Thunderbolt Apache Leader (Board Game)
Publisher: Dan Verssen Games
Release Date: July, 2012
MSRP: $89.99
Number of Players: 1
Playing Time: Varies (30 to 60 minutes per mission)
Product #: DV1-017
Age Rating: 12 and up
ICv2 Rating: 4 Stars out of 5
Some years ago, I found myself in the position of having no opponents to play games with and in need of challenging and interesting solitaire games to fill the gap.  Fortunately for me, publisher GMT provided the thoroughly enjoyable Thunderbolt Apache Leader.  This year, to my delight, Dan Verssen Games has released an updated version of the game with greatly improved components that is every bit as good as the original, and then some.
Summary:  As the commander of a ground attack squadron, you are assigned strategic objectives in one of the world’s many hot spots, from Iraq to North Korea.  These objectives center around the destruction or interdiction of a number of enemy ground battalions.  To complete this assignment you must build a squadron, choosing from a variety of manned and unmanned aircraft—including the A-10 Thunderbolt and AH-64 Apache helicopter that give the game its name—and manage them through a series of combat missions.
Each "day" of the campaign, you assign your pilots and aircraft to one or more ground attack missions, choosing the specific weapons load-out you believe will be best suited to the completion of the mission.  The missions are then played out on a variable tactical board, created from a number of hexagon map tiles.  The defending forces react to your actions following a relatively simple "program," modified by the effects of event cards, die rolls, and random token draws.
Based on your success in each mission, your squadron gains victory points and your pilots gain experience, which can be collected to improve their skills and abilities.  At the end of the campaign, your victory point total determines your level of success or failure in the game.
At first glance, it may seem a bit mechanical.  But every decision you make is meaningful and affects your odds of success.  Forget to load Air-to-air missiles, and you risk the unexpected appearance of enemy combat helicopters, for instance.  But fail to load enough bombs, and you might not have enough weapons to get the job done.  The game is very challenging to play successfully (I failed my first two attempts at the easiest scenario, I’m embarrassed to admit…), which makes it exciting and fun to play.
Originality:  Thunderbolt Apache Leader is a remake of an older game, so it may not be entirely fair to call it "original" from that perspective.  Even putting that aside, most of the mechanics you will find in the game are already familiar from other wargames.  The originality of the design is the way those mechanics are implemented in a solo game, creating a fun and challenging experience without the need of an opponent.
Presentation:  My only real disappointment with the game is the presentation.  The artwork is okay, but not fantastic.  The pilots all look the same, like some kind of clones, when they could easily have been individualized and given more "character" to make the player care more about their fates.  Apparently, all warfare occurs only in the desert, as no other types of terrain are included in the game.  The component graphics are useful, but they have a very "functional" appearance.  I would have liked more artistry in the components to help make the game come to life.  Also, many of the event card effects are unclear, forcing the player to make quite a few judgment calls during the game.
Quality:  But don’t let my quibbles with the artwork detract from the overall quality of the components.  Dan Verssen Games has produced a quality product.  The box is very thick (three inches), with a glossy box-wrap decorated with pictures of warplanes in action.  The game chits and board tiles are nice, thick, sturdy cardboard and the game cards are of good quality.  The large, mounted game board is well laid-out and works very nicely, as does the player mat.  The rulebook is glossy with a lot of full-color examples and illustrations throughout, and clear easy-to-understand instructions.
Marketability:  Sadly, Thunderbolt Apache Leader has a number of impediments to its marketability.  For starters, the game is expensive:  $90 is a lot of money to pay for any board game, much less one that is designed for only a single player (though you can play it as a sort of co-op game with a little work, it really is a solo experience).  The game box is packed with good stuff and has a good weight to it, but it’s still a hefty price tag compared to other titles on the market.  Also, in this day of Xboxes and Wiis, most gamers who seek a solo experience are likely to find an electronic alternative, which is unfortunate, because they really would be missing out.
Overall:  I find Thunderbolt Apache Leader to be a lot of fun.  It offers the challenge of running an air campaign at both the strategic and the tactical level.  To me, it has a huge advantage over electronic games:  double-jointed fingers and Mountain Dew enhanced reflexes are not required to play successfully.  This is a pure strategic-thinking exercise.  Yes, as a solitaire game you have a lot of book-keeping to take care of, and you have to do it all yourself.  But really, it’s worth it.  If you enjoy heavy, meaty, challenging strategy games and you happen to find yourself without any opponents, Thunderbolt Apache Leader is an excellent choice.  I give this game 4 out of 5.

--William Niebling