Thunderbolt Apache Leader, from Dan Verssen Games (DVG), is often bandied about as the best title in the Air Leader series. I’m a huge fan of Phantom Leader Deluxe and have been itching to get my hands on this one to see what all the buzz is about. The game is a solitaire only game that (unsurprisingly) covers Close Air Support and tank busting missions conduct ed by pilots in the modern age of conflict.
Thunderbolt Apache Leader
I’ll try not to spend the whole time comparing Thunder Bolt Apache Leader to Phantom Leader, but just know that it will happen, because that’s my only frame of reference in the Air Leader series. The game revolves around a series of campaigns that you play through that depict conditions in historical conflict situations. Beginning a campaign, you’ll choose one of the number of campaigns in the game, and then you choose one of the six ‘situations’ or conditions under which that campaign will be played. With the 6 campaigns and 6 situations, there’s a huge number of permutations for over all play experiences. We’ll start with the short introductory scenario that covers the opening days of Operation Desert Storm in 1991.
The campaign details the terrain hexes that you’ll use as well as the force composition of the enemy to be arrayed against you. On top of that it shows you the victory conditions of the given campaign so you can measure up against expectations set from high command. Similarly to other games in the series you start with a number of Special Operations Points (SOP’s), which you’ll use to purchase aircraft and arm them for their daily missions.
Here’s one of the biggest differences in the game versus Phantom Leader; you spend SOP’s to purchase aircraft, but the pilots that fly those aircraft are separate cards, which you’ll later use to crew your planes. Phantom Leader just has planes that you purchase, which have pilots “in them”, but Thunderbolt Apache Leader provides a more ramped up challenge. Instead of just managing pilots’ stress, you now have to manage pilot stress in combination with mechanical issues with planes and helicopters. A pilot might fly a mission and gain 3 or 4 stress, but if the plane sustains any lasting damage, which is quite likely, then the next pilot will have to fly the damaged plane. I really enjoyed trying to balance repairing planes and juggling pilot stress between missions and days. The extra level of book keeping means that decisions that give stress or incur risk of damage have a greater weight to them, improving the tension present in the game.
As stated, Thunderbolt Apache Leader is a game of single planes, pilots and armaments flying single missions across a campaign. Each roll of the die represents a single strafing run with a cannon, or the firing of a single volley of rockets. On such a micro managed scale, the game could feel fiddly but absolutely does not. I’m a huge fan of the tactical board and the movable terrain hexes. Each map will be different, as they are randomly distributed, and there’s something really satisfying about flying around at low altitudes and blasting tanks with the rail gun. This game is one of those games where I channel my inner 10-year old boy and catch myself making gun, rocket, and explosion noises as my counters fly around the board. It might seem lame, but that’s how I know I enjoy a game on this scale; it’s absorbing to a level that brings out more in me than just cold calculations.
Navigating the terrain, and trying to avoid enemy fire, is where a lot of the crunch of the game occur. You’ll be doing your best to keep out of range of enemies and attack on your terms. When enemies attack they do not roll dice as in other games, but you draw a chit and refer to the appropriate side of it (yellow = light damage, red = heavy damage). If the chit displays the designation of your air craft, A-10 for example, then nothing happens. If it says anything else, then the effects are applied. It’s actually a really neat little mechanism for damage allocation and keeps almost all attacks fairly scary. Some of the attacks for traditional damage, some inflict stress on pilots as they maneuver to avoid the incoming rounds, and some even force you to a different altitude. I found that last one particularly dangerous as I had a round force me to a lower altitude and then I had to fly over a bunch of ridges, which causes a ton of stress. I quickly found that even the little things in this game can escalate really quickly.
Strategically speaking, there’s a bit more of a game; where the battalions you’re attacking move positions and will cost more or less stress on your pilots to attack. If the battalions get too close or enter your airbase then the campaign ends in failure. It’s almost like a mini game where sometimes your hand can be forced into what missions you fly in order to stem the tide of the enemy advances.
Is the Leader Series for Me, Though?
Yes, it probably is. I say that with a level of confidence that stems from the fact that I know that most of us aren’t lucky enough to have consistent, competent human opponents. This series provides an excellent solo experience, and Thunderbolt Apache Leader might be the pinnacle thereof. I personally love the planning aspect of these games, choosing which weapon load outs to put on the planes, and the freedom with which you can do that means you can do some pretty fun things. Compared to Phantom Leader, the Thunderbolts can carry almost 4 times as much munitions and have a fully functioning cannon that hits on a 4+. As such, your warbirds are deadly, and blasting through the battle field gives a really satisfying feeling. There’s no precision targeting in this game, it’s about kill volume which, again, is awesome fun.
The counter tray might look scary, but really there’s nothing to be a afraid of. There’s a bunch of armaments, and then a bunch of enemy unit counters, but you really don’t use all that many in a given scenario. If you enjoy games where planning is one of the keys to success then you’ll be all about T/AL. I personally really enjoy the interaction, and pay off between planning and execution.
There’s a series of pop-up rules during the combat phase, where if you’re flying aircraft at high (read: safe) altitude then you draw a pop-up token, which potentially can be an enemy unit. These pop-up units are a mix of enemy aircraft, SAM sites, or other AA units. Be warned, these can really mess up your carefully laid plans and if you’re caught without any air-to-air capabilities when that pop up Mirage shows up, you’ll be aborting the mission much sooner than expected. It’s just another great layer of strategy in the game that adds an unknown or random element, but one that can be regulated through judicious play and calculated risk.
All in all, I’m extremely happy with Thunderbolt Apache Leader. The tactical air missions are an absolute blast, but it retains a lot of the great planning that I was such a fan of in Phantom Leader. In almost every aspect of the game, there’s just an added measure more. More planning, more strategy, more weapons, more enemies. And I love that. You roll fewer dice, and whilst that feeling of less randomness that results is artificial (because you pull chits instead), it is a welcome change.
This is a game that I cannot wait to play again, and get to the next mission!