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Subject: So You Want to Fight the Vietnam Air War...... rss

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Tim Korchnoi
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Richmond
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My Little Man's first real wargame play: Barbarossa Solitaire
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Phantom Leader: The Air War Over Vietnam

Phantom Leader is a tactical/operational game depicting the efforts of the United States Air Force and the United States Navy in several air campaigns during the Vietnam War. It is a solitaire game where the player must make some minor operational choices (targets in Vietnam) and a plethora of tactical ones (which pilots to use, how to arm them, how to approach the target) with the goal of destroying enemy targets to score victory points. The player has all the major aircraft of the Vietnam War at his disposal to battle the North Vietnamese AAA sites, infantry, SAM Sites, and Mig aircraft. Each turn, the player chooses a target, arms his men, commits them to battle and then assess the success or failure at the end of each mission. A player may choose from one of three campaigns and choose one of three lengths of time for that campaign comprising a number of missions. After the final mission, the final victory points are tallied and a level of victory achieved from dismal to great. Campaigns can be stand alone or can be linked at the players choice.

Playing Time: This will vary depending on the mission chosen. Some missions require a small number of US planes and enemies while others require larger amounts. The smaller the amount, the shorter the playing time. I am now in my 6th playing of the game and I have had missions last as few as 10 minutes to as long as 45. Each campaign can be played to a short, medium, or long length so shorter campaigns can be played in less than an hour (especially the first) while the longer Linebacker Campaigns will take some considerable time, perhaps as much as 4-6 hrs.

Map: Phantom Leader comes with a number of maps. There are strategic maps for the three campaigns (War in the South, Rolling Thunder, Linebacker) for both the USAF and USN. There is also a tactical map where the battle to destroy the target will actually take place. Each map is made of sturdy paper, not mounted but you will not need plexiglass either to play. The maps are all well organized and the information needed is easily at hand. They are visually appealing except the tactical map, but that is what is to be expected for an air war game.

Counters: The counters depict the military units of the USAF and USN and their communist enemies. The counters are the nice, big, juicy 5/8 type which always earn a big thumbsup from me! Enemy units are easy to identify. It would’ve been nice if the USAF and USN planes had been given some distinguishing color, but this is a minor item once you organize your counters. There are also counters that depict the weapons available for the US aircraft and also some informational ones to record damage to the target and stress levels of the US pilots. The counters show up nicely on the tactical display so you can easily tell who is where and doing what.

Cards: The cards in this game serve three functions: targets, aircraft, and events. Each target card displays a wealth of information that is very well organized such as enemy units, political value of the target, etc... The aircraft cards tell you what plane you have, pilot name, and what kind of weapons you can carry on it. The aircraft cards also have different color bands at the top so you can easily tell the level of ability of the pilot. The event cards have three sections on them and you only use the section that applies to the event you are drawing for. All the cards are beautifully done. The organization and art work on each is superb!

Rules: The rules center around the players choices of what target to attack, which pilots to send into battle, and how to arm those pilots. Before a campaign begins, the player will need to choose a squadron of pilots with abilities that vary from newbie to ace status. Once chosen, then each turn the player draws target cards, chooses one, arms his planes with both air to air and air to ground weapons and then attacks the chosen target. Each target will be defended by one or more sites (AAA, SAM, infantry) and/or bandits (MIG 17, 19, 21). You will have to choose how to approach the target and at what altitude your planes will attack. Along the way, there are random events (Target Bound, Over Target, Home Bound) that can both help (example: reduce pilot stress) or cause major headaches (Example: Bandits where you are attacked by a force of MIGs). The combat itself lasts 4 turns after which you head home and record information such as pilot stress and experience gained on the record chart that comes with the game.

The rules themselves are fairly well organized and this game (like many other DVG Games) has a full color rule book and comes with a very good example of play. I found the example very useful and had several minor rules questions addressed by this example. The sections on the weapons types and aircraft types were very useful as well, especially starting out. I did run into some problems in my first two plays and I think this was due to significant rules not being made bold (such as how to make your target deck for the campaign). I think that using some bold print on some key details in the rules would make it easier for players to jump into the game. The rules do an excellent job of portraying a complex topic such as this but, as with any solitaire game, following the rules in order and getting all the details right is of paramount importance. In other words, I found the rules to be easy enough to grasp to get nearly six plays completed in less than a week, but boldfacing some key areas would’ve saved me a few early mistakes. The rules do indeed make you feel like a squadron commander and the choices you make before the mission can have huge consequences later. Case in point, in one Rolling Thunder mission, I have a huge number of sites deployed in the approach and target areas so I figured that the number of bandits would be small (the North Vietnamese counters are two sided. One side has sites, the other has either bandits or says no bandits) so I only armed one plane with AIM 9 AtA missiles despite knowing I had to draw a total of five bandits. Needless to say, my heart sank when I drew the counters and realized I’d sent four USAF planes into the fray with only one AtA equipped plane and 4 MIGs waiting for my boys shake gulp

Things I like about the game:

1 The variety of campaigns. Not only can you choose from three different time periods (1965, 1967, 1972) but you can also choose various lengths for each campaigns. The short ones are really short (only 2-4 missions) so you can easily play them in a short evening. But if you really want to pound those commies devil you can also unleash your boys for up to 12 days.

2 The intensity. I enjoy how this game makes you feel like both the pilots themselves (if you pick one to be so to speak) as well as their squadron commander since, once you’ve committed them you know you can only watch (and listen on the radio) as they battle the enemy.

3 The components. One of the things that has impressed me about DVG (and one of the reasons I consistently voted for them as the best new wargame company of the last 10 years) is the top notch production of the components. This is the third DVG game I have bought and every time I have found the components to be of a superior quality.

4 The coverage of the air war. From the various campaigns to recording stress to incorporating a rule for SAR to rescue downed pilots, the Vietnam Air War is all here in all its guts and glory! cool I was glad to see this game come into print at a time when I was looking for a game on the Vietnam Air War.

Things that Can be Annoying: angry

1 Lack of boldface or underling or some other eye catching method for key details on some of the rules. The rule book is really a visual treat, but I really could’ve used some visual indicator for some of those really critical details. That being said, I will say that Dan does a good job of responding in a timely manner the rules questions here on BGG. thumbsup

2 Not enough random events. In a solitaire game that includes random events, I think it is critical to have a wide variety and number to enhance repeatability. The events in the game are good, and I do like the three tiered system on the event cards, I just wish there were more event cards in total. Whether this will detract from the replay ability of the game over time remains to be seen, but it is of enough a concern to me to point it out here.

3 I’m just a little curious: what happened to Operation Menu? I know that this involves Cambodia and such, but I would’ve liked to have seen a campaign for this part of the air war. I will admit that I am still a newbie when it comes to having a detailed knowledge of the Vietnam War ( I have recently read A Better War by Lewis Sorely and am currently reading Triumph Forsaken, The Vietnam War 1954-65 by Moyar) I am curious as to why this was left out. Perhaps an expansion campaign for the future? whistle

Overall Evaluation: d10-1 = I’d rather staple my tongue to the wall for a month! yuk d10-9 = Wargamer Heaven!

Map= d10-8 The maps are nicely done with information nicely organized.

Counters= d10-8 Nice counters, easy to identify sides. Wish there had been a color distinction for the USAF and USN

Rules= d10-8 There are some issues, but they are in the long run minor in nature and do not detract from the over all value of the game. In terms of game play, they are great once you get the system under your belt.

Cards= d10-9 The cards are superb. Some of the best cards I have ever seen in a wargame!

Playing Time= d10-5 to d10-9 This will really be determined by the type of campaign and the length of the campaign chosen. So the short 1965 one is a d10-9 but the long Linebacker is shaping up to be a d10-5 so those of you that do not have the space/time will want to take that under consideration.

Deployment of Forces= d10-7 This will take some time as you need to make the target deck up for each campaign, shuffle the decks and select pilots. Once that is done, deploying forces each turn is quite simple, but I’d have some kind of system set up to keep your pilots organized.

Overall= d10-9 In the final analysis, this is an excellent solitaire game for the following reasons. First, the variety. Lots of campaigns, lots of planes equals high repeatability. The various targets and the blind drawing of enemy units also enhances this aspect of the game. Second, it is just plain fun! cool There is a certain amount of sense of accomplishment when you pick you make the right picks in pilots and weapons as well as a sense of relief when you realize you screwed up yet somehow your boys came through. Third, the presentation. I am not normally a tactical wargamer, but Phantom Leader presents the tactical aspects of the Vietnam Air War in a fun and easy to digest manner. The way the rules are laid out makes one also feel like an operational leader in the sense of picking targets so it is, in the final analysis, a nice blend of the operational and tactical. Finally, intensity. The trick for any good solitaire game is to make the player feel like they are there. Phantom Leader does just that, making you feel like you are a squadron commander and you are responsible for those men! This aspect of a solitaire game can make or break a game, IMO. A good game like Phantom Leader (or B-17 or Carrier or RAF) that does this makes me want to keep coming back again and again. One that does not, makes me want to trade it as quickly as possible which is one of the reasons that Silent War fell flat for me. Bottom Line: if you want to fight the air war in Vietnam in an intense, and realistic manner without getting bogged down in too many tactical details, this is the game for you. If you are not a tactician (like me ) but you want a good air wargame that flows well with a system that is quite easy to master, this is the place to be! Phantom Leader is a game that I can see myself playing every time I feel that itch to re-fight the Vietnam War way up in the air. Like the Field Commander Series from DVG it is a winner and a must for the solitaire wargamer! thumbsup
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Dan Verssen
United States
Glendora
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Thank you Tim for writing a great review!
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E J
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Thanks Tim. I am sold. Off to empty my wallet.

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Brad Heath
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I have this set up on my gaming table and can't wait to play a full campaign. Had a quick run-through yesterday. Also I'm very chuffed becaus my name's on the box!

Thanks Dan for a great product, I can't wait for your solo Napoleon game to come out.

Brad Heath
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Dirk Holding
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Great review Tim thumbsup . Now I want this game even more!
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Dean
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Great review! waiting for my copy to come in the mail...
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Jayson Ng
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Good review. I see you're enjoying it a lot.
I'm an avid Hornet Leader II fan. Just got my box and can't wait to play.

Some comments:

1) I'm not too bothered about color coding USAF and USN planes. All USN planes are white. Most USAF planes are cammo. Except for the F-100 and the F-104 which are white (actually silver)and only for the USAF.

2) Operaiton Menu is a covert operation so how much political points would that cost? :D
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Tim Korchnoi
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jomni wrote:
Good review. I see you're enjoying it a lot.
I'm an avid Hornet Leader II fan. Just got my box and can't wait to play.

Some comments:

1) I'm not too bothered about color coding USAF and USN planes. All USN planes are white. Most USAF planes are cammo. Except for the F-100 and the F-104 which are white (actually silver)and only for the USAF.

2) Operaiton Menu is a covert operation so how much political points would that cost?


Jayson,
1. I understand your point of view on the counters, but I have always enjoyed wargames that have clear color distinction for their pieces. Granted, you can easily tell who is friend and foe in this game so it is a minor item but one that impacts my thinking just the same.

2. Yeah, it would take a lot of political points, but maybe you could have a campaign of political cost vs. victory points. So you could have to reach so many VP by the time you incur so many political points or risk having the thing go public....or something along those lines. It just sticks out in my mind because every time I hear someone whine about the USA bombing Cambodia, it makes my skin crawl. The VC and NVA were extensively using the country as a hiding place and, if I had been president, I would've bombed Cambodia too. If you want to claim sovereignty then that, by definition means the government has a monpoly on force which the Cambodian government clearly did not. Further, if you are going to allow the enemy to hide in your country and then kill me boys and you do nothing, you can bet I will do something about it. How you can let the enemy take such actions in good conscience when you are the leader of a country is beyond me. Or, more to the point, how you can be a citizen of a country and not hold a country like Cambodia accountable when they are aiding and abetting (even if by omission) the enemy to kill your troops is beyond me. I would just like the chance to hammer Cambodia like Nixon did!

Sorry, did not mean to get off on a rant, but this aspect of the Vietnam War really irritates me! angry
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Robert Williams
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Have ben trying to make my mind up as to whether or not to get this game. You've made it up for me....excellent.


Rob
 
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Paul S
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Going to have to get this or HL. Decisions, decisions. Thanks for a really good review.
 
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Lawrence Hung
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Wan Chai
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I am interested how was the fight with Migs in the game....is it as good and intense as striking targets on the ground?

Compared to Hornet Leader, which one would be more value-for-money? (I know, I know, get them both.... )
 
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Eric Lai
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I don't recommend getting both, they are too similar and in the end the subtle differences doesn't change your play experience much. I enjoyed Phantom Leader more, it was nice to be able to level up all your guys in Hornet Leader, but the new version of Phantom Leader allows you to that too. So just buy the conflict that interests you the most.
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Mauricio de Souza Fonseca
Brazil
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I have a qurstion: when a sit is firing (for example, infantry) how can it reach "11" on the die roll, if it is a ten-sided dice? Are there modifiers to enemy' die rolls?
 
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