Hornet Leader (GMT)

Playings, 4 campaigns (losing 4), 6 hours

Anyone possessed of some type of computer is missing out if it has never been used for as a flight simulator. The processor and clock speed determine how fast things go. Having tried F19 on the ST and its cousin F16 II on the PC, the PC version is a sight faster. The latest sims require at least DOS 5 (which I have) but fill up the hard disc and require turning off all peripherals (boot from a system disc, load DOS and Mouse. Com., nothing else). A degree of effort which together with the 40 starting price has kept me away.

Now that we have the technology a solo boardgame involving single aircraft is on an uphill ride. Hornet Leader is a simple game so has to compete as a playing experience. Air War and Speed of Heat have some merit as data fodder rather than playing exercises. The data in Microprose sims at least is suitably luxuriant and you get too see the missiles in action as well as read about them. Hornet Leader cannot hold up in terms of visuals or new data but does cut out the tiresome need to actually fly the planes and includes a good dollop of strategy.

Objectives are clearly set out, a rather wooly area in Thunderbolt-Apache Leader. You are the squadron commander of F18 Hornets on a specified campaign forced to fly a pre-set number of missions. You can sit out all the missions in your office but being a good pilot, charismatic leader (cheering up other pilots on landing if you fly with them) and modest to boot you will probably spend a lot of time airborne. 12 Hornets and 15 pilots are available, Hornets get shot down or pulled out for repair from combat damage or fatigue. Pilots may pull through a mission but be badly shook up so be unable to fly or only fly at reduced ability on the next show. Missions will involve 8 or less Hornets and pilots but repairs and sick call will reduce the choice of what to send up. The missions earn points or deduct points depending on performance, 2 complete failures, lack of planes or pilots or being personally dead or unfit will lose the campaign. If you make it through the war the total number of points will be a measure of success or failure. Favouring the up-front style of leadership I have but once got to that stage.

Missions follow the same outline, success in one mission will not make the next any easier. Failure may end the campaign or reduce the options available for the next flight. A target card is drawn, modified by another card for conditions, distance to target (payload available), night/day flight. The target card is placed in a square box on the centre of the map. 2 larger concentric squares surround this box, each divided into north, south, east and west boxes. These represent the position of the target, approach and pre-approach flying areas from the 4 compass points. A 10th separate area is used by high flying support aircraft, attackers have to fight through this box to get at the ground attack planes. All map action occurs in these boxes.

Having placed the target card, SAM density is rolled for in the target and approach areas, AAA depends on the target card but does not vary. Pre-approach areas do not have SAM sites but they can be shot into by some sites from adjacent approach areas. Based on this information alone, planes and pilots have to be chosen and armed. The target card gives the recommended number of planes to use, it is possible to send out 2 more or 2 less for a slight increase or decrease in score, the bonus of sending less planes is not balanced by the drop in munitions carried. Pilots are all rated, some are better for ground attack others for air to air, munitions should be tied to the role of the plane. Hornets fly in pairs, each pair is either put on any appropriate approach or pre-approach area or in the air support box. They cannot be placed singly, 6 Hornets will have to go 4 ground, 2 air or 2 ground, 4 air. When the USA bombed Serbs in Bosnia F16s flew in a similar configuration, some to bomb, others to chase off fighters. The decision of what proportion of Hornets will be bombing is most important, too few and there will not be enough bombs dropped to effect the target. Target cards specify how many hits are needed for success, looking at the bomb counters gives a good idea of the minimum force needed. Some space should be reserved for anti-SAM HARM missiles. SAM sites are not accurate but will attack several planes at once, when they do hit its game over. SAM information is not always accurate, the layout may change after planes have been positioned, it may not be possible to fly through a gap in the SAM umbrella. If too few planes are sent as air support, they will be shot down and the MIGs will come after the ground attack planes who because of their munitions are at a disadvantage.

The time taken for the planes to fly from the carrier to the target area is not represented. A random event card might affect the flight in or back but the details are not simulated. The worst that can happen is loss of planes to a swift D10 en-route, which is pretty bad. Action begins with the ground attack planes tracking the target and the support planes showing up on the MIG's radar. Intercepting planes appear in pairs, the quality depends on where the war is being fought, they match up on Hornets depending on pilot quality and who has the advantage (random roll). There are only just enough MIGs to go round, including backprinting, 6 MIGs puts the counter mix to the limit. Some of these MIGs are better than others (pilots and planes) but only the number and plane type will vary, the same pilots will always fly the same MIGs.

At this point the die rolling takes over from the decision making. Firing and hitting takes place over 4 phases, air combat conveniently matching the approach on the ground. Dogfighting planes fire long range Sparrows (or the MIG equivalent) in stage 1, shorter range Sidewinders in 2 and (if you have packed enough) 3, followed by cannon in period 4. The planes do not have to stick to the same targets but can re-engage from phase to phase. Ideally the opposing MIG will be shot down by Sparrows, allowing a switch to Sidewinders for another. If enough Hornets are lost to leave the MIGs with a 2:1 superiority any extra move to the ground attack boxes and attack there next phase. Meanwhile the ground attack planes approach the target, not moving in phase 1 but shuffling 1 space each other phase. If they begin in pre-approach they will move to approach (phase 2) and target (phase 3). Beginning in approach will get them over target by phase 2 but allow less time to fire HARMs at SAM sites. It is not necessary to fly on top of the target to hit it, iron bombs require this but some smart munitions can be fired from an adjacent area with reduced efficiency. After 4 phases its all over regardless of actual positions, it makes sense to get in and out fast to avoid SAMs which will keep firing at anything in range unless neutralised by HARMs. If you are going to get bounced by MIGs it might as well be after the target has been hit.

There is not much that can be done during combat except roll the D10, approach the target, fire all the HARMs you have at the nastiest SAMs and engage the mightiest MIGs with the best Hornets. Pre-mission planning will heavily influence how easy it is to win the mission. General conditions and random events will make some missions very much harder than others, even loss of a single Hornet can change a winning attack to a draw but there is no bugging out, when the planes are set up you have to face it.

The combat section of Hornet Leader is quick and decisive but contains next to no hard data and falls apart on close scrutiny of the model used. The tradeoff between smart munitions and cheaper heavier ordinance is poorly addressed. Mavericks are long range munitions fired at about 30km but of no use as the target approaches, they need a target lock and flight time to arm. In Hornet Leader they can be fired from approach or target areas but with improved accuracy from the target area. If terrain was so heavy that Mavericks had to be fired at under the approved range, a drop of accuracy could be expected. The addition of sundry tracking gadgets to Mavericks reduces space available for explosive, in theory we have a better chance of hitting compared to a smaller bang. Hornet Leader does move towards this with iron bombs which have a chance of scoring more than 1 hit but cannot be used stand-off. There is the choice of loading double size bombs with an increased chance of multiple hits compared to the regular variety. The numbers add up to iron bombs dropped over the target being a better bet than Mavericks. If correctly used from an adjacent area Mavericks perform poorly, if you have to drop on top of the target it might as well get flattened.

Time should not be taken too strictly. Ground attack planes are assumed to make just 1 run at the target and fire off all suitable munitions at once. It takes F18s quite a while to turn around and come back for a 2nd run at the speeds they fly but this does enable damage to be checked and any missed bits cleared up. It is not clear if only 1 run is allowed or 2 runs have been simulated as one. The air to air combat conveniently continues at the same time, this would not matter were it not possible for victorious fighters to rejoin the ground combat. Ground targets will stay still and attackers can manoeuvre to get a good lock. In the case of air combat both sides will be moving around each other at considerable distances, perhaps 20 to 30 km. Air to air missiles require a correct distance and angle to lock on, after they have locked its fire and forget. With equal pilots considerable time can be spent getting a lock compared to approaching a target. With unequal pilots or in the case of surprise very little time is expended. Assuming the target is approached and Migs sighted at exactly the same time we have initial locks in phase 1. Using Harpoons, Mavericks or Sparrows there may be very little left by phase 2 but Hornet Leader is such that phase 1 will rarely end the mission, MIGs remain and the target needs more softening. The bombing display shows the MIGs approaching the targets in phase 2. In the air combat box all planes will be going at least as fast (to avoid missiles) plus be roughly approaching each other giving relative speeds of nearly double those of low flying Hornets. Often phase 2 will see a win and paradoxes kept under the carpet. If not Hornets are over or past the target by phase 3 but high flyers will have missed their original opportunity or succeeded and be looking for another target. Unless a 2nd plane is conveniently several km behind the last target but along the same line as the firer or 1 side has a clear surplus in planes (all over the sky), there will be a gap while planes break off or try for a new attack position. Phases 1 and 2 are seen to approximate events but 3 and 4 have to be seen as a 2nd bombing run and fighters lining up for subsequent missile locks in air combat. Unfortunately this is not how it looks when playing out the game.

Considered as a simulation the combat part of Hornet Leader is its weakest part, it is also that part of the game which will take longest to play. Sorting out weapon counters to put on the planes comes a close second but wins on tediousity. Looking at combat closely using flight sims as a comparison shows up the attack module as pretty rickety. Considered as a means to generate results, it does so the game winning or losing will depend equally as much on what happens before combat as on the roll of the D10. There is never enough space on the F18s to carry all they need nor enough planes to send up. It may be clear what has to be done but lack of resources will force compromises to be made in doing it.