Game: Phantom Leader Deluxe Edition
Published in: 2013
Designer: Dan Verssen
Era and Topic: Vietnam War / Historical / Air-to-Air and Air-to-Ground warfare
Components: 336 Full Color Cards, Full Color Rulebook, 2 Full Color Counter Sheets (2×176 – 5/8” counters), 8 Full Color Campaign Sheets, 1 11”x17” Full Color Mounted Tactical Display, 1 Full Color Player Sheet, 1 Ten-sided Die, 1 Full Color Player Log Sheet
Game Type: Mixed: Board, counters, card-driven
Our Rating (1-10):
Graphic Presentation: 9.5
Overall Rating: 9
||Modern and stylish presentation; Suitable for beginners and veterans alike; components of high quality; solitaire game which also works perfectly as a 2-player cooperative game; much to decide and consider during a game; many randomized elements provide a high replayabilty; adjustable in game length and difficulty level; comprehensive and clear rules; easy to learn, but demanding and challenging gameplay; provides background information about friendly aircraft and weapons…
||…but still no information or design notes about enemy units; no hints about coop gameplay included in the rulebook
We love aviation wargames like Thunderbolt Apache Leader (GMT) and Hornet Leader (DVG), especially since these solitaire games can also be played cooperatively by two players. And we are notorious for our special interest in coop gaming!
Phantom Leader Deluxe
We were looking forward to playing Dan Verssen’s Phantom Leader Deluxe, a game portraying the Vietnam air war (actually beginning with the Cuban Crisis), part of DVG’s Leader Series, and when the game entered our HFC Test Lab, we were very happy to find out that this implement of the Leader Series works as excellent as a cooperative game as it does as a solitaire game – as do the other games of the Leader series, despite the fact that this additional option isn’t mentioned anywhere in the rules or on the game box.
Phantom Leader Deluxe is an update to DVG’s original Phantom Leader from 2010 (re-worked in order to adjust it to the standards set by Hornet Leader). So the new game version is adding more aircraft, the Cuba mission, making adjustments to the campaigns, adding more pilots for each aircraft type to choose from, more targets and more Event cards. All in all, more content and more options, so switching from the original Phantom Leader to the Deluxe Edition is certainly worth the money, if you are a fan of the game. There are tons of new stuff compared to the original version, and the new stuff isn’t just for show or chrome, but really adds to the experience and variety.
So what’s the game about? In Phantom Leader, you take command over a tactical fighter squadron. You can choose between playing as US Navy or US Air Force, which offer different aircraft types and pilots. All four campaigns come in two versions: as US Navy campaign and as US Air Force campaign, which doubles the tactical and strategical options, and lets you find out who does a better job.
The game includes four campaigns, starting with the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, followed by the 1964 War in the South campaign, 1967 Rolling Thunder, and finally 1972 Linebacker. You don’t have to play the campaigns in chronological order, and in the basic game, they are not linked with each other. There is an optional rule which allows you to play them as a large combined campaign, though, but normally, you pick only one campaign at a time.
Each campaign consists of a variable number of “missions” (scenarios or targets you will attack), so you can play each campaign as a short, medium, or long campaign, as your time allows. In addition, you can adjust the difficulty level of the campaigns to your experience and play style. Since the flight missions are determined randomly, as are the enemies you will face in the combat area, this concept ensures a high replay value.
At the beginning of a campaign, you choose the members of your fighter squadron (you cannot choose aircraft which were not in use at the year the campaign takes place, of course). Then, you start with your first mission where you learn what your target is, where it is located and how heavily it is defended. You then get the chance to load your fighters with various weapons and gadgets. After the briefing, your squadron takes off towards the target. Random events (triggered by cards) as well as randomly placed enemy defensive units will make it harder for you to reach the target zone. Enemy units consist of various kinds of units – ground units like infantry, anti-air sites, and air units (enemy fighters which try to force you into a dogfight).
The target can by anything from a factory, a convoy, a shipyard, a base, a rescue mission…
Once you managed to reach the target, you have to fulfill the mission objectives which are detailed on the current target card. Objectives vary, depending on the kind of target, and will sometimes surprise you.
After fulfilling the objective (usually by destroying a target or various targets), you will have to steer your fighters out of the combat area and back to base. If a fighter was shot down, there is a chance that the pilot survived, so you will also have the chance to rescue him in a Search-and-Rescue attempt. The last part of the mission is the debriefing step, where your performance and the pilots’ stress levels are recorded. Missions can be quite stressful, so it is possible that your pilots will be unfit for the next mission after returning to their base.
Since a campaign consists of several missions in a row, and you only have one fighter squadron, one of the main challenges of the game is to think about when to use which pilot – you always have to keep in mind that they could be shot down or suffer too much stress to be useful in the following missions. This adds a strategic level to the otherwise tactical gameplay of flying single aircraft into a combat zone where they will be attacked by enemy units and dogfighting other fighters.
In Phantom Leader, you don’t have to learn how to pilot an aircraft (your chosen pilots are perfectly capable of flying them without your assistance, so this isn’t your problem). You are the leader and mission commander back at the air base who tells each pilot where to fly, when to fly, and which loadout to take into combat. So if you find your fighter squadron horribly wrong equipped against the target or the encountered enemy units, and they are shot down or so stressed that they are sent into the med bay afterwards, this isn’t their fault – it’s yours.
A bad mission outcome and failure to achieve the mission objectives is almost always caused by bad planning, wrong equipment, and wrong decisions. And some bad luck, of course, because the game contains many random elements which change from mission to mission. You cannot influence which defensive units appear at the scene or which surprise events make your life harder. But you can influence bad luck in rolling your dice by choosing the right equipment, pilot constellation, and flight maneuvers.
Like in a RPG, your pilots gain experience points when flying on a mission, and have the chance to level up to the next higher skill level (at least in a medium or long campaign). Levelling up has significant impact on the various stats of a pilot.
Game components and presentation
The components within the heavy game box are of a very high quality (as it is with all games of the Leader series). The box contains a full-colored rulebook, a 10-sided die, lots of counters, cards, and markers. The overall game style is modern and visually appealing.
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