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Review: Phantom Leader Deluxe (DVG)

Posted by Denny Koch on December 23, 2013

phantom_boxGame: Phantom Leader Deluxe Edition

Publisher: DVG
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

HFC Game-O-Meter: D 


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9.5
Rules: 
8.5
Playability: 
9
Replay Value:
10

Overall Rating: 9

PRO 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…
CONTRA …but still no information or design notes about enemy units; no hints about coop gameplay included in the rulebook

Introduction

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

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...

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.

The "Tactical Display" serves as the game board when flying over target, and also lists the Sequence of Play

The “Tactical Display” serves as the game board when flying over target, and also lists the Sequence of Play

The game is a hybrid between a card game (you have Event cards, Target cards, Aircraft cards) with a map board and die-cut counters. Aircraft are represented by cards (and counters while flying a mission), their weapons are counters. Random events and the composition of enemy forces are determined by card draw, the main target is represented by a card, but you fight ground forces and enemy aircraft which are randomly drawn counters on the Tactical Display Sheet.

Then there is a Record Sheet (“Log Sheet“) on which you record each mission outcome and the current stress levels and experience points of your pilots. There is only one copy of the sheet inside the box, but you will certainly need more. You can either download the sheet for free from the official DVG website as a PDF and print out more copies. But DVG thinks of the players who are taking the game with them on a road trip (it’s a solitaire game, so it’s a perfect travel companion), where you don’t have a printer with you, but a copy shop right around the corner – the one sheet in the box is made of stronger, coated paper and the rule book advises that it should be used as a master for making photocopies, not for filling it out. Putting a pad with several sheets into the box would have been the easiest way, of course, but by providing both a download option for print-out and a photocopy master, you are flexible enough to generate more sheets wherever you are.

Since the game is card-driven, you get various decks of cards (events as well as targets are drawn from a card deck), and – of course – the aircraft cards. The robust, full-color cards are of a very good quality and coated for better protection. They are standard card size and fit into default card sleeves easily.
In Phantom Leader, each pilot is an integrated part of his aircraft card, and each pilot comes with 6 different skill levels. His personal flight skills, advantages and disadvantages are automatically calculated into the stats on the cards. Some pilots are better at air-to-air-combat, others are good at air-to-ground-combat, some are talented for both, and some are newbies and greens who still have to learn both.
The Campaigns are printed on large glossy black paper cards. They are very clear and easily understood.
The counters are sturdy and of a very high quality

The counters are sturdy and of a very high quality

The counters have to be punched out first, but they are of a sturdy and good quality and fall out of their frames easily without the need of applying force or using tools. They are very even and their surface is coated, so they will survive much random drawing and pushing around on the tactical display.

There is a full-color Player Aid Sheet, designed like a clipboard, which perfectly fits to the overall design goal of placing the player in the commander’s chair.

Last but not least, there is the (mounted!) tactical game board (“Tactical Display“), which is designed like an aircraft HUD with a central space for the target and spaces for the draw decks.

So, high quality game components, very pleasing to look at – and to play with.

Rules

The game contains a full-color, 24-pages rule book. It is very similar to the other rule books of the Leader series, so if you know one of the other games, you will find your way immediately. You can also download the rules in PDF format for free from the download section of the official DVG website (for example, if you want to store it on your PC or e-book reader), but there is no “living rule book” or anything, the rules are tried and tested and the game is perfectly playable out of the box. Further changes or updates are not to be expected and not required.

The full-color rule book is comprehensive and well structured

The full-color rule book is comprehensive and well structured with many illustrations

The rule book contains many examples which further illustrate the rules and leave no questions unanswered. As with the other Leader games, we didn’t encounter any ambiguities or problematic wordings and had no problems jumping into the game immediately. There is also a section with optional rules, for example for adding an advantage or handicap, and adjusting the difficulty, and – of course – for combining the campaigns to one mega-campaign game.

What’s still missing (we also mentioned this in our Hornet Leader review) is any hint about the fact that the game can also be played fine with two players cooperatively. In the classic “Thunderbolt Apache Leader” by GMT where coop rules are at least mentioned in a small section, one player could fly the helicopters while the other controlled the fighters, so it was easy to figure out how to share responsibilities.

In Phantom Leader (as in Hornet Leader), there are only fighters available, but it is no problem at all to share them among two players in any distribution you would prefer. There are no rules adjustments required, you can play the game out of the box with two players who share the aircraft among them, and it simply doubles the fun – because you decide together which target you will attack and who takes which loadout and role – one could take care of the enemy air units, the other can carry the heavy bombs, for example. In our experience, playing the game cooperatively is even more fun than playing it solitaire, because you will have heavy debates about who will take which role during a mission.

The rules contain many examples, easily recognizable by the green font

The rules contain many examples, easily recognizable by the green font

Nevertheless, it’s also a great solitaire experience, so you only get more flexibility (1-2 players) without the need for extra rules. In our opinion, Dan Verssen could add the info that the game is playable with 2 players as well to the rules and the game box without any problems – there is no drawback in playing with two players, we tried and tested this and were very pleased with the experience; we play games from the Leader series exclusively in a cooperative fashion because the debates and shared experiences are priceless and fun and don’t feel clumsy or “superimposed on a solitaire game” at all.

Another minor complaint (without impact on gameplay, though) is that the rule book provides detailed background information about all friendly aircraft, weapons and munitions, but no background information on the enemy ground units and bandits. We would have loved to learn what we were up against when battling a S-60 or SA-2 site.

Besides that, the rule book is excellent, clear, and self-explanatory with extensive examples for even minor rules. Exemplary.

Gameplay and Playability

As mentioned before, the playability is great – whether you play the game as a solitaire game or cooperatively with two players. The rule book follows the Sequence of Play and you can read the rules as you go along. Set-up doesn’t take much time (depending on how fast you can decide between the many available pilots, of course), and once you flew your first mission, the following missions will play out quickly and smoothly. After one campaign, there won’t be any necessity to consult the rules anymore – the Player Aid sheet provides all information required during a campaign. The only reason you take the rule book from time to time is to read the background information about ammunition or aircraft when you have to decide what to take against which target, but after a while, you will also know which bomb, which air-to-air missile, or which gadget does what. In addition, everything you have to know is also printed on the counters and cards (special rules for certain ammunition types like a bonus against soft targets etc.).

The Player Aid Sheet looks like a clipboard, which is a cool idea

The Player Aid Sheet looks like a clipboard, which is a cool idea

The rules are internalized quickly, and you will soon realize that, after your first campaign, you can begin to concentrate on strategy and tactics instead of getting the rules right. That’s always a good sign; we know games where you have to struggle more with counterintuitive or poorly worded rules than with your enemy, which is a turn-off. Phantom Leader doesn’t belong into this category.

One new feature of Phantom Leader (in contrast to Hornet Leader) is the “Attack Angle” counter. In Hornet Leader, enemy ground units could shoot at you from all angles, provided you were in range. In Phantom Leader, each ground unit with a range of 1 or 2 in the Approach Area also gets a (randomized) attack angle. This could mean that the unit can still shoot at you, regardless of the direction you are coming from, but it could also restrict the unit to one very limited covered arc or only to fire from the front side, or only to the left and right. This simulates anti-air units located in deep valleys or behind obstacles, or with a very restricted turret. We like the attack angle idea very much because it is a very simple, but very effective method to simulate difficult terrain and covered arc, without the need of lengthy additional rules. You draw an attack angle counter randomly and place it next to the unit, period. From the counter illustration, you can see immediately where you can be shot at, and where you are safe. This is very helpful when plotting your approach path and your exit path.

The Flight Path is another specialty from Phantom Leader because it simulates the restricted Flight paths aircraft were forced to fly in Vietnam. In contrast to other Leader games, you cannot merrily fly around the target and all over the map. You have to announce your entrance path and your exit path before starting the mission, and you have to ensure that you will reach the exit area before the time runs out (you only have 5 “over target” turns in which you have to approach and reach the target, fulfill your objective there, and reach the extraction area). If you want to enter the mission zone in the blind spot of enemy anti-air units, you have to keep in mind that you must exit the area on the opposing side of the mapboard – where you could be within the attack angle of some really dangerous units with very high hit numbers.

The attack angle are a nice addition to the game

The attack angles are a nice addition to the game

The combination of attack angles and restricted Flight paths is a welcome addition to the mechanics, and adds some more simulative value to the game in order to portray the specific circumstances during the Vietnam war.

Since the game includes many random elements, planning in advance is vital for a successful Campaign – you have to be prepared for anything, you will never know what the enemy will throw at you.

Sequence of Play

The game follows a strict Sequence of Play, which is also detailed on the Tactical Display. You should play the first game by following the step-by-step instructions in the rule book. For your second game, using the abbreviated Sequence on the map board will be sufficient because the SoP is very logical and intuitive.

Setup and Preparations

First, the player (or, if played cooperatively, the players) have to decide which campaign will be played and how long the campaign will be (short, medium, long). The longer the campaign, the more targets must be attacked consecutively.

Then, the player places the Tactical Display sheet (the mounted map) and the chosen Campaign mission sheet on the table. There are two decks of cards, the Target cards (each target is a mission within the campaign) and the Event cards. Both decks are shuffled and placed in their respective holding boxes on the map board.

The three Campaign Tracks can make a difference during the campaign

The three Campaign Tracks can make a difference during the campaign

There are three Campaign tracks on the map board: Recon, Intel, and Politics. Each track has impact on the gameplay; good Recon means that the US forces can choose between more targets each mission, good Intelligence reduces the number of enemy sites and bandits in the mission area, and Politics represent the political support for the war. If you choose to attack a target with high political impact, this could seriously damage the support for the Vietnam war at home and impede your choices for the next mission target.

After selecting a campaign, the player chooses his aircraft, depending on mission duration, year, and whether he plays the game as USAF or USN. In a short campaign, he selects 1 Newbie, 2 Green, 4 Average and 1 Skilled Pilots. In the long campaign, he gets 1 Newbie, 2 Green, 6 Average, 2 Skilled, 1 Veteran Pilots. When selecting the pilots, you have to keep in mind that you will have to fly all missions with these guys, so you have to pick a solid mix of pilots skilled in air-to-air combat, pilots skilled in air-to-ground combat, and allrounders. In addition, each aircraft can carry only certain types of ammunition – so when you pick 6 aircraft of the same type (which can, for example, only carry AtA missiles), you will have a problem when you must bomb a ground target later.

In this game, the F-4 Phantom is the “default” aircraft. If you pick an aircraft with inferior abilities, you will be compensated with Special Option Points which in turn can be invested in special ammunition or other actions (like Recon Priority or Pilot Promotion Priority) later in the game.

Some pilots are more resistant to stress than other pilots (“cool”), and experienced pilots have usually better stats than inexperienced ones. But you have to choose pilots from all categories, and you will have to use them all during the campaign.

If you play with 2 players, you now decide who will control whom. Usually, we give the player who controls the Newbie also the most experienced one. During the game, pilots won’t be switched or shared among the players, but will be sent on missions together. Each player is responsible for his aircraft, but how to arm them and which ones to send into which missions is open to debate – and part of the fun.

Victory is achieved by accumulating Victory Points

Victory is achieved by accumulating Victory Points

After selecting the aircraft and recording them on the Record Sheet, the game begins. If you are playing with 2 players, only one player is the master of the record sheet; it’s not necessary to fill out two sheets since the players fly and win (or lose) together.

Each of the following steps is repeated for each mission. The number of missions depends on Campaign length and is detailed on the Campaign sheet.

Victory is determined by the number of victory points accumulated at the end of the Campaign. Victory points are gained by fulfilling mission objectives, their number depends on performance during each mission. Poor performance can even deduct victory points.

Pre-Flight

During Pre-Flight, the player draws target cards which will offer him a selection of possible targets for the next mission. The number of target cards drawn depends on various factors, for example the number on the Recon track and whether the player is willing or able to spend Special Option points to draw additional target cards.

He then chooses among the drawn target cards the target for the next mission (but the options are restricted depending on the current political value). It is even possible that no target can be chosen (or that the player doesn’t want to choose one of the targets), so the mission will be skipped. This gives his pilots time to recover from stress, but he will also get no experience or victory points for this mission and all Campaign track markers will be moved 1 space to the left, reducing Intel and Recon.

Some targets are close to your base, some are in a far away region. The further afar your target is, the more fuel you have to carry with you – which, in turn, reduces the amount of weight you can carry, which means less ammunition on your mission. You have the chance to buy the Tanker option with Special Option Points, which can be quite expensive when taking many aircraft with you, but in return, you will be able to carry the full amount of weapons with you.

After selecting a target (for example, “attack a convoy” or “destroy a chemical plant”), it is checked whether the target has any political impact. If it has, the Politics marker will be adjusted accordingly (which will in turn restrict you in choosing your next target during the next mission).

Enemy Sites will try to stop you on your way to the target

Enemy Sites will try to stop you on your way to the target

Then, enemy sites in the target area (like ground infantry, anti-aircraft sites and other ground units) are randomly determined by following the instructions on the target card and then placed on the Tactical Display Sheet (map board) in the Center Area and Approach Areas (the areas surrounding the central Target Area). As mentioned before, ground sites with a range of 1+ in the Approach Areas also get an Attack Angle counter which restricts their covered arc and assigns them specific blind spots.

After setting up the ground defense, you have to decide which pilots will be sent on this mission. Each pilot who flies will accumulate stress. In the worst case, he will be unfit to fly the next mission after coming back to base, so it’s not wise to send all your aircraft at once on the first mission, but to keep some as reserves for the next job, and not to throw in all your skilled and strongest pilots at once – you will probably only have Newbies and Greens left then for the next mission. You will also have to consider who will be suited best for attacking the target (for example, who can carry the big bombs), who will protect him from enemy air units which may appear later, who will take care of the sites etc..

You can choose from various ammunition types. Typical for the Vietnam era: Cluster bombs and Napalm

You can choose from various ammunition types. Typical for the Vietnam era: Cluster bombs and Napalm

After assigning pilots, you arm their aircraft. Not all ammunition types are available in all Campaigns, and not all aircraft can carry what they want. You can only choose ammunition from the “allowed” list on the Campaign sheet, and only assign it to aircraft which can carry these ammunition types. Each ammunition also has a certain weight, so you can only carry ammunition up to your maximum weight capacity. It is also possible to equip aircraft with stronger special ammunition, but this ammunition types must be paid in Special Option points equal to their weight.

There are three large groups of ammunition available: Air-to-Air weapons (for dogfights with enemy aircraft), Air-to-Ground weapons for destroying ground targets, and Pods (guns and ECM). A weapons list at the end of the rule book gives detailed information about each weapon. Some weapons are ranged, others can only be used within the same area.

Target Bound Flight

During Target Bound Flight, the aircraft take off and (virtually) fly towards the mission area. A Target Bound Event card is drawn and resolved. Events can influence all game elements, from enemy units to the Campaign tracks to your aircraft or weapons. Their effects can be negative or helpful.

If an Event had such a devastating effect on your team that you will be unable to resolve the mission successfully, you now have the chance to abort the mission and return to base.

In most cases, you will continue to fly towards the target. You now have to define your restricted flight path – where your aircraft will enter the Mission area and where they will have to leave. The entrance and exit locations will be marked with Flight Path markers. When choosing your Flight Path, you will have to carefully take all sites and their respective Attack angles into consideration to find out the safest route. It won’t be possible to avoid all of them, but some paths are usually more dangerous than others. Sometimes, it will be necessary to take the easiest way to the target in the Center Area, just to bring your slow bomber with the valuable special ammunition safe to the target, but at the risk of getting shot at by dangerous weapon systems on your way out.

After your flight path is plotted and your aircraft counters are placed in their starting location (always one of the Pre-Approach areas), enemy air units (“bandits“) are placed on the map. These will try to get into a dogfight with you and they will follow you if you try to avoid them. It’s a very good idea to fight them with pilots who are prepared for air-to-air combat before they begin to attack your bombers (which may have a horrible AtA skill and may be quite defenseless against these enemy fighters).

After placing bandits, consult the Intel track to see if you can remove any sites or bandits (or face additional ones!).

Finally, you draw an Over Target Event card. Just like the Pre-Flight Events, the Over Target events can be bad or helpful. It simulates that your intel about the target was wrong and the situation is different from what you thought when you started the mission.

Over Target

This phase is repeated 5 times. In the Over Target phase, you have to approach the target, attack it, resolve the mission by fulfilling the mission objectives, and exit the mission area – a tough schedule, so you can’t spare much time for flying detours or for bandit hunting fun.

Mission accomplished. Overkill!

Mission accomplished. Overkill!

First, you get the chance to jettison all your munition. This can be relevant when facing many  bandits who are chasing you – because every weight point of AtG weapons you carry impedes your air-to-air combat abilities and gives you a disadvantage during dogfights. Usually, this is only the last resort and not done before you reached and probably destroyed your target.

Then it’s time for combat. If you have a “fast” aircraft with you, these will now attack. “Slow” aircraft attack after all enemy aircraft and sites have attacked. In contrast to Hornet Leader, there is no “situational awareness” which allows a slow aircraft to make an additional attack during the fast combat step and vice versa. So it’s usually a good idea to take a fast aircraft with you in order to do some preemptive strikes against the enemy.

Combat is restricted by altitude (some weapons can only be used at high or low altitudes, some at both), and range.

During each attack sequence, each of your aircraft can only attack one target, regardless of how many weapons and ammunition it carries. During each of the 5 Over Target turns, your aircraft can do ONE of the following (provided you are at the proper range and altitude!):

  • Attack the target card with as many air-to-ground capable weapon counters as you wish
  • Attack the target card with guns from low altitude and from the Center area
  • Attack one site of your choice with one, some or all of your air-to-ground weapon counters
  • Attack one site with guns from low altitude and from the same area
  • Attack one bandit with as many air-to-air weapon counters as you wish
  • Attack one bandit with guns from the same area

Since you can only attack one target (no “independent” weapons here, like in Hornet Leader), coordination between your aircraft (who attacks which enemy) is vital. It is also vital to bring the aircraft you designated for destroying the target into the center area unharmed and keep it out of trouble by protecting it with your other aircraft.

Each enemy unit can suffer only 1 point of damage and is immediately destroyed if hit by an attack. The target has a certain number of Hit points as listed on the target card however. Your aircraft can also take several hits, depending on how strong the hits are. As a result, pilots could be stressed (which may render them “shaken” and reduce their skills), or an aircraft could be damaged, so that it loses all ammunition counters – which is a heavy blow! When they are damaged again, they are destroyed and shot down. There is a certain chance that your pilot survives this and you will have the possibility to conduct a Search-and-Rescue operation at the end of the turn. In any case, this will be a highly stressful experience for him so he will not be of much use in the next mission.

After your fast aircraft have attacked, the enemy sites and bandits attack. Their attack ratings are listed on their counters, as are their range and altitude. Some sites can shoot against targets at high altitude, so flying high doesn’t protect you. In addition, you usually have to fly on low altitude when you want to attack the target, since most of the heavy bombs require you to fly low. Each turn, you get the chance to switch between high and low, and it depends on the overall situation (your weapons and role in your squadron and the enemy sites) where to fly best.

Event Cards can be your friend... or your worst enemy...

Event Cards can be your friend… or your worst enemy…

When attacked by bandits and sites, your aircraft have certain options to escape the attacks – they can use ECM, they can try an Evasion, or one aircraft can try to suppress the enemy.

After all bandits and sites have attacked, your slow aircraft finally attack.

Attacks are resolved by rolling a ten-sided die. The hit numbers you have to roll depend on the weapons used. Some enemy sites have 2 or 3 hit numbers which may damage or even destroy your aircraft with one shot. There are also certain die roll modifiers which depend on pilot skills, attack type or the current situation. There is no need to consult complex combat tables or modifier tables, every information you need is printed on the weapon counters, enemy counters, or your aircraft card for quick reference. You can see on one glance which number each aircraft or enemy unit must roll when attacking which target with which ammunition type.

The game is never a “dice-fest”, the number of die rolls in a given turn is limited by the number of enemy sites and your ammunition counters and you never roll more than one die at a time. For players like us, who prefer the tension and thrill of one decisive and critically important die roll over the repetitive throwing of gazillions of dice at a time, this is a very welcome gameplay element.

After all attacks are resolved, the player moves all his (remaining) aircraft 1 space, usually towards the target in the center area, or – after conducting the attack against the target – away from it towards the designated exit area. Each aircraft may also change altitude from low to high or high to low now.

Due to the strict time schedule, there are some movement restrictions – you cannot fly around the map as you wish. Any aircraft must exit the Center area at the end of Turn 4. Any aircraft must be moved into a Pre-Approach area during Turn 5. You always have the option of finishing your mission early and leave the map board before the end of Turn 5, but if you do, you will have to wait for other aircraft which are still in the mission area.

When all your aircraft moved one space, all enemy bandits will move, usually by following the closest of your aircraft. They never have an altitude but can attack you regardless of whether you are high or low.

Home-Bound Flight

After spending five turns in the mission area (=on the map board), the Home Bound Flight phase begins. Here, your surviving aircraft (virtually) return to their base. First, you have to draw a Home-Bound Event card which will show you surprising things that could happen on your way back.

Then, if one of your aircraft was shot down during the Over Target Phase, you can now conduct a Search-and-Rescue Mission by rolling a die on the SAR table and applying the appropriate modifiers listed on the table.

Debriefing

Once you returned home, it’s time for the debriefing. Here, the target number is recorded on the record sheet, the number of Special Option points spent during the mission (but it’s a good idea to note them as soon as you spend them, just to keep track because you can spend them for so many different actions). Then, you record whether the target was destroyed or damaged (damaged targets can be repaired and could possibly return later in the game) and how many Victory Points you received for this mission. Sometimes, damaging a target is worth some VPs, too. On the other hand, failing to destroy the target might deduct VPs from your overall score.

The target card details what happens with the three Campaign tracks, some targets may cause adjustments to one or more of the tracks. Move all track markers accordingly.

This pilot accumulated 3 stress during the mission

This pilot accumulated 3 stress during the mission

If this was the final mission of the Campaign, you then compare your VP score to the VP table on the Campaign sheet. You need a certain amount of VPs to achieve a victory, the more VPs you accumulate, the more decisive your victory. Failing to get enough VP may cause a dismal or abysmal result.

If you have only one mission left and this mission result will decide over victory or defeat, you will be tempted to go against a much stronger, more valuable, very prominent target rather than against a small, lousy, cheap convoy. This means more risk for your remaining pilots, but no risk, no fun!

If this wasn’t your last mission, you will now have some more options to treat your pilots’ stress levels, your damaged aircraft will be repaired, and you can even kick unfit pilots from your squadron and replace them with fresh ones. But this will have a devastating effect on the morale of the remaining pilots who will suffer stress in return simply for learning that they will be kicked when they underperform during a mission. Pilots who were shot down and are now MIA are automatically replaced now, but the replacement will be one skill class lower than the missing pilot.

Last but not least, pilots’ stress levels are recorded on the Record Sheet and they earn Experience Points (XP) if they flew the mission. If they accumulate a certain amount of XP, they will be promoted to the next higher skill level (for example, from Newbie to Green, or from Average to Skilled). In most cases, this will only happen during a medium or long campaign, just because it takes many XP to level up (some pilots level up faster than others, though).

Then, you will begin your next mission with the Pre-Flight Phase again and by selecting the next target.

All in all, the Sequence is very intuitive and easy to memorize. After some missions, you will know it by heart.

Optional Rules

There are also some Optional Rules you could include into your game. All can be combined.

First, you can adjust the difficulty of the game if you experience problems or not enough challenge. You can add one or more advantages (like less stress, downgraded sites and bandits, fewer sites and bandits, or more SO points) if the game is too hard for you. Or adding one or more disadvantages if the game is too easy (extra stress, improved sites and bandits, extra sites and bandits, fewer SO points). All adjustments are easily implemented and don’t require any special rules.

Stressed pilots are back at the Air Base

Stressed pilots are back at the Air Base

Then, you could also select your squad by Random selection instead of choosing each pilot by studying their cards, skills, and abilities. If you use this option, you get addition SO points for the mission.

You could add the High Stress Attack / Suppression rule which allows your pilots to get a +1 modifier on their attacks at the cost of additional stress if they want to (but a pilot can only do this once per turn).

Finally, you get the option of playing all Campaigns in one large linked Campaign game where all your results, stress, and pilot experiences carry over to the next Campaign. This will, of course, take some time, but it will also deepen the Role-playing experience since if one of your team members was promoted several times and is shot down in his final Campaign, this will really hurt.

Replayability

Playing the game cooperatively doubles the (already high) replay value of the game

Playing the game cooperatively doubles the (already high) replay value of the game

Replayability is very high. The game consists of so many random elements and things you can choose from that the combinations are next to endless. You can play each of the four campaigns as an Air Force or Navy campaign, you can vary game length and difficulty. Each campaign consists of random missions with random enemies, you can choose between various aircraft types and munitions and each pilot with his individual stats can also be played on any skill level. There is no static “default setup” with no-brainer decisions.

The main challenge of the game is to find out which aircraft combinations, loaded with which ammunition, are best suited for attacking specific targets – but since you don’t know which targets you will encounter when you pick your fighter squadron, you have to be flexible and prepare yourself for various tasks. Long campaigns add the bonus that you can level up your pilots, which lets you care for them and their safe return, and devastates you when your best pilot, who has just been promoted, is shot down and dragged away into a Vietnam prison camp where he will be probably forced to play Russian roulette.

Last but not least, when you think you played the game enough, try playing it together with a friend. We will promise you, that will let you see the game in a different light and will offer a very different gameplay experience.

Creativity

Phantom Leader is part of a series, and you recognize this the first time you open the game box. So, when you judge the game, you have to judge the creativity of the entire series – we are fans of the Leader series and like the entire game concept, from pre-phase to over-target phase, from choosing ammunition to fighting bandits, up to the debriefing and level-up system.

Phantom Leader does some things differently than the other games of the series, which is according to the fact that it takes place during the Vietnam war and in the years from 1962 to 1972. This, of course, influences the aircraft you can choose from. The addition of attack angles and restricted Flight Paths are small differences with great tactical impact.

Approaching the heavily defended target!

Approaching the heavily defended target!

On the other hand – if you have another game of the Leader series, for example Hornet Leader, and you are not specifically interested in seeing how the series depicts the Vietnam era, the question is: are there enough differences to justify the purchase of this Deluxe edition? This is a question only you can answer for yourself. The basic gameplay elements and basic rules of Hornet Leader, the old Phantom Leader and Phantom Leader Deluxe are identical and differ only in minor aspects, which are connected to the depicted era and setting.

When you love the Leader series games and enjoy the game system and love to play a game with similar rules, but in a different setting and era, go for it!

If you own the old Phantom Leader and like it and want to have more stuff, sell it and buy the Deluxe Edition, because it will add more stuff which will keep you occupied for years to come.

If you have one Leader game and like it, but are not specifically interested in the Vietnam war or in flying a Phantom, and are still content with the variety your game offers, stick to it.

Phantom Leader isn’t a revolutionary new game, but it’s one of the best games of the Leader series with useful and appropriate adjustments to the topic. With its modern approach, look, and feel, it will attract veteran players and new players alike.

Simulation Value

Phantom Leader isn’t a hyper-detailed consim, but includes some nicely simulated aspects of Vietnam aerial warfare. The game uses many abstractions (for example the effects of certain weapons which are calculated into the ammunition counter, or the abilities of enemy sites) which enhance the very smooth gameplay without sacrificing its value as a simulation. Everything, from pilot stress, to skills, to the various aircraft types, to the various weapon effects, is integrated seamlessly into the game.

Choosing the right aircraft for your squadron and equipping them for the mission is the key to the game

Choosing the right aircraft for your squadron and equipping them for the mission is the key to the game

If accurate simulations of different aircraft types and ammunition types are important to you, you will find an astonishing amount of information cramped into the counters and cards while simultaneously maintaining great playability and accessibility. You don’t have to be an aircraft expert or must know the differences between a M117R and M118 or a Cluster Bomb and Napalm, but after playing your first game, you will know which weapon is best suited for which situation and enemy type.

So there is certainly a simulation value in the game, but in a seamless and easy-going way without requiring a large amount of learning and work before you can start playing.

Overall, the game offers a good balance between simulative value and smooth gameplay.

Solitaire Playability

Phantom Leader Deluxe IS a solitaire game, it was developed as a solitaire game, and therefore it works perfectly as a solitaire game. Fighting the AI is solved elegantly and without any hassle, and if you are looking for a solitaire aviation game with a very high replayability and many possible combinations, we can absolutely recommend this game. It is a perfect travel companion, as well as a perfect game for long sessions at home because you can adjust the game length to your needs.

In addition, it can be played cooperatively with 2 players without the need for special rules (but playing with 2 players will take slightly longer because you will have to discuss your decisions).

Can be Compared to…

…other games of the Leader series of which Phantom Leader is part of. See: Creativity.
All Leader games share a common set up or basic rules, but differ in setting, missions, units, era – if you know and like the Leader series, you will also like this game and feel at home immediately. If you played the old GMT’s “Thunderbolt / Apache Leader”, you will also recognize some core gameplay elements and know what to expect.

Denny Koch’s Conclusions

I am a fan of the Leader series, as well as a fan of Vietnam war games (we even play the monster Vietnam 1965-1975) and personally, I enjoy Phantom Leader Deluxe very much.

"C'mon, kill this sonovabitch, he just shot down my pilot!"

“C’mon, kill this sonovabitch, he just shot down my pilot!”

I also like Hornet Leader, which is very similar, despite depicting a different era (modern, hypothetical and historical campaigns) and setting (desert war, aircraft carrier) and aircraft types. Both games use a very similar basic gameplay, the same Sequence of Play, but there are still enough differences to make both games enjoyable on their own. In Phantom Leader, I especially liked the little new features like the Attack Angle restrictions, which is a very clever abstraction of terrain and LOS, and the other Vietnam-specifics tailored into the game.

The overall quality of the game is excellent, from the coated cards to the mounted map board. Despite the fact that the game only includes 4 different scenarios x 2 (once for Air Force, once of Navy), they offer enough variety to keep you occupied for a long time. There are certainly enough variables to offer a new and fresh gameplay experience  each time you set up the game.

I also like that pilots and aircraft are combined into one card. This works fine and very elegantly and offers many individual differences between the various pilots.

I had very few complaints about the game, and all were minor and didn’t have any impact on gameplay (more like complaining about First World problems here :P). First, I really would have enjoyed if the rules now contained a listing of enemy sites and bandits, just for completion reasons. The lists of friendly aircraft and ammunition are very helpful and educational, and I wished we had the same list for enemy units, just to know who we were facing in a given situation without consulting Wikipedia ;).

I would also recommend that the game box or rule book would at least mention the option of playing the game cooperatively with two players. There are no special rules required, we never had a problem sharing our aircraft, but perhaps players simply don’t get the idea how easily the game can be played with two players and are missing this great opportunity. Just a few notes that players have to share the aircraft and a hint about the optimal distribution would suffice. I greatly enjoyed the game both in the solitaire variant and in the cooperative variant. The cooperative games were even slightly more funny because you have to discuss stuff and aggressively point out the skills of your pilots, so that they will be chosen for the next mission.

Some terms within the rules are slightly misleading, like the “Intel Air Defense Destruction” (since there isn’t necessarily a destruction involved, but you could also gain one). In Hornet Leader, this feature was called “Intel Air Defense Adjustment”, which is somewhat clearer and avoids misunderstandings.

All in all, Phantom Leader Deluxe is a very cool game, not overly complex, easy to learn, but you have to do and consider and manage many things during a Campaign.

In fact, decision-making can be quite demanding and poor planning will be punished immediately. Combined with the flexibility in difficulty and length, the many randomized elements, Phantom Leader Deluxe has the potential of becoming a solitaire classic. This game certainly won’t get old for a long time!

Andreas Ludwig’s Conclusions

As an avid fan of the great Hornet Leader game, I had a few doubts about Phantom Leader Deluxe when it arrived because I thought it would be no more than a re-themed Hornet Leader, i.e. the very same game just in another setting (resulting in less fun for those who already knew Hornet Leader).

After playing the first game, though, the doubts were gone, leaving a smile on my wargamer face because Phantom Leader Deluxe has enough specifics related to the Vietnam topic to make it a worthwhile addition to the collection of those who already own and enjoy Hornet Leader. And certainly for those who never played the latter.

Of course, whether a gamer will agree on this or not, is based on the premise that he enjoys the basic system enough to want more of it, so you may call it the ‘Call of Duty’ appeal if you like. I mean that in an entirely positive way (being a CoD fan myself) – if you really like the system, if you really enjoy what the game series is able to give you, then you don’t want to change it too much – but you may still have the desire to play a different topic or have a different historical background once in a while.

Decisions, decisions, tons of decisions....!

Decisions, decisions, tons of decisions….!

Phantom Leader Deluxe is exactly that – it’s the tested great gameplay you may know from Hornet Leader, but in the specific settings of the Vietnam War era. Everything you get in that heavy game box is of the same high quality as usual and gives you a well researched pool of stuff to play with if your are interested in the Vietnam air warfare.

The differences may be minor, for example the attack angle feature and the flight path restriction, or that there is no situational awareness, but it matches the historical situation and how war was fought in that era and it is something that absolutely changes the way you play the game – minor differences may therefore mean many different options in your strategy and tactics and lead to a rather new game experience.

Some folks really love the new possibilities or rather the new restrictions that force you to think in a different way to achieve the objectives of a mission so much that they ask whether it’s possible to use for example the attack angle counters in Hornet Leader as well – it would be easy since they are just counters and perhaps the designer simply didn’t have this idea when HL came out etc.

Well, this is an interesting question and I have to say no, it’s not possible or at least not to be recommended and the reason for this is exactly why Phantom Leader Deluxe is a game on its own. The attack angles in PLD do portray several things at once, but it’s always about the limitations of a weapons system – which may be the location of it (e.g. limiting the Line of Sight needed to engage a target), how it works in general, the range or whatever and although it is true that the weapon systems back in the time of the Vietnam War era had these limitations, in our modern age (and that’s what Hornet Leader is portraying) that isn’t the case anymore. Usually you can have your anti-air missile system located in a valley perfectly hidden and still be able to operate it as intended. Missiles start off and then are guided by heat signatures, or wires, or laser, or radar emissions, or based on even more complicated AI systems that kick in when the missile is high enough in the air so it can operate on its own – the starting location and whether there’s a LOS to a certain area on the horizon when the missile is still on the ground in the tube of the weapon system is pretty much irrelevant these days.

So to include the restriction of the attack angles would not make sense in the scenarios of Hornet Leader, but they are an important feature in Phantom Leader because it’s a completely different time and scenario. There’s also always the question of game balance, and limiting the weapon systems of your enemies in HL based on some aspects of war which are no longer relevant in the new era the game was designed to portray, would make it much too easy for the player, removing the challenge and therefore killing the fun. So, as interesting the new features in PLD are, they are in that game for a historical and simulative reason and cannot (or should not) be used in another game of the same series. You wouldn’t use Phantom Leader aircraft in a Hornet Leader game, either.

That’s just one example why the differences may be small, but the games are still different enough to justify to buy them both if you already own one of them (if you are interested in the respective theme, of course).

That the random elements in solitaire games severely limit the possibilities of the player to act and react or rather to make real decisions that actually change the situation is sometimes discussed as well. But it always depends on the game and the how the ‘paper AI’ is working, so there’s a difference in say B-17 Queen of the Skies, where the player is managing the crew of a bomber on their flight to bomb a German city in WW2 and where’s not really much to do or to decide. The bomber has to follow its course within the squadron and enemy fighters will appear and try to shoot the bomber down. The crew will try to fight them off with their MGs and everything is simply done with a die roll. You hit them or you don’t, they hit you, or they don’t, you make it home safe or you don’t…

In the Leader Series, what happens in the game, what happens on your way to the objective of the mission, is based on different levels of ‘luck’ or randomness. Of course you also roll dice to see who’s hitting whom or who’s missing the target. You draw event cards that may help you or that may have some nasty surprises based on weapon failure, political decisions, enemy actions etc.. You draw enemy sites that protect the target out of a cup, you place attack angle counters randomly, all of this is out of your control…but this is just setting the stage for the story of your mission to unfold. In Phantom Leader Deluxe, you are the commander and you’ll have some ways to get intel to see what might be waiting for your boys when they fly into the enemy controlled zone – but you can’t be sure that the info is correct or suppose there’s no additional threat, and that’s simply what happened in reality.

It just means that you cannot prepare for everything, so luck here just means uncertainty when it comes to the missions. There are ways to minimize danger because of your possibilities to equip your aircraft with specific weapons, to use a good mix of pilots and to send them to targets they are prepared for. You see the stats of the aircraft and the pilots, you know what the weapons can do in a given situation – or what they can’t do, that you might be ill prepared for a dogfight if you take that heavy bomb with you, that you would be better prepared in general if you have a few fast aircraft with you that have the chance to take out some enemies before they can pose a threat for your precious bombers, you have some good intel to be aware of possible dangers and you may decide to go for this target rather than that one, you can plan the flight path according to the situation on the battlefield so you can use the blind spots of enemy anti-air sites to your advantage.

There’s a lot to do to influence your chances of success, no matter what the situation will be in the actual mission. 80% of the fun in this game is planning, even better discussing a proper strategy with a friend (and if the mission fails to later blame him of course ;) ) and then to see how it all unfolds in a thrilling engagement with the enemy.

I never had the impression that the game plays itself or that I couldn’t do anything to increase my chances of success. Failure to accomplish the mission left me with the feeling that I had done something wrong in my decisions (immediately motivating me to set up a new plan to see how I could improve) – I was never tempted to call out ‘bad luck’ or lost interest in the game because the enemy had the better dice results.

Because Phantom Leader Deluxe is so strong on the narrative side, so that the game is able to evoke a strong and interesting image of a warfare situation in your mind, I instantly translate bad luck and dice rolls into what they might be in reality. The enemy pilots might just be aces and shoot down my boys easily, the event card might be just an event I had no control of if the situation would be real. Aside from the dice rolls in combat – and the combat in this game is a thrilling experience – there are not too many cards that show up, and they may be helpful as well, so randomness is no problem in PLD (or the other games in the series based on the same engine) – it’s the way the game is presenting a very convincing situation for the player(s) to act in and make decisions that actually count.

That the game can be played in coop right out of the box as well, nicely captures the feeling of being in a briefing room with someone other to plan and discuss a mission. And I have actually a strong feeling on this part of the Leader Series and in my opinion Dan ‘could not only add the info’ on this coop aspect as Denny said, he definitely should do it.

We only play DVG Leader games as coop games and that means we can actually play and enjoy solitaire games which otherwise would not hit our table, since we always play together, so we have no need for solitaire games. We are not the core audience for such games and we would never buy one – unless they are playable cooperatively. Others might also think ‘well, that game sounds really cool and I like the topic and all, but it’s a solitaire game and that means only one of us (husband, wife, friend) could play it…so no, ‘I’ll skip this one then’ or ‘too bad, my friend would also like the topic and such but since we always spend our gaming time together, no way that we sit there and play for ourselves, we rather play a game together so no buy’ – the coop info could change that and make gamers buy the game who would not do it if the box just screams Solitaire to them.

As I already mentioned in other reviews, this is missing a great opportunity to attract a certain type of players and to fill the vacuum because there are not many coop wargames available and I will continue to tell Dan that on every given opportunity – some day he will listen, I’m sure  ;)

Having no background information on the enemy ground units and bandits is really something that makes me grumble, however, since I see no reason to not include such info especially when I see that the game otherwise includes a ton of info on equipment, weapons and aircraft, so that you actually learn something from playing it. Why not having the same detailed info on the enemy weapon systems that the player has to deal with in his games?

Otherwise it’s extremely difficult to find something to complain about – the game is part of a classic and exceptionally well done wargame series. Clear rules that are a joy to read and to learn the game, great to have all info available all the time without the need to check the rules or special tables, a gameplay structure that keeps things going and the players immersed in planning or combat. Really, the known slogan ‘more game less guff’ can be applied here better than in any other game. Sure, some people complained the games are expensive, but that’s no exception in the wargame niche of games, the print runs are low compared with other games and the cost are high to produce them.

But if you are interested in the air warfare theme, the Vietnam era, if you are a solitaire player who has no possibilities or the wish to play with others, if you are a coop fan, who enjoys playing a wargame with your buddy against the system, if you love games able to create a rich story you will be able to remember later – then you can be sure to get a big sturdy game box filled to the brim with high quality components for your money. And a great game on top of that :)


Our Rating (1-10):

Graphic Presentation: 9.5
Rules: 
8.5
Playability: 
9
Replay Value:
10

Overall Rating: 9

One Response to “Review: Phantom Leader Deluxe (DVG)”

  1. John M said

    Nice review, thanks. I think the reverse of one of the last of Andreas’ last comments is also true; to paraphrase: “Well, that game sounds really cool and I like the topic and all, but nobody else I know does. Since it’s not a solitaire game, I’ll almost never play it, so I have to pass it by.” So it’s nice to see a wargame with quality components that allows both solitaire and multiple players.

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