Horizon Wars: Zero Dark

Since the Covid-19 lockdowns and social distancing, I've been looking for the perfect solo skirmish game. SF by preference. There's already the Hardwired Cyberpunk Skirmish Game that's built for solo/co-op from the ground up. There's Star Breach : Hunters ditto. But that one is mission-based instead of build your team and get playing by choosing a random scenario. I have 5 Parsecs and plan to get into it sometime later... I've already built my gang and need to read up on the rules... since the in-between tabletop battles seem to be a lot more involved than the actual tabletop battles themselves.

Then something new came into the radar: Horizon Wars: Zero Dark, another skirmish game built from the ground up for solo/co-op but with the added bonus of PvP and and NPC forces on the table as well, like Core Space. 

There's a freebie (pay-what-you-want) option on Wargame Vault with some basic core rules, a basic scenario and pre-generated characters. I opted for that, and played my first game after watching a few game-play videos.

The mission was to retrieve a macguffin from the targeted objective point, then exit at a random exit point. I used the pre-generated heroes from the Training Run rules, grabbed some minis from MERCS Recon and went at it.

I played the mission twice since my first game has (obviously) marred by lots of rules errors and misunderstandings. Thankfully the game's designer is very active on the game's FB page and is always very prompt in answering queries.
Rambo sets off on his one-man destruction trip
The first game, (with many rules errors, mind you) my mini went Rambo-ing all the way up to the objective and exited with it pretty quickly... only to realise I'd left 75% of my team behind! (That's after re-reading the mission objective). OK for a one off game. Not good if playing a campaign.
Rambo exits the table with the objective, leaving his team mates behind 
So I tried again. This time round I kept the team more or less together, utilising them to achieve several mission stages so I could complete the actual objective. All exited by game end.
The team exits more or less together. Rambo dawdling on the right, behind the building
The game itself is enjoyable, for the most part. Very stealth centred, if that's how you want to play it. Slow movement. Hopefully generating bonus actions that allow you to shoot and take out an enemy bogey that allows you to progress (slowly) up the table towards your objective.

You need to make a lot of tactical decisions. What to do on a given activation (since there are no game turns as such). Where to move. How to move. To shoot... or not to shoot? Making a cautious move gives you the best chance of mitigating the Red Force (AI opponents) when you move, at the cost of speed and potentially failing the Mission when the card deck (normal poker cards) runs out and the game ends. 

I like that the game allows you to activate whoever you want to activate in order to achieve your next step. No "all models have to activate in a turn" before you get back to the model your really need to activate. Very much like Infinity in that respect.

The system is interesting. Target numbers for tests depends on what you do. The further you move, the higher the test number. The further the range to your target, the higher the number required. Plus the number of successes is also interestingly calculated. Roll a number of dice and total the numbers rolled. You could end up with 0, 1, 2 or more successes and usually excess successes give you bonus actions that you need to use right away or lose them. Since shooting and a limited move are among some of the bonus actions, that’s not too hard. 

There’s no structured "game turn" as such. Just activate on hero, then flip a card to activate a Red Force model.

Some niggles : overall, the system is solid, but some of the explanations weren’t as clear as they could be. For example, there is a difference between "bogeys" (AI opponents) and enemy characters (although I'd note the terminology switches between 'heroes' and 'characters' for the same thing) and some statuses only apply to bogeys and others only to characters/heroes. Only bogeys are "down", while characters/heroes are OOA (out of action). But the way some rules are worded conflate the two.

Also the method used for making tests looked closer to a maths formula than a game Rulebook. For shooting:

v=range + visibility + target AV + obscured
n = +1 support/+1 targeted

A cheat sheet is definitely needed. Thankfully a partially complete one is provided but I will have to do my own thanks to several omissions.

You also need a number of tokens to mark a model's status, and a model could potentially have 3-4 tokens on it at any one time to mark its status. A model could have 1 support token (a good thing), another to mark that it's targeted (not good), another to mark that it's Stressed (also not good), another to mark that it's Stunned... all at the same time!

The AI system works. And is varied enough to give you pause as a solo/co-op player, 
although the way the AI opponents are deployed randomly, combined with some randomised objectives could mean that you can go for 3-4 activations without having any meaningful enemy interaction or opposition because the only model that meets the activation requirements is all the way over on the other end of the table with lots of LOS-blocking terrain in between. 

Even with all that, the AI opponents are no pushovers. You need to overcome their armour, then deal them enough damage to either put them Down... or Dead... all in one attack. You don't "wound" them as such. So for an Elite, at a minimum you need 3 hits to make them Dead (off the table) and if they have Support tokens, you might need 5 hits to achieve the same purpose. Not an easy task. You would have to shoot once to chip away at their armour... then again to put them Down or Dead. And Down opponents can potentially get up again, while Dead ones could re-spawn.

You can also play PvP once the lockdowns end although for that, I might default back to Star Breach, because Star Breach only needs a 3'x3' table but Zero Dark recommends a 4'x4'. But... they are both different games and both are fun to play.

I'm looking forward to trying again, working my way through the full rules - with more enemy types (mechs, snipers, electronic warfare, hacking...) and skills for the heroes and especially a mini campaign to build them up.

You need 3-6 minis for your heroes and 9 for the Red Force to start with, but you’d need at least 6-7 more for reinforcements. So... grunts, elites, bosses, mechs, electronic warfare specialists.

Summary: I do like the game, and it could very well turn out to be my solo/co-op SF skirmish game of choice. Zero Dark is minis agnostic, and although there's some background fluff provided, you don't really need it and you can use the rules for your own setting. You can build your own team and have the team grow in a campaign... although here again, you really have to read the team-building rules very carefully to determine what you can and can't do and what categories of upgrades you can take.

The only other game that I've played that's anything close to this is actually a board game: MERCS Recon. And considering MERCS Recon is one of my favourite games (marred by poor mission design) that's actually a big plus as I'd always wanted to re-jig the Recon rules for tabletop minis gaming.