Solitaire wargames occupy a special place in our hobby. On the one hand, being able to sit down away from the noise of modern life to escape into a tabletop game experience, whether narrative, systems focused, or even just an examination of history, can be a relaxing and almost meditative experience. On the other hand, I know plenty of wargamers who are turned off by the transparency of the randomness of a lot of solitaire games, or who don’t enjoy some of the contraints placed on players to make engaging against an artificial opponent more of a challenge.
When it comes to reviewing a solitaire only game I try to come at it from at least three angles. First, will solitaire wargamers like this? Second, will this do anything to change the minds of those who dont? Finally, what about those who have never tried one? Is it friendly enough to newcomers?
Tiger Leader, from Dan Verssen Games, is my first exposure to the ‘Leader’ system of solitaire wargames and is definitely a good first impression, even if there are some systemic foibles and strange errors that irked me as I played. But what of the three types of gamers above? Who is Tiger Leader for? Let’s dig in, shall we?
What Kind of Game is Tiger Leader?
Tiger Leader is a solitaire wargame in which the player takes control of a Wehrmacht kampfgruppe and leads them through a campaign of World War Two. After selecting a campaign and performing some initial set up, the gameplay loop of Tiger Leader sees players building a kamfgruppe including infantry, AFVs, and artillery, recruiting officers to lead these units, and then committing them to battles on a weekly basis to overcome enemy brigades. After the set number of weeks, the campaign ends (barring an auto fail) and the total score of the player’s victories are added up to see how well they’ve done.
Throughout the weeks of a campaign players will have to manage the spending of campaign points, deal with the abstract movements of enemy units, fight tactical battles on a hexagonal map, and manage the stress and experience points of officers. It’s a detailed system without being overwhelming, and it keeps players on their toes from start to finish. I quickly became fond of how the different systems of combat and management come together to offer an entertaining roleplaying wargame experience.
To break it down, the real focus of the game is managing your kampfgruppe. After selecting the campaign and mission(setting the parameters for the battles of that campaign) players are given a set of resource points to spend on officers, units, and extras like trucks and scouting capabilities. There are a ton a vehicles in the base game, so I always felt like I was spoiled for choice. Playing through the Poland campaign for instance, I was happy to be able to choose a 38(t), a Panzer II, and a Stug to support my infantry.
Each unit has its own stats for anti-personnel and anti-armour attacks, defense, movement, special rules governing movement, attacking, and stress. These stats interact with the stats of the officers that lead them. Officers begin with different skill levels ranging from recruit to legendary. Each level has different modifiers for firing, speed of action, stress thresholds, and special rules (more on those later).
Each week players divide their forces into smaller groups to attack some number of enemy brigades. Resources will be stretched very thin, and more often than not players will have to throw their units against numerically superior forces. You are the tip of the spear after all. Battles are time limited, and victory only really comes from destroying the enemy brigade.
COMBAT! and MANAGEMENT!
During Each week’s battles, a randomized set of terrain hexes are laid out to represent the battlefield. In the base game these tiles are either clear or contain soft or hard cover. There is a lot of variety, with different tiles representing Europe, north Africa, or the Russian winter. I appreciate that battles can have wildly different layouts that will obviously impact tactics as players are going to be spending a lot of time on these maps. An issue I encountered was that the manual indicated that terrain should have a visual indicator as to which level of cover a hex provides, but none of that existed on my hexes. I decided to go with ‘forests’ as light cover and ‘built up areas’ as heavy cover.
Combat itself is an interesting puzzle. Players only have five turns (unless scouts are purchased to add a turn) to destroy enough enemy units to remove the brigade from the campaign. Enemy Brigades have a threshold of damage they can take before they become understrength, offering up some victory points and reducing their capabilities. A second threshold, denoting a destroyed status, gives up the rest of the points and eliminates them from the game. Making sure your forces can do enough damage in five turns to reduce or destroy a brigade is a difficult prospect, as each brigade will have its own spread of units and its own special rules, and players will have to take on multiple brigades a week to keep up with the campaign’s demands.
Combat basics involve getting in range, rolling dice, and inflicting casualties when hits are scored and defenses overcome. Player forces will be overwhelmed, but this is balanced somewhat by how damage is modeled. Every time a friendly unit takes a hit, a random chit is pulled from a cup with some type of damage (or rarely, a miss) printed on it. Enemies go down in one successful hit. The damage that friendly units receive persist and must be taken care of in between battles by spending points or using officer abilities.
Enemies act according to a chart that breaks down units into groups and has them move according to a die roll and their options. Tanks are more likely to charge forward into combat range while mortars are content to stay back and support with indirect fire. I found the system believable and fun. A good enemy roll would see them aggressively take ground, but after they had suffered significant damage, the dice were more likely to force a cautious withdrawal to covered positions. Being able to model this with one dice roll is great, as anything that reduces overhead while playing solitaire is good in my books.
Your own units are interesting to manage. Often less skilled units will have penalties to defense, or add significant stress when forced to move and fire. Deciding when to take these hits to do an aggressive push of your own is a fun challenge. But exposing troops to enemy fire can be deadly, especially for officers.
Officers are a core part of the game’s strategy. They add special rules to the units they lead, add modifiers, and sometimes allow units to move before the enemy. They can be wounded, killed, or acquire stress as the result of enemy hits, but making it through a mission also offers experience points that see your officers grow from mission to mission, leveling up and changing their stats. It’s a great bit of progression that makes the campaigns come alive, and make it hurt even more when an officer dies to a single hit, forcing you to cross out their names on the ledger and bring in a low level replacement. Such is war.
It’s not perfect though, some officers have literally useless skills. An infantry officer that gives indirect fire to a unit will never be applicable, as the only infantry unit with more than one hex firing range already has an indirect fire rule, for example. It’s little things like this that make me think a bit more playtesting and proofreading should have gone into Tiger Leader.
Tiger Leader is fun. A lot of fun, actually. It manages to cram a lot of interesting decisions into almost every segment of a campaign’s gameplay, from spending on units, assigning forces to combats, carrying out those combats, and how to spend precious resources to recoup after combat. There’s enough content and different campaigns, missions, special events, and units to offer plenty of replayability. The core system is easy to learn, and the game doesn’t take up too much tablespace.
Component quality is also quite nice, with the map, cards, counters and hex map pieces all sturdy, easy to read, and easy to organize. Once a campaign is up and running, there is very little overhead, and I love that.
That being said. It’s not perfect. There are a lot of little errors here and there in the manual and in how units and officers interact. A lot more playtesting and proofreading could have done away with these issues. Tiger Leader is also not a simulation, as I hope you gathered from the above descriptions. It is much more a puzzle and narrative experience wrapped in a fun military setting. You’ll have a lot more fun charting the progress of your officers, repairing vehicles, watching infantry upgrade from raw to veteran, and seeing how the game reacts to your decisions than you will trying to properly replicate blitzkrieg actions. I feel solitaire wargamers will appreciate the way the systems interact to provide a engaging experience, but I’m not sure it will win over players who aren’t into the idea of a solitaire game. I would encourage those who haven’t tried solitaire games to give this one a go. It was much easier to get into than some others I’ve played.
What About Solitaire?
I said I would include these sections for every game, but yes, Tiger Leader is a pretty great solitaire experience. I bet if would even work coop, if the player spending is divided and two players each build up a portion of the kampfgruppe to send into actions. In fact, I might try to do a game like that with my wife at some point.
Will Tiger Leader Stay On My Shelf?
Yes! The problems I had with the game rarely detract from the actual play of it, and I find it creates the sort of narrative solitaire experiences I like. While I will dig out GMT’s Fields of Fire periodically, I see Tiger Leader getting more table time because it manages to deliver narratively without being quite so involved. It’s the action movie, not the documentary.
When deciding if Tiger Leader will be something you’re interested in, you’ll have to understand that it isn’t perfect, isn’t a simulation, and has some sloppy editing and playtesting. But beyond those issues, Tiger leader is a fun, easy going, narrative puzzle game that will see you sighing in relief as your favourite officer gets off with only a wound, and cursing as your Panzer IV goes up in smoke after a single lucky shell.
THANK YOU to DVG for sending Let’s Talk About Wargames a copy of Tiger Leader for review!
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