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This is an on-going look at the design and development process that goes into our games. It is written by our Developer, Holly Verssen.

Thunderbolt/Apache Leader Developer’s Diary

Had a really good playtest session today. I went 3 days in Iran with a Surge Situation. Good times. The campaign card for Iran is a Standard level campaign, set in 2014 so I had all the aircraft types available to me. I was given a rocky, canyon covered terrain, which can be very helpful if I want to hide from ranged enemy weapons, but a real pain if I want to move around without attracting attention.

The Campaign cards and the Situation cards combine to give me exactly the battle situation I want to fight. A Surge Situation card gives me more targets than normal, but I MUST destroy (not attack, DESTROY) at least 2 targets in the first day, and another two the second day or the campaign ends in failure. For this, I get lots of SO points to start with and a healthy dose of daily SO points at the start of each day. Sounds great, but I have to split up my planes farther than I would like to compensate for an unlucky mission.

Anyway, by the end of the campaign, I was pretty beat up. My guys were about as stressed as they could be and the planes were shredded. One of the beauties of Thunderbolt/Apache Leader (TAL) is the damage system. I take damage so much more often than I do in Hornet Leader. There is just no way to prevent all the damage coming my way. Everything is shooting at me and there is only so much hiding and ducking I can do in a plane.

On the up side, the damage is almost never deadly. On the down side, it accumulates pretty fast. Before I know it I had taken some hits to my structure (an AH-64 can only take 3 Structure Hits), lost my cannon, had my Display shot out (stopping me from using Stand-Off weapons), been riddled with Bullet Holes (causing Stress), and taken a hit to an Engine. All these things add up! I usually take about 2 or 3 Hits like this per plane per mission. Nothing crashes my plane, but if I’m not careful it will end up a useless metal tube gushing smoke over the battlefield. I’m usually up there, having parts blown off, trying to get one more shot off before I run. Each plane can stay or leave as it needs to. Unlike Hornet, the retreat of a plane does not end the battle.

I started the battle by laying out my terrain counters. These are large (3 inches across) hex shaped counters. They of course all fit together – three across the top, four below them in the middle, and three at the bottom - to make my battlefield. I know what I’ll be shooting at because each Target Card declares what my targets are. For example: the Reserves Target Card say I’ll be fighting 2 APCs, 2 Tanks, 2 Self-Propelled Artillery, 2 Trucks, and 2 Infantry counters. I then collect those counters, and randomly roll the placement for each of the target counters on the ten terrain cards.

So there I was in Iran, taking out Tanks, AAA Sites, and all the other targets. The Infantry were blasting holes in my shiny new planes, the SAM Sites were blasting bigger holes, more often. I had just done an amazing bit of tactical fighting when Dan stops me and says “Wow, you’ve been lucky.” I exclaim, “Tactical Genius is NOT lucky!”. So Dan thinks about it for a bit (imagine Winnie the Pooh tapping the side of his head and saying “think, think, think”), and says, “You’re right, you weren’t lucky, the game is too easy”. Then he changed the Hit numbers on my weapon counters to make them hit less often… but I’m not bitter.

At the end of the campaign, (which I Still did very well at), we made a few changes:

We added a spot to record “Days” to the player log

Added a Controls Hit to the damage counters which will have the affect of -1 on all attacks and Ridge rolls

Created a Ridge result chart so I could fly over mountains while at low altitude while risking Stress and death.

He reduced my Special Option points by 5% and my daily SO points by 1. Yes, I noticed that whenever he makes the game harder I say “he” and when we make generic changes, I say “we”…really, I’m not bitter.

We re-evaluated the terrain counters, and removed a few ridges, to make them more open

Changed which terrain counters are assigned to each campaign (yup, you get specific terrain counters for each campaign, you can’t have wide open spaces in the mountains of North Korea). We also changed the cannon rules so hovering Apaches, Harriers and Cobras can cannon all the targets in their hex.

Changed Scout Loss to Scout Success, which means I don’t lose VPs every time someone shoots down one of my scout planes, but I do gain a benefit if my scout plane arrives at the target unharmed.

Changed the sequence of play

Changed the attack, weight point, and cost numbers on the weapon counters.

And added TOW missiles and a small, cheap rocket pod that doesn’t use up SO points during the weapon purchase phase. Not a bad playtest day.
I’ve been working on the rules for the last few days. The game seems to be stable enough to spend time creating rules without worrying about too many changes.

During my last campaign, I worked with an Iraq - General War. The new General War Situation card gives me 27 SO points to start and a +4 SO point daily wage with 8 days to complete my goals. Iraq specifies, however that I have a Set-Up of 16 victory Points worth of Target cards. I shuffle my Target deck and draw enough Target cards (counting their VPs) to meet the Set-Up value. Unfortunately, I draw Targets with pretty high VP values, so I stop after drawing only 5 cards.

5 cards to destroy and 8 days to do it seems pretty cush, but it also means the 5 cards are REALLY hard to kill and will take LOTS of resources to do it.

I split my team into two groups, and send them after 2 targets. Bad choice. One team is damaged to the point of useless for the next few days while I slowly gain enough SO points to make repairs, and to give the pilots a few days off to stabilize their Stress. Poor guys, they’re wrecks. I should have just gone after one Target per day and played it safe. The other target I hit ended up damaged. Good point – the Target Card’s special condition is now moot, bad point – I only get ½ the VP points rounding down. I’ll pick up the other half when I destroy it. After several more days, I ended up destroying all the Targets and got a solid Good campaign result. That was a bit too easy, so the General War card now gives 28 Starting SO points, with +3 per day and 9 days to complete. Iraq now requires 21 Set-Up points. That gives me quite a few more Battalions to choose from, but also more Battalions that are marching toward my Airbase.

Time to reset and play again.
Dan and I have been “dinking” with the game lately. The base system is really strong, but the details still need to be worked on.

There is a fine line between – enough Battalions to make it interesting and so many that you get overrun. It should feel like you are trying to hold back a tide, and when that feeling comes through, it is amazing.

Making decisions about who to send to which battalion is a giant part of the thought process in TAL. In Hornet Leader, you would get one or two targets to choose from. The main decision in HL was loading your aircraft for the attack.

In TAL you are faced with 10 to 15 Target choices, all with different reasons to kill it RIGHT NOW. If you send all of your aircraft after a single target, you would probably destroy it but the other battalions would come racing toward your Airbase to overwhelm you. Assault Battalions move very quickly (they advance on a roll of 5+) but they are hard to destroy. Support Battalions move slower (7+) but have special abilities that cause you problems (ex. Add 1 to the Range of this Battalion’s SAMs and AAAs). Command Battalions are usually farther away, move very slowly (9+) are often Fixed (never move at all), but they tend to have special abilities that cause you problems for all of your Battalions (ex. All Assault Battalions gain +2 on their Move rolls).

On the up side, if you can damage a Battalion, it loses its special ability and gains -3 on its move roll. I often attack Battalions with far less airpower than I need because I just want to damage it. This takes some skillful flying because it also means that I am completely outgunned on the battlefield. If I can damage them all, they will stop racing toward me, and their special abilities stop hurting me. Unfortunately, I only have a set amount of days to finish the campaign and I just never seem to have enough time to sit around damaging Battalions before finishing them off. It’s a challenge to decide who gets destroyed, damaged or allowed to continue coming at me. Those decisions dictate how my final result will come out.

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