Saturday, May 22, 2010

Air Leader

The Air Leader Series - Past, Present, and Future

The Air Leader series of games started back in 1991 with the release of Hornet Leader. The solitaire game placed the player in the role of a squadron commander for the US Navy’s FA-18 Hornet strike fighters.

Whenever I’d tell people about the game, they’d always ask, “Is it a card game, board game…?” and I’d respond with, “Well…”

Hornet was a new kind of game. It used cards to hold data, but you didn’t hold the cards in your hand. Nor did you play them. The cards were used to generate missions and to represent your pilots and aircraft. The game did use a board and counters, but most of the counters were used to represent weapons and pilot status. Also, because each pilot had his own unique set of skills, and could gain experience and improve, the game also had a mild role-playing element. All in all, it was a difficult game to describe. Twenty years later, I still have a hard time describing Hornet, but luckily, we now have google for those who are new to the series.

I designed Thunderbolt+Apache Leader a year or two later. The core concept was the same: solitaire, command a squadron, manage your pilots, blow-up the bad guys, but the details of how the two games worked were very different. For you TAL fans out there, yes, we plan of revising and releasing TAL. Hopefully in 2011.

Skip ahead 10 years. I dusted off Hornet to re-release it in Vassal/PDF format, and found the old game somewhat lacking. While a solid design, if had not aged well. It was too complex, had too many procedures, and had far too many die roll modifiers.

For any one taking notes on game design philosophy, die roll modifiers always seem like a great idea during the design stage, but they are the best way to kill the feel and flavor of a game. Here’s why. People use the emotional side of their brains to feel and become connected to a story, which is what a game is. When you force their brain to do math, they switch the logical side of their brain, and you suppress their feelings and emotions. This instantly turns an exciting mission deep into enemy territory into a mathematical exercise with little pictures of airplanes.

Anyway… I revised Hornet Leader and named it Hornet Leader II. I know, very creative. I streamlined the mechanics and simplified the game while keeping all the core concepts of flying over other people’s countries and blowing stuff up. Over the course of 3 expansions, I added new types of aircraft like F-14 Tomcats, A-6 Intruders, AV-8B Harriers, etc. Overall, I was very happy with the design.

Flash forward to 2010 and the release of Phantom Leader. Phantom built on the HLII design and took it a step farther. The game added some very cool new options for spending Special Option points that changed mission planning on a high level. Phantom also incorporated the Politics track to capture the politically imposed limitations of the Vietnam Air War.

This brings us to Hornet Leader – Carrier Air Operations, our newest game in the Air Leader series.

The original plan for HL-CAO was simple: gather the components from HLII and its 3 expansions, replace all the art, and release it as a printed game with high quality components. Then I started looking at the games. They were good, but not perfect. As time passed, I revised a rule here, and added a new one there, until we’re at where we are now, with a highly updated game.

Here’s a list of the major changes to date. During the next few weeks, I’ll detail each of them (and probably add to the list):

Situational Awareness
Target Traits
Campaign Skill Levels
Bad Event XP
New Special Option point Scale
Stand-Off Range Band
F-35 Stealth
Reworked Ordnance Counters

Situational Awareness
This is a new pilot skill. The skill range is 0 to 3, with most pilots having a 0 most of the time. As with most skills, a pilot gets more of them as he progresses in experience. A pilot gets 1 Situational Awareness counter each mission for each point of skill he has.

A Fast pilot may discard a counter during a Slow step to attack. A Slow pilot may discard a counter during a Fast step to attack. This attack is in addition to the pilot’s normal attack that turn.

At the start of each mission, you get to select the most experienced pilot flying the mission to be your Flight Leader. The Flight Leader can use each of his counters as normal, or expend them for other pilots during the mission as you see fit.

The E-2C Hawkeye support aircraft have a built-in ability. They can always expend their counters for other pilots.

This new skill adds a great deal of flexibility and decision-making to pilot selection, arming, and Over Target tactics.

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