What shocked me more than anything about RAF was that the narrative I just described arose at all. The playing space is cluttered on all sides with charts and holding boxes. To look at the game gives you the impression that all you do is navigate a series of charts robotically. But somehow, over the course of many hours, all those charts fell away. The busyness of the play area completely vanished, and it was just me versus the Luftwaffe, locked in a struggle to the death. I'm going to review this some day, but right now my initial impression is that if you enjoy solitaire wargames at all, you owe it to yourself to play the full campaign of RAF at least once.
D-Day at Omaha Beach
Once I played RAF, I knew I had to own the other readily available John H Butterfield design which is D-Day. If the title wasn't descriptive enough, in D-Day you play the Americans landing at Omaha Beach, trying to secure it for further landings. You'll be struggling with the tides sweeping your units out of position before they can land, mines, artillery, and withering fire from heavily entrenched Axis fortifications.
It definitely compares admirably to RAF, and they have different strengths and weaknesses. For instance, I find the introductory scenario for D-Day much more enjoyable than the single raid day scenario for RAF. D-Day is actually quite playable in a single sitting, as opposed to RAF which felt like it needs several days to really get through.
So far I've played the introductory scenario four times, and the full beach scenario once. The introductory scenario is actually really well done, and represents roughly a quarter of the full game. You only play half the turns, on only half the beach. I think it's the easier half of the beach as well, but it could just be that I'm more familiar with it from having played the intro scenario so many times.
While D-Day isn't as epic in scope as RAF, it definitely fulfills my need for a solid hex and counter game of maneuvering. Combat is diceless, but still incredibly engaging. You have no idea what the composition of the German forces are until you try to engage them. After that it's purely deterministic. However things can get incredibly dicy depending on what you stumble into, and I find it has all the tension and excitement that combat with dice would have. It very closely resembles a sort of chit pull combat resolution system.
I didn't spend much time with The Hunters. Like RAF, my initial impression was that the game was nothing but navigating charts endlessly. Sadly for me, it was unlike RAF in that all those charts never fell away into the background, so I could focus on the gameplay and narrative. I only played it twice, and both U-Boat careers were painfully boring or anticlimactic. My first U-Boat was one shotted by an aircraft in 1940, and my other U-Boat got stuck running the same Arctic Patrol from 1940 until it was sunk in 1943. It was so incredibly boring finding convoy after convoy in the Arctic. I began getting more reckless just because I wanted to get sunk to escape the monotony. Maybe that was an accurate representation of the Arctic. One day I'll return to The Hunters. But perhaps not for a bit.
The last new game I tried was Hornet Leader. I played the short, and then the long Iraq 1991 campaigns. Hornet Leader definitely comes off as the most puzzle like solitaire game I've played. You pick a target, and then try to figure out the perfect combination of pilots and munitions to crack it. There is ample uncertainty. You never know what enemy bandits will show up, especially since there is a 50/50 shot that each bandit you draw could be a blank. Events will serve to mess with you pretty badly too. Plus sometimes enemies just get a lucky shot off at you, or all your bombs just fail to roll good hits. But the satisfaction of taking out a hard target is palpable, and I love the RPG feel to leveling up pilots. So I'm definitely coming back to this one once D-Day is off my table.