Having some spare time on my hands, thanks to the global economic meltdown, I decided to run a pseudo-con of which I would be the only participant. In this Con, which I dubbed SoloCon, I would play all the solitaire games that were gathering dust on my shelf. The first game I chose was Corsair Leader, by Dan Verssen Games. When I checked the BGG entry for this game, I was surprised to see that no one had yet reviewed it. I vowed immediately to rectify that situation.
Corsair Leader is an entry in Dan Verssen's venerable “Leader” series. You may be familiar with the more famous game in the series, Hornet Leader, a game I have not played but deeply desire to. Published in 2005, Corsair Leader, like many of DVG's games, is available in both a PDF “Print-n-Play” version and as a VASSAL download. This endeared me to the game right away since I have had little talent for assembling DTP games and a VASSAL version makes it about 100% more likely that I will play one. While I have yet to print any of the components save the rule book, they appear to be of professional quality. The VASSAL module comes with a tutorial that, in addition to showing one how to use that version, also illustrates some core game concepts.
The rules are, with a few quibbles, well written and clear. It is organized in a way that made it quite easy, both on my first play of this game last year and after coming back to it after an extended absence, to start playing after a single reading. The quibbles come from the fact that this game is one in a series and the rule book seems to still retain a few legacy items from previous games that do not apply to Corsair Leader.
Corsair Leader comes with two campaigns, Early and Late Solomons, and each campaign itself has three versions: short, medium and long, having 3, 5 and 12 turns each, respectively. The campaigns differ in terms of targets available, victory conditions and resources available.
To begin a campaign, determine the campaign and the length you wish to play. Then choose a squadron of 12 pilots/planes. You must choose 1 veteran, 2 skilled, 6 average, 2 green and 1 newbie, but within those strictures lay a lot of choices. There are lots of pilots and planes to choose from... from Major Anderson, a veteran F4U pilot with nerves of steel and deadly combat skills to 2nd Lt. Dirksen, a hazard to everything in the air except the Japanese. There are a variety of plane types as well, from the eponymous F4U to SBDs to B-17s and B-25s. In order to be successful, you must pick the right mix of fighters and bombers. With a variety of target types to attack, you'll need to be prepared for anything. Corsair Leader is a game of planning and risk management and poor choices here can really come back to haunt you later in the game.
Pilots have a variety of strengths and weaknesses. Some are crack dog fighters but aren't effective at air to ground combat. Others are great all around, but are easily shaken and become less effective as your campaign grinds on. The SBD does double damage against naval targets, while the B-17 can take more damage and really shines against large targets. As you put your squadron together, you'll have a lot to think about when picking your team. You'll need escorts, but how many? How many SBDs? How many level bombers? It is a balancing act and there are some tough choices to make.
Once you've chosen your campaign and your pilots, you will play a series of missions that vary from fighter sweeps to bombing raids deep in enemy territory. As your campaign progresses, your planes will be destroyed, your pilots will succumb to the stress of combat and your ordinance resources will dwindle, leaving you with some great challenges to overcome: For instance, your best fighter pilot might be on the verge of a nervous break down on the eve of a big fighter sweep... do you give him a day off and risk your less experienced pilots? Or perhaps you'll find yourself confronted with a high VP bombing target... how much of your limited ordinance resources will you expend trying to destroy it with several days left to go in your campaign? These are just a few of the things you will agonize over.
Each mission takes about 30 minutes to play and consists of 8 phases:
1.Pre-Flight in which you determine your target for the day and assign and arm your pilots.
2.Target Bound Flight Determine enemy bandit presence and resolve some random events.
3.Over Target Resolution (4 times) Resolve attacks, both yours and your enemies. Move through the 4 over target areas.
4.Home Bound Flight Resolve ending random event, perform search and rescue actions for downed pilots.
5.Debriefing Record mission outcome, assign experience points and stress to your to your pilots, and issue promotions.
The downfall of many solitaire systems is that they leave you, the player, with few choices to make except when to grab another diet soda... you are more or less just along for the ride. Not so with Corsair Leader. Each mission offers a plethora of decision points. Should your fighters jettison their bomb loads in the face of stiff enemy opposition? Do your pilots fight more aggressively, scoring more kills but exposing themselves in turn to greater danger? Do you linger one more turn over the target to try to finish it off or do you cut your losses and head for home? The success of your mission and the lives of your pilots hang in the balance of such decisions.
The enemies you face will be challenging. You'll face everything from small arms fire (a lucky shot could bring one of your pilots crashing into the jungle) to the deadly A6M5 Zero, a hard plane to hit. Combat is resolved quickly using a single 10 sided die. Rolls can be modified by pilot ability, the use of tactics chits and by the targets themselves. For instance, Major Anderson, a Corsair pilot, hits in air to air combat on a 6 (the rating of his .50 MG) or better. He gets an additional +1 modifier for his skill at AtA combat. You could improve his odds further by the use of the "Offensive" tactic, which would give him another +2 in combat (but a -3 penalty if he is attacked later that turn). Finally, his roll could be affected by the target itself. If he was attacking a Kate bomber, he could benefit from positive modifiers, while a late model Zero in his sights will cost him -3 on his roll. The good news is that this is all easily determined without much need to reference the rule book and the game proceeds very quickly.
After playing out 4 turns over target, your flight returns home for debriefing. Your pilots gain experience each mission and promotions are possible. A promoted pilot might be more resistant to stress effects or be more effective in combat (or both!) and believe me, you will find yourself following their careers with great interest. In addition to experience, pilots acquire stress over the course of the mission and this stress, if allowed to accumulate, will eventually wear your pilots down or temporarily take them out of combat. Pilots lose stress over the course of time, some more quickly than others, and this can be hurried by taking them out of the rotation for a day or so. For me, the personnel management aspect of the game is one of my favorite parts. I grow quite attached to my aviators and spend a great deal of time agonizing about mission assignments.
Your success in each mission not only gets you the victory points needed to win, but also contributes factors that affect the ongoing progress of campaign. Each campaign has 4 tracks with seven spaces each: Radar, Infrastructure, Intel, and Recon. The targets of your mission, and certain random events, will move you forward along these tracks. At first, there will be little effect, but by the mid-game of a long campaign you will start to see the fruits of your labors. For instance, as you make progress on the Infrastructure track, your targets cards will require less damage to destroy, while movement along the Radar track will result in fewer bandits. Similarly, the Intel track will mitigate enemy sites on the ground and the Recon track will give you more target cards to choose from when planning your missions.
The bookkeeping in Corsair Leader is easily handled and in the VASSAL version counter fiddling is kept to a minimum. A single page player log tracks your pilot stress, victory points and resources.
It is obvious from the tone of this review and my posted session reports that I am a fan of the game, but it does have a few negatives. Its replay-ability is limited, I think. After playing a couple of campaigns, I usually find myself ready to move on and not return to the game for several months or more. It doesn't have the expandability of the Hornet series, though there are intriguing hints of expansions in the game itself... for instance, the B-17 cards tell us that these planes cannot equip napalm or rocket munitions, though these elements are nowhere to be found. Adding insult to injury is the fact that the two campaigns included in the game are both in the Solomon islands and, while the targets available in these campaigns are different, I find myself wishing for a change of locale. But to be honest, locale has little effect on game play.
Ultimately, I give my recommendation of this game to lovers of solitaire wargames. Players will be challenged by the risk management aspect, become immersed in the day to day operations of their little squadron and will have a great time playing. The low cost of the game makes it an even better choice. And fans of the game will be glad to know that Decision Games has it in their pledge system, so we can look forward to a high quality printed version as well.
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spyridon wrote:There are a variety of plane types as well, from the eponymous F4U to SBDs to B-17s and B-25s. In order to be successful, you must pick the right mix of fighters and bombers.I really like the premise of this game, but the above-quoted factor kind of kills it for me. It seems like managing a "squadron" of such disparate aircraft (that didn't even fly for the same service) would require too much suspension of disbelief.
Would the game be playable, do you think, if you wanted to go with a more historical squadron structure -- e.g., all Corsairs?
Also, nice review. I enjoyed reading it.
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I take your point, but I try to look at it this way: surely Corsairs acted in support of and in concert with such elements. Thus, I don't see them as members of my squadron per se, but rather elements that I have at my disposal to accomplish the goals of my campaign. True, it is outside the scope of a squadron commander to task the planes of another branch of service for missions, but I look at that as a bit of an abstraction... think of it as "higher higher" calling the shots.
As for playing it with an all Corsair squadron... looking over the target cards, there are some that would be completely impossible to destroy with Corsairs, such as the Supply Depot (10 hits), the Battleship (8 hits) or the Large Airfield (9 hits). However, there are a large number of targets that are well within the all Corsair's reach, such as fighter sweeps, bomber intercepts, etc. You could probably remove the inappropriate targets from the pool (say every target that takes more than 5 hits) and reduce the victory conditions (the bigger targets are meatier VP wise) and it would work. You would probably also need to limit the size of squadron, as well... say 7 or 8 planes.
Whaddaya think of that?
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- Dan VerssenUnited States
The idea with CL is that you're more of a mission planner than a squadron commander. It is your job to advance the Allied offensive using a mix of air resources.
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- M St(M St)Australia
- That's not a bad argument. I haven't looked at late 43 in detail but in 1942 and early 1943 in the Solomons, fragments of squadrons were often sent out on combined missions, even with individual bombers attacking specific targets.
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