Phantom Leader is a solitaire board game by Dan Verssen Games covering the air war over Vietnam:
Components and Mechanics
Inside the box you will find several decks of cards, representing airplanes and their pilots, targets to be destroyed, and random events that can occur during missions. You will also find several 8-1/2 by 11 cardboard maps, that serve as scenarios cards for each campaign. You will also find an 8-1/2 by 11 card board tactical map, which is where the individual missions take place. The game contains counters that represent airplanes, ground sites, and weapons. The counters are of good quality, not super thick, but they feel strong, and seem more resilient than some of the other counters I have seen.
Phantom Leader comes with 3 campaigns (1965, 1967, 1972) and 2 branches of service (Air Force and Navy), resulting in six possible options. You select a campaign and a campaign length, and then choose your pilots from the cards. Pilots have varying skill levels and abilities, making them better or worse at Air to Ground or Air to Air Combat. Different pilots also come with different planes. The planes have widely varying potential load-outs, so it is important to make sure you pick a variety of planes capable of carrying the available weapons.
Your pilots will be assigned strike missions from the target deck. Each target has a political value, a victory point value, and a number of hits needed to destroy it. As a squadron commander, the player is constrained by the political situation at home. A certain number of political points is necessary to strike each target, with more valuable targets often requiring more political points to engage. Sometimes engaging a nearly militarily useless target is necessary to gain political support for more valuable strikes.
The target card also lists the anti-aircraft sites and opposing aircraft (bandits) that you will face. You set up the sites before you select your pilots and arm their aircraft. This planning phase is incredibly important to the game. It is likely that, during your first campaign, you will encounter at least one mission where you did not bring enough air to ground ordnance, and thus cannot destroy the target. More advanced weaponry costs special operations points, which must be carefully managed throughout the campaign.
Once your aircraft launch on mission, you trigger a random event, which can be helpful or harmful to your aircraft. When you arrive, you draw bandits from a pool. Another event occurs over target, and then the tactical game begins.
Your pilots are rated as fast or slow. Fast pilots can strike first. When attacking, they fire one or more weapons at a site or aircraft. You then roll a d10, and need to roll equal to or greater than the hit number. Some ground munitions can cause multiple hits when targeting the primary target, based on what you roll. Likewise, enemy aircraft and sites have multiple target numbers, which allow then to inflict increasing levels of harm on your aircraft.
You will be outnumbered by the combined sites and aircraft on every mission that you fly. It is likely that you will not be able to carry enough weaponry to take all of them out and destroy the target. You need to figure out if destroying an anti-air site is necessary, given the number of hits necessary to destroy the target. You only have four rounds over the target before your planes need to return to base and refuel, so it pays to get in, fire off your weapons, and get out.
On the way home, another random event occurs. Once you return, your pilots incur stress based on the specific route package that they flew, as well as the events of the missions. Stressed pilots perform more poorly in the air, and may become unfit to fly. Leaving pilots at home during missions results in a stress reduction, so rotating your pilots is a necessity in the long term. At the end of a mission, pilots who have been shot down have a chance to be rescued by SAR teams, but a rescued pilot generally needs a substantial amount of time to destress and return to fit status.
After Action Report
The Scenario: Rolling Thunder, 1967 – US Navy
The Mission: Destroy a Large Naval Base
Expected Resistance: 8 sites on the periphery, with an additional 5 in the center. Intelligence has determined that the sites will include an SA-2 SAM site, two high altitude anti-aircraft guns (M1939 and KS-19), several low altitude S-60 AA guns, and a small number of infantry. Potentially 10 enemy fighters.
Strike Force: 8 planes. 5 are configured for Air-to-Ground, with a focus on weapons that can be used at high altitude. Some planes have ordinary “iron-sights” bombs, and are also equipped with ECM to avoid the worst low altitude fire. 3 are configured for Air-to-Air, with a mix of AIM-7 Sparrow radar guided missiles and AIM-9 Sidewinder heatseeking missiles.
Strategy: Engage at high altitude, to avoid the fire from the S-60 Air-to-Air sites. Employ fast pilots to remove the SA-2, M1939, and KS-19, allowing our planes to remain at high altitude without risk from air-to-ground sites. Air-to-Air equipped pilots will suppress or destroy enemy aircraft, clearing the way for the Air-to-Ground pilots to move in for the kill. A substantial amount of damage will be necessary to destroy the target (15 hits), so conserve air-to-ground weapons if possible.
After Action Report: The squadron encountered SAM sites on the way to the target. No planes were destroyed, but three had close calls, stressing their pilots. Over the site we encountered an American AC-47 “Spooky,” which assisted in the destruction of enemy sites. The initial phase of the plan went swimmingly, resulting in the destruction of all enemy high-altitude sites with no damage to any of the aircraft.
While our air-to-air equipped pilots were able to take out most of the enemy MiGs, one managed to fire on Martimer, a veteran pilot. Thanks to electronic jamming from our EA-6 Electric Intruder, Martimer was able to survive, but he was damaged and had to dump his weapons. As our pilots rushed in to drop their bombs on the naval base, several missed the mark. The ordnance expended in the inaccurate bombing would have been vital to the mission. Despite the destruction of a number of enemy aircraft and air-to-ground sites, the mission target could not be destroyed. While the mission was a failure, all of our pilots survived.
I have played a number of missions in Phantom Leader, and the first thing to note is that it is actually quite difficult to succeed in the harder missions. It is easy to use too much ordnance to protect your planes and destroy sites, leaving you with too little when it comes to hitting the target. It can be quite frustrating to plan your load out, get to the mission area, and then realize that you really needed some extra air-to-ground ordnance to take out the target. Planning is essential here, and poor planning will result in a failed mission, much like the one in my AAR.
That being said, the game is not unfairly difficult. It is possible to achieve a major victory in the campaign game, and it is quite rewarding given the difficulty level. This is neither the hardest nor the best solo game I have played, but it is a strong game with themes that are rarely used in wargames (Vietnam, the Air War in general).
If you have an interest in air combat, I think the game will be particularly enjoyable. If you are just looking for a solo strategy game, your money may be better spent elsewhere.
I purchased my copy of Phantom Leader from Wargame Depot. I have played 12 missions at random and 2 or 3 campaigns. All of the images are my photos, so any lack of quality can be attributed to my poor photography, rather than the components.
Next Week in the Solitaire Game Series: Decision Games’ D-Day at Omaha Beach