Tuesday, July 19, 2016
PHANTOM LEADER DELUXE VIETNAM AERIAL COMBAT GAME FROM DAN VERSSEN GAMES Prior to Phantom Leader Deluxe , my experience of air w...
PHANTOM LEADER DELUXE: Review
by Mike Wall Tuesday, July 19, 2016 5 comments
DAN VERSSEN GAMES
Prior to Phantom Leader Deluxe, my experience of air war games was fairly limited. Or, perhaps what I should say is that the number of games simulating the war in the air that I liked was very limited. First and foremost was John Butterfield's original solitaire RAF and its solitaire and two-player remake of the same name and the very light, but enjoyable Wings of Glory. Other than those two, most other air games had left me cold, often because the mechanics were so convoluted and distinctly user unfriendly. Some, like Avalon Hill's Flight Leader, I confess I just found boring.
Perhaps, by now, you're wondering why I agreed to accept this particular review. Mainly, it was because of the publisher, Dan Verssen Games [hereafter DVG], who produce top-notch quality games that I have particularly experienced through their Field Commander series. Secondly, I had heard very positive things said about the whole Leader series of air games.
Phantom Leader Deluxe certainly did not let me down on the question of quality. One sumptuous, deep, glossy box surpassed even my expectations based on my experience of Field Commander Alexander and Field Commander Napoleon. The contents no less so, especially the thick, high quality counters that, with their rounded corners, just press out perfectly with no dog-eared corners to laboriously trim off. Considering the sheer number of counters, that's one big chore out of the way, even for someone like me who can find counter-clipping therapeutic!
But it's the stunning packs of cards that blow you away. First of all there are separate packs for ten different USAF aircraft and nine Navy aircraft. Not surprisingly, considering the title of the game the number of Phantoms predominates, but add in evocative names like the F-101 Voodoo or the F-102 Delta Dagger and all together you have seven new types of aircraft included in the Deluxe version. In total there are 19 types of aircraft and 90 aircraft, with each of those aircraft having a different named pilot with three separate double-sided cards that take him from Newbie all the way to Ace. So, if you've done your maths that's 270 cards in the box just to cover the aircraft - all in full colour with the plane set against a steely blue sky and the key stats in the bottom section of the card.
Above you have a typical average USAF F-4 Phantom with the pilot whose call-sign is Smokes with his array of information. A vast spectrum to choose from with small gradations of ability in the modifiers for ATA [Air-to-Air] and ATG [Air-to-Ground] targets and all affected by whether the pilot status is OK or Shaken, as is his speed. The guy up there, as you can see, is SLOW whatever his stress level!.
This degree of choice of aircraft and pilot and then the range of armaments that each plane can carry has led to a few criticisms of detail overload. As someone with NO modern [or at least relatively modern] knowledge of aircraft, seeing that we are primarily in the period of the Vietnam War, I can sympathise. But, if you are really so concerned, you could choose just to fly phantoms or use the rulebook's optional rule for how to draw a random set of aircraft. I certainly would not be put off buying this game, because it contains too much.
Beside having so many beautiful aircraft cards, there are cards for Targets and Events. Here is the very first target that I came up against - the Barracks.
The card provides details of the enemy aircraft [Bandits] and enemy ground sites that you will come up against. At first sight that doesn't look too bad, but there are four approach areas, one in each of the compass points, so that's eight potential enemy sites and four bandits and three more sites and two bandits in the centre where the target is!! The card also tells you how many VPs, Recon pts and Intelligence pts you'll earn depending on how many hits you land on the target.
Much of this involves new additional rules for the Deluxe version. In the original, it was destroy/fail to destroy your target, as pure and simple as that and VPs or no VPs. I really like this development that allows for degrees of success. [Hollow laugh ... on this first mission I scored no hits on the target, lost two out of my four planes and the other two came back so stressed they immediately had to be rested! Please don't ask if I've got any better.]
And here are my valiant fellows; call signs Jagger, Misty, Smokes and Digger. The centre two are the planes that went down and the outer two are the ones that survived.
Before I comment on the rule book, there is one last type of card to show you - Events. During a mission three will be drawn - one Target-Bound, one Over-Target and the last one Home-Bound. Each card has three sections and you apply the appropriate text according to which stage of the mission you are at.
As you can see, Bandits was my Target-Bound card and Forward Air Controllers my Over-Target card.
And so to the Rulebook. A very nice product in full colour and glossy paper. One major surprise and drawback is that there is no index. In part, this may be because the rules, after explaining all the components, take you through the sequence of play step-by-step in the chronology of how the game plays. As thorough and clear as these rules are, like any set when you are first learning and playing with them, you will certainly need to check and refer back. An index should be a requisite part, if only for ease of play, and as the back page of the rulebook is used merely to advertise many other DVG games, this was an unnecessary omission.
An initial skim through quickly established that methodical planning would be the early part of the game. First up is your choice of Campaign map and there are 8 to choose from, three set at different periods of the Vietnam war ranging from 1965 - 72 and one set during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Each Campaign has a separate USAF and Navy copy with varying targets and the possibility of playing Short, Medium or Long Campaigns. This wide range of scenarios and variable targets, plus the range of aircraft and pilots make for great replay value.
Then on to selecting the pool of aircraft and pilots that will be available during the campaign. The longer the campaign, the more pilots you will select for your pool, as a Short campaign typically involves four days and up to twelve days for a Long campaign. Each day begins with drawing two target cards to choose from and the choice is not just a simple "which do I fancy having a go at." Each target comes with a political cost that is marked on the Political track on your Campaign card. so that you may find you don't have enough political points to go for either target. Consequences being that you may have a day of rest or spend some of the Special Ops points that come with a Campaign to buy other targets to choose from.
Here's the typical start of a Campaign, the first day's target has been chosen, the Political points cost marked on the appropriate track and the Target marker placed on the mini-map. Notice the other two Tracks are for Recon and Intel- both of these may be affected favourably by the degree of success achieved in missions flown during a Campaign.
Then it's move to the core of the game's action and the mounted board on which it will be played out.
This display is clear and totally functional, with a very helpful Turn sequence on the right-hand side and locations for the Target cards and Event cards.
You now have five turns in which to move from the entry point of your flight path to its exit point diametrically opposite where you entered. Once more this is a detail I like and, I would say an improvement on some of the other Leader games, as you have to do more than just get to the target and drop your bombs. Now you have to make your exit too! Your aircraft don't all have to appear at the same Entry point, but if they enter at different points then their Exit points will be also be different. There is some latitude here, as an aircraft can leave by an area adjacent to its Exit point.
Each of the five turns starts with combat or in this game's term Aircraft Attack Sequence. If your aircraft is Fast, it will fire before the enemy does: if Slow, the enemy will fire first. Though there is a good number of aspects affecting fire, I found them very easy to remember and use. Perhaps the most obvious and important is Altitude. Many of the Sites you will come up against can only hit you if you're flying at Low Altitude - so, just fly over them at High Altitude. The next is range; often you can get in a shot before the enemy because you have better range, but beware those enemies that can fire at range, I've found them deadly.
Add in the possibility of Suppression and Evasion, Soft targets and Radar targets, AtA and AtG weaponry, changing altitude and you get a very good narrative and atmospheric feel to the heart of this game. With named pilots, I felt far more of an RPG effect than in most war games I play. Each roll, especially when the enemy has you in his sights, is a tense moment. As with any solitaire game, an iron will is needed to accept the die and see your aircraft tumbling out of the sky.
It's Not Over Until The Fat Lady Sings!
You've not finished yet. I love the final sequences after the mission has been flown. Remember those planes I lost on my first mission flight out, well, they're not necessarily gone for ever as there is a Search and Rescue Phase with a 50/50 chance of survival. Both mine did survive, but as always there is a stress cost.
And then comes Debriefing, with hopefully some element of VPs, Intelligence pts and Recon pts depending on the amount of damage scored on the Target. As your Intelligence improves, the number of targets you can choose from for a Mission increases, while Reconnaissance reduces the number of Sites and Bandits you will come up against in later Missions.
In this final phase of the game, the last factor and for me is the effects of all those Stress points piling up on your pilots. Now you have to assess the following: who can continue to fly, who must be rested [above a certain level and you are grounded until those stress points have been reduced], the effect of MIA [Missing in Action] pilots on all your other pilots stress levels. You don't lose buddies without it having an impact on you.
You can even Transfer highly stressed pilots out of your team and get a replacement.....but have you guessed what's coming next. Sure, a new pilot to the team, can you rely on him - consequences, a bit more stress for each of your existing team!!
One final tip before my round-up. The Campaign Log for recording your Missions and pilot progression will take a lot of bashing if you try to use it to record changing Stress levels during a Mission. So, making a simple chart for each Mission's pilots that logs the ongoing stress accumulation is well worth the few minutes it takes to knock one up on the computer. [it also adds to the RPG element, I've talked about.]
So, what are my final thoughts and conclusions? At the start, I gave you my reasons for taking on this review. Am I glad that I did make that decision. Above all, I've had a great time playing this game. More than anything, I've been surprised how much I've enjoyed the preparation and planning stage. I had thought I'd find this a tad tedious and would want to hurry through, but I now feel this is an integral and enjoyable part of the whole game experience.
I still consider myself very much a newbie and am a long way off knowing what aircraft are best for a particular job and what armament. But, the rule book has a very detailed Section on each aircraft and each weapon that repays the time spent on repeated reading through.
As to flying the Missions and the whole campaign shebang, love every minute of it. Never thought I could be rooting so much for an aircraft card with its call sign Digger and whether it would make it through its mission. Phantom Leader has been a great experience and one I can thoroughly recommend to you.
[Schnell! Schnell! Das Boot.....Torpedoes away. Dive! Dive!
Having been allowed to take to the skies with Phantom Leader there are rumours that I may be allowed to sink beneath the waves with U-Boat Leader and its American counterpart Gato Leader.
However, until that is confirmed, perhaps you'd like to dip into one of my own collection and march with me in a couple of weeks to the Somme, where you'll be up to your neck in muck and bullets, with Richard Borg's The Great War.]