What is this game about?
Thunderbolt-Apache Leader from Dan Verssen Games is all about close air support in various U.S. military campaigns from the 1980s to the 2000s. You'll be sending your pilots to locations like Iraq, Libya, and North Korea, or even watching them fly into more fantastical conflicts such as "WWIII North Atlantic." Each game is actually a campaign, the length of which is determined by the number of days in the conflict you choose to simulate. Your degree of success is determined by the number of victory points you can earn before the end of the campaign—as long as enemy battalions don't advance towards your base and ultimately destroy you.
Play of Thunderbolt-Apache Leader (TAL) is split between two phases—one is actual gameplay, where you are flying over enemy terrain and fighting it out. But the other, and maybe more important, part of play is all about planning. Before you ever fire your first missile, you will choose aircraft and pick the right pilots to fly them! Each campaign you attempt will give you a starting number of "Special Options" (SO) points, which you will need to budget carefully to increase your odds of success. The bulk of your points will be spent purchasing aircraft, and there are a variety of helicopters and planes to choose from. Once you've chosen those, you will be able to assign pilots, which is also a fun process. There are three cards for each pilot in the game, because they each have several different potential skill levels. It's possible to demote some pilots in order to promote others, or to spend some of those precious SO points on making your pilots better. Pilots can also "level up" as they gain experience, so you will get to watch them develop over the course of longer campaigns.
When it's time to go into battle, you will choose an enemy battalion to attack, outfit your planes with various weapons (which also cost SO points), and take flight! While flying a mission, you will have to think about your planes' altitudes, movement ranges, and weapon supplies. While missiles hit based on how well you roll a d10, you can do a lot to modify your rolls by choosing the right missiles and sending in pilots who roll with bonuses to certain attack types (this is why you want more skilled pilots). You also have a limited number of loiter turns to work with, which means you need to attack as efficiently as possible and then get back home before you run out of fuel.
However, combat is not all about your pilots gaining glory—enemies fire back, your aircraft take damage, and your pilots take stress. If your aircraft get too damaged to fly, they can crash and force you to perform a search and rescue mission in hopes of finding your lost pilot. Stressed out pilots can become shaken, and eventually unfit to fly. When you finish your battles and come back to the planning phase, you'll have to figure out how to deal with all of that stress and damage. Will you spend precious SO points to repair aircraft? Which pilots are most in need of a no-fly day to reduce stress levels? Every decision matters in TAL, and every decision is fun to make!
How does it play solo?
TAL is solo only. Enjoy being catered to, fellow solitaire gamers!
I never thought I needed a game about war helicopters until I played TAL. I am so taken with this game, and I can absolutely see why it is a solo classic. It's a fascinating mash-up of a war game and a DnD campaign, and I love getting attached to my pilots, helping them grow, trying to manage their stress, etc. The campaign aspect of the game is a major selling point for me, and it makes TAL something more than just flying a bunch of missions and hoping to get lucky. The choices I make about leveling up my pilots, repairing my aircraft, and dealing with both human and mechanical wear and tear make me feel more emotionally engaged and more challenged.
I also very much enjoy flying the missions themselves. Every last choice you make is dramatic, and every die roll is exciting. Will your missile hit the target? If it doesn't, how will you adjust your plans? Choosing when to change altitude, how to move efficiently, and which missiles to deploy at a given time is so much fun, and even when you get extra loiter turns, your missions end all too soon. Of course, then you can get back to planning the next one!
While I love the campaign aspect of TAL, I can see it being a drawback for some gamers. If you don't like the idea of taking notes or doing some serious housekeeping between missions, then this game may not appeal to you. I can also see luck feeling like an issue for some, although I felt that it added drama and surprise. While you can do a lot to modify your pilots' die rolls, sometimes you just get unlucky—either because you fire and miss, or because you end up drawing a pop-up enemy that does the most possible damage and ends up in the worst possible location. If you are considering TAL for your collection, you should be sure it's the right kind of game for you.
But TAL is definitely the right kind of game for me. I still know very little about close air support, probably don't pronounce the missile names correctly, and still occasionally refer to all the different aircraft as "airplanes." All the same, TAL is a fantastic game where I can experience the satisfaction of formulating a solid plan, as well as the thrill of battle. At this point I'm even curious to know more about military aircraft! As far as I'm concerned, TAL is an absolute keeper.
Do I recommend it?
YES. I recommend TAL so much. However, you might think twice about it if you hate campaigns/log sheets or if you prefer minimal randomness in your games.
Overall Rating: 5 stars
5 stars — I love it!
4 stars — I really it.
3 stars — I like it.
2 stars — It's okay.
1 star — Meh.