Hornet Leader II – Boardgame Review
Hornet Leader II is a solitaire board game that simulates the experience of leading a squadron of aircraft through a campaign. Designed by Dan Verssen, the creator of Down in Flames, it is available exclusively as a PDF printable download or VASSAL game. Naval Warfare Simulations also sells a high-quality, print on demand version for those who prefer the traditional board gaming experience to VASSAL.
For those unfamiliar with VASSAL, it is a free Java program that allows board games to be played on computer by providing a graphical interface to the maps, boards, counters, and other components. VASSAL also allows real-time and play-by-email functionality for online players. For solitaire games like Hornet Leader II, VASSAL’s save game functionality is particularly useful, allowing the state of the game to be saved without requiring any precious table space. The program is available here.
The general objective of Hornet Leader II is to successfully complete a campaign by flying missions, destroying targets, and managing your team of Hornet pilots. Campaigns last for a pre-determined number of days and each day your team must fly a mission against a chosen target. As you fly missions, your pilots accumulate stress and experience. Given enough experience, a pilot will get promoted and improve in skill. Given enough stress, a pilot will become ‘shaken’ and less effective, eventually becoming ‘unfit’ to fly. As you destroy targets, you will have more choice in the kinds of missions you fly and enemy defenses will be weaker. You also have access to a limited amount of special operations points, which allow you to use powerful ordnance on a mission. During the course of the campaign, you will constantly be called upon to make decisions on which pilots must fly, which need rest, what special ordnance to allocate, and whether to go after a big target with substantial risks and substantial rewards, or whether to go for a smaller one allowing more of your team to rest. Since different pilots can handle differing amounts of stress, the best pilot may not be the best workhorse. Some pilots will be eligible for promotion after only a few missions, others may take many more to improve. And in spite of your careful planning, you likely will lose pilots to a dangerous and unpredictable enemy.
The bulk of the action in Hornet Leader II comes from flying the missions that comprise the larger campaign. To fly a mission, you draw a number of Target Cards determined by the campaign and the amount of damage you have already caused, selecting the one you would like to attack. The Target Card dictates the site defenses, bandits present, amount of weight Hornets can carry, and the number of pilots required.
After choosing a target, you select a set of pilots and equip them with ordnance to destroy the target and suppress defenses. A wide variety of munitions are modeled by the game, from simple 500lb Mk.83 iron bombs, to HARM anti-SAM missiles, to Paveway laser guided bombs. Different weapons have differing weights, effectiveness, ranges, and altitudes at which they may be fired. All of this should be taken into account when arming your pilots, who also have differing abilities to attack air and ground targets.
After completing the pilot selection and load-out, the tactical display portion of the game board is prepared by drawing site and bandit counters according to the Target Card’s requirements. Event cards are drawn and may cause unpredictable effects; you may find the target’s defenses different than you’d planned or have unexpected resources available to you. Hornets are placed in pre-approach areas, and the shooting begins. Fast pilots attack first and may attempt to damage the target, fire at defenses, or shoot down bandits. Next, bandits and sites within range of Hornets attempt to shoot them down. A die roll may result in a pilot being stressed, an aircraft damage, or even shot down outright. The player may react by firing munitions to suppress the bandit or defense, or by going ‘evasive’. Going evasive causes two die to be rolled and the more unfavorable one to be discarded, at the price of added stress to your pilot. After bandits and defenses attack, slow pilots get the chance to fight back. The end of the turn features the Hornets maneuvering towards the targets and bandits attempting to catch them.
After 4 turns over the target, the mission is over and the player may attempt to rescue downed pilots, by expending remaining Air to Ground munitions to modify a Search and Rescue die roll. A final Event card is drawn, and the mission is completed. Stress and experience are assessed and added to pilots, some of whom will become shaken or unfit to fly, or may be promoted and improve. Damage to the enemy’s infrastructure and victory points are added to the campaign map and the day is advanced. More missions are flown until the allotted days are completed; the victory level is then calculated from the number of victory points the player has attained.
Hornet Leader II is a very enjoyable solitaire game that is engaging and well designed. The game constantly draws the player into the role of commander by forcing you to make difficult decisions and manage missions and pilots. You’ll grow attached to your pilots as you fly missions with them and celebrate when they improve; you’ll also mourn when your favorite is shot down in spite of your best effort. A mission can be completed in under an hour for short gaming sessions and breaks campaigns into very manageable and enjoyable chunks. I found myself several times anticipating the next mission with a mixture of excitement and dread, wondering if it would be a ‘cakewalk’ that would allow my hard-working pilots some much needed rest, or if it would be a heavily defended fortress that would cost me several pilots and drive my team past the breaking point. The price ($15 for a digital download) is also very reasonable for such a well-designed game. The components are attractive and the VASSAL system plays reasonable well, although moving cards can be sluggish at times. Overall, Hornet Leader II is an excellent gaming experience and easily worth the price.
Armchair General Score 85%
35/40 — Gameplay
13/15 — Components
17/20 — Rules/Documentation
12/15 — Replay Value
08/10 — General’s Rating
Jeff Edwards is a computer programmer, wargame enthusiast, and freelance music composer. Visit here to download samples of his work.