Thunderbolt – Apache Leader: Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Solitaire or multiplayer suitable. Great components. Easy to learn rules. Random modular maps. Sturdy box. Tons of fun. Great replayability.
Failed Basic: Some rules clarifications needed. Index is not complete. Needs more air-to-air combat options. Rather pricey.
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Iraq, 1991 – Saddam Hussein’s Republican Guards were launching a counterattack. His mechanized infantry and tank formations were attempting to strike towards the coalition staging area in Kuwait. By day two of the attack, most of the Iraqi forces were either destroyed or far too damaged to prove a threat. A combination of Apache attack helicopter strikes and A-10 close air support attacks had decimated their forces and they were now in retreat. One more mechanized infantry brigade was pushing forward, oblivious to the fact that their surge was already falling to pieces. Most of the Apache and Thunderbolt pilots who had participated in the first and second day of the strikes were exhausted. A combination of fatigue and stress from the AAA had taken their toll, but not one American pilot had been shot down. Halo and Rebel, two A-10 pilots, were approaching the quickly advancing Iraqi mechanized force. Their planes streaked through the canyons and over the ridges; the two pilots had planned to make several fast and low strikes—the plan was to hit the enemy with missiles and cannon strikes and turn back this last holdout group of elite soldiers.
The A-10s tore out of the canyon and found the approaching Republican Guard APCs. Halo and Rebel unleashed their mounts weapons as Hellfire missiles and the A-10s’ impressive auto-cannon ripped the Iraqi forces to bits. Suddenly Halo pulled up as an unspotted mobile anti-aircraft platform opened up on his plane. Halo banked his A-10 to the right, but Rebel spotted a shimmer in the air as a second missile homed in on Halo. Halo was suddenly aware of the lock-on alert but it was too late: his plane exploded and the wreckage slammed in to the ground.
Rebel cursed under his breath. Halo had been his friend—they both joined the squadron at the same time. He swore that his friend’s death would not be in vain.
So ran a scenario of Thunderbolt – Apache Leader, a solitaire air-war game by Dan Verssen Games.
Helicopters, Fixed-wing Aircraft, and Drones
As with its predecessors, Phantom Leader and Hornet Leader, the Thunderbolt – Apache Leader game focuses on the modern air war environment but with a twist: its main focus is on ground attack. Rules are provided for flying helicopters such as the Cobra and the Apache, and fixed wing aircraft such as the A-10 Thunderbolt (aka The Warthog), F16s, and Harriers. Even the AC-130 gunship and two different types of drones are included! If the player is familiar with the previous games, he or she will have no problem adapting to this one.
Thunderbolt – Apache Leader‘s box weighs a whopping five pounds and is stuffed full of cards, counters, a rule book, a help sheet, a player log sheet, modular terrain tiles, and a beautiful mounted map. The cards are broken down into campaign and scenario cards, plus cards that generate random occurrences during the course of the mission.
The game can be played as stand-alone missions, but the real heart of the system is the campaign game. Each pilot has six cards in that pilot’s name. Each of the cards represents that pilot at various points in his career from Newbie to Green, Average, Skilled, Veteran and Ace. Each pilot is rated for the number of experience points needed to advance in skill, ability to dodge attacks, skill in strafing or stand-off attacks, and how “cool” the pilot is. The “cool” rating influences how a pilot is affected by things that happened during a mission; pilot stress is a huge factor in this game. Push your pilots too hard and they may just make a fatal mistake during a mission or they may not be able to fly the mission at all! This is just one of the many logistics which must be managed during a campaign game.
Each pilot is rated for one given type of aircraft. Some are trained on helicopters while others are fixed-wing pilots.
Campaign settings include historical periods such as Libya (1984) and Iraq (1991) as well as possible future wars such as Iran in 2014 or speculative historical actions such as the Battle of the North Atlantic during World War III in 1986.
For each campaign, a random situation will control the general flow of the battle. Situations include a “Show of Force”, “Surge,” or even the dreaded “General War.” The situations dictate the number of days in the campaign, the starting number of “Special Operations Points” (which control access to some ordinance, rest and relaxation for pilots, repairs to aircraft, etc.), as well as other special rules such as the position of enemy battalions on the battlefield.
Setting Up a Scenario in Thunderbolt-Apache Leader
The beautiful mounted board contains a section for placing the random map tiles, positions of enemy battalions, time over the target, aka “Loiter Time,” and more. Once the enemy battalions are generated, they are placed on the board in positions that can range from the enemy’s rear positions to the front line to the friendly rear (This means trouble.) or even just outside your airfield (This is real trouble!). Each position is rated for its effects on the load-out of the aircraft involved to the amount of stress each pilot must take in order to fly there. During the course of the campaign, enemy battalions may stay in their positions, advance or retreat based upon random occurrences and how well the player is fighting the conflict.
“Special Operation Points” are used to purchase advanced ordinance for the aircraft (ordinance is highly detailed and includes drop tanks, ECM pods, various types of missiles and rockets, bombs and anti-aircraft weaponry). Each aircraft is rated for the number and types of ordinance it can carry, as well as for structural strength.
“Special Operation Points” can also be used to purchase scout helicopters to survey the strike zone, increase the skills of the pilots, repair aircraft damage and give some highly stressed pilots priority rest and relaxation in order to get them back to fighting shape faster than usual. Victory in missions can increase these points, allowing the player more latitude in planning missions.
Before flying the mission, the map is randomly generated from interlocking pieces, which include terrain such as plains, valleys and ridges—all of which can make for some exciting close support flying. It is possible for a pilot to make a mistake and go crashing right into a ridge, costing the pilot his life and, perhaps, blowing the mission.
Enemy battalions are made up of individual units represented by double-sided counters, one side for an active unit and the other for the destroyed unit. These units include anti-aircraft guns and missiles, SCUD missile launchers, infantry, tanks, command posts, trucks, buildings and so much more. Each unit that makes up a given type of battalion is then randomly placed on the map tiles.
Now, it’s time to fly
Assign the pilots to their aircraft and outfit the aircraft with ordinance. If the player added fuel tanks, the aircraft can spend more time over the target zone.
The aircraft can fly at high or low altitude. High altitude is safer but means making a chit draw to see if other enemy units are spotted.; these other enemy units can be even more deadly than the ones that comprise the battalion. Aircraft flying at lower altitudes can run the risk of crashing in to terrain or just adding extra stress to the pilot.
On the way into the zone, random events may work to the players benefit or detriment. When the aircraft are in the strike zone, the game comes to life with anti-air attacks, strafing, hidden SAM sites and such. Linger too long over the strike zone and the pilots risk extra stress upon returning to base or crashing due to lack of fuel.
Damage is figured by pulling chits from a cup based upon the anti-air rating of the units attacking. Results range from no damage to adding stress to the pilots to having critical system failures or even instant death. Some pilots may survive the attack but have to bail on the way back to base. They may be rescued by Special Forces or rescue helicopters, but stress may keep them from flying for a while.
After the mission, figure experience points for the pilots who lived, add or subtract stress both for the pilots who took part in the mission and those who sat it out back at the base, and figure out what affect the mission’s success (or lack, thereof) had on the war in general. Then start the next mission or, if necessary, advance the campaign track to the next day.
The game is extremely addicting as pilots gain experience points, lose their lives, have to sit out missions due to a complete mental collapse and such. Figuring out the logistics of aircraft upkeep, repair, and even scrapping can feel just as rewarding as flying a mission.
The rule book is nicely produced and can stand up to some abuse. The rules are very well organized and an index is included. Some rules that are commonly referenced don’t appear in the index though, so some extensive page flipping can occur. I did experience some confusion as to when some aircraft damage occurs in the course of a turn, but I think I figured it out.
I was also hoping that there would be more air-to-air actions in the game. Enemy helicopters can be plentiful but enemy fighting jets are more abstractly handled. This was something of a disappointment. A Web article on linking this game to Hornet Leader may correct this, although it means owning a copy of each game. Also, while the game is very addictive and tons of fun, it does seem a little too pricey.
Overall, Thunderbolt – Apache Leader is a great game with tons of replay potential. Play it solitaire or grab some friends and have them take the roles of some of the pilots in your squadron. Either way, you win!
Armchair General Rating: 92 %
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 high): 5
About the Author
A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer who can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!