Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Instant Thunder

If you are a regular follower of this blog (and there are three fewer of you than there were a couple of months ago, I notice), you will realise that I don't really show much of an interest in anything post-1945. However, for reasons I'm still not sure about I do get a yearning to try some aerial games from time to time. Maybe it was that copy of SPI's 'Air War' I was bought as a reward for passing my O-Levels back in 1980. Aficionados of boardgames of that era will remember 'Air War' as one of the most complicated games SPI had produced up to that point. A turn took ten times longer to play than the entire combat you were trying to simulate. It was high on detail, but very, very low on playability. A few years later I discovered the more sedate combats of WW1, and found my true home in the air.

However I have always thought that there had to be a game which could be simple and playable and yet still give at least a feel for modern air-combat. A few years ago I came across a set of WW1 rules called 'Instant Spandaus'. I never really paid them much attention, as the game was so 'out there' that I couldn't really see what it was doing. However the other day I came across its parent game, 'Instant Thunder'. This was the game the WW1 version was derived from, and it covered air-combat in the jet-age. Once again I didn't quite get how it was supposed to work. But along with the rules, which I'll admit seemed simple and easy to follow, was a scenario book running to some 90 pages. A read of that, with the various ways different types of games could be set up, gave me the clues I needed to understand what the designer was getting at. The game clicked.

So this evening I decided to give it a go.

You can find 'Instant Thunder' HERE, along with the scenario book and 'Instant Bandits' which is the WWII version.

I trawled through the scenario book today looking for something to try as my first outing. Yes, there are training scenarios, but I felt that I'd read the rules thoroughly enough to understand how to play, even if I wasn't sure how the tactics would work. So I decided to forgo the training wheels, and jump straight in.

All of the scenarios will play solo, but I went for one of the ones specifically designed to be played as such. It's 1982, we're in the South Atlantic, and two Sea Harriers are trying to prevent four Argentinian Skyhawks from bombing British shipping.

'Instant Thunder' is, essentially, a boardgame, in that it's run on a grid. I made some rough and ready counters, and printed the board out on an A4 sheet of paper.

The board is essentially a 13x4 grid. The four rows represent different altitude levels. It is possible for aircraft to move between them, and they can also move along the rows as well. If an aircraft goes off the end of a row it moves up or down one altitude level depending on whether it goes off to the left or the right.

The grid squares are referenced by playing cards (hence the 13x4) - the columns run from King to Ace left to right, whilst the rows go down from Hearts (the highest) to Spades (the lowest). Indeed the whole game is run using playing cards.

In this scenario the Argentinian Skyhawks are controlled by the game system. They start at the very top left of the board, and will fly along it, looking to exit at the bottom right. Their movement is randomised and can either be left to right along the grid, or a drop in altitude of one level.

Player-controlled aircraft are placed in random squares of the grid. Indeed this is the feature of the game that's probably the strangest when you first read the rules. At the end of each turn your counters are removed from the grid and at the start of the next their position is randomly determined. Essentially you planes start in random positions (and in a conventional game this applies to both players), and then move around looking for position for just that turn. On the next turn everyone is mixed up again. It seems bizarre. It is bizarre. And yet, in an abstract way, it works.

Here's the starting position of the solo scenario, however. The Argentinians are in the top-left corner. My Harriers ended up about halfway along the top row. Special rules for formations allow them to be positioned together on some turns, making cooperation easier. You'll notice that the sun and clouds are in use as well.

This is the position after the first turn's movement. Aircraft move in turn, starting with those closest to the bottom right, and then moving left and up. So if you are higher up you get to see what other aircraft have done before you make your move. Firing is done from the top left down to the bottom right.

In this scenario the Skyhawks are loaded with bombs, rather than missiles, but still have their cannon. The Harriers have cannon and a couple of heat-seeking missiles apiece.

There is no facing - you can fire in either direction along the grid. If your line of fire goes off the end it goes up or down onto the next level, depending on direction. However this wasn't an issue with the first turn's firing. The Skyhawks to the left technically had the initiative, but one was out of range (cannon fire up to three spaces), whilst the other was in a cloud, which prevents firing altogether. So the Harriers had a shot - the cloud covers a plane in it, but nothing blocks line of sight. Harrier 1 launched a missile at the further Skyhawk.

To launch a missile you must first obtain a lock, which is done by determining a target number based on your planes flight capabilities and those of the target, plus the missile's own lock rating. Once you have a lock you can choose to actually launch the missile. Its flight is run by a series of card draws, with the distance being determined by the difference between successive cards. Each missile type only gets so many draws - if it doesn't reach the target before then, it misses. After getting a lock you draw the first card and if you don't like what you've drawn you can abort the launch.

I chose not to; my missiles got three draws, and the range was very short. Indeed the first draw saw the missile reach its target.

Damage is a simple matter of drawing a card, modifying it for the weapon's damage rating (a negative number), and crossing off that many hit-points. The Skyhawks could take 7 points of damage. The missile had a rating of -3 - that is you draw a card and subtract three from the value and score that many hits. I drew a three ...

Harrier 2 was too close to use missiles, but nicely positioned for a cannon shot. The target can try to dodge, but gives up any attacks that turn for doing so. In the scenario the Skyhawks always dodge if they can. It did, but still took light damage.

Here's the board on the next turn The Skyhawks don't reposition in this scenario, but my Harriers do. After being repositioned you can try to move (from bottom right to top left - remember?). All aircraft have a series of numbers for different movements on the grid - mostly lateral or vertical, plus a couple of special moves. To move you draw a card and aim to get below the appropriate number in order to change your position. It's simple, frustrating and works pretty well.

A couple of turns later saw a Harrier pressing a Skyhawk very closely. A burst of cannon-fire saw this as the damage card. Scratch one Skyhawk.

The other Skyhawks were zipping across the board, though, with one already making a run for that bottom right corner. And, annoyingly, the random deployment kept putting my planes on the top row, making it very hard to get into a decent firing position.

A Skyhawk evaded me; this one would go on to bomb British shipping.

More bad luck. With the two remaining Skyhawks almost off the board, I still couldn't get in close. The Harriers can use their VTOL capabilities to really zip around the board, but it just wasn't enough.

The other Skyhawks escaped.

At the end of the scenario a card-draw is made for each Skyhawk which escapes, to see how many victory points they score for their bomb-run. They got 3VP total, and I got 2VP for the plane I had shot down. The Argentinians won this encounter.

Having got the hang of what I was doing, I decided to see if my luck would be better a second time around. I got better positioning this time.

A first turn missile shot saw one Skyhawk seriously damaged.

On the next turn a second missile finished it off.

A third missile accounted for a second Skyhawk.

Once again one escaped.

The final Skyhawk couldn't quite make it off the board, and I made desperate attempts to shoot it down. A final missile failed to stop it.

I tried to close in with the cannon, but couldn't get in position for a clear shot.

My last chance. Positioned like this the Skyhawk would get first shot, and I would have to forgo evasion in order to get any return fire. Fortunately he missed. Unfortunately so did I.

The second Skyhawk escaped.

The Argentinians checked their bomb-run, and scored 3VP again. This time, however, I had two kills, for a total of 4VP, and a victory.

I decided to set up a different game; one in which both sides were played conventionally. This one saw three planes a side; set in 1971 it has Pakistani Mig 19s taking on Indian Mig 21s. Unlike the previous scenario it was fought to a fixed number of turns, with the most kills at the end determining the victor.

Once again the planes were repositioned at the start of each turn. But with both sides doing it you could see the beauty of this abstract system. Each turn you have to decide how best to bring your aircraft to bear in order to gain an advantage and maybe a clear shot. Sometimes you have to decide to stay in a vulnerable position in order to support another plane, or get your own shot in. Sometimes you can put an enemy plane under pressure. It works very well, and the randomised movement makes things very unpredictable.

This being 1971, the heat-seeking missiles didn't quite have the legs of their 1982 counterparts. This shot failed to make the target. Even getting a lock was tricky in this game.

Another missile failed to go the distance ...

But this one did, and a Pakistani plane was destroyed.

In the last couple of turns the Indian Migs were in a tricky position. They had expended all of their cannon ammunition, and had to resort to their missiles alone. Locks were hard to get and, since missiles have a minimum range, the Pakistani pilots could avoid trouble by pressing the Indians close. On the last turn, however, the Indians got into a nice position on the top row; both of their planes had a chance to use missiles on the lone Mig 19. They both failed to get locks. The Mig 19 failed to get a lock in return. The scenario ended, with the Indians the victors having scored a single kill.

This is a neat game, with subtleties that aren't obvious upon reading the rules. The scenario book is a recommended read after the main rules, as how particular games are set up offers a lot of insight into the author's way of thinking.  I hope this lengthy post has given you a taste of how the game works and possibly piqued your interest. As for me, I will be trying the Indo-Pakistan game again tomorrow, and possibly giving the Harriers an outing against a foe that shoots back.


  1. Nice report. I've seen these rules before but never tried them; the randomness of the card draw turned me off. I may have to give them a go!

    1. I did think that you might be interested in them :)

      The randomness could be a bit off-putting, but seems to play better than it reads. The author does note in one of the scenarios that if you use small numbers of low-performance aircraft in a game it can be very frustrating, and offers a suggestion as to how to fix this. As I say, the scenario book is a goldmine of direct and inferred information on how to play and adjust the game.

  2. Same here--nice report, I may have to try them.

    You may know this already, but in case not, www.juniorgeneral.org has several air combat games, most of them using 1/72 scale models, covering WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. All use maneuver cards and are played on hexes, sort of an early Wings of Glory. (There are several other air games covering larger actions--bombing raids, etc.)

    Best regards,

    Chris Johnson

    1. I am ecstatic to have come across this report - very accurate and insightful. I have been waiting for someone to review the game in depth like this - ever since I designed Instant Thunder getting on for 15 years ago now !


      Good Hunting !


    2. My pleasure. As you saw in my post, it's taken me a long time to get around to playing your air games, but I very much enjoyed Instant Thunder and was impressed with how something that looks so unusual on paper actually played in reality.

  3. Hi,

    Did you make up those nifty plane counters yourself, or are they available somewhere?


    1. I can't remember where I got the sun and cloud markers from - possibly from another Instant Thunder site (try Boardgame Geek maybe). Te plane counters I made myself, using side or top views edited in Photoshop, and counters constructed in Word.

  4. I checked Boardgamegeek--someone posted a huge set of counters, which include clouds, sun, planes, and various equipment effects. Thanks for pointing me in that direction--for some reason it did not occur to me the game would be on BGG.

    Best regards,



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