Phantom Leader Review

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cthulhuHaving recently welcomed a second child into our family, I was quite ready to give up a few months of gaming time and I prepared myself by investigating a few solo games to tide me through the lean times. The trouble with the solo titles I usually favour - Arkham Horror and Return of the Heroes is that while fun, both involve a pretty hefty set-up time and indeed in the case of Arkham Horror a pretty hefty play time. I knew I was going to need something I could whip out quickly, play and pack away again when a rare quiet sixty minutes ensued. Looking round it seemed that there was an obvious contender for this slot: the solo Vietnam-era air combat game Phantom Leader from Dan Verssen Games. Dan was kind enough to send me a copy to review, and I can happily report that it’s just about managed to squeeze into my hectic post-infant lifestyle.

The game places a single player in command of a squadron of jet aircraft during the Vietnam war: although the game is named after the Phantom jet, and features that aircraft prominently, there are a variety of other aircraft for you to play with as well. In addition you get to pick your pilots either from the Air Force or Navy with both different personnel and planes available for each, and you can place your newly-formed squadron in one of three Vietnam bombing campaigns which, in turn, can be short, medium or long. Having picked your campaign you get to pick your individual pilots who have a varied roster of statistics including attack speed, different modifiers for air-to-air and air-to-ground attacks, different aircraft, and so on. This isn’t a trivial choice at all: you’ll need a mixture of different pilot types to succeed and the game offers the lure of taking weaker aircraft than the F-14 Phantom of the title in return for flexibility in the form of Special Operations Points that you can spend on various benefits going forward such as extra R&R for your crew, instant promotions, special weaponry and others.

You’re then plunged into the thick of the action by tackling various missions and trying to win victory points, with your overall performance goals depending on the type and length of campaign that you’ve chosen. A mission consists of three distinct parts: pre-flight planning, the actual flight itself and a post-mission administration phase. You start the latter phase by drawing several target cards from a pre-constructed deck which depends on the campaign you’re flying and picking one to strike. These are mainly buildings and installations of various sorts: factories, naval bases and so on and so forth but a few consist of enemy units like jet fighters and surface-to-air missile sites. Each is worth a certain number of victory points, as well as adding to the US war effort in terms of increasing military intelligence - allowing you to draw more target cards to pick from each turn - and frustrating enemy reconnaissance - meaning you can remove enemy units during missions. However possibly the most interesting number on the card is the “politics” value. You start with a certain number of these politics points and as you strike politically sensitive targets the value goes down, meaning you can no longer select any targets you draw if their politics value is too high and potentially leaving you in the dreadful situation of having to skip a mission because you don’t have the political leverage left to cover any of the target options. Of course, inevitably, most of the high VP targets are also high politics. It’s a nice way of simulating the political dimension of the Vietnam War without a heavy-handed system.

Once you’ve got a target it’s placed in the centre of a generic target map with two rings of approach areas around it. These are then populated with a variety of randomly drawn defensive units according to the target card. Then, something truly magical happens. Suddenly you’re no longer playing a game of Phantom Leader. Instead you’re a squadron commander planning a mission for your pilots in exacting detail. You’ll need to look at the map carefully and pick the mix of pilots you need, choose approach routes and heights for your planes, given them appropriate armaments to deal with the threats they’re going to face and leave enough room for ordnance to take out the target itself.  Every one of the four turns you get to spend over target needs to be planned for. And this process never becomes dull: because of the random draw of enemy units you’ll face there are always multiple approaches you could take to hitting the target whilst exposing your pilots to minimal fire, a myriad of ways in which you might counter or destroy the threats you face, the added lure of spending from your very limited pool of Special Operations points to try and make your life a bit easier and in addition there is the uncertainty factor of not knowing if you’ll hit your dice rolls as expected and not knowing how many enemy aircraft are over the target as these aren’t drawn until after the planning stage. The result is a delightfully excruciating stew of carefully worked out tactics and agonizing risk management decisions. Truly, in all the consims I’ve ever played, many of which are considerably more complex and detailed than the really quite simple Phantom Leader, I have never come across a game that gives you such a direct and thematic connection to actual operational planning.

Then it’s seat of the pants time as you actually put your plans into effect over target. Each turn your fast pilots get to attack one target in range of their munitions, then any enemy units get to attack anything in their range, then slow pilots get to attack and finally you get to move. And immediately you’ll realise the truth of the old military maxim that no battle plan will survive contact with the enemy: that fast pilot you were relying on to take out a dangerous anti-aircraft site will fluff his dice and your squadron will be exposed to the full fury of the flak. What to do now? Fortunately the game doesn’t just leave you sweating on the dice: you’re left with more horrible risk-versus-payout decisions to try and minimise the fire you’re exposed to. You can use up valuable ordnance from the limited stock you’re carrying to try and suppress the site, or you can add stress points to your pilot - and potentially decrease his stats if he gets over-stressed - and go into evasive manoeuvres. Nothing is certain and generally you’re left worrying right until the last dice of the last turn to see if you’ve succeeded or not which can really haul the poor player over the coals if the target is potentially a big VP win. It’s worth noting that although the actual flight sees a lot of dice rolling, the forward planning you did earlier, and the quality adjustments you make as the plan meets reality tend to be what win the day. It’s a great mixture of strategic thinking and the hand of fate and strikes a good balance between rewarding you for good strategic and tactical thinking whilst keeping things nicely unpredictable.

There’s then a post mission phase. Each target is worth a certain amount of base stress for your pilots, in addition to any they accrued during the mission from evading or being hit by enemy fire and these are then totalled up, minus the “cool” value of the pilot which may result in a drop in operational efficiency if the stress value gets too high. Pilots can reduce stress by sitting out missions and it’s a clever way of ensuring you can’t take all your best pilots along on every trip as they quickly become nervous wrecks. In the longer campaigns stress management also becomes a major strategic consideration as you struggle to keep sufficient of your squadron battle worthy to fly whatever missions might be coming up in the near future. Pilots also accrue experience points and can be promoted for better stats, another consideration you need to make when making your initial pick of pilots and choosing who flies what mission. In the unfortunate event that any of your pilots got shot down, you get to see if they survive the experience and if so, whether they manage to evade or escape enemy captivity and return to duty.

Each of the three steps in the mission process is accompanied by an event card which can have positive or negative effects depending on its nature. The event deck is only small but each card has a different effect listed depending on what phase it’s drawn on. It includes a mixture of cards that reflect the political situation ("peace rallies"), supporting air units available ("AC-47 Spooky") , enemy sneak attacks ("Bandits!") and generic good or bad things that can happen ("down time").  It all adds to the uncertainty and offers more on-the-fly decision making to keep you on your toes. In a significant minority of these cards there seems to be something of a disconnect between the event described and the in-game effect. Why would an “important target” event, for example, lead to extra R&R for your pilots when drawn as a post-mission event? Why would gunship support allow you to spend a special operations point for an extra VP? I’d also like to have seen a rulebook glossary to explain the history behind some of the cards such as why it is that drawing a card representing a semi-obsolete propeller fighter makes it easier for you to rescue downed pilots but I suspect those interested will do what I did and look things up on the internet to get answers. Which, in that particular case, turned out to be that said aircraft were used to fly helicopter escort during search-and-rescue missions. A few more of these cards, especially some direct historical events - like the ubiquitous Tet Offensive - wouldn’t have gone amiss either.

Indeed, a slight lack of variety generally is the only major criticism I can make of the game. When I first started playing I felt that there was unlikely to be sufficient differences between the USAF and USN campaigns to make all six worthwhile to play. Turns out I was very wrong about this because the designer has very carefully tweaked the pilot cards available to each force to make the challenges subtly different between the two. However it’s unfortunate the the obvious care taken over differentiating between the available pilots wasn’t also taken over differentiating between the target cards. Most of them are just a bunch of numbers with no flavourful special rules at all, and after the first few missions you tend to stop caring whether you’re trying to bomb a transport park or a bridge since they tend to fade anonymously into one another. The few that buck this trend, such as the clever “close support” mission which stresses your pilots every time they miss a shot, or the airfield target that actually keeps launching new planes at you each turn until it’s destroyed, as so much more interesting to play that they make you realise what you’re missing from the bulk of those identikit targets. This is a shame but in the final reckoning, although it reduces the potential replay value of the game there’s still easily enough interest here to get your monies-worth in terms of total play time.

The individual play time for each mission is about 20-30 minutes. However the campaigns vary massively in length - remember you can choose to pick a short, medium or long campaign of each type with the total number of missions dependent on what campaign you’ve picked. The shortest campaign of all is the USAF “war in the south” short campaign which is just two missions long. The result is that you’ve got tremendous flexibility over how long you actually want to play your game for. The game does require you to record information about the overall state of your campaign between missions, so if you decide to take on one of the longer campaigns you’ll ideally want to leave the game out somewhere and come back to it for multiple sessions. But if, like me, you can’t manage that it’s relatively trivial to record the information you need with pen & paper. The focus here is undoubtedly on the long campaigns with their stress and special operations point management issues, but I found that each individual campaign length has its own rewards. The short campaigns are breakneck exercises in scrabbling to gain as many victory points as you can in a desperately short space and they can be very exciting, while the medium campaigns strike a good balance between the two styles. Interestingly, although this is developed and marketed specifically as a solo game I’ve also discovered that it works quite well as a co-operative game in a small group of 2-3 players.

Phantom Leader is actually the latest in a series of “leader” games, all solo air combat titles spread across different historical scenarios. Corsair Leader covers the World War 2 Pacific Theatre, Hornet Leader modern era air combat and there was even an Apache/Thunderbolt Leader game covering specialist gunship and anti-tank operations. All of these are now out of print, although Dan is currently working on a re-release of Hornet Leader. I have never played any of these other games but I was lucky enough to play a co-op session with someone who had. His opinion was that Phantom Leader is generally superior to what had gone before. It does have one strange rules anomaly not found in previous versions though: in Phantom Leader it seems a pilot can simply leave the target at any time at no risk to himself, making it easy to evacuate damaged planes or aircraft without a usable payload of weapons. In previous Leader games these had to muddle through and this change makes the game easier in addition to being slightly nonsensical (indeed I was quite confused by the lack of any mention in the rules of how to take aircraft off the map). Of course, if you don’t like it you can easily house-rule and ignore it and force planes you want off the map to escape back through one of the approach routes.

Phantom Leader is a fine game which does an excellent job of making the potentially tedious activity of solo board gaming both exciting and demanding. Given the difficulty of trying to work plenty of variety into a game that doesn’t have the advantage of other players around you making unpredictable decisions, I think it can be forgiven its slight lack of replay value. It’s easy to learn and play, highly thematic and exciting and manages to strike lots of sweet spots between random factors and analysis, complexity and simulation. So even if you’re not a wargamer, but you are interested in having a fast and flexible solo game to play when your gaming friends desert you, don’t be afraid of trying out Phantom Leader: you might just find it’s the first step on the road toward historical simulation games.

Matt is the founder of Fortress: Ameritrash. He is also a regular columnist for Board Game News. Click here for more board game articles by Matt.

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Matt has been writing about tabletop games professional since 2012, blogging since 2006 and playing them since he could talk.


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