tactical Display Sheet.

Coop gameplay isn’t much different from solitaire gameplay, except that each player commands their own aircraft. But you plan and fly your missions together (which requires much coordination and teamwork to be successful). This variant works great and is really challenging, so if you know another Hornet Leader player in your area, you should give it a try together. To be honest, in our opinion, Hornet Leader is one of the best cooperative wargames ever published

After intensive Hornet Leader sessions, we have to admit that we became enthusiastic HL fans. This is a very good game, it’s demanding, it’s very variable, it’s challenging, and it’s just fun to play. But more about that later…

Game components and graphic presentation

The heavy gamebox is crammed with cool stuff

Hornet Leader is a game with a very high heft factor: the heavy box is crammed with high quality components such as a mounted (!) map-board, various counter-sheets, card-packs, a full-color rulebook and more. This big gamebox isn’t a bluff package (like what you probably know from some other game publishers, big boxes filled with little stuff and much cardboard), here you get a heavy box full of cool stuff for your money.

The overall production quality is very good. The counters are of a thick, sturdy quality and with a nice glossy coating which gives them a very attractive look and a great feel. It’s not a problem to punch the counters from the counter sheets, they are accurately pre-cut without being too loose (so that they would fall out of their counter sheets during shipping).

The full-color cards are also of a very high quality and glossy. The artworks are really cool and add much chrome to the game. There are various types of cards – Aircraft, Target cards, and Event cards.

Aircraft cards show an image of the aircraft type, the pilot’s call sign, various stats and modifiers as well as the ammunition types this aircraft can be equipped with.

Enemy aircraft are called "Bandits". Here: a MiG-25

Target cards show an aerial view of the objective as seen through a HUD (Head-Up Display) and all information about the target (number of enemy ground units and aircraft, special conditions, victory points etc.) are printed in a layout which reminds of the displays in an aircraft cockpit – very stylish.

Last but not least, the Event cards list a title and three events which are resolved during different steps of the turn sequence. They have a plain design without much artwork but concentrate on the text describing the event.

The Campaigns are printed on large, glossy Campaign Sheets which look very attractive. They show a Campaign Map with geographical and military information about the target area, give a short overview over the general situation, and contain scenario specific information (year, types of aircraft and weapons allowed). Not all aircraft can be used in all scenarios; if you play a scenario which takes place in 1986, you cannot pick an aircraft which was put into service in 2001. It would have been nice if the aircraft type and service years were printed on the aircraft counters, though. If you are new to the game and not too accustomed to the aircraft depictions, you will have to compare the aircraft images on the counters with the aircraft descriptions in the rulebook to figure out which is which and which was put into service when. Later, you know the aircraft counters by heart, but it will cost you some time when you are new to the game.

The Help Sheet looks like a clip board - very nice idea!

The Campaign Sheet also gives information about the difficulty level, victory conditions, and contains various game tracks: the recon, intel, and infra tracks where you will place the corresponding counters during a Campaign.

A Help Sheet contains many important information for quick reference. It is designed like a clip board – something we liked from the beginning because it also adds chrome and atmosphere to the game. The designer’s love for chrome and attention to little details like this are very obvious in this game.

The game board is mounted and of a very high, sturdy quality – something you don’t find often in times of cardboard or (even worse)  paper mapboards. The board (“Tactical Display Sheet”)  contains spaces for the various card decks, a turn counter to see the the time spent over the target, a large area were counters are placed during a mission, and an extensive Sequence of Play. A record track for your remaining Strategic Option points would have been a nice addition, but you have to keep track of them on your Player Log Sheet.

Last but not least, the game contains a Player Log Sheet which serves as a protocol during the game. You record your aircraft, pilots, pilot status, and points on this sheet. Unfortunately, the game only contains one sheet of paper which must be photocopied by yourself (alternatively, you can print out the player log which is available as a PDF from the DVG website). If you don’t know that the game contains only one logsheet and if you don’t have a computer and printer at your location, you will have to use the original log sheet or record your information on another sheet of paper with an improvised hand-drawn table. To spare a new player this surprise, including some more record sheets would have been nice – 5 sheets would have been enough to let a player play a few games without forcing him to make photocopies or downloading and printing the sheet from the very beginning.We played our first game in a location without a printer, so we used the original sheet for our first game. This wasn’t much of a problem because we downloaded and printed more log sheets later, but it could have been easily avoided if the game contained 2-5 additional sheets of paper.

Besides this minor complaint, the box components are awesome. The overall game art by Wan Chiu is very stylish, very modern and graphically appealing. The component quality is very high, the materials are robust, glossy coated, and of a high overall production quality. You certainly get a bang for your buck!

Rules

The 24-pages rulebook is printed in full-color. It is also available for free download on the official DVG website (PDF).

The full-color rulebook is comprehensive and with many illustrations

The rulebook contains many illustrations and is written in a clear, comprehensive fashion. Some wordings are somewhat ambiguous or confusing for a new player (for example the term “Starting Options” which are in fact “Optional Rules” – we had some minor debates before figuring out how the Starting Options were meant to be used). Overall, the rules are really fine and didn’t cause any major problems while learning the game. We didn’t discover any black holes or game stoppers (which are often a problem in wargames or consims and which require intensive research in FAQs and game forums before you are able to actually go on with the game, being sure to play it right) and there were no problems we couldn’t solve on our own by using common sense.

Another positive aspect of the rulebook is the fact that the designer reduced the amount of examples which (in some of his older games) often introduced rules not explained in the main rules text instead of just illustrating a rule fully explained in the rule book. In Hornet Leader, all examples are just that: examples for a given rule. In addition, the last pages of the rulebook contain an extensive description of a Sample Mission which will certainly help new players to get an impression of the gameplay and of how the game works.

We have one complaint regarding the rulebook, though. The game is promoted as a solitaire game, but it is perfectly suited for 2 player-cooperative gameplay as well (as was Thunderbolt Apache Leader). But in contrast to TAL, which at least contained a small paragraph about how to play the game cooperatively, Hornet Leader doesn’t even mention the possibility of coop gameplay, neither on the game box nor in the rulebook. A missed opportunity to attract even more players!

Several players asked whether Hornet Leader can be played cooperatively, so the interest is certainly there. Since gameplay doesn’t differ from solitaire gameplay, one or two sentences would have been enough to avoid any confusion and to answer this question – and to make many players happy 🙂

This is how you play Hornet Leader cooperatively: According to Dan Verssen, players take turns picking their aircraft. They then plan and conduct the missions together, just like in a solitaire game. We tested this variant (drawing lots who got the newbie and who got the skilled pilot), and it worked really smooth – strongly reminding us of the cooperative gameplay of Thunderbolt / Apache Leader, requiring a similar account of discussion and cooperation in order to conduct a mission. No rules changes for two players required, you can play it cooperatively out of the box!

Enemy site. Unfortunately, you have to know what a SA-2 is - the rulebook contains no background information about the enemy sites

The rulebook contains detailed descriptions and background information for each friendly aircraft represented in the game, as well as information about the different types of weapons. What we were missing, though, were information about the enemy ground units and aircraft. The enemy aircraft (“bandits”) types are listed on their counters (SU-24, MIG-25 etc.), but some more information about these aircraft, similar to the descriptions of the friendly aircraft, would have been nice. Enemy ground units (“sites”) remain abstract  units (SA-2, SA-8A, S-60, Zu-23-4) with various anti-air capabilities, but they are not described any further. More details about the sites would certainly add to the atmosphere of the game because it would allow the player to create a more lively image of the opposing forces in his mind while playing the game. If you are not an expert for anti-air weapons, the red enemy sites counters remain abstract threats with different stats instead of becoming a SAM, a GECKO, or a Shilka.

We are also very fond of designer’s notes and to learn why a designer designed certain aspects of his game the way he did. Some interesting thoughts about the new incarnation of Hornet Leader and the differences to the old Hornet Leader (GMT Games) and Hornet Leader II are available on the DVG website (PDF). Nevertheless, you can never have enough designer’s notes, so some words about the game design in the rulebook would have been nice.

All in all, the rulebook does a good job. It’s modern, it’s comprehensive and richly illustrated.

Gameplay and Playability

Air-to-Air weapons are easily recognized by the yellow stripe

The game works great, both as a solitaire game and as a cooperative 2-player game. You can adjust the Campaign duration to your personal needs – you can play each campaign in a short, a medium, and long variant, which is perfect when you have very little spare time – or an entire weekend for yourself.

The game is characterized by a strong variability each time you set up a Campaign. You can choose from a large variety of aircraft, of pilots, of skill levels, of weapons, and you won’t encounter the same combination of enemies twice. There are enough events to make a difference each time you play a game, you can add optional rules (“Starting options”), advantages and disadvantages, and last but not least, you can play each Campaign as a Navy or Marines squadron. This will make each game a fresh and new experience, even if you play the same Campaign over and over again.

Hornet Leader – Carrier Air Operations requires some table space because you have to lay out the Tactical Display Sheet, your Player Log Sheet, the Player Help Sheet, and your aircraft cards. In addition, you need some cups for chit drawing and space for stacking your weapon counters. When playing with two players, players sit side by side in front of the Tactical Display Sheet while keeping their aircraft on their sides of the table. Only one player is required to fill out the log sheet and to record the experience points and status of all pilots.

Selecting a Campaign

"North Korea 2011" - a hypothetical scenario not too far from reality...

A Campaign consists of several turns, each turn representing a day. The short, medium, or long variants of a Campaign differ in the number of days, victory conditions, and number of Special Option points available. A Campaign can have five different outcomes, depending on your victory points: great, good, adequate, poor, dismal.

Depending on Campaign length, you select pilots of various skill levels. In a short campaign, you can select 1 Newbie, 2 Green, 2 Average, and 1 Skilled pilot. In a long campaign, you get 1 Newbie, 2 Green, 6 Average, 2 Skilled, and 1 Veteran pilot.

After you have decided which Campaign you will fly and how many days your Campaign will take, you have to consult the “available aircraft” table on the Campaign sheet which lists all aircraft and ammunition types available. The game contains six versions of each pilot: Newbie, Green, Average, Skilled, Veteran, and Ace which vary in stats and special abilities. They can also level up during the Campaign by gaining Experience Points (XP) and reach a higher skill level. XP are gained by flying missions and by resolving special Random Events.

You then pick your allowed number of pilots for each skill level (or, if you play cooperatively, you take turns picking pilots). Depending on whether you play a Navy or Marines Campaign, you have different aircraft types at your disposal. Marines can only choose among AV-8Bs Harriers and F-35 B/Cs Lighting while in a Navy game you can choose among all aircraft types (depending on their service years, of course) except AV-8Bs.

Despite its name, the game is not limited to aircraft of the “Hornet” types (FA-18C/E/F, EA-18G) but also to a variety of other aircraft, even support aircraft like the E-2C Hawkeye or the EA-6B Prowler. You also find aircraft from various eras (even the Vietnam war): A-6 Intruder, A-7 Corsair II, or F-14 Tomcat.

It's always helpful to be supported by a Hawkeye. It can't fight or carry bombs, but it will give you valuable intelligence information and situational awareness and it will help you during your target-bound flight

Selecting the composition of your aircraft and where to put your newbie and skilled pilots is very demanding and requires planning in advance. This decision-making is even more challenging when playing with two players because you have to make sure that you are prepared for the various situations with a flexible-enough squadron.

Depending on Campaign Length, you also get a certain amount of Special Option Points (SO Points). These points are quite valuable and they won’t be restored during game – you have to spend them very carefully because they are all you get (except from special events or night missions) – you don’t get a fixed amount “back” each turn. You spend them to pay for above-average aircraft (but you also get some if you choose inferior aircraft), and during gameplay, you spend them for special ammunition (only standard ammunition is for free). You also need them for stress recovery, or replacing killed pilots, or for buying “Priority Options” which, for example, enhance your recon abilities.

In a 2-player-game, players share a common pool of SO points, they don’t get points of their own, which also makes the coordination and planning discussions between the players an important part of the game.

Operation Desert Storm: Iraq 1991” is the Introductory Campaign, which is perfectly suited for learning the game and for getting a very good impression of the overall gameplay. Despite the fact that the default difficulty level is “Introductory”, you will learn really fast how dangerous the enemy is and how important it is to pick the right aircraft and weapons for the mission. The game (and the enemy who is “controlled” by the game AI) is unforgiving and you will feel the consequences of poor choices or poor planning almost instantly. This may sound frustrating, but it isn’t – on the contrary, it is very challenging (even more so in a 2-player game when two players have to suffer the consequences of their wrong decisions).

If you are new to the game, you should start with the Introductory difficulty level – it is there for a reason. Believe us, “Expert” means exactly that, and you will be surprised how tough Saddam’s troops are – despite the misleading word “Introductory”… 😉

Sequence of Play

The game follows a very strict Sequence of Play, which means: when you missed the right action window for a certain action, the opportunity is lost. A Campaign takes several turns (“Days”) and each day is divided into different steps and phases:

Pre-Flight

At the beginning of the day, todays’ mission is determined by drawing target cards. You don’t have to choose the first card you draw, you can draw a number of target cards up to your current Recon value and sometimes, you even get the opportunity to choose a Secondary target besides your Primary target.

Target cards come in various kinds. A target could be an airfield, a SAM site, or a storage facility, a factory or an enemy fleet you have to destroy by an airstrike. All targets are protected by enemy aircraft and stationary anti-air sites, so getting into the target zone is no cakewalk.

There are various types of targets. Each target requires a different strategy.

Once you know your target of the day, you determine the protective enemy sites by random chit draw and place the units on the Tactical Display Sheet. You then assign pilots to the mission. The number of aircraft you can send is limited by a number on the target card, you cannot send as much aircraft as you like! In addition, range from your base (the carrier) to the target further limits your options because you have to take more fuel if you choose a target which is far away from your base (=less weight points available for weapons).

You then arm your aircraft with standard and special weapons. Special weapons cost SO points but are more powerful. You have to plan carefully because not all aircraft can carry all kinds of weapons, some are specialized in air-to-air combat, some are better at air-to-ground-combat, and some cannot carry any weapons at all (e.g. Hawkeye). You can always expect to meet enemy aircraft and you often will have to take out defensive Anti-Air sites before you are able to destroy the target, so you must plan carefully and assign roles in advance. As you can imagine, planning in advance with two players is even more difficult and will lead to interesting debates.

Ammunition counter (here: AGM-154). The rulebook contains background information for all weapons

You can choose among a variety of weapons (depending on the year the Campaign takes place). The game contains various Air-to-Air weapons (AIM-7, AIM-9, AIM-120, AIM-54) which can only be used against other aircraft, not against ground units. Air-to-Ground weapons include Anti-Radar-weaponry, weapons for dispersed or high altitude attacks, various bombs and rockets which are designed to destroy soft targets (ie. sites). The weapon counters list the weapons’ characteristics, for example range, attack type, altitude, and weight. Weight is very important because each aircraft can carry only a certain amount of weaponry and it may actually hinder the dogfight abilities when the aircraft is loaded with heavy air-to-ground-bombs.

Target-Bound Flight

Once you armed your aircraft, you take off towards the target. Your aircraft counters are placed on the Tactical Map Display where they must try to reach the center area where the mission target is located (or attack the target with ranged weapons from one of the pre-approach or approach areas). Unfortunately, the center area is surrounded by adjacent areas which are protected by anti-air facilities. You have to select your initial flight height (Low or High). Some weapons can only be used from a specific altitude (some require you to fly low over the target, others need a high altitude, some can be fired from both altitudes, bombs have to be dropped right above the target, rockets can be fired from afar). Enemy ground units can also attack units at different altitudes, so some attacks reach high and low aircraft, some units (for example infantry) can only attack low aircraft. You can only change your altitude once per turn over target during the Move Aircraft step.

At the beginning of the target-bound flight, you draw a Target-Bound Event card which describes any events happening on your way to your target. These events can be harmful or helpful to you, for example a “Weapon Restock” which refills your SO points spent on weapons this day or “Aerial refueling” which allows you to spend one additional turn over the target. Or it can be an unexpected attack against your aircraft.

Wow, that's what I call a heavily defended target...

After placing your aircraft on the tactical display, you place the enemy aircraft – again, determined randomly by chit draw and depending on the numbers on your target card. Your intel status can change the number of enemy aircraft or sites in the area.

Then, you are considered to have reached the mission area and draw another Event card. This time, you refer to the central portion of the card (within the red bar) which describes the “Over target Event“. Most of the time, these events deal with the fact that your intel was wrong  or at least not accurate on all aspects, which means the situation you find is different from what your command expected when you took off. For example, bandits or sites are moved to different locations, or you or the enemy get die roll modifiers. This represents the fact that Intelligence is giving you some basic information, but you’ll never know what’s really there until you arrive in the hot zone.

You then have the one-time chance to make Phoenix missile attacks. Only F-14 can make this kind of attacks, and only if they are equipped with AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. After this chance has passed, Phoenix missiles are used just like any other missile type. During this step (only) Phoenix missiles can ignore range and certain penalties and attack several declared targets, which is a great opportunity for a first-strike attack on the enemy. Things blown up before you reach them won’t be able to shoot back at you, it’s that simple 😉

Over Target

Once you are over the target, you have to spend five “Over target” turns in the hot zone (which are called Loiter time in Thunderbolt / Apache Leader). When these 5 turns are over, you must return to base, whether you fulfilled the mission or not (you have only a limited fuel storage). All five “Over target” turns are identical and follow a strict sequence.

First, you get the chance to jettison your munition. This is important when you are involved in air-to-air combat. The more AtG ammo you carry, the worse your air-to-air combat abilities are, because you have to deal with serious Dogfight penalties.

All aircraft – enemy as well as friendly – then attack their targets which can be other aircraft, sites, or the target itself. Who comes first is determined by the pilot’s speed – there are fast and slow pilots. Fast pilots attack before bandits, slow pilots attack after all bandits have attacked. If you took an aircraft / pilot with a high situational awareness with you, you can support slow aircraft by temporarily allowing them to make a “fast” attack.

The pilot with the highest skill level is the Flight Leader. He can also give other pilots of his squadron a temporary “fast” attack boost when he has the situational awareness ability.

One of the famous eponymous Hornets. Each aircraft comes in 6 skill levels, here: the worse (Newbie), the average, and the best (Ace). Stats and abilities differ significantly.

After all aircraft conducted their fast attacks (which are restricted by several attack rules regarding the type and number of targets you can attack at a time), the bandits and sites attack. Their attacks are handled by the game system which works really good – you feel actually threatened by the enemy, as it should be. Once a bandit attacks one of your aircraft, you can try to react to this attack by the use of electronic counter measures (provided the aircraft can use and has equipped ECM Pods), and by conducting an evasive or suppressive maneuver. Your pilots will suffer from stress if they try evasive maneuvers, and they will suffer from stress when they are hit by enemy units, so you have to plan your maneuvers carefully if you want to avoid that your pilots become “unfit”.

Combat is resolved by rolling a 10-sided die and consulting the hit numbers of weapons (taking range, height and various other modifiers into account, for example the shaken state of a pilot or his personal AtA or AtG skills).

After all fast aircraft and bandits conducted their attacks, all slow aircraft attack. In addition, slow pilots who used their situational awareness to conduct a fast attack can attack again in the slow attack phase.  Then, all aircraft can move one space on the Tactical Display. If you did destroy the target, you could leave the Display and fly home. If you didn’t, you will carry on. Bandits will move, too, and try to get closer to your aircraft to get a good shot at you.

Then, the next Loiter turn begins with another chance to jettison munition.

Home-Bound Flight

After 5 turns (or earlier, if you destroyed the target or were forced to abandon the mission due to heavy losses), you will return to your base. First, you draw a Home-bound Event card to check if anything happens on your way back to your carrier. This can be nasty surprises as well as helpful events for your next mission.

Event cards can be really helpful... or a pain in the a**...

You then have the chance to conduct Search and Rescue (SAR) missions for pilots who were shot down over the target. Your pilots could be hurt, they could be killed, MIA or still in good shape. A SAR die roll determines the fate of your pilots, depending on the circumstances of their crash.

Debriefing

During the Debriefing step of the day, you adjust various tracks and record your SO points left as well as the final status of the target (destroyed or not destroyed). You then consult the Campaign sheet to check if you fulfilled the victory conditions. Destroying targets awards the player with victory points, but losing an aircraft deducts VPs.

Pilots always suffer from stress during a mission, which can be so high that the pilot becomes “unfit” and cannot fly the other day. Some pilots are cooler than others and recover faster, but in the end, all pilots suffer from a certain amount of stress after their mission. Once back in base, they can recover from stress, and if you are willing to spend your valuable SO points, you can even send them on R&R. After checking the status of your aircraft (damaged aircraft are repaired automatically, but destroyed aircraft are lost), you record your pilots’ stress level and their Experience Points (XP) gained in the player log sheet.

If a pilot accumulated enough XP, he is promoted (“level up”) to the next skill level.

This ends a day and you start a new turn with the Pre-Flight Phase.

Optional Rules

You can also add Optional Rules to your game which will further enhance your options, or have impact on the length or difficulty of your game.

Two aircraft, fully loaded with various munitions, ready for take off!

You can add Night missions where the attack sequence (Fast – Bandit – Slow) is altered by randomly assigning the attack order. Pilots suffer additional stress but gain a SO reward. You could also take 1 more aircraft than the target card allows, but this will cost you 1 VP.  You could also take 1 less and gain an additional VP if you destroy the target.

Instead of carefully selecting your aircraft, you could randomly assign pilots and aircraft at the beginning of the game. If you choose this option, you gain additional SO Points to the SO Points listed on the Campaign Card in order to compensate for possible poor combinations.

You can also modify the difficulty level of each campaign by adding certain advantages and disadvantages. Disadvantages are extra stress suffered by your pilots, improved sites and bandits, or reduced SO Points at the start of the campaign. Advantages are less stress, downgraded bandits and sites, or increased SO Points.

You can also play a combination of the Marines / Navy variants if you like the larger Navy carriers with more aircraft types, but prefer the different “target band” rule of the Marines Campaigns, by playing the “Large Deck Marine Campaign” variant. There are also rules for replacing pilots and an optional rule which allows you to “damage” a target (instead of the destroyed / intact status in the standard game).

Playability

The playability is great - whether you play solitaire or 2-player cooperative

The playability is great, regardless of whether you play Solitaire or in 2-player-coop. If you know other games from the Leader series or played the old GMT Leader games, you won’t have any problems getting into the game. Once you understood the rules, you will soon be able to concentrate on the tactical and strategical decisions and you will realize your mistakes and poor decisions really soon and experience the consequences very directly.

Since you can play short, medium, and long campaigns, you can always choose the variant which is best suited to your time-table. If you play 2-player coop, the game will take slightly longer because you will have to discuss with your coop partner. But this is part of the fun!

The game is well suited for new players as well as for veterans of the Leader series. New players will have to get accustomed to the game system, but because the game includes introductory difficulty levels and various means of shortening a Campaign, it is very newbie-friendly – and still very challenging and demanding!

Learning the rules by playing the Iraq 1991 Campaign is a very good introduction to the game system… but because of the variety each time you set up a new game, beating Saddam can be a tough nut even for a veteran player.

Hornet Leader combines a good playability with tactical and strategical challenges and very tough decision-making which is quite the perfect combination for a wargame.

Replay Value

You can choose among several Campaigns and adjust them to your personal taste

Extremely high. The game offers an almost endless amount of combinations between various aircraft types, pilots, skill levels, targets, events, so that each Campaign will play differently.  Many elements are randomized and you never have a static “standard setup”, so you can experiment with all kinds of combinations until the end of your days.

If you have a friend who also enjoys air warfare games, you could play cooperatively in addition to playing Solitaire – which will double the variety and the fun.

Creativity

Well, Hornet Leader – Carrier Air Operations doesn’t re-invent the wheel, but it is the enhanced re-launch of an old series and it brings a fresh modern design, stylish artwork, and an astonishing production quality to the gaming table. The overall game mechanics are known from the old GMT classics with improvements or changes here and there, but the overall look-and-feel of the game is fresh and delightful.

Unpacking the heavy box, touching the thick glossy counters, studying the colorful maps, sheets, and cards feels very much 2010ish.

Hornet Leader requires some table space

If you know one of the other or classic Leader series games, you will feel at home immediately, so this certainly isn’t a “never seen before” game system, but it does its job of re-introducing an old series into a new decade and to new players in a very convincing way. I’m sure it will attract new players as well as veterans by the sheer amount of stuff  contained in the game box.

The box design is very attractive and even appealing to non-gamers (or video game players who never thought of playing a board game before). I learned this at the customs office where our game was held for a week. When I unboxed the package, the customs officer couldn’t believe that this was a card/board game and studied the box with genuine interest, highly fascinated by the modern design. His comment was “Wow, this is a board game? Really?”

While the game design itself isn’t entirely new, I’m convinced that Dan Verssen will attract a new, young target group who will find this game system very innovative and fresh because they never played the old Leader games in the 1990s. And we always need fresh blood for the wargaming hobby, so that’s a good thing.

In addition, there are tons of Solitaire games on the market, but very few cooperative games, so this is a market niche. Since coop games are becoming more and more popular in other media (especially in video games), we are convinced that the game could also attract (video) gamers with love for cooperative gameplay.

Simulation Value

"Hey... what's up with these Iraqi units... Saddam is playing UNFAIR!!!"

The new Hornet Leader isn’t as complex as the old Thunderbolt / Apache Leader (which included another level of strategical ground warfare and separate rules for Seconday Missions), but it is still simulative in the depiction of various aircraft types, munitions, and pilot behavior and individual abilities. Sure, some things had to be abstracted for gameplay purposes, but if you are interested in air-to-air and air-to-ground combat, you will certainly recognize how well the different aircraft are represented in the game. You learn a lot about ammunition and of planning air strike missions.

The simulation value could have been enhanced if the rulebook would include information about the enemy aircraft and sites in addition to the information about the friendly aircraft. Nevertheless, you get a good impression of how dangerous a SAM site is to your lightly armored aircraft.

You could always put more detail, more accuracy, more aspects you have to take into account into a game system, but I think Dan Verssen found a good balance between simulative aspects and a smooth gameplay.

The stats and special abilities of various aircraft and sites are well-thought out (as you can read in his designers notes on his website), but you are not forced to struggle with endless lists and calculations while playing the game. Hornet Leader is less simulative than Thunderbolt / Apache Leader which was slightly more complex regarding ammunition types and enemy units, but simulative enough to please any fan of contemporary air combat.

The game doesn’t simulate “flying your aircraft” (no barrel rolls or tight turns here…), but does a great job of simulating the operational level of commanding a fighter squadron and planning missions against enemy ground installations and air units.

In addition, the historical Campaigns (for example Desert Storm) feel authentic and give a good impression of the real conflict depicted in the scenario.

Solitaire Playability

Hornet Leader is a great solitaire game with many randomized elements. It won't get old soon.

Well…. Hornet Leader IS a Solitaire game in the first place, so the Solitaire Playability is perfect. The game makes very clever use of randomization and the enemy AI is controlled by the game in a very convincing manner. You can adjust play length to your individual amount of playing time available, you can adjust the difficulty level and you can choose among a variety of optional rules and combinations. The game won’t get old.

As mentioned before, you can also play the game with a second player cooperatively by simply splitting the aircraft between both players. No rules changes are necessary and the playability doesn’t differ from the Solitaire playability.

If you are looking for a Solitaire game with a high replay value and if you are interested in modern air combat, you should take a look. If you know another player who is also interested, the better!

Can be Compared to…

…other games from the Leader series. If you know Thunderbolt / Apache Leader or the classic Hornet Leader by GMT Games, you will feel at home instantly. The game system is also very similar to the system used in DVG’s Phantom Leader.

The Leader games differ in era and scenarios depicted, by the aircraft and enemy units used in the game, but the overall game system works fine and can be applied to any era or setting where air combat played an important role. We are looking forward to the announced re-launch of Thunderbolt / Apache Leader or new settings like a “Huey Leader” in Vietnam.

Denny Koch’s Conclusions

As already stated in the introduction, Hornet Leader is a very good game! Dan Verssen did a great job here.

The amount of variety is endless, you can adjust the game just to your personal needs (time and difficulty), you can play it alone or with a friend, and you actually learn something about contemporary air-to-ground and air-to-air combat on a very interesting operational level.

If you don’t know the difference between an AIM-7 and AIM-9 or an AGM-88 and an AGM-120, you will know after your first mission. Selecting the right ammunition types and aircraft for the job is the crucial aspect of the game – planning takes longer than actually flying, and planning and calculating is as interesting as flying and fighting! The amount of decision-making required is quite demanding.

Aircraft are more limited or specialized in their roles than in Thunderbolt / Apache Leader, so I got the impression that decision-making is even tougher and more challenging than in TAL. This is even more true in a 2-player-game where you have to coordinate your aircraft and munitions with a partner. Who takes over the supporting role? Who concentrates on air-to-air combat? Who attacks the sites and who attacks the bandits? Who is flight leader and who gives his situational awareness to which aircraft? Do we have a plan B if something goes wrong? How’s the best way to bring in the best weapons to get the job done?

An "Average" result, but a perfect coop experience!

I really enjoyed every minute of a Campaign, from selecting my aircraft to the very last attack on the last target. It would have been cool if descriptions of enemy sites and aircraft would have been included in the rules as well, so some educational and informational potential was wasted here. But your friendly aircraft and ammunition types are listed in a very informative manner, so you have all information required to plan your missions and to pick the right munitions and aircraft for the job.

I really love Thunderbolt / Apache Leader, but Hornet Leader became another favorite within a very short time. After my first mission on Day 1 was done (target missed, one aircraft shot down, pilots unfit, horrible choice of ammunition and aircraft), I decided that I like the game because you get a hang of the game really quick. You get a very direct feedback for poor planning and you can implement your experiences into your planning next day. On Day 2 and Day 3 of my first Campaign, my aircraft kicked ass and even managed to take down a secondary target and a very dangerous improvement.

Our first cooperative game was a blast (despite the fact that it ended with a narrow “average” result), and we came to the same conclusion while playing the game together: Hornet Leader – Carrier Air Operations rocks!

Andreas Ludwig’s Conclusions

I think Denny covered most aspects regarding the great design Dan did with Hornet Leader, so there’s not much left to say for me. The game is a real blast to play and is the perfect mix of enough simulation value and gameplay variability with a not too complicated game system. That’s what I like the most, you actually get more out of it when you come from the consim corner of the wargaming community than you would expect from such a rather low complexity game and every part of the design seems to be there for a good reason.

Not just a "card game" - the game also includes a mounted mapboard and counters (which are very sturdy and with a nice glossy coating)

And I would definitely say that Hornet Leader is a good simulation. Sure, as was already mentioned in the main review, we don’t have a tactical air sim here, where you simulate dogfights in detail, where the flight path and the aero dynamics are translated into math calculations and such things, it’s not, say, Fighting Wings.

But it doesn’t have to be to count as a serious simulation because it’s always the question what is actually being simulated in such a ‘game’. And here I think Hornet Leader does a great job in letting you take a seat in the briefing and planning room of an air fighter command as well as being the squadron commander on the way to actually put into action what was planned in that command room.

I mean – it’s all there, you have to use intelligence and recon, you have to deal with different personalities when assigning the pilots to the mission, different aircraft (some of which better fit to this or to that situation), you have to consider fuel and range and ammunition, and there’s the overall command that expects you to achieve at least a certain level of success because what you do is probably more than destroying one single objective – you are just playing a small part in helping a bigger war plan to succeed.

I think that HL again shows  that Dan Verssen is really good at designing games that don’t simulate technical aspects (it’s not a design fault of course, since to make such a consim, you have to use a different set of mechanics and rules – it’s an actual design decision and a certain design approach) – but a specific meta-game situation, a certain feeling of “being there“: his strength lies in creating an overall perspective with enough details on many different levels which prevent the game from getting too abstract.

So Hornet Leader is a planning game, a briefing room simulation, where you see your aircraft and the enemy on your radar, the Tactical Display board. The Event Cards are the phone calls or the radio messages that come in telling you of things you didn’t know before your squadron arrived in the hot zone, or a new order from someone ‘above’ you in the command chain. These missions never feel scripted, but make you sit on the edge of your seat and hoping for the best, since what really happens is dependent on many things you can’t control – it’s like the real thing I suppose.

Approaching the target with shaken pilots...

You start to care about your pilots which is always a sign for a good design (be that in a video game or in a more traditional consim), when the game is able to immerse the player into the story, you don’t play  “just a game” anymore, you are taking part in that story and that’s what gamers want. And so far, both TAL and HL are doing a damn fine job of sucking me right into the story the game is telling through the missions.

I suppose somebody who is looking for a more detailed simulation of the actual flight action could be disappointed and be confused by the fact that the pre-flight planning phase is so important here and requires a good deal of the playing time. But that’s what makes this game such a winner in my opinion: Modern day air warfare is not really a matter of dogfights in the air anymore, like it was in WWI or even WWII, it’s using high-speed aircraft loaded with smart weapons trying to be as precise as possible in a war that is heavily based on modern communication tools and computers. Because warfare is getting more and more complicated by using the tech stuff available, the planning phase became even more important than it was ever before – because of the far-reaching consequences if things go wrong.

And that is portrayed very well in this game – any decision has to be made on the basis of what you know so far, while being mindful of the possibility that it could turn out to be a completely different situation you will find yourself in at the end of the day. So the tactical / operational planning is perhaps 50% of the game and it’s fun because you know you must have a damned good plan if you want to stand a chance in the flight/fight phases of the game.

When we played the game I thought about the folks who are professionals and I suppose, when you are using the specific language used in such an environment, say when you communicate in a radio message style with your gaming partner and such (“Fox Three!”), it would become even more convincing and an even better simulation of this particular command situation. There’s a lot of room here for creating the perfect atmosphere when you move your aircraft counters on your ‘radar’, when the SAMs start flying, the fuel gets low, the partner is shooting and constantly missing, when there’s a Flight Leader and a Hawkeye up in the air able to give the other fighters new information about enemy positions, thus allowing them to strike first (‘situational awareness’), when things get hectic and the mission could end in disaster. Atmosphere is important and this game is not only quite atmospheric right out of the box, but it’s a great tool you can use to be as authentic and atmospheric as you wish and that’s cool.

Off-topic conclusions: General thoughts about DVG and cooperative games

Denny mentioned that already, but let me get back to what I consider a really important aspect of many of Dan Verssen’s games – the coop experience!

As you probably know by now, we love cooperative games and it doesn’t really matter on which platform we play, either on the Xbox 360 or on the gaming table, coop is always what gets us really excited (at least when done right).

Luckily, in video games generally coop is getting more and more attention by the game designers, because gamers love to sit together on the couch and to play through a story or a mission together against the enemy controlled by a (hopefully smart enough) AI. We do like competitive gameplay as well, but there’s a certain feeling about playing together instead of playing against each other that coop is an important aspect for us when it comes to games in general.

There are of course solitaire gamers out there who either don’t want to play with others or who don’t have the chance to find like-minded folks to play with, and so there has always been a market for solitaire wargames since the beginning of The Hobby. And to create what is called a ‘paper AI‘ is an additional challenge for any wargame designer, much more than for a video game designer who has a lot of specific tools to use and where AI is part of any game anyway, so it’s just a question of utilizing and tweaking it, not of creating something new.

You get a lot of background information about all friendly weapons. After playing HL, you are an expert for AtA and AtG ammunition.

The additional challenge of creating a solitaire board game or a card game is to provide an enemy that gives the impression of being smart and of being ‘alive’  – and there are games that succeed in that more than others. Solitaire ASL has a good AI, as has the classic solitaire Ambush series. There are different ways to create such an AI, some games use cards, some special books that explain what happens in a given situation, some use random chit draws and activations, or a mixture of all these possibilities etc..

And because there are good solitaire games available, the coop question comes to mind rather naturally. When a game has a paper AI that is able to fight one human player, then it’s not that much of a deal to make it work for two or even more players.

Arkham Horror for example allows many players to play together against the game and it is a great experience, but it’s the same game system as when only one player is involved, so you always have the choice to play it as a solitaire or as a coop game. Same with Space Hulk Death Angel, the game works fine with one player against the system as well as with more players. Even the Living Card Game genre is influenced by this coop trend, as you can see with the upcoming Lord of the Rings LCG. And when I think about these games all done by Fantasy Flight Games then it becomes clear that this company has realized that there is a market for coop games which could also attract video gamers (who, in a great majority, love playing cooperatively) to the more traditional board/card games scene. And when I consider the sales, it seems they are heading in the right direction…

And that’s the reason why I cannot understand that coop games don’t play that much of a role in (board and card) wargaming as in the afore-mentioned cases (boardgames mainly from the SciFi / Fantasy genre) or in videogames where many military shooters offer cooperative game modes (for example, SpecOps in Call of Duty Modern Warfare 2 or cooperative missions in Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter and Rainbow Six).

Flying to distant targets causes stress and you need more fuel, so you can take less ammo. On the upside, you get 1 addition XP.

When you have two dedicated solitaire gamers, it makes a lot of sense to assume that they would probably enjoy playing the same game together in the solitaire style they know and love – more than sitting together, but to play each game alone side by side, or to switch into “competition mode” to play a different game against each other. There’s a real potential for coop games, be it the traditional solitaire gamer, or the video gamer, or even the competition guy who wants to try out something new.

When I heard that Dan said we should include the coop aspect into this review (because he is often asked how this or that game of his plays as a coop experience), I thought it obvious that there’s demand for such games. And since that is so, I suggest DVG should take advantage of the simple fact that they already have great coop games in their product line! I haven’t played all games by Dan and I’m sure there are DVG games that don’t fit into the coop idea, but TAL and HL work great as coop games, and I would say they are even better when played in coop than solitaire!

Not because there’s something missing in their solitaire design (they are working great!), but you will get something new when playing them with two players, even if you a veteran of a certain game and played it hundreds of hours solitaire. You will get a whole new level of gameplay in addition to the great game system with all the planning and the discussion of tactics and strategy together!

In my opinion, coop gaming is more fun than playing alone and it even brings a wargame closer to what the real thing is like: sitting in a briefing room, the order comes in to attack this or that objective, what to do now? How do we want to carry it out? What’s your job and what’s mine? When you go after the heavily defended target, how can I cover you? Who deals with enemy bandits and carries Air-to-Air ammunition, who carries the heavy bombs? What’s plan B when things start turning nasty for us? Player A is commanding the attack aircraft, while Player B controls the Hawkeye and announces (with the situational awareness) the enemy positions to his partner and so on.

Two players can easily create such a great story and atmosphere when playing together against the game, so that it is a whole different experience than playing solitaire or against each other. And it’s a real shame that all these cool games don’t even mention their fantastic coop playability on the gamebox!

Solitaire is written out in large letters, coop is not mentioned at all. In the old TAL (GMT), the coop is at least mentioned in the rulebook as a possible game option, but it’s also not more than a brief note. Hornet Leader doesn’t mention it at all, neither on the box, nor in the rules or the official website. And I am afraid that this will be true for other DVG games as well. I didn’t read ‘coop’ in the discussions about the upcoming Uboot Leader…and I immediately thought ‘how cool would it be to have a coop Uboot wargame on the table!?’ What about Huey Leader, flying together in Vietnam, trying to bring the boys out of the hot LZ together?

Also, coop games are incredibly newbie frendly! Two players who are completely new to a game certainly have a better and easier time to learn a game together when they are playing on the same side, trying to achieve a common goal. If you have a new game on the table, and you learn it together with a friend, then both players first have to get used to the mechanics and the rules and all that. And then they have to learn to play their side in order to beat the opponent – and when it comes to that, there are  less possibilities to discuss and learn from the insight the other player has about certain aspects of the game (you don’t want to give that little advantage away when you think you understood something better than your opponent, do you? 😉 ). In a coop game, on the other hand, you can discuss to your heart’s desire and plan ahead the whole game while you are already deep within the real experience: you are playing the game as it was intended to be played from the very beginning –  because players talking with each other, trying to beat the game, is the very idea of any coop game!

So here’s what I want to say: Dan, you probably have some of the best and coolest and most functioning coop wargames/consims available on the market and you don’t even need to design something new to give coop gamers what they want to buy!

But you have to tell them that DVG games are great coop wargames… which can also be played solitaire! It’s not the other way round, really. There’s a market niche, a potential for games that combine wargaming and coop in one design, you just have to be aware of it and tell folks that you sell such games.

You could even concentrate on the coop aspect when you make new designs in the future and probably come up with even cooler features and ideas. When I see how well your games work in the coop mode, although they are not specifically designed for it, I can easily imagine what you could achieve if you create a coop game from scratch with the focus on coop…

I would love to see the coop idea more propagated in the wargaming community and the best tool for achieving that are games that work for more than one player on the same side.

Well, after playing classic Down in Flames series and TAL and now Hornet Leader I have to admit that Dan Verssen is one of my favorite game designers, you know sometimes it’s ok to say ‘Well, really, what this guy does convinced me on so many levels – consider me a fan now :)”

Dan’s games show an incredible amount of interesting ideas and an overall design approach that simply works on so many different levels in a wargame that you actually get more than just a game: You get a story being told, you can learn from the game, images pop up in front of your inner eye because the game feels like a good book – you know, when you forget that you are reading because you are ‘there’. That’s what TAL and HL achieved for me, I was really inside the missions, inside the briefing room and the cockpit, and that worked for me even without too complex mechanics or too many rules.

I don’t shy away from long rules or complexity (how should I, I play ASL 😉 ) – on the contrary, I love complex games that give me many options and different ways to act in a given situation, but it’s of course easier to produce a simulative context with a complex set of rules than with a low complexity design. But if you manage to make it work without a rulebook the size of the Bible, you know the designer is a good one, simple as that!

I also like Dan’s openness regarding ideas and suggestions from the community, there’s a real discussion going on between the designer and the players, and that’s what I appreciate a lot. You don’t get the impression of “hitting a wall” when you have an idea and a designer lets you know ‘the game is good as is – period’ (as I had experienced with some other designers). Nope, DV games are games made for the wargame community by a very talented and responsive designer and although I don’t say every game done by him is a game I like (the Aces High reboot of the DiF series didn’t convince me at all and I think he went too far with the simplicity approach in that game), I can now say that more than one DV game belongs to my all time favoritesTAL and HL belong to the best games I played in my wargame life… and I play a lot of games!

So, go now and get that great game, think about the situation when you end up stranded on a lonely island…you could play this game forever – and if some other poor soul is washed ashore there, you can play coop! 🙂

Solitaire gamers unite… and play coop!



Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9.5
Rules:
7
Playability:
9
Replay Value:
10

Overall Rating: 9

4 Responses to “Review: Hornet Leader – Carrier Air Operations (DVG)”

  1. Thanks for the appreciation of our work 🙂
    Regarding reviews I’d like to add, that we don’t review games that can be played only as a true solitaire. HL was played and reviewed as a coop game and if a solitaire game can be played cooperatively, it fits so to say. That’s just because our gaming time is limited as is the case with all other players out there I suppose and we when we play, we play together. I don’t know PL or the upcomming IAF Leader but if they are built according to the same principles as the other Leader Series games are, I suppose they can be played coop. Btw we have a ton of solitaire games on the shelf and never played them solitaire for the reasons mentioned above. Some of them could make for great coop experiences, e.g. the Ambush series games and we’ll certainly try that out in the future – and write a review 🙂

  2. dprijadi said

    great review guys, now pleas review Phantom Leader and the upcoming IAF leader

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