Thunderbolt Apache Leader

This is a solitaire game by Dan Verssen (published by Dan Verssen Games) which puts the player in charge of a modern close air support combat squadron. The original version was published by GMT games, and although GMT’s current production standards are excellent, Dan’s own output is right up there in terms of quality. He has taken the opportunity to inject some new ideas into the game and freshen it up, but at the core the challenge is the same: choose a campaign, choose a situation, generate the starting enemy forces, choose your aircraft and pilots, and get the job done. Easy! (Actually, it’s easy to play, but hard to win, just as it should be.)

Campaign: for example, Iraq, Libya, Israel Air Defense and so on. The game recommends starting with the introductory Iraqi campaign. I would go further and say that you should do at least one mission on a dry run before starting a campaign, as you will learn some useful – and bloody – lessons that way; lessons that will stand you in good stead in the slog of a campaign.

Situation: for example, Surge. In other words, do well and do it quickly or the politicians will not be happy and you will be out of a job.

Enemy: you randomly draw Battalion Cards up to a point limit as set in the Campaign Card. The Battalions then go onto a Tactical Display. This is a simple, clever, and effective way of dealing with the many variables at hand. For example, it shows the restrictions imposed if you want to strike an enemy unit deep in the rear. Impressive.

Aircraft: you can choose A-10s, AH-1s, AH-64s and the like according to the time frame of the campaign. Choose wisely.

Pilots: you choose pilots of Average quality – they are available as Newbie, Green, Average, Skilled, Veteran and Ace – each individually named and rated on their own cards for each level. You invest some emotional energy in these guys, and the cards are a quick and easy way of handling the progression. As the campaign continues, surviving pilots may improve in quality.

Job: the target terrain is randomly generated using a deck of hexes, and the combat units and supports from each battalion are distributed on the board. If there’s one aspect I am uncomfortable with it is the absolute knowledge the player has. You know the dangerous AAA unit is in a certain hex, so you deploy to avoid it. I appreciate there is some abstraction going on here, and the pop-up rules allow nasty surprises, but it’s still too much. I would have preferred each unit to be blank on one side and deployed in that fashion, unknown. It would add some interest in the Scouting roll – maybe more variety? – and not add greatly to playing time. It would make it harder for the player, though. Hmmm.

The combat system for the planes is a simple 1d10 roll to hit, with ranges and efficiency depending on the payload. There’s a good spread of weapons choices. The enemy forces do not roll to hit. Instead the target unit draws a number of chits and applies the damage according to whether it is a ‘light’ or ‘heavy’ firer. For example, fire from an APC draws one light chit. But fire from an AAA unit draws 2 heavy chits. (Chits may be misses, and some are keyed to the target unit type so that better armor is taken account of. Again, simple and effective.)

The game allows you to cycle through missions and days with various admin stuff going on, like replenishment and recovery. You need to rest pilots, watch out for troublesome damage and so on. At the start of the Campaign, for example, you receive a number of Special Option Points (SO points). These are the currency you use to buy planes, improve pilots, and so on. Having some SO points in reserve is good for some events – the game adds random events going to and from a mission – and you can never have enough.

Once you have completed your first mission, the rules will be set in your mind. The game play flows smoothly. It’s easy. The admin (log paperwork) is minor and not a material burden. Besides, it’s cool to track how your heroes fought and triumphed. (Something I have yet to experience!) The graphics are good, the rules are clear, and as previously mentioned, the production standards are high. (There’s a mounted board for goodness’ sake!) On the debit side, I would have preferred more Campaigns, more Special Condition Cards and more Mission Event Cards. (An example of critical greed, probably.) As a solitaire game, this gives you a lot of tough choices, and will frequently kick your butt. What it will absolutely deliver is a bargain ton of gaming time. Although I would have preferred more of these cards mentioned above, that’s only because I expect to play this game to its skin and get too familiar with them.

I am very glad I bought this.

[PS: As an afterthought, another way of dealing with the pilots and their profiles, would be to use a log as in the Victory Game Ambush. This would save the cost of the multiple pilot cards. I am guessing people prefer those cards, but FWIW, I would prefer to have an Ambush like situation so that I had more flexibility with pilot progression.]