I first heard about Hornet Leader here on BGG, and growing up first reading about planes, later playing a lot of flight simulators on the
PC, I had to get it.
I played some five or six campaigns now (finishing three, ouch!) and the game has not left my desk for the first week I had it - in short: I like it, but there are also some things I'm not too happy about.
Let's go over the components first. There is the mounted playing board, which you will use to conduct missions: place your target card and defensive sites and bandits and move your planes. It has a gameplay overview printed on it, which reminds you which steps to take through a mission.
Next, there are the counters. All counters are double-sided and depict your aircraft, enemy sites and bandits (front and back) and a variety of different weapons. All counters fit nicely in a single GMT tray. Although there are different types of weapons on the front and backside of the counters, the same type is found on the same counters, eg all AGM-88 counters have all ECM pods on the back. That makes for easy sorting.
There are multiple campaign sheets, one for each campaign. It lists a small background section, a larger map, that indicates which targets are located where, as well as point costs for aircrafts and weapon types (and which weapons are allowed as well). The overall 'status' of the campaign, such as boni to intelligence are tracked here, but strangely not the victory points.
Next are the aircraft cards. There are a lot. Each card represents a single pilot in six different skill levels, that means you have three cards per pilot. The cards 'feel' okay, nice and sturdy – the only issue i have found is that the colour seems to be off between different cards, some cards have a rather greenish grey, others a blueish. Finally, you have cards for during-mission events and for target selection. They are of the same quality as the pilot cards.
Furthermore you have a nice rulebook, a rather useless player-aid in high-gloss and single(!) pilot log sheet, again in high-gloss and a single 10-sided die.
Overall, the components are of high quality. The graphics on the aircraft and target cards are nice (but not excellent), they are 3D renderings of buildings etc; their quality remind me of mid-90's flight simulators. I did not mind that (on the contrary – I'm an old-time fan of flight simulators ) The pilot log is kinda useless, but you can and should download and print extra sheets from the DVG site, or copy the existing one.
The gameplay splits between the campaign level, in which you select and plan missions, as well as do 'housekeeping' tasks and the mission gameplay.
During the campaing you also have to manage 'SO points', your only resource. SO points are used to buy special weapons or mission boni, such as refuelling or intel. The available SO points are set once at campaign start and depend on the length of the campaign, the quality of aircraft (modern=expensive) and which special rules you want activaded for the campaign (for example being able to fly night missions). The biggest challenge is managing your pilots stress. During a mission your pilots will become stressed out (they get shot at or the mission target is really far behind enemy lines) and their stats suffer. If you leave them at home they will work off some stress, but obviosly you don't have them on the mission.
Mission preparation is the most fun phase in the whole game. You select your target by drawing from deck of target cards and then set up defenses in the center and all four approaches. While you are doing this, you begin already forming a plan how to fly the mission: “There are only low-ceiling AA guns in the western approach, so if I take out the 1-range SAM in the north I can cruise in without problems ...” and so on. Now that you have your plan, you begin equipping your aircraft and that's where all the weapon counters come into play and the game feels once more like a mid-90's flight sim like Tornado or EF2000. There are a lot of different weapon types and subtypes, for example you don't have 'Air to Air Missiles' but specifically AIM-9, AIM-7, AIM-120 and AIM-54 to choose from. Fortunately all the weapons have different attributes, like damage or range that are printed on the counters. Additionally, not all planes can carry all type of weapons and the target distance restricts you on how many you are allowed to carry.
So by now you are already into the mission. The playing board is an abstraction of your approach to the target -- your target card in the center; and instead of moving your machines over a hexgrid, they will move from and to different approach areas. Before the mission start, bandits (enemy fighters) are drawn randomly, just like the sites, with the addition that a bandit might also be a 'dud'. Five rounds are spent over the target, in which you try to engage enemy fighters or sites, try to move to the next area and bomb the target. Enemy sites and bandits try to shoot at you, but don't have and actual 'AI' or some sort of control. Attack rolls are resolved using a single die roll and some modifiers. Each round goes by quite fast, even with a lot of counters on the board a typical mission might last 15 to 25 minutes.
What I liked is that there are many “meaningful” decisions; what to take on a mission,how to plan it etc. Although all missions are basically the same (bomb the target hard enough), the random draw of defensive sites generate new and interesting combinations every time. There might be better “attack vectors” or you can try to suppress them while moving in high. Targets also have different traits that modify which weapons are better suited to hit them. I love that all the weapons are individual counters, the 'expend counter equals firing weapon' mechanic just feels right, as does 'equip your aircraft by piling bombs on it' .
I found that during the campaign gameplay I developed a 'one more mission' .. feel, even after I flew my mission and recorded all stats, I could not resist flipping over the next few cards to select the next mission.
Two words: Information overkill. A campaign does not use all target cards; during setup you have to select the 'valid' targets. Unfortunately, the numbers are all scattered over the campaign map and you have to hunt for each target whether it's on the map or not. A list of valid targets on the side of the map would have been helpful. I solved the problem of 'too many pilots' by separating the pilot deck in three: one for the Marines, one just with Hornets and a third for the rest. All three cards of a pilot are together at all times. This keeps down the time searching for a specific pilot considerably.
I also found out that while the planning phase is where the game shines, the actual mission is almost on (get ready ...) 'auto-pilot'. As you have only five turns over target, there are not many opportunities to change a plan or to improvise. Even while heading straight for the target, you will be there earliest in 3 turns and will at maximum spend two turns over the target. There is no way to make this faster; some events can shorten or make the time over the target longer, but the chance that they will come up is quite small.
A final, personal preference: I do not like resolving an attack in a single die roll. It just 'feels' wrong, especially when the die turns against you (my complete flight was wiped out in a single mission, because the lead AA fighter would constantly miss). I know that theoretically there should be an even distribution, but my die hates me sometimes, and I would prefer 2D6 instead or a cards draw; but again, that's just a personal preference.
I hope the last section did not sound too negative. I really like this game and its presentation. I especially like the planning phase and that it develops the want to play just one more mission.
The rules were easy to grasp and the rulebook makes looking up a rule or target attribute really easy. I did not feel that the game became a grind after a while (unlike Wrath of Ashardalon for example). The gameplay is quite fast and deadly, you will have some kills every game turn, but you still have to plan your mission correctly.
It's quite easy in this game to play one or two missions an evening and then pack the game aside until next night (the most important piece is the pilot's log; just write down which targets are up for selection and the campaign tracks).
During a mission, the game builds an interesting narrative, and you begin to care about your pilots (to begin with, these are the few you have chosen). The choices you make during the mission planning phase influence a lot how the game plays, unfortunately I found that during the mission you can just stick to your plan and that's it.
I really recommend getting this game if you even remotely like modern military aircraft or liked planning strike missions in PC flight sims like Tordano and don't mind not playing against another person. This game has not left my desk for the last two weeks and I'm really looking forward to the announced Thunderbolt/Apache Leader reprint!
Thanks for reading this wall of text (it turned out longer than I thought) and happy flying!
A list of valid targets on the side of the map would have been helpful.
This is very true. There's a good file in the files section that helps a good bit, though.http://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/65095/hornet-leader-target...
No No No Sheep
good review, all point considered..
as for your last section (die roll attack resolve) , it is true also for me (as seen in my session reports) that a bad event or miss can ruin your strike plan if you dont plan for additional weapon carriage or salvoing AtA missile to increase your chance..
the event cards also reflect the fog of war with its sometimes crazy / frustrating event like 'political limitation : cannot destroy sites in approach areas, only can suppress them' with all range:3 SAM on approach area and your HARM AGM88 now used only for suppresion lol
so the rule of thumb is to bring more than enough weapon to destroy most dangerous site/bandits and the primary target area.. go for overkill lol
Life is too short not to live it up a little!
Good review, Markus! I recently picked this one up. Your review provides even more reasons to get it to the table!
Wow, many thanks for the link! This was exactly what I was looking for!
Oh yes, I know how frustrating these events can be; I equipped all my strike planes with GBUs that are released only on high altitude, only to get the 'Bad Weather' event, that penalized attacking from high altitude ... On the other hand, this might be another example of the good narrative of this game.
BTW, I really enjoyed your session reports!
Go for it! The game is really easy to put on the table and then store it again for the night or two, without loosing progress. And there's quite some content in there as well; I still have to fly a good Marine campaign.