In honor of Memorial Day 2012, and the 50th anniversary of America′s combat involvement in the Vietnam War, I have decided to do a game review, choosing Phantom Leader, published by Dan Verssen Games. This game is based on their earlier successful product, Hornet Leader, which has spawned a wide range of supplements and cousins. Most are, like Hornet or Phantom Leader, solitaire air combat board games. But the folks at DVG have also begun other series of solitaire board games, including land wargames like Field Commander Rommel, refighting three of his campaigns or a naval solitaire game, U-Boat Leader, where you command a wolfpack of German submarines in the North Atlantic. But with Phantom Leader, the heady days of Rolling Thunder and Linebacker are recreated with the smell of jet fuel and visions of exhaust plumes from missiles flying about.
I love board games! I′ve been playing them since my early childhood, evolving from the usual ′kiddie′ games like Hi-Ho-Cherrio to Monopoly. In the late 1960s, I began playing some of the early historical military board games, like Risk, to my very first ′real′ wargame, Guadacanal by Avalon Hill. They produced a wide range of historical games, often called ′book-shelf games′, like Luftwaffe and Panzer Blitz, due to the size and shape of the box. Air combat games have always been a favorite and range in complexity and realism. Perhaps one of the more simpler ones was the old Milton Bradley ′American Heritage′ series game called Dogfight, which simulated World War One aerial combat. The most complex air combat game ever produced was probably from the old company which dominated wargames through the 19702 and 80s, Simulation Publications Inc., or SPI. Their offering called Air War might go down as the most complex board game ever published, requiring a rule book about 100 pages in length, plus another booklet over 60 pages which contained nothing but charts and tables to refer to.
Phantom Leader is in a happy middle ground of complexity. In fact, once you get the hang of it, you can play a short campaign of 2 to 4 missions in about 2 hours or less. First you select which campaign to play from six available. Each comes with its own map of Southeast Asia, noting targets for three eras, the early war years up to 1965, Rolling Thunder from the late 60s, and the Linebacker campaigns of the early 70s. Each era has two maps, one for U.S. Air Force missions and another for the U.S. Navy.
Once you determine the campaign and the duration (short = 2-4 missions, medium = 3-8 and long = 6-12 missions), you grab a deck of Pilot Cards and form your squadron. You have a wide variety of aircraft to choose from. For the Navy missions, you may select from A-4s, A-6s, A-7s, F-8s and the gun-less version of the F-4 Phantom. The Air Force deck of pilots has F-4 Phantom IIs with guns, F-105 Thunderchiefs or ′Thuds′, as well as older F-104 Starfighters and F-100 SuperSabres. Pilots vary in their skills and experience levels, and their performance depends largely on how much Stress they have accumulated during their missions. More on that later.
After your squadron is formed, its time to start playing. You shuffle the deck of Target Cards and draw. Depending on your Recon Level in the campaign, you can draw 2 or more Target Cards and then select which you feel like flying. Your Political Level may force you to fly some rougher missions initially. Target Cards describe the target, as well as indicate what you might expect in the way of air defense sites on the ground, like AA-Flak guns and SAM sites, plus if there are any ′Bandits′ lurking about, like MiG-21s, 19s or 17s. You randomly draw the defenses and place them either in the Center Box with the Target Card on the Tactical Battle Map, along with those units selected to cover the four ′Approaches′ which frame the Center Box.
The Target Cards also tell you how many aircraft from your squadron may participate in the mission. So once you have set-up the Target and its defenses, you choose which pilots will fly and then arm their planes. Depending on the campaign era, you have a variety of ordinance to select based on your mission requirements. Simple rockets do not cause much damage but are effective against soft targets and can be fired from an adjacent zone. Iron bombs, like the 500-pound Mk. 82, have to be dropped directly overhead and at low level for accuracy. Some eras include the early guided weapons, like the AGM-12 Bullpup missile, which can hit a target two zones away and can be launched from high altitude, avoiding most of the ground-based flak defenses.
After you have armed your planes, you place the corresponding counters, or chits (cardboard squares with a picture and info printed on them) in one of eight Pre-Approach Zones which frame the Approach Zones. Each mission only lasts 4 Game Turns, usually, and when ready to start, you draw an Event Card for the ′In-Bound Flight′ from that deck after its been shuffled. These cards provide either some immediate advantage or disadvantage which will effect your mission. After a final adjustment is made, a second Event Card is drawn for ′Over The Target′. Again, some of these will be good, others very bad.
Some pilots are rated as being ′Fast′, which allows them to shoot first before the enemy can do anything. But most pilots are ′Slow′, which means the bad guys will get a chance to shoot at your planes first. Pilots can suppress ground fire and possibly prevent any damage. They can also use ′Evasion′ to avoid any attacks by enemy aircraft, but at a price of added Stress. After this round, the Slow American pilots get to act. If they can employ their ordinance against ground targets, including the primary Target Card, or fire missiles or guns at opposing Bandits within range. AIM-7 Sparrow radar missiles have a range of 2 zones, while AIM-9 heat-seeking Sidewinder missiles only have a range of 1 zone. Only the Sidewinders, and guns, can be used against enemy aircraft in the same zone as your planes are in.
Damage is cumulative. Some Target Cards will take between 6 to 10 ′hits′ before they are destroyed. All combat is resolved using a ten-sided die which comes with the game. You want to roll high! Each die-roll is modified, depending on the Pilot ratings, as well as special conditions based on the Target or Event Cards. Some weapons can inflict multiple hits per die roll. Once you have hit the Target with enough damage to destroy it, the job is done and its time to go home. One last Event Card is drawn for the Home-bound flight.
After each mission, adjustments are made to the Recon, Intel and Political Levels on your campaign map, making the next mission, hopefully, a bit easier. Depending on where the Target had been, a certain amount of Stress is added to each pilot who flew, as well as any Stress noted from the Event Cards. Most pilots can handle between 3-4 Stress points before their capabilities begin to degrade. Then you may have to sit them out for a mission or two to recover. Once all the book-keeping is completed, its time to draw your next Target Card and begin the process all over again until you have fulfilled your required number of missions. Each Target Card has a Victory Point rating, which you add up at the end of the campaign to determine how successful your operations were.
I hope you enjoyed my game review of Phantom Leader, published by Dan Verssen Games. This seemed to be a natural for today being Memorial Day 2012 as well as the 50th anniversary of the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War. Combat campaigns like Rolling Thunder and Linebacker are replayed in this solitaire aerial board game. DVG will soon be releasing an updated, Deluxe version later this summer, which includes other campaign from that era like the Cuban Missile Crisis. For more information, you may visit Dan Verssen Games website, or any number of vendors who carry Phantom Leader, as well as other war games. I bought my copy from NWS-Online and was very satisfied with their service