Playings; 3 (4 hours).
Its poor taste time as we shoot up the Iraqi hardware with our ground support aircraft, or roll a lot of D10's and pick piles of chits. TAL is not really a hands-on flight sim game, more an exercise in planning use of a squadron throughout a campaign. Ignore what you read on the box, TAL cannot be played as a stand alone mission, you have to play a campaign of linked missions.
7 campaign set up cards are available, including 2 flavours of Iraq (Desert Storm turkey shoot and a harder post Storm game). These are rated for difficulty so unlike Tokyo Express we can choose not to get sliced most games without resorting to tricks like the USS Nimitz in Carrier. The Desert Storm and Libya theatres are well easy, 1st timers only. The campaign card gives the terrain for the area, troop strength and break point (reduce enemy to below this and you have won). The quality of enemy units is controlled by a die roll, thus we have some uncertainty in how hard a campaign is going to be. Believe me there is a big difference in fighting quality between poor and elite troops, the range possible on every card except desert Storm (no elite). For each campaign 4 situations are available detailing the friendly set up and victory conditions. In general war you have to advance, holding action stop the enemy and so on.
Having planned where to fight and how, we can get down to the game. The actual map, or display is an all too thin 17" x 22" job, at the price GMT could have gone for a jig cut board instead of an extra week in the Bahamas. Laying out the cards, map and two A4 displays in a way that they can all be seen will take up about 3' x 2'. I was annoyed that there is no index to this lot, unlike the charts index in Patton's Best, it can take a while on the initial playing to find that rule or chart amongst all the cards, sheets and rules. We are here to fight a war, represented as 5 rows on an A4 sheet, at the back stands (or sits) the enemy rear and the rows move through, enemy transit, front line, friendly transit and air base. Friendly forces should be trying to hold the enemy and move to his rear, if the enemy counters get to your base it is all over, counters only move 1 row per turn, friendly forces cannot move through opposing forces that they do not outnumber. The enemy has no such qualms, his movement is controlled by D10 giving a slight chance of units going in tactically inept directions.
Each situation will give a varying level of friendly ground forces, who may knock out some of the enemy for you but the donkey work is left to the air boys. You can chose to fly either 4 A-10's, 8 AH-64's or 2 A-10's and 4 AH-64's, any choice is also backed by 2AH-1's and 2 AV-8B's, note that only the A-10s and AV-8Bs can fly as far as the enemy rear. Each campaign day allows 2 missions to be flown, the number of days taken to finish the game gives the level of victory. It is suggested that 1 of the 2 missions be fought as a quicky secondary mission and the other played out on the map, taking about 30 mins. At this point supply raises its head, the squadron starts with an air point level but gains more each day, flying anything will use up these points. Enemy forces can be scouted to allow strike forces a heavier payload but at a cost of 1, 2 or 3 points depending on the row that they are sat in. In combat missions each AH-1 sent up takes 1 point, AV-8B's 2, 1 point is paid per 10 ammo points carried by the Thunderbolts and Apaches. If you spend too many points in the 1st day not much will be airborne later in the campaign. On my 1st game, I sent up too many scouts and was left with too few points to fly much else.
The secondary mission is a bit of a cop out but a big time saver, you choose any number of enemy units to target, pay the points for the planes selected, add up a few combat factors and check for damage to enemy ground units and friendly air units. Each enemy unit, there are 5 to 12 at the start, has a card giving info and a counter on 1 of the rows of the campaign sheet. 2 full strength or 3 half strength units are fair game for this mission, no unit can be attacked twice in a turn so a single other enemy unit must be targeted for the primary strike. In this case it pays to look at the card, this gives a fair idea but not an exact one of the troops that it will contain. Arm the air
craft with this knowledge, no point loading up with mavericks for a target that will probably be infantry dense. To arm a unit pick a weapons counter and place it on the card for that unit, keeping track of the base points paid for the weapon, if it is a 1 use missile, the counter is removed when fired. The amount of weapons you can cram on to the air units depends on the range to the target and if it has been scouted, you may also want to conserve base points for next time. The support units come as a package and do not need arming up.
So far most of what has happened is logistics based, pre-planning is where the gamer is left the most decisions, once we get into the air it is die rolling and chit picking time. For a logistics heavy game the system we get is rather over simple, is the good old US of A really so short of material in a war zone that we have to account for every mission? I have no idea but like to imagine the situation being a sort of throw it all in affair. The accounting for every mission reminds me more of a Tory "RAF. PLC" affair, having to sign for every drop of fuel "Sorry mate, you've had your week's quota of support aircraft, you'll get no more until next Wednesday ", or "Look Biggles yesterday's mission has used up the next 5 years' aircraft fuel budget." The number of base points we start with plus the amount received each day is a major difference between the situation cards. What the game is trying to simulate with these cards is the flight readiness of the airbase and the demands of other squadrons but it does not quite come out like that. There are several special conditions cards, drawn on a 1 to 4 (D10) each day, which may vary the general situation. This could have been an alternative area to handle base restrictions, they can already affect aircraft and munitions available so just a few more cards in this deck and an increased chance of drawing from the deck, modified by enemy success, may have done it.
Having planned it all out, we finally get airborne, having checked (1-4, D10) for any events on the way to the target, it is time to set up the terrain. There are 3 decks of cards labelled, light, medium or heavy cover. The campaign card will say how many of each type to randomly pick, up to a total of 10. Light cover is clear, medium has 1 or 2 sides blocked by a ridge, heavy 2 or 3, a few more of these terrain cards would not go amiss, with perhaps a little more variety, including some in card terrain. Alternatively, if the cards were square rather than rectangles and a little larger, we would have 4 variations for each card as opposed to 1. In the centre of the map are 10 numbered boxes, like this,
1 2 3
4 5 6 7
8 9 10
Shuffle the cards and deal them onto the boxes in order, each card has an arrow to show which way up it goes. Next place the friendly planes on any cards, note that although we have chosen weapons and aircraft, we still have no idea where or how strong the enemy is. Finally the enemy force is set up, on the force card for that unit is a table of counter types. Roll a D10 and pick the counter presented, each troop type has a points value, keep rolling and picking until units have been chosen to at least the points value of the unit. A half strength unit will have half the points value. Roll a D10 for each counter and place it in the card with the same number. The 1st priority of our flyboys may be to knockout any enemy that can get a good shot off at them, next its to shoot enough enemy to reduce the total remaining to below the points value stated on the card. The points value of the enemy counters vary, it is best to go for high value units (command vehicles) instead of lower values (PBI), no sense in wasting time, when you whup enough of them bug out. If things look a little stiff and you can afford the base points, try to aim for destroying enough equipment to reduce the counter to 1/2 strength then leave and come back later.
Combat starts by designating targets that are not in the same card as the air unit, a marker is put in the target card and a chit pulled, this may cause another enemy unit to appear in the same card as you because you had to pop up (gain altitude for a radar lock) and got noticed. Next initiative is rolled for, the better the enemy, the more likely they are to go 1st. Only air units get to move, the ground units are too slow but they may head for cover if things get hot. This makes them harder to hit but they fire back just the same, how quickly they get to cover again depends on the troop quality. Assuming the player gets the initiative, he may move from 1 card to any adjacent card, if he has a lock on, he must move towards the marker for the lock. Next he may fire at targets in the same card (once) or fire 2 missiles at any units in the card with his target marker, he may not do both. Target markers are specific to air units, each needs its own marker, even to fire to the same card and each must take the pop up risk. Next the ground units get to shoot, if they had initiative they would shoot before you moved, A-10s and AV8-Bs get a bonus move at the end of the turn. Each turn will have a chance of enemy air units appearing, this depends on the target card, no points for killing these, just more to shoot at and avoid. The mission usually continues for 7 turns, after which you must return to base, there is the usual 1 to 4 roll for a homebound event (that may be good or bad).
Friendly and enemy fire are handled differently, to hit an enemy ground or air unit, a die is rolled and modified for any pilot skill, if the total is equal or greater than a number based on the target type, it is dead. Enemy units (in primary and secondary missions) are given hit counters based on the unit type and range. The hit chits are 2 sided, a hit will be classified as light or serious, for each attack pull the relevant chit types and apply the results, if any, one side of the chit being for light hits, the other for heavy. Many chits are marked with a troop quality, troops of that type firing count as no effect, chits may also be noted for an aircraft type, if that is the same as the target unit, again no effect. It is unlikely that a single hit will bring down a friendly air unit but hits may force the unit to abort, it is a good idea to pull out damaged planes anyway. Hits may have some effect on the plane or pilot for the mission, which will affect combat performance and landing ability. Damaged planes are likely to be further damaged on landing, this does not do much for pilot state of mind either. Combat is likely to see friendly planes hiding behind cover and taking out units that cannot fire back, only closing in when the missiles have run out or there are no suitable targets in the line of sight. It is not a good idea to move into a card full of enemy troops, you may be able to stiff the lot at once with a cluster bomb but if they get the initiative you could take a lot of hits before you get to press the button.
The level of victory depends on the number of days that the campaign runs, the shorter the better, except the holding action where believe it or not you have to hold out. Given 1 primary mission per day, the number of days you plan to play for will determine the game length, if you plan to win (or lose) in 2 days there is no point messing with saving base points, throw it all in. If you budget for a longer show, points need to be conserved for later missions. This does not apply for planes or pilots, the level of victory is not affected by how many you lose. Heavy losses will reduce the equipment available unless you pay base points for repairs and renewals, you start with a few spare pilots so not so much worry on that front. Realists will note that it is not possible to hit your own or your allies' troops. If you find some of the missions too easy, try reducing the level of victory by 1 for every 2 planes or 1 pilot lost, reduce it by 2 levels if you pull the TV news card on the mission that the pilot is lost (this represents certain Iraqi TV pictures).
TAL is not strong on realism, either in ground hugging combat or as the worried squadron commander trying to balance fighting ability, pilot morale and equipment readiness. This is balanced by the game being unusually simple for a solitaire job and faster playing than many of its kind, allow 2 hours for a campaign. Not owning Hornet Leader, the closest game I know of is Chainsaw Warrior, the decisions are much the same, is that zombie worth wasting bullets on? Are those APCs worth wasting a maverick? The use of campaign and situation cards give TAL a lot more replay value although the decisions are much the same when you lay out the terrain cards and start shooting.
Thunderbolt Apache Leader
Lastly a few words on Thunderbolt-Apache Leader from Frank Dunn; "Apache leader with all its cards, neat graphics and appropriate systems I've played twice last month. like Mike Siggins said in a not so recent PA its at a lower level than the game he'd like to play - and so would I - but its good at showing the kind of interactions; range vs. payload, crew fatigue vs. sorties, a/c damage vs. tempo that an air ops game would model at a higher level. Some of the ops decisions are there, you have to tailor your force for the theatre for instance but only the ground pounders not the rest of the OOB in theatre.