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Review: Hornet Leader – The Cthulhu Conflict (DVG)

Posted by Denny Koch on February 27, 2014

Cthulhuconflict_boxGame: Hornet Leader – The Cthulhu Conflict

Publisher: DVG
Published in: 2013
Designer: Dan Verssen
Era and Topic: Contemporary / Hypothetical / Cthulhu Myth / Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground warfare
Components: Expansion to Hornet Leader, Basic game required!
Game Type: Mixed: Board, counters, card-driven

HFC Game-O-Meter: D


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9
Rules: 
8
Playability: 
7
Replay Value:
9

Overall Rating: 8.5

PRO Cthulhu! Hornet Leader! Both combined in one game!! Combining both games is a very cool and innovative idea. Can be played as a solitaire game or cooperatively. Great artwork, includes many elements from the Lovecraft universe
CONTRA Higher random element and more luck dependent due to Chaos caused by the Great Old Ones (which fits perfectly to the setting, but could be a turn-off for conservative Hornet Leader players because your careful planning and strategies can and will be destroyed within minutes)

Introduction

 Ia! Ia! Cthulhu Fthagn!

As you may have guessed (for example from reading our Call of Cthulhu: The Card Game articles), we are Cultists. We love everything dealing with Cthulhu and the other Great Old Ones. We play games like Arkham Horror, Elder Sign, the Call of Cthulhu LCG, or video games like Dark Corners of the Earth. And, of course, we watch even the most esoteric movies like the modern silent movie adaption of Call of Cthulhu.

The game can be played solitaire or cooperatively

The game can be played solitaire or cooperatively

So, you can image that we were very happy when Hornet Leader: Cthulhu Conflict arrived in our HFC Test Lab!

We are also fans of DVG’s “Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations” game (which we play cooperatively, since despite the fact that it is marketed as a Solitaire game, it also works great as a Coop game). So when Hornet Leader: Cthulhu Conflict was published as an (quite strange and unexpected) expansion to a down-to-Earth realistic Air combat warfare game, we got very excited.

Cthulhu Conflict isn’t a standalone expansion; ownership of Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations is mandatory because the game uses all material from the basic game and adds new rules, cards, counters, and markers to the mix.

This review will not deal with the core game mechanics and the gameplay sequence of Hornet Leader, so if you don’t know what this game is about and how it is played, you should read our extensive HL review first. It will give you a good overview about how the game works and what kind of game to expect.

It is assumed, both by the expansion and by our review, that you have basic knowledge of Hornet Leader and know how to play the core game. In this review, we will focus on the differences, how the expansion works, and how (good) the setting is portrayed in the game.

Like Hornet Leader, Cthulhu Conflict is scenario based, following the same choice options (game length, difficulty level) you already know from HL. In addition, the game is suitable for Solitaire play as well as 2-player cooperative gameplay vs. the paper AI. Both options work fine and coop games don’t need any adjustments to rules or gameplay. 

Game components and graphic presentation

The game is shipped in a box which is smaller and lighter than the Hornet Leader (HL) box. The HL box, of course, is a heavy monster full of cool stuff, and remember: you will use the contents of both boxes.

Box contents

Box contents

The box contains 56 additional cards (additional aircraft, new target cards, new event cards), 178 counters (bandits, sites, phobia markers), 4 Campaign sheets, and a full-color rule book. All components have the specific “HL look & feel” and fit to the main game seamlessly.

The game includes a Player Log Sheet, printed on a somewhat stronger paper. This serves as a master copy sheet and you can copy it at your local copy shop (or any photocopier at home or at work). There is no pad with several sheets in the box, so if you want to take the box to a friend, you should make sure that you photocopied enough player log sheets. If you don’t want to make physical copies, there is also a PDF version of the log sheet available from the official web site for free download, which can be printed out. The combination of adding a physical photocopy master and offering a digital download version is very user-friendly (adding a full pad with sheets would be the friendliest version, but this is, of course, a question of cost).

The overall production quality is, as usual with games published by DVG, very good. Especially the artworks are outstanding – in contrast to the usual technical images on the cards, the artworks (especially on the target cards) are true to the topic and very stylish with almost painting-like illustrations of creatures and places. The artist did a great job here to convey a very special, very dark Lovecraftian atmosphere.

Rules

The 12-pages-full color-rule book (which is also available as a free download from the official DVG website) doesn’t repeat the original Hornet Leader rules but refers to the HL rulebook for basic gameplay purposes. It details only the differences and rules changes as well as descriptions for new units and additional rules.

The first page is a narrative which tells the player about the first contact between Navy forces from the USS Gridley with strange winged creatures. When the ship is sent out by the Pentagon to investigate the events, the crew becomes witness of jagged spires rising from the Sea. This sets the stage for the Cthulhu Conflict and explains why forces from Hornet Leader are suddenly forced to fight strange creatures from other dimensions instead of Iraqi, Korean, or Russian forces. The 4 Campaigns (=scenarios) then tell the rest of the story of how the events unfold after the first contact.

Campaign sheets

Campaign sheets

The rules then introduce new gameplay elements, like a 20 sided die (which is used for simulating the chaotic disturbances in time and space, i.e. unit (dis)placement) and the fact that the original red “bandits” from the core game are now named “cultists”. They are still supposed to be enemy aircraft, but they are controlled by humans who fell under the influence of the Great Old Ones and are now working for them (voluntarily or due to mind influence…). These changes in terms are explained quite nicely and they adjust the gameplay to the setting without the need of modifying the basic rules. A very simple but effective way to adjust the basic game to an entirely new and strange setting!

The rules then explain set-up, placement rules and introduce a new mechanic: Phobias. In addition to being stressed, your pilots now suffer from phobias. It starts with a mild phobia, but this can develop into a serious psychosis and even insanity later. There are various types of mental illnesses, from well-known ones (like Claustrophobia) to very exotic ones (like Agateophobia, the fear of becoming insane). Each phobia has impact on the pilot’s skills and abilities, and these are explained in an extensive rules section. There is also post-mission insanity (in addition to post-mission stress) and you will suffer from insanity attacks by targets and creatures.

Another large section of the rule book describes the new weapons (like a B53 Nuclear Bomb), and the Cthulhu Forces (like new sites and flying creature).

The last part of the rule book consists of an example of play.

If you know the HL rules by heart, it will be relatively easy to get into Cthulhu Conflict. There are no radical and complex rules changes which would be difficult to remember. The game tries to use the original rules as much as possible, and bends existing rules only in a logical and not very complicated fashion. The most changes to the HL rules are not by bending existing rules, but by adding additional rules (like insanity).

If you don’t know either HL nor CC, you should definitely learn and play a few rounds of “vanilla” Hornet Leader first before adding the Cthulhu expansion in order to get a general understanding of the core mechanics and strategies. Learning both games simultaneously could be somewhat overtaxing, at least if you have never played a Leader game before.

Leader veterans from other games (like Phantom Leader) won’t have any problems either.

All in all, the rules do a very good job of explaining the differences to the original rules and of introducing the new mechanics that replace the HL mechanics. They are written in the usual Leader fashion, but knowledge of the Hornet Leader game is absolutely required before you should delve into these rules, or it will be a constant page turning with two rule books in two hands. 

What’s even more important: We didn’t encounter any black holes or problems we couldn’t solve with common sense based on the RAW.

Playing cooperatively is even more exciting... especially if you are attacked by a Great Old One while sitting at the gaming table...

Playing cooperatively is even more exciting… especially if you are attacked by a Great Old One while sitting at the gaming table…

One minor complaint, though: in contrast to the other Leader Games, the game box at least states that the game can be played with two players cooperatively in addition to being a Solitaire game. Unfortunately, there isn’t even one line in the rule book which mentions this variant. There are no rules changes required to play the game with 2 players, but if you never played a Leader game cooperatively before, you may not know how to do this. All you have to do is to share the pilots among the two players, where each player is responsible for arming his aircraft and sending it into the fight. All decisions (who will be sent against which enemy etc.) will be discussed together, as well as the decision, which aircraft will take over which role. Only one player will be responsible for the Player Log Sheet. For more details of how to play a Leader game cooperatively, check out our Hornet Leader and Phantom Leader reviews! It’s easy to do and it’s fun!

As a service to new players (who played the Leader games solitaire so far, but managed to convince their non-wargaming friends or partners to play this game with them), at least a short note of how to share the responsibilities should be included into the rule book.

There are no “Living Rules” or anything like that. The rules are finished and well-tested and no changes, errata, or corrections are to be expected. No beta rules or unfinished wordings, so no constant need to watch out for the latest rules editions and changes. The game can be played “offline” out of the box wherever you are (even in a cabin deep in the Canadian woods, provided you brought some log sheet copies with you. But even if you didn’t, you could simply use a sheet of paper and note your results there :P)

Gameplay and Playability

The game works great – both as a solitaire game and as a coop game.

The Campaigns can (and should) be played in chronological order because they tell the story of how the Cthulhu Conflict unfolds. They take place on the US East Coast, in the Mediterranean, on the Hawaiian Islands, and on the Island of R’lyeh (which is well known among cultists like us). The R’lyeh Campaign can be played as a kind of introductory scenario because it doesn’t have any special rules and doesn’t confront you with too much forces (nevertheless, it’s tough enough!). Other Campaigns also introduce Campaign special rules which will cause even more chaos, pain, and despair.

In addition to choosing your aircraft from among the Hornet Leader aircraft, the game now includes an unmanned drone (named “Artoo” ;)) which can also be added to the squadron. The advantage: as a mechanical device the drone is immune to insanity and stress and sometimes your only remnant of order within a sea of chaos.

The Sequence of Play is identical with the SoP from Hornet Leader. As announced in the introduction, we will only list the differences and additions from the basic game here.

Pre-Flight 

Confronting an Overlord!

Confronting an Overlord!

First, you get the usual planning phase with a pre-flight phase where you choose your target and arm your aircraft accordingly. Targets are chosen from a new target deck (with terrific artwork!). There are various types of targets, from locations (like Cultist airfields) to creatures (like Deep Ones or Shoggoths).

In addition, there are so-called “Overlords“, which are extremely powerful creatures. While you can choose between regular targets as usual, an Overlord card always remains in play when drawn (you can, of course, choose a second target and attack this, thus ignoring the Overlord). But once there are 3 Overlords in play, the world is considered to be overrun and you lose the game with a “dismal” result, so ignoring them isn’t the best option here.

Target-Bound Flight

During the Target-Bound phase, a “Target-Bound Event card” is drawn from the new Event deck (which is a combination of a number of regular cards from HL and new Cthulhu Event cards). As you can imagine, Cthulhu event cards are much more chaotic, darker, and nastier than the regular Event cards.

Over-Target

Usually, when reaching the target area, the aircraft were set up on the Tactical Display Map according to your personal tactical considerations. In Cthulhu Conflict, you don’t have control over time and space anymore, which appear to be distorted and warped. So instead of deciding where your aircraft enter the tactical display sheet, each aircraft is placed randomly by rolling a 20-sided die. By placing them this way, they could even appear next to the target in the center area, or over an extremely unpleasant location with tons of enemies around.

This Event Card will really hurt you!

This Event Card will really hurt you!

This placement can ruin everything for you, your entire planning, your strategy. This is true to the topic and fits to the atmospheric conditions above a swirling enemy spire or a tentaculous monolith. We can imagine, though, that some “classic” Hornet Leader players dislike this new placement procedure because it makes the mission much more random and adds another luck element. Sometimes, it even screws your entire mission, when your only aircraft which was specifically armed for destroying the target, cannot reach the center area because it is beamed across the map from one corner to the other (and there are enemy sites and bandits which will also displace your aircraft further!) while your air-to-air fighters and protection escort are not in a position to fulfill their roles.

You have to decide whether you can accept this very central gameplay element (you will be warped across the map very often!) as a depiction of the chaos associated with the Cthulhu topic, and whether you can live with it when it completely blocks your plans, up to a mission failure.

If you see it as a stylistic device to create an authentic Lovecraftian atmosphere, then you will be fine with this Chaos. If you are frustrated by the extremely high random factor, expecting your typical wargame experience, you will probably dislike this expansion and are well-advised to stay with the basic game. Otherwise, it will lead to high frustration when everything you planned, like ammunition, aircraft roles, and approach strategy to the target, is kicked out of the window within seconds. If you are a Cthulhu cultist, on the other hand, you will appreciate this element as a good way to portray Chaos and despair.

Over target, you will meet the regular bandits (=human cultists, the red HL counters) as well as green Cthulhu bandits (flying creatures). The Cthulhu sites include Citadels, Columns, Spires, or Monoliths. Each of the sites has special powers, like summoning creatures, displacing the aircraft to a different space, or suppressing your own attacks. New creatures include, for example, Byakhees, Mi-Gos (which inflict insanity instead of physical damage) or Shan (which also displace an aircraft). A Lovecraft fan will greatly enjoy these new enemy types that otherwise work like a regular (red) enemy aircraft.

Another big difference (besides the aircraft displacing) are the aforementioned “Phobia Levels“. Pilots acquire phobias by flying missions and by suffering insanity attacks. Certain types of targets as well as certain bandits can make insanity attacks.

There are 4 Levels of Phobias. The first level is an “Anxiety” which isn’t a problem (yet). The pilot talks about his anxieties and expresses his concerns, and tries to find out how to get cured from his mental state. He is awarded with 1 Experience Point. The second level is a “Neurosis“. The neurosis starts to affect the pilots job performance, but he is awarded with 2 XP. The third level is a “Psychosis” where a pilots loses the contact with the real world and where he is seriously impeded in his decision making. He earns 3 XP. The final level is “Insanity“, where the pilot becomes permanently unfit. He is removed from the Campaign and the team loses 1 Victory Point.

This pilot is suffering from a mild form of Ballistophobia

This pilot is suffering from a mild form of Ballistophobia

These are the basic phobia types, but a pilot suffers from a specific manifestation. He can, for example, suffer from Chiroptophobia (fear of bat-like creatures), which means (for example, on Level 2) that he is treated as “shaken” when he is in the same area as a Cthulhu Bandit. If he suffers from Megalophobia (fear of large things), he cannot, when on level 2, attack a target which requires 17 or more hits. A pilot with Monophobia (fear of being alone) is impeded when he is the only aircraft in an area.

So your adversarial effects depend not only on the level of your phobia, but also on the specific type of phobia you are suffering from. A very cool and very weird idea! In addition, you learn a lot about exotic phobias…

Besides this new mechanics, the Sequence over Target remains the same (movement and attacks).

Home-Bound Flight

After you destroyed your target or failed to do so until turn 5 over target, aircraft leave the tactical display and fly back to base. Here, a Home-Bound event is resolved, again by drawing a card from the Event deck.

Debriefing

The debriefing works exactly as it works in Hornet Leader, with the difference that in addition to target stress, pilots also have to make an insanity check to determine post mission insanity.

Victory conditions and levels, and every other information required is listed on the Campaign sheets, exactly as it was in Hornet Leader. Victory is also determined as it is in the basic game.

If playing with two players, only one player is the “record keeper” who keeps tracks of all pilots on a log sheet.

Playability

The playability is very good, but the game is very unforgiving and it is really hard to kill targets – harder than in Hornet Leader or Phantom Leader, just because of the displacement of aircraft and the extreme effects of the new target creatures.

The “feeling” of the game differs much from Hornet Leader, despite the fact that it is an expansion to the game and uses the same components. The displacement rule, the insanity, the punishing targets, bandits, and sites, and the overall chaos which can and will easily destroy all your careful plans, can make for a quite frustrating experience – or a great one, depending on your expectations and your attitude towards the topic. The game is true to the Cthulhu myth topic, but this is bought by sacrificing much of the reliability, predictability, and countability of a mission in Hornet Leader. The playability is perfect, but you will absolutely love the changes – or downright hate them, there is no in between here!

And beware, the difficulty level is quite high, even if you play on “normal” difficulty.

Replay Value

A heavily defended target

A heavily defended target

High. Since the game is meant to be played as a solitaire game or coop game against an AI, there are many random elements which change from game to game (different targets, different aircraft, different weapons). There is an abundance of decision-making, just as in the basic Hornet Leader game, and you will be forced to balance pros and cons in various situations. This can be quite challenging and you will certainly have to try out different approaches to the four Campaigns, since they are very unforgiving and the enemies (targets) are tough.

It will take some time, lots of discussions, lots of decisions, and many failed plans and a good bit of luck until you achieve your first victory in a Campaign. And the next Campaign will be even tougher.

There are enough random elements to keep the game fresh every time you start a new Campaign – provided, you like the chaotic nature of the new mechanics.

Creativity

In our opinion, combining a straightforward, realistic, down-to-Earth aerial warfare game with a fantastic setting like the Cthulhu myth, is a very cool and innovative idea.

The mechanics are not new; the game uses the same well-tried and established basic Leader series rules (which always work fine). But adding tiny new rules (like the phobias), new enemy types, the new chaotic displacement mechanic, and, of course, monstrous dangerous targets portrayed with stunning art, changed the serious Carrier Air Operations wargame to a fantastic and bizarre experience which, in this new combination, is so weird that it works just fine.

Flying your old Hornet Leader aircraft over the old Hornet Leader tactical display, and then shoot down a Byakhee while be driven insane by a Mi-Go is a very entertaining and challenging new approach to a well-known game. Combining these two worlds was so exotic that we liked the thought immediately.

Simulation Value

The game simulates modern, contemporary air-to-air and air-to-ground a fantastic universe, created by H.P.Lovecraft. The simulation value of Hornet Leader was already discussed in our HL review, so here we judge how well the intended setting – the Cthulhu Myth – is portrayed in this expansion.

The game includes everything that is required to convey the atmosphere and specifics of a Cthulhu setting. There is insanity, which is always a key element in Lovecraft’s work and in all Cthulhu games out there. The differentiation into various phobias with all their specific effects is a maximization of the usual “insanity” element of other games where characters only get “insane”, but never in a specific way. So insanity was actually simulated with a high level of detail.

The game is quite challenging - certainly more difficult than Hornet Leader

The game is quite challenging – certainly more difficult than Hornet Leader

Then there is the above mentioned chaos, which is a fundamental part of the Cthulhu myth, the various dimensions, and the distortion of space and time in different realms. By displacing the aircraft during the game, the chaos is captured perfectly, but this design decision was so radical that you either accept it as a necessary element, or you won’t like the game at all. Radical, but true to the atmosphere and the intention of creating a really harsh and tough conflict within the Cthulhu Myth (similar to DVG’s Rise of the Zombies cardgame where you will most certainly die on our way to the exfiltration, but that’s also only realistic and you accept it or you don’t).

Last but not least, the great artwork on the game box and the target cards create a perfect Lovecraft atmosphere. So, the game does a good job in simulating the Cthulhu conflict (in addition to simulating the planning phase and decision making part of air warfare, which it also does very well).

Solitaire Playability

The game IS a solitaire game, which can also be played cooperatively. Since it was planned and designed as a solitaire game, the solitaire playability is of course perfect.

Can be Compared to…

Hornet Leader, because it is an expansion of the game and uses the game core rules and components. This is also true for other games of the Leader series, like Phantom Leader.

There is no game from the various Cthulhu franchises, though, which could be compared to the game. All Cthulhu games strongly focus on insanity and battling the Great Old Ones (and their smaller human and creature assistants), but that is where the similarities end. A Cthulhu game where you are the leader of a flight squadron of modern day aircraft and conduct Carrier Air missions is not the usual type of games you will find when searching for Cthulhu games.

Denny Koch’s Conclusions

You may have guessed this already, but I think Hornet Leader – The Cthulhu Conflict is a very cool and innovative new game idea. Combining the classic Leader series mechanics with something so weird is simply unique and quite a bold move by Dan Verssen whose target audience is the typical wargamer interested in history – but fortunately it works perfectly!

There is one caveat – you absolutely have to accept that chaos and unpredictability is a core element of the Cthulhu setting, otherwise you won’t enjoy the aircraft displacement which happens all the time during a mission. If you don’t like this and cannot accept that space and time are not under your control, then you will be easily frustrated because your plans and tactics will be screwed much more often than in Hornet Leader. There will be times when your mission is a complete failure just because you cannot reach the target. If you can accept this, you will realize that it fits perfectly into the setting and that it was implemented for a reason.

Perhaps... if I let The Great Cthulhu throw the dice... my aircraft will be placed right over the target...

Perhaps… if I let The Great Cthulhu throw the die… my aircraft will be placed right over the target…

Besides this, the Cthulhu setting is portrayed in a beautiful fashion by using the very cool artworks on the target cards, and by including several elements from the Lovecraft universe with recognition value – from creatures like Byakhees, to locations like R’lyeh, from cultists to phobias and insanity.

The game wants to show the struggle of average human pilots from an Aircraft Carrier who are suddenly confronted with the abysmal chaos of the Great Old Ones. They don’t have magic or secret weapons, just their aircraft and tools they used to fight North Koreans or Chinese forces. Now they have to deal with an enemy that is completely alien to them, and much much stronger than anything they faced before. This game succeeds in showing this conflict and the initial helplessness of the unprepared human forces.

Combining Cthulhu with Hornet Leader – certainly a wild idea, but a great one nevertheless! If you already own the core game and if you are open to something new and/or you are a Lovecraft fan, by all means play this expansion!


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9
Rules: 
8
Playability:
7
Replay Value:
9

Overall Rating: 8.5

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