Phantom Leader: Vietnam Air War Solitaire Game – Boardgame Review
Passed Inspection: Highly replayable game of narrative solitaire action based on a subject rarely covered in gaming. Superb components, fast playing, and with a considerable number of player choices.
Failed Basic: High price may scare some potential players away. Somewhat utilitarian presentation.
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Dan Verssen’s “Leader” series of games have been around for years in a number of incarnations, proving that a single good idea can go a long way in the world of gaming. The series revolves around a gameplay core of managing a squadron of aircraft (the recent U-Boat Leader not withstanding) with a focus on air-to-ground or surface strike missions. The player, as squadron commander, chooses targets, assigns weapon packages, and then plays out the attack. Enough changes from game to game help distinguish each from its brethren, while at the same time providing enough familiarity that players can easily slide into any of the games in the series without too much trouble once they’ve played at least one title.
Phantom Leader: The Vietnam Air War Solitaire Strategy Game (Deluxe Edition) takes the “Leader” series to the skies over Vietnam, along with one hypothetical Cuban-missile-crisis-gone-wrong campaign. Commanding either a US Air Force (USAF) or US Navy (USN) squadron of F-4 Phantoms (with the ability to mix in other aircraft of the time period, from F-105s to A-3s to EB-66s and many more), the player must not only deal with the usual fare of managing his squadron, but also the idiosyncrasies of waging war in Vietnam. Adding this layer really sets Phantom Leader apart from earlier titles, and adds quite a bit of interesting friction of war, making this a highly recommended game for both fans of air campaigns and solitaire gaming.
The first thing that anyone owning Phantom Leader will notice is that this is one heck of a heavy game. The majority of the components are standard sized cards of good quality that should last for years. Some of the cards represent targets, while others detail pre-strike, strike, and post-strike events. The majority of cards—hundreds—represent individual aircraft. You also get two sheets of attractive counters that are chock full of weapons and units, several cardstock campaign cards, and a reminder card for rules and modifiers. All this in a most welcome durable box. How many times do publishers cram their boxes full of components but then use such thin cardboard the game box starts to split after a week on the shelf? Congrats on DVG for not following that trend.
It should be noted that while this embarrassment of dead-tree riches is welcome, it’s hard not to ignore the fact that by giving the player a little more note-taking to do and dropping most of the cards and counters, the price of the game could have been reduced considerably.
To begin a game of Phantom Leader the player first chooses to either command a squadron from the USAF or the USN. The choice is not merely a cosmetic choice of what your aircraft counters will look like, but a choice that affects the type of aircraft you can fly, your weapons, and the target areas available. Next, the length of the campaign is chosen: short, medium, or long. The length of the campaign dictates the number of victory points needed, how many days (pilots will sometimes need to skip a day to recover from a previous mission) it lasts, and how many Special Option (SO) Points you gain. SO Points are like Brownie Points, granting favor from high command for special weapons, R&R, and other advantages. Finally, based on the campaign length, the player selects his overall squadron, with a mixture of pilot skill levels that can advance over the course of the campaign by earning experience points.
Once the campaign begins the player generates the first day’s mission by choosing one of two possible targets by drawing from a target deck. The chosen target plays a role in how many aircraft can be assigned, the number of both air and ground defenses, what kind of victory points its destruction will yield, and its political cost. Yep, in Phantom Leader the politicians can hamstring your efforts to prosecute the war as you see fit. Using a simply political point track, the rule is you cannot attack targets with a higher political value than where you are on the track. In practice this means you normally cannot attack high value targets back to back. It’s a clever theme mechanism that ensures players choose a mixture of mission types in a campaign and not solely go for the high victory-point targets.
The target card and its defenses are then laid out on a mounted mapboard detailing the play area. Divided into areas of approach, the mapboard is strictly functional, with little in the way of aesthetics. Counters are then randomly assigned to the defensive units to represent what approaches they can attack and be attacked from. The approach counter could represent everything from a hillside to a dug-in bunker, but like the mapboard these counters are purely functional, with the player having to imagine what they truly represent. Once the layout of the land is realized the player can go about choosing the proper weapon loadouts for the mission aircraft and choose their route (another gift of the Vietnam war, the need to fly pre-ordained flight paths).
Now, finally, the action kicks in. First, the player must deal with an event on the way to the target. Events can be good or bad, although occasionally they will have no effect. As an example, one event may provide gunship support that helps eliminate a ground defense. Another makes the player visually identify bogies, and thus the player is forced to only attack enemy aircraft in the same area of the board. Hope you didn’t load up on long-range missiles!
Next, bandits are drawn and placed. The planned flight route that seemed to be easy going, thanks to avoiding the nastier SAM sites, suddenly looks a lot different when the sky is filled with MiGs.
The player has five rounds over the target area. Usually, since the most potent weapons need to be dropped in the actual target area and not at range, this means a couple of these five rounds are nothing but flying to target; in turn, this means that these drops need to count since you’ll only have one chance.
Pilots are rated as being either fast or slow. Fast pilots get to act before everyone else, then the defensive units attack, and then finally your slow pilots get to act. Combat is resolved using a single die roll, modified by several factors. The type of target determines how the results are interpreted. MiGs and ground defenses are eliminated after a hit, while the target and the player’s aircraft can take multiple hits. The player also has the advantage of being able to either attempt to evade an attack or have another aircraft suppress the attacker. Evasion will stress the pilot, while suppression will use up a weapon that allows the attack to be ignored but does not damage the target.
Learning your weapons and the threats you face gives Phantom Leader a somewhat high learning curve in the beginning, even if the game as a whole is fairly easy to follow—especially thanks to the manual being laid out in the same order in which the game unfolds. The problem is that even if you consider yourself a master of this period in air warfare, being familiar with a particular weapon in real life and understanding how that weapon impacts the game are completely different pieces of knowledge. Once a player has a couple of games under his belt, though, choosing strike packages becomes second nature.
Success or failure, after the fifth round that’s all she wrote and it’s time to head home. One last random event plays out, and hopefully it’s not being jumped by a swarm of MiGs when all your rails are empty. Once everyone is back at base Phantom Leader‘s light RPG side comes out. Pilots accumulate stress from their mission (they also receive stress in combat since being shot at tends to cause the blood pressure to rise a few points) but also can recover it at this point. Politics cool down, and pilots who are either unfit to fly due to being stressed out, or who are now out of the squadron due to casualties, are replaced. Finally, pilots can add experience points; enough experience points promotes the pilot to the next skill level. Assuming the campaign isn’t over, it’s time to start picking out targets once more.
A good solitaire game system is one in which the player feels like he has an impact on the way the game plays out, as opposed to just being a victim of chance. A great solitaire game system also manages to create a sense of attachment for the player to the unit, or units, he controls. Phantom Leader can easily be considered a great solitaire game.
In Phantom Leader the player has a great deal of control that impacts the game. From choosing the right pilots and weapons to the proper attack plan, there are a lot of decisions the player needs to make. Excepting bad die rolls, events are really the only thing that a player has absolutely no control over, and considering they only appear three times a mission (and some events can be quite positive) they never feel cheap. Instead, they add to the already exciting narrative being built with each mission.
Phantom Leader isn’t quite the perfect game, but its blemishes are easily overlooked. While the game can be quite exciting in the mind’s eye, as mentioned earlier its physical appearance is simply functional. It is also somewhat disappointing that only campaigns are available. While they can be completed in a reasonable time it would have been nice to have some single scenarios included. Perhaps historical ones. Sure, a single scenario would take away the whole RPG aspect, but it would be great to try comparing how well the player succeeds versus history. Finally, it’s worth mentioning again that there is an initial curve learning on how all the elements interact with each other.
It may not provide the visual punch of a flight simulator, but Phantom Leader gives you everything you’d want in a game of aerial warfare without bogging the player down with overzealous rules. The RPG aspect really adds to the overall package, allowing players to tell epic war stories with little effort. The chrome that makes it a Vietnam game makes it feel like a Vietnam game, as opposed to simply a reskinned _______ Leader game. Anyone interested in modern aerial warfare or Vietnam, or who is just looking for a good game that can be played by the loneliest number, will find a lot to like with Phantom Leader.
Armchair General Rating: 90%
Solitaire Rating (1 is low, 5 is high): 5 of 5
About the Author
Scott R. Krol has been writing professionally about games for almost twenty years now, on both sides of the critic/publisher fence, but has loved them for even longer. He resides in the historic Southern city of Roswell, Georgia, which was surprisingly not burned to the ground by Sherman on his way to Atlanta.