DGS Games

GrogHeads Reviews DVG’s Hornet Leader

Does Hornet Leader take flight?  Michael buzzes in to let us know.

Michael Eckenfels, 11 July 2015

In Hornet Leader (this version is the recent remake), the player controls a squadron of either U.S. Navy or Marine Corps aircraft through one of several campaigns, which include both real-world historical events and hypothetical ones (more hypothetical, though, than real-world). There’s tons of cards and counters you use to record, fight, and try to keep your squadron alive long enough to earn enough victory points to get a good enough rating for your campaign.

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COMPONENTS

I discussed the game’s components in an unboxing article already, so if you’ve perused that, forgive the repetition. I’ll get a little bit more detailed, since this is a full review.

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  • 330 Full Color Cards. That’s a LOT of cards. There’s tons of aircraft in this game to choose from (though the campaigns you choose to fly may limit what you can select, of course). The artwork is pretty good and the overall design is good, though the font they chose for the pilot’s call sign and the aircraft name are both a little hard to read; this font is repeated on some of the other cards too. They’re standard card stock, just like regular playing cards, so they’re average in that regard. The cards do organize information well and it looks good on the table when you line up several aircraft cards for your mission!
  • 352 Full Color Counters. The counters are standard stock, though the printing leaves a bit to be desired for some as some of the printing is off a bit (it’s not a deal-breaker at all, just annoys my OCD as certain markings aren’t lined up perfectly on each one). It’s easy to tell them apart (enemies have red backgrounds and the player’s have blue backgrounds), and the two types of ordinance you can use – air-to-air and air-to-ground – are differentiated by a yellow stripe present on only air-to-air ordinance. (Part of my minor complaint is these stripes are off on some counters. Again, not a big deal.) Markers look good and there’s not many of them to have to deal with, so the game doesn’t take up a lot of room on a table. Overall they look great, and it’s easy to tell everything apart by a glance.
  • Eight Full Color Campaign Cards. Each campaign card details each of the (wait for it…) eight campaigns the player can choose from. I like how these are organized, and how they detail information specific to that particular campaign (such as, having to remove certain enemy counters from the mix, and certain munitions allowed). Each also has tracks for recording information. Despite all the info provided, they’re not cluttered at all.
  • One 11” x 17” Mounted Tactical Display. This is the heart of the game, where the missions are carried out and won (or lost). This has a small footprint, and has spaces for both Target and Event cards (though no spaces for discards, unfortunately). An order of play is also printed on it, which is very helpful. I like how it is designed and organized, with the main display itself looking like a radar map.
  • One Full Color Help Sheet. This ‘help’ sheet isn’t much help. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way, but I’ve not really referred to it at all in any of my games. It’s decent enough for the information it shows (such as, a list of what affects a pilot’s Stress levels), though some info is only referred to once and is probably best left in the rules and not here (such as how many starting aircraft you get) to free up space for something else. Designed like a clipboard, it does look good, and just because I did not refer to it doesn’t mean someone else will not.
  • One 10-sided die. Yep, one. But those that have read my reviews before know that one die is better than no dice. I’ve read that a lot of DVG dice are haunted and often roll awfully, single-handedly causing the destruction of many squadrons. I’ve not had that problem, but I did add two more d10s to the mix. Initially I did that to keep a record of some in-game points, but now I just randomly choose one of the three when I make my rolls.
  • One Player Log Sheet. This is where the player enters all their information for their pilots and keeps track of their statuses. There’s only one sheet, so you’d have to make photocopies or download it from the DVG website. There’s a lot of stuff to keep track of, too, so you see why DVG decided to not create game tracks for this, leaving it to us to write it up. I’m not sure I would not have appreciated having other displays to keep track of this info on…perhaps that is a Photoshop opportunity for me in the near future.
  • Full Color Rules Book. DVG might have been hit-or-miss here and there with rule books that are structured poorly (Warfighter comes to mind immediately), but this rule book isn’t affected by that, thank goodness. It follows the game’s flow well, though it could use a bit more consistency. For example, the order of play on the Tactical Map lists each step in the game’s turn sequence, and the rule book goes into details, but not all steps in the rules are on the sequence on the map. Admittedly, something like ‘Select Target’ is self-explanatory, but I’m always wondering if I’m forgetting something. Regardless, I’ve not had trouble with it while playing the game.
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GAMEPLAY

I’ll preface this entire review by saying Hornet Leader is a lot of fun. It is in many ways very similar to Phantom Leader (which I’ve played a bit of, both with the board game and the iPad version), and Thunderbolt/Apache Leader (which I played a LOT of back in the day, and was a blast). However, I will speak only to Hornet Leader and not compare it to any of those other games. Just know, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time with this game thus far.

As mentioned, you take on the role of a squadron commander of either a U.S. Navy or Marine Corps strike fighter squadron, flying missions, allocating aircraft, selecting munitions, and making the decisions that become more difficult as the game progresses, as you face depleted squadrons, support, and other problems.

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The choice of U.S. Navy or Marine Corps campaigns is not purely decorative. If you choose the U.S. Navy, you cannot fly the AV-8B Harriers. If you choose the Marine Corps, you can only choose AV-8B Harriers and F-35 Lightning IIs. Some campaigns only allow certain aircraft, based on the year the campaign occurs within, so if you choose to fight the World War III campaign (which takes place in 1986), the F-35 is obviously right out.

The campaign you choose can be one of eight provided in the game, and you can find others that are generated by fans in several places on the Internet. Those campaigns include: Libya 1984, World War III North Atlantic 1986, Iraq 1991, Israel Defense 2001, Syria 2004, Taiwan Defense 2008, North Korea 2011, and Iran 2014. Further, you choose how long you want to fight your campaign; this can be Short (3-5 days, depending on the campaign), Medium (6-8 days), and Long (8-12 days). Each day, you fly one mission, though it is possible to fly two missions in one day if you draw the right Target card.

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There’s a lot of set-up to the game before you start flying missions. Once you’ve done all of the above (and a bit more), you then choose your squadron composition. If you’re controlling a Marine Corps squadron, you’re looking at a lot less in the choice department, but that might not be a bad thing; the Navy has a lot of different aircraft and ‘analysis paralysis’ can be an issue when deciding your squadron’s composition. Regardless of choice, a stack of pilot cards awaits the player’s perusal, and these are named after a ton of different pilots across several different aircraft. Each pilot card actually has three different iterations, printed on both sides of three cards, reflecting one of six skill levels (Newbie, Green, Average, Skilled, Veteran, and Ace).

Depending on the campaign length selected, a certain number of each skill level will be available (though no Aces are at start; they’re made in-game if they’re lucky!). Skills make the pilot, as each have slightly different ratings for air-to-air or air-to-ground combat. Pilots earn experience points on missions and can get ‘promoted’ to the next higher skill level. One can also spend Special Option (SO) points to promote a pilot before a campaign begins, but that’s very expensive.

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SO points are kind of a catch-all measure of logistics and support. They’re finite, so once they’re spent, they’re gone. However, they give the player a measure of flexibility for the campaign. Part of the challenge in-game is balancing expenditures with needs, as SOs can do a lot for you. For one, they can be spent on ‘special weapons’ which are generally more effective than ‘standard’ weapons (a good example is the AGM-54 Phoenix missile – a ‘special’ weapon – compared to the ‘standard’ weapon AIM-9s and AIM-7s). Pilots can be promoted before the game’s start, but that has to be considered carefully as that can take up a big chunk of the SO pie. Other things include extra reconnaissance to choose from more targets each turn, or tanker priorities to ensure aircraft can carry maximum weapons load-outs, and so on.

The moment of truth comes (actually it’s a lot of moments strung along in sequence) once the pre-flight sequence begins for the day, but first I want to talk a little more about the difference between U.S. Navy and Marine Corps campaigns. When you look at the campaign card for what you’ve selected, there’s a map on there with an arrowhead representing your carrier task force, which is your home base. The map is divided into range bands (three, four, or five of them, depending). The targets are represented by numbers and are scattered all over the map.

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The further out the target, the more Stress a pilot will accumulate, and the less ordinance your aircraft will be able to carry. This is where the Tanker Option thing comes in handy – one SO point per aircraft and that Weight Point (WP) penalty is removed. More about WPs in a bit. For the Marine Corps campaigns, though, only the Target cards in the first range band are put into the deck. That’s not many to choose from, usually half a dozen or so. Once half of the Target cards in that first range band are destroyed (i.e., successful missions!), that range band is considered ‘secured’ and the next range band’s Target cards are made available and shuffled into the remaining Target cards for that first range band. The process continues all the way through the last range band.

In the Navy campaign, though, all the Target cards are shuffled in, ensuring a wide range of results. It’s very possible to draw Target cards only in the furthest range bands, forcing you to go all out immediately. For that reason, it’s probably better for brand-new players (especially those new to an air-based Leader game from DVG) to go with the Marine squadron first, to get the hang of things, before progressing to the Navy’s.

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So, selecting that mission from the few Target cards you initially draw becomes something of a tense moment. Some Target cards are rather tough, not just from a range standpoint but also from how heavily they will be defended. The tougher targets are worth more VPs though, so that’s something else to consider. Several of these cards have ‘traits’ that can make them easier or more difficult to defeat, adding yet another dimension to this tenseness. For example, the ‘Soft’ trait means a target can get hammered by weapons that are particularly effective against soft targets. ‘Small’ means they’re harder to hit. By far, though, the most interesting one is ‘Improvement,’ which means that Target card remains in play until it is dealt with, and more often than not it provides a bonus to the enemy in some way. There’s a Naval Base target card, for example, that gives Fleet targets an additional three hits before they can be destroyed – something that’s highly annoying. What’s worse is that same Naval Base Target card requires 16 hits to destroy, no easy feat!

Figuring out which aircraft/pilots to take along with you is a big choice to make, especially if you’re playing a Navy campaign. Aircraft are rated according to ‘weight points’ (WPs), and ordinance is measured in a number of these. Your aircraft cannot carry more WPs worth of ordinance than they are allowed, of course, and choosing what ordinance to load is yet another tense and important fork in the road. Initially, you place a number of ‘sites’ on the Tactical Display, which are ground weapons. These can be SAMs, infantry, or other ground-based defenses. For enemy aircraft (bandits), you can see the number that go on the board, but you cannot see what they are…not until your strike arrives on target. That means you’ll have to try to guess how much air-to-air support to bring along. Bring too few, and you’ll get chewed up; bring too many, and you’ll likely have wasted space for an AIM missile where a Mk82 would have come much more in handy.

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One thing is for sure: if you’re not at all familiar with US weapons systems and ordinance, reading up on them in the game manual is absolutely necessary. There’s a lot of info on some of the ordinance pieces (the AGM-65, for example, has no less than NINE different ratings), and keeping it all straight is difficult for those with more experience, let alone someone brand new to the world of blowing stuff up. The info is very helpful in guiding newbies, I think, but the best education is to just jump in after reading the rules to see what weapon does what.

There are no worries for flying to the target – except for the Target-Bound Event card you have to draw on the way there. Otherwise, there’s no interactivity with your strike, which is a bit odd, especially if you’re flying a strike against a target in the furthest range band. One would think the enemy could pick it up and try to intercept it. However, the Target-Bound Event draw is pretty much this approach, in a nutshell. It can be very bad (adding extra sites/bandits to the target, or causing your pilots penalties), or it can be beneficial (such as by refreshing SO points from a fleet resupply event). While it’s not entirely realistic to have deep strikes just generally represented by a random card draw, for play balance it’s absolutely spot-on. Because believe me, a player of this game already has a lot to focus on and worry about. Why add more?

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Once your strike is over the target, you start in the outer edges of the Tactical Display. Aircraft from the strike can be placed anywhere, though should be carefully considered based on the weapons and ranges involved. By this point, all sites and bandits will be placed, so you’ll at least have that advantage…though there’s yet another surprise before the action starts. You get to draw an Over Target Event card. Each Event card is divided into three portions – Target-Bound, Over Target, and Home-Bound, so you just refer to the appropriate part of the card and apply its effects. And yes, this can mean additional headaches, or possibly a boon. Or maybe nothing at all.

See how much we’ve gone through already and we haven’t even had a chance to blow something up? There is indeed a lot to this game, and it demands your attention, though patience really isn’t a problem because you’re constantly doing something very important to the outcome of the game.

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Once the action begins, another important bit of pilot information becomes central, namely, whether or not the pilots are ‘Fast’ or ‘Slow.’ Fast pilots go first, before the enemy, while Slow pilots go after the enemy. There’s usually five Turns over a target, so there’s not a lot of time to stick around and enjoy the sites (or bomb them – see what I did there?), so you need to strike fast and decisively, and depending on the Target, you’ll need to consider trying to hit it as soon as possible, which means possibly ignoring the enemy units in doing so, leaving them to other aircraft. You can see how deciding roles for your pilots before the mission even begins is very important, and therefore determining their load-outs.

Each turn over the target involves Fast pilots attacking, the enemy attacking, and then Slow pilots attacking. Then, your aircraft move (one space, in any direction), and then bandits move, usually towards the closest of your aircraft. Attacks from your aircraft involve either air-to-air or air-to-ground attacks, not both.

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Focusing just on bandits or sites means the target itself goes untouched, but then again as mentioned, ignoring them and going after the target can be necessary to win the mission. This can also mean lots of holes in your aircraft (or worse, your pilots getting shot down). A great deal of the fun of this game comes here, where you’re maneuvering, attacking, and sweating each and every die roll, asking yourself if there’s enough time left to destroy the target or enough ordinance to take out the enemy that’s in the way of that.

Destroying a Target card means exceeding the number of hits it can take, and each bit of munitions causes different points of damage – but hitting the target (or a site or a bandit, for that matter) in the first place is determined by a die roll, so success is never guaranteed. Bringing extra air-to-ground ordinance ‘just in case’ is usually a difficult proposition, what with weight limits and all, and whether or not it is expended on enemy sites or on the Target card itself can be a tough decision, especially if you drop it on a SAM battery, and then realize that was your last chance to blow up the Target card because another aircraft failed when attacking it.

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Flying home is much less harrowing, though there is the final Event card draw just to see if it is interesting. Any pilots that were shot down are then searched for and hopefully rescued, though their Stress level will likely be through the roof. I’ve mentioned Stress throughout, and it’s pretty much what you might think – it is a measure of exhaustion and fear, I think, and it can accumulate if the pilot has to fly a long distance, do a lot of evading in combat, and on top of all that, get shot down. As Stress accumulates, a pilot’s stats might drop, and they might eventually become completely unfit to fly. Pilots that do not fly a mission for a day can reduce their Stress a bit, and one can always pay SO points to put them on ‘priority R&R,’ which one may assume involves a visit to facilities of ill repute, or Disney World…whatever floats your boat, so to speak.

The player gets VPs for destroying targets and pilots get XP(s) for completing missions (extra XP is awarded for flying to the furthest range band, for most campaigns, and also if the target is destroyed and no aircraft are lost). Victory is ultimately measured at the end of the campaign, based on the VPs accumulated. This can result in one of five rating categories, ranging from ‘Great’ to ‘Dismal.’ Fortunately, VPs are not lost for destroyed aircraft – once the VPs are earned, they’re kept.

Other than the rating category, there are no other effects or information provided. That’s kind of disappointing; perhaps some more ‘color’ commentary could have been added. For example, earning a ‘Great’ rating might mean you’re promoted in rank, destined to become a flag officer and lead an even larger contingent, not to mention being a national hero. ‘Dismal’ could mean being busted several ranks, discharged in disgrace, and angrily posting in forums about how your life was destroyed by others and not your own choices. (That last bit is just a guess.)

 

CONCLUSION

I stated my conclusion pretty much in the first paragraph of the Gameplay section – namely that this game is a lot of fun. I enjoy having to make so many choices in the Navy campaign, and like the Marine campaign a lot for its simplicity and Churchillian approach to victory. All the choices that make or break your missions come from you, though the luck of the card draw and die roll might mean too much randomness for some. However, having to choose pilots, which experience levels to assign to whom, what Target cards to fly against, weapon load-outs, target approaches…well, there’s plenty of player-generated decisions to make, so everything leading up to that one die roll that blots your carefully crafted pilot out of the sky, that can be frustrating as hell…and strangely satisfying at the same time. For a solitaire air combat game, Hornet Leader is tops, and I can’t recommend it highly enough.


 

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2 Responses to GrogHeads Reviews DVG’s Hornet Leader

  1. granger44 says:

    One correction to your review: you do lose VP for aircraft shot down and pilots who are MIA and not recovered by the end of the campaign. Check out the bottom, second column of p14 under “Destroyed Aircraft”.

  2. […] other one and you have quite a bit of space you need. The game’s footprint is larger than either Hornet Leader or Phantom Leader. I don’t know if that’s true of the other Leader games they have out […]

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