Monday, April 13, 2009

Hornet Leader 2

Of all the solitaire games I own, perhaps none has seen as much play as Hornet Leader. Originally designed by Dan Verssen and published by GMT Games nearly 20 years ago, it was the game I'd take with me on business trips to keep me occupied in the evenings in my hotel room (back before I had a laptop to bring with me). There were several variants published in C3i over the years, but with more and more games requiring table time it just wasn't seeing much play anymore. 

A few years ago, when I first started to get interested in VASSAL, I noticed that Dan was selling VASSAL and PDF versions of some new games in the Leader series. Since I'd been disappointed that only two titles had been published (the other was Thunderbolt/Apache Leader, which had a much different feel than Hornet), although GMT had tried to drum up support for other topics, I figured I'd try out Hornet Leader 2 in VASSAL form. I'm not a big fan of building my own counters, so having it in computer form would not only get me a copy of the game but allow me to essentially play HL on the computer rather than having to set the game up (and leave it up) for long periods of time to finish complete campaigns. 

Unfortunately, there wasn't much information that came with the game about VASSAL, and I admit that I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to do very simple things (like pick a single unit out of a stack). HL2 has just enough differences from HL that things were confusing for me anyway, and the game got shelved for a while.

Fast forward to the last month. Having gotten quite a bit of VASSAL experience over the past few years, I had noticed that there was a module for T/AL that had just come out and it got me thinking about HL2. Unfortunately, we were two versions on in VASSAL and I was having trouble getting my copy to work correctly. Dan Verssen, however, generously sent me a new key and I was able to get the game up and running without any problem.

The good news is that this is a great little game in VASSAL form, and while I really can't say why I had so much trouble before, now I'm finding that I can play the game rather effortlessly. Better, since it's on the computer, I can play over time. I usually start out my day (once I've showered, eaten, etc) by playing out a mission, and I've already gotten through one skirmish in Iraq and another conflict over Libya. While I won't say that I've done well (I was adequate in Iraq, and with one mission to go in Libya, I'm hopeful I can get to Good), it's been a lot of fun, and I'm finding I worry about my pilots going over target, just like in the regular game.

HL2 works off of a couple of basic ideas. The first is that you have a squadron of pilots, rated for their speed (where they make attacks in the sequence of play), effectiveness in both air and ground combat, their experience level, and their ability to manage stress in the cockpit. Unlike HL, the pilot and the aircraft are inseparable, and much of the board game's focus on the state of the aircraft is streamlined out in this game. Like HL, you still load out the aircraft with ordnance, although the formula for doing so is slightly different in many respects, not the least of which is that you don't worry about where various weapons go on the physical aircraft. 

For example, in HL you automatically get to put two Sidewinder air-to-air missiles on the mount points on your wings, and they cost no weight points. Every plane gets them, as there is nothing else you can mount there and the weight is negligible. In HL2, all mount points are the same, and every Sidewinder costs 1 weight point. Most ground attack weapons, from Maverick guided missiles to iron bombs, cost 2 weight points. Pods come in two flavors, one that works if you're attacked from the area you're in, and another that works for the entire map. Of course, the better one is two weight points. Like the original game, you have limits on how many weapons you have available in a given day. 

New to HL is the use of Special Operations points. Some more effective weapons are available, but they require the use of SOPs, of which you get a set amount in each campaign. It's up to you to determine when and how to use these points, and in general it's not a bad idea to save them until you know you'll need them. For example, in Libya, which takes place in 1986, the anti-radar HARM 88 missiles, which are very effective, require SOPs to use, but they're standard issue in later campaigns. 

The campaigns themselves are not as numerous in the original game, with only three to choose from, but they span twenty years of operations and give an excellent feel for how things have changed over time. There are also currently three expansion modules that add more campaigns, not to mention aircraft that you can fly, and a fully tricked out module will give you a lot of options if you're easily bored. 

Campaigns can be fought in one of three modes: Skirmish, which usually lasts for a couple of missions; Conflict, which is more like a handful of missions; and War, which will last for more like several missions. Unlike HL, the campaigns don't seem to be graded in terms of difficulty. While you may not face a particular enemy aircraft or SAM site in a given theater of operations, there is usually some sort of special rule that makes things a little harder. For example, in Libya you have to fly two missions a day until you get your Infra rating up, and you can't use the same pilots for the second mission as you did in the first. 

A new factor to the campaign is that you don't just score victory points for a given target, you also improve your game position if you destroy them. There are four factors in play: Recon, which allows you to draw multiple target cards and choose one; Intel, which lowers the number of SAM/AA sites in the target area; Radar, which lowers the number of bandits (enemy fighters) in the target area; and Infra, which lowers the number of hits you need to destroy a given target. Early in the campaign, you may wish to focus on targets that destroy enemy infrastructure so that later on you don't need as many hits to destroy targets. It's a very nice evolution of the design.

The target cards are very similar to HL. Each has a number of hits required to destroy it, as well as the improvements to your strategic situation if you're successful. Some have extra special rules, such as airfields that add bandits. The ability to choose between targets gives an additional decision point to the game that both allows you to manage adversity a little better (at the cost of the possibility of less gain), as well as give you more variety. Nothing like drawing the same targets as the last game you played, which this helps alleviate. 

Once you've chosen your target, you then draw "sites" according to the target card. As in HL, you place them according to the target card, with different numbers for the approach areas and for the target area. Unlike HL, the sites aren't as generic - originally they were differentiated between SAMs and AA, and by how heavy or light they were. Now, each site has it's own information on them, similar to how it's done with weapons, and you never know which sites will be AA and which SAMs. There is also an altitude and range for each site, so often many sites will simply get flown over as they don't have the range to high high flying aircraft, or SAMs that can't lock onto low-flying aircraft. To be honest, this was one of the parts of the game that really threw me when I first saw it, but once you realize how much simpler combat is than in HL, you'll come to love it. 

Now you choose your pilots, load their aircraft (and each target gives a specific number of aircraft as well as how many of the eight load points you lose due to distance - Hornets are amazing aircraft, but one of their early design flaws was a lack of range unless they flew with relatively little ordnance), check your target-bound event, place the hornets in the pre-approach areas, then check to see if the sites are everything you thought they'd be. Unlike the original game, which just adjusted the SAMs, now any defensive element of the target may change, sites and bandits. In some cases, you get additional bandits every turn!

Combat is generally very simple. You play for four rounds, first firing weapons on both sides, then moving your aircraft. Every pilot is rated as either Fast or Slow, similar to the Aggression rating of the original game. All fast pilots can fire at one target, then the enemy sites and bandits fire, then the slow pilots fire. 

Combat is simple for Hornets, you pick a target, choose what ordnance you want to expend on it, then roll dice to see if you hit. Weapons can fire either from a given altitude, and all have a range from being limited to the specific area up to two areas away. You roll one die, modify it by the target's drm (in a circle at the bottom of the counter if a site or bandit), also by the pilot's skill at that type of combat, and in the case of air-to-air combat, by how weighted down they are with air-to-ground weaponry. There can be up to three damage numbers on the weapon. If you are at or higher than the first number, you score one hit on the target or destroy the bandit or site. If you are at or higher than the second number, that's one additional hit on the target, and the same goes for the third number. 

Sites or bandits attacking Hornets work a little differently. First, there are no mods other than if the Hornet has a pod for the appropriate range, and if so you subtract one from the die roll. Second, the targets are selected semi-randomly based on proximity and dice rolls. Third, the Hornets have two defensive options to improve their chances - they can go Evasive by taking one Stress point (more on this later), which allows them to roll two dice and pick the one they prefer. Alternatively, *any* Hornet within range can expend ordnance in exactly the same way as they'd attack the firing site or bandit, but in this case a hit means that the attack is suppressed rather than destroying the firing unit. If the resulting die roll equals or exceeds the first number on the firing unit, the target pilot takes one stress. If it matches or exceeds the second number, the Hornet is damaged, the pilot takes two stress, and all ordnance is lost from that aircraft. If the third number is equalled or exceeded, the Hornet is destroyed and you'll need to roll on the Search and Rescue table at the end of the mission to see if the pilot was recovered. 

You play for four rounds of this, then it's back to a home-bound event, landing, managing stress, giving victory points if the target was destroyed, and going on to the next mission. Stress points are a very nice way to manage the wear and tear on pilots, an improvement over the original game. In that, you had a die roll to determine if the pilot was shaken or unfit. Now, you accumulate stress points over the course of the game, and they determine how each pilot fares. For example, a rookie pilot will become shaken after only one stress point, and unfit after the second, while a veteran might be able to withstand several stress points before he becomes shaken. Each target adds stress in addition to any taken for damage, enemy fire, or evasive action. Once those numbers have been added, each pilot takes off stress according to his "cool" factor, which ranges from 1 to 2 in the pilots in the base set. Pilots which didn't fly take off stress equal to their cool, plus another two stress. 

Finally, each pilot who went over target gets an XP, and if the target was destroyed and no hornets were shot down, they each get another. Once a pilot gets XP equal to the level printed on his card, you flip the card over and they get better. Less experienced pilots will require fewer points to gain a level, and that's the best they can do. To be fair, even with the full blown War scenarios it's tough to improve your pilots to even one level of improvement, but it is possible. The problem is that unless things go very smoothly, your pilots will accumulate enough stress as rookies to make them unfit very quickly, so they're very unlikely to fly anything more than every other mission. More experienced pilots will do better, but in general you'll find that having roughly half of your air wing up at any time, alternating back and forth, will give you the most success in general.

Shaken pilots can still fly, but their speed and targeting skills are lower than if they're OK. Unfit pilots are not allowed to fly at all. It's a good idea to let all of your shaken and unfit pilots stay on the ground if at all possible, and this is another reason why being able to choose targets is such a nice addition, since each target has a number of planes that are assigned to the mission (unlike HL, you can't bump up or down the number of planes) and sometimes you want to send out fewer aircraft to a less critical target just to let your personnel rest up. 

In a nutshell, the game is very similar to the original, but with a number of tweaks that improve the game while staying true to the system. I have to admit that I miss the loadout placement limitations in the original (pods in the center, Sidewinders on the wings, etc), but that's my only complaint. 

You can pick the game up online at for $15, and the expansion modules are mostly $15 each as well, with the most recent at $20. I recommend you buy them in "order", starting with HL2, then Carrier Air Group, then Cold War, then Marine Air. Each unlocks more aircraft types/pilots, campaigns, and in some cases weapons. You can also order a PDF version if you prefer to play with physical components, but you'll need to build the game yourself. For me, the VASSAL option is a great one, and I prefer it. 

Dan has several other games for sale on the site, including Corsair Leader, which takes the system into WW2 carrier operations. There are also a couple of Down In Flames settings (one has dragons!), and a few other games I haven't tried yet. I'll probably pick up Corsair Leader next, then start picking up the HL2 expansions. It's a really clever system, long out of print in their original runs (the GMT website doesn't even list them!), but if you're looking for light solitaire games these are excellent choices. 

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