David Hassell
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I need some Priority R&R! - a review

I should've known better than to subscribe to marcowargamer's excellent YouTube channel, and I paid the price dearly after watching an ecstatic review for Thunderbolt Apache Leader. I was a quivering puddle by the end of that review, and I had to have that game.

But I compounded my error in researching the game before buying. In a series of web excursions that would make Carmen Sandiego proud, I purchased not one, not two, not three, but four separate games in the DVG line. Two of the games were from the Air Leader series, and the other two were from the Field Commander series.

I decided to learn Hornet Leader: Carrier Air Operations first. I wanted to start from an easier rules set and work up in the Air Leader series. In the Field Commander series, I took the opposite approach and began with Napoleon to see that system in its more fully developed form.

I've played a short campaign and have played 6 days out of 9 of a long campaign in Iraq, so I feel I'm ready to present my impressions.

The game itself

Other reviews present a more complete presentation of the game, so I'll provide a brief summary.

You select a campaign, and you decide on both the duration of the campaign (short, medium, or long) and whether to fly as the Navy or Marines. There are eight campaigns in the game, and there are two additional campaigns currently available on DVG's website. The duration will determine how many game days your campaign will last. The service branch will determine both the available aircraft as well as how the targets are made available to you.

You will then select your squadron of pilots, and the game comes with a lot of pilots from which to select. The pilots have 6 different experience levels, and the game will dictate the number and levels available to you.

From there, you'll simply select a target (two if you opt to fly a secondary mission during the day), determine the pilots and the armament of your aircraft, and you're off into the wild blue yonder. You'll resolve your attack.on a tactical game board, where you will have five turns to strike at your target. Afterwards, you'll record your results, and then it's on to the next day.

There's a lot more to the game, but this summary at least provides a general overview for those who have not checked the other reviews. I'll mention other aspects as I present my impressions.

Too much information!!!

I'm surprised at how quickly I was able to start playing the game. The rules are extremely well written, and the rules aren't that difficult. However, playing the game for the first time can be an overwhelming experience. Look at all those pilots! Look at all those armament counters! What do I do now? Somehow I managed to quickly sort everything, but I expect some players will feel as if they've been thrown into the deep end of the pool.

Understanding the counters is the first order of business, because it is critical in order to analyze the target threat, as well as determining the pros and cons of the various weapons. One practice I adopted from the beginning that I highly recommend to everybody: take one counter of each weapon the campaign sheet lists, and arrange them in a row for the free items and another row for the items requiring you to spend Special Operation Points. Being able to examine all the weapons at a glance will make it much easier for you to plan your mission.

I next recommend starting the game as a short campaign for practice. This will give you some experience in managing your squadron, learning the "hard way" what happens when you don't arrive at the target properly prepared, and getting comfortable with the game mechanics. Don't worry about your results; you're mainly learning by experience.

Shop till you drop

There are three forms of "currency" you have to manage.

The campaign will give you a number of Special Operation Points (SOP) at the beginning, and you will spend those points in various ways over the course of the campaign. Certain aircraft will adjust your starting total if you put them into your squadron, optional rules might adjust your amount, certain weapons will require you to spend points, and there are other ways to spend them. Spend too much in one day, and you'll have to cut back in another. If you budget wisely, then you'll spend on the more difficult targets and use the easier targets to cut back. If you don't, you could find yourself with empty pockets towards the end of the campaign.

Next, you have to manage your pilots' stress levels. A lot of wargames have you sending your troops merrily into the thick of battle with little regard other than their survival. Here, pilots will take stress points every time they fly a mission, when they are fired upon and try to evade, and encounter certain unexpected events. The game does allow you to spend 9 SOP for Priority Rest & Relaxation, which can help accelerate their recovery. That's 9 SOP that you aren't spending on more effective weapons. So you'll have to carefully schedule your pilots, because some pilots will burn out quickly. There will be targets where you will need your star players, and you might have to risk sending them in a slightly frazzled state hoping they don't get pushed over the edge during the mission. This game handles this aspect brilliantly, and it's really the star mechanic of the game system.

Finally, your weapons are a currency. You'll have targets that will require Air-to-Ground weapons to damage it, supporting Anti-Air sites you'll need to take out or suppress with Air-to-Ground weapons, and you'll need to have Air-to-Air missiles to handle any bandits you encounter either on target or en-route to or from base. You will be able to see the sites before arming, but you won't know the amount of bandits you'll face until you're already off the ground. Your aircraft can only hold so much stuff, and the distance to the target might restrict that further unless you spend additional SOP for Priority Refueling. I'm still learning to manage this, because I've found myself in situations where I run out of Air-to-Ground or Air-to-Air weapons when I really need them.

Under Pressure

It isn't just a David Bowie song. You can lick your stress counters and stick them to your forehead. How do I know this? Because I've tried it!

I've never played a game before that has made me feel as stressed as I do when playing this game. Your mission might be a piece of cake, but you never know that going in. You're always wondering if you have enough armaments, worried about having enough SOP left for the rest of the campaign, and whether the pilot you're sending into the air with 3 Stress Points will wet his pants over the target.

There are a couple of great videos you should watch that demonstrate the game system in action. Marco provides an excellent 2-part series demonstrating a sample mission, and you should also check out the Lonesome Gamer's 10-part long campaign in Phantom Leader, which is similar.

But both series cut out during the most important part of the game: planning. They show you the target, the pilots, then they cut and return with the aircraft fully armed. That makes sense from a video production standpoint, I suppose. After all, planning isn't very exciting. But it's a crucial step in this game. Those of you who have played games such as Magic the Gathering know how important the time spent building your deck beforehand is in how you fare in the game. It's the same here.

I'm normally the type of gamer who prefers diving into the action of a game rather than putting a lot of prep work into it. Here, I find the planning aspect so interesting that I actually enjoy this phase, even if it makes my hair turn grey prematurely.

Are we there yet?

The actual missions pretty much flow like clockwork. This is where you'll discover whether you sent your pilots fully prepared or whether you sent them into a gunfight with a potato and a peeler.

While the Stress Points is one shining aspect of the game's design, I'd have to add the Event Cards as the other jewel. You'll have to draw a card before, upon arrival, and after the mission. Unlike the Event Cards in Castle Ravenloft where you know you're going to draw something awful, the Event Cards in this deck seduce you with a mix of good stuff and bad stuff. I find that adds additional tension to the game. Familiarity with the cards doesn't hamper the suspense, but enhances it. I now know during planning that I need to stock additional Air-to-Air Weapons in case I encounter a Bandit attack enroute, and I know I should strive to keep some Air-to-Ground Weapons on the route back to base in case I'm surprised by a AAA strike. That last item is easier said than done.

The missions themselves still present you with interesting and difficult choices, and the missions are usually very tense. The times where I've allowed myself to relax and feel confident of success are usually the times where one of my pilots gets shot down.

And now, back to our program.

This game makes it very easy to record your game state after flying a day's mission. You can pack everything back in the box and easily return to the game later, as long as you keep your decks together. The actual play time for a day is under an hour, so this is perfect for getting in a quick fix, even if you're playing a long campaign. In fact, this aspect makes it easier to commit to a long campaign.

You get what you pay for.

The game is expensive, as are most of the DVG games. However, the mounted map boards, excellent art work, and high quality counters make it money well spent. I'm very glad DVG takes the position of putting quality first. Sure, you could still play the game on a paper mat and flimsy card stock cards, but you really notice the luxurious touches when you play.

Mission accomplished!

Hornet Leader is a superb solitaire wargame. The game is tense, surprising, and fun. There is great variety, ways to adjust the difficulty, and a scoring mechanic that will allow you to track your results across several campaigns. So I am thankful to marcowargamer for bringing this series to my attention. This is Squadron Commander Capt. Wally O'Text, signing off!
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Christopher Dodge
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davidlhsl wrote:
I need some Priority R&R! - a review

I should've known better than to subscribe to marcowargamer's excellent YouTube channel, and I paid the price dearly after watching an ecstatic review for Thunderbolt Apache Leader. I was a quivering puddle by the end of that review, and I had to have that game.

But I compounded my error in researching the game before buying. In a series of web excursions that would make Carmen Sandiego proud, I purchased not one, not two, not three, but four separate games in the DVG line. Two of the games were from the Air Leader series, and the other two were from the Field Commander series.


Kinda funny because I did the same thing. I subscribed to marcowargamer's YouTube Channel about two weeks ago and have marked Thunderbolt Apache Leader, Field Commander: Napoleon and Hornet Leader: CAO for purchase. Haven't bought them yet but I will within the month. Good stuff!
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Dan Verssen
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Thank you for a great review!
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David Siskin
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I also purchased Hornet Leader after seeing Marco's video (He oughta get a commission!). I had owned the 1991 GMT Hornet Leader at one point, but got overwhelmed by it. Nevertheless, I was convinced by Marco that the 2010 DVG version had been seriously upgraded--Marco is correct!

Quite pleased with my new purchase and once I get a few good months of Hornet play, I'll most likely pick up TAL.

BTW, I still have my original Modern Naval War sets from the early 90's. Had great fun with that one at the LAX conventions.
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Rod Aguirre
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Same here... you, Marco...! I now have Alex, Napoleon and Hornet leader. Superb games, so little time available to play them though... cry!

And great review, David! Your emphasis on the preparation of the missions and your observations on the core mechanics are very illuminating and helpful to get a more complete sense of this wonderful game.
Thanks!
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Ryan
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davidlhsl wrote:
Understanding the counters is the first order of business, because it is critical in order to analyze the target threat, as well as determining the pros and cons of the various weapons. One practice I adopted from the beginning that I highly recommend to everybody: take one counter of each weapon the campaign sheet lists, and arrange them in a row for the free items and another row for the items requiring you to spend Special Operation Points. Being able to examine all the weapons at a glance will make it much easier for you to plan your mission.


These don't tie in the specific weapons available during each campaign, but they do illustrate the weapons available to each aircraft. I found these to be helpful visual resources while familiarizing myself with the counters.

Aircraft Munitions Chart

Page 3 of the excellent Reference Sheet, Weapon Options, and Campaign Log

Also a great one: Graphical Player Aid: Arming Aircraft
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Kevin Myers
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Very much enjoyed this review, one of the best for a great game
 
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Edward Sexby
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Thanks for the review.

I've had this game for about a month now. I learned it pretty much as you said - by experience, and watching the video review by Marco, plus one of the Lonely Gamer's sessions. It's the first Leader game I've owned and played, and I'm very impressed. It's down as my favorite solo game, because of the depth, scope and ease with which I can pack it away and resume at my leisure. My first campaign - a medium over Iraq - saw me scrape an adequate rating, despite loosing my best A-6 jock to ground fire. My main mistake was to not read up the rules on ECM pods, hence I didn't bother with them...talk about learning the hard way! My second try (the same) seemed easy. Then I realized I had read the surpresion rules wrong, and covering fire doe's not inflict damage...doh! Anyway, the last one was a long campaign against Libya, and it went well, 22 vps and a good rating.

It's a keeper,this one. Had to put it away because other games also need attention, esp Virgin Queen and Reds. My only quibble for now is that all the modern stand-off ordinance may make it a little too easy. Famous last words, I know. Maybe I should try Phantom leader?
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Judy Krauss
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Edward Sexby wrote:
Thanks for the review.

I've had this game for about a month now. I learned it pretty much as you said - by experience, and watching the video review by Marco, plus one of the Lonely Gamer's sessions. It's the first Leader game I've owned and played, and I'm very impressed. It's down as my favorite solo game, because of the depth, scope and ease with which I can pack it away and resume at my leisure. My first campaign - a medium over Iraq - saw me scrape an adequate rating, despite loosing my best A-6 jock to ground fire. My main mistake was to not read up the rules on ECM pods, hence I didn't bother with them...talk about learning the hard way! My second try (the same) seemed easy. Then I realized I had read the surpresion rules wrong, and covering fire doe's not inflict damage...doh! Anyway, the last one was a long campaign against Libya, and it went well, 22 vps and a good rating.

It's a keeper,this one. Had to put it away because other games also need attention, esp Virgin Queen and Reds. My only quibble for now is that all the modern stand-off ordinance may make it a little too easy. Famous last words, I know. Maybe I should try Phantom leader?


Be sure to download the extra missions from the DVG.com site!

Don't feel bad about missing some of the rules at first. The rules for ECM pods and some other important stuff (like the E-2C Hawkeye not counting against the mission aircraft limitation, and AIM-120 AMRAAM's independent ability, for example) area hidden in the back of the rulebook, after the credits, in the descriptions pages. This makes it very easy to miss those rules.

I thought it was the SA (situational awareness) points that made the game too easy (although there are optional rules to make it harder) by allowing essentially two attacks for the pilot(s) during the turn they are used.

Phantom Leader, or the new version,Phantom Leader Deluxe, is tougher.
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Marco
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Jude wrote:


Be sure to download the extra missions from the DVG.com site!

Don't feel bad about missing some of the rules at first. The rules for ECM pods and some other important stuff (like the E-2C Hawkeye not counting against the mission aircraft limitation, and AIM-120 AMRAAM's independent ability, for example) area hidden in the back of the rulebook, after the credits, in the descriptions pages. This makes it very easy to miss those rules.

I thought it was the SA (situational awareness) points that made the game too easy (although there are optional rules to make it harder) by allowing essentially two attacks for the pilot(s) during the turn they are used.

Phantom Leader, or the new version,Phantom Leader Deluxe, is tougher.


If you find the game too easy, just try out my variant http://boardgamegeek.com/filepage/94444/hornet-leader-realis...-
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Edward Sexby
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Thanks to Jude and Hawkeye for the replies! To be honest, I always run home with a new game, unwrap it, sort out the counters and try to play through a simple scenario or mission as soon as I can, and these sort of cock-ups with the rules always happen, it seems to be the best way for me to learn. Of course, now I have BGG! Hawkeye, I'll look at your variant as soon as I can, also the extra DVG scenarios.

Right now I have other games in need of attention, but these are all multi-player. When I get back on Hornet Leader I would like to post up a report on the Sessions forum, but as I'm a relative newbie I''ll scan some others for stylistic tips. I'm thinking either the Israeli or Syrian campaigns, or perhaps Libya using the Marines Harriers.

Thanks!arrrh
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Tuomas Takala
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Yeah, welcome to the Hornet Leader fan squadron! There are some really neat session reports here whistle
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Peter Kossits
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Just curious if anyone has tried the official variant that ties together Hornet Leader and Thunderbolt / Apache?
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