Over Vietnam? Phantom Leader Deluxe will (almost) never get over Vietnam.

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The F-4 Phantom IIs in my squadron, which consists of nothing but Phantoms and a single E-2 AWACS on overwatch, are veritable mules of war, what with all the stuff you can cram up under their wings. Missiles, rockets, guns, bombs, fuel. These were A-10s before A-10s were even invented, but instead of so-awkward-they’re beautiful, they’re simply beautiful. Simultaneously bulky and sleek, with stubby wings, jutting air intakes flanking the cockpit like be-pauldroned shoulders, and frowny downturned horizontal stabilizers that defy the usual neat empennage (empennage is the word for the little wings on an airplane’s butt). The Phantom looks like a spaceship someone thought up in the 1950s. In this wonderful solitaire boardgame of Vietnam era air strikes, I am their leader.

After the jump, not your grandfather’s Cuban missile crisis

The mission is to bomb a petroleum storage facility peppered with air defenses. This facility is the best choice in the dwindling days of my US Navy air campaign during the Cuban missile crisis. The hot one that broke out into a shooting war on my tabletop 1962, not the nearly hot one Kennedy defused in actual 1962. We drew three targets from the target deck, so we could have launched a strike against a hard-to-hit bridge deeper into Cuba or an even deeper covert mission into skies heavily patrolled by Soviet fighters. Instead, the nearby facility is the best bet, as our F-4 Phantoms can load up on munitions without having to waste space on fuel tanks. All these bombs will potentially net us the greatest impact on the war effort. Also known as “victory points”. If we earn two every day, we’ll get an adequate rating. If we can earn a few more for one of our missions, we’ll either get some welcome breathing room for an adequate rating, or a possible good rating. If I destroy this facility, we’re pretty much guaranteed a good rating.

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During the planning stage, I see an easy path between a smattering of AA guns and under the radar of a single SA-2 missile launcher. We’ve got a perfect ingress and egress. Silly Cubans, putting their defenses there, like a boss monster who doesn’t cover the glowing red spot on its chest. It could be a perfect mission. The sort of mission described with words like flawless. No losses. Target destroyed. They never even saw us coming. USA, USA, USA! Except for one thing: a damnable KS-19 that can target an airplane pretty much anywhere.

The KS-19 is a 100mm cannon developed by the Soviets after World War II. It was the top-of-the-line anti-air defense until missiles became a more effective way to shoot down airplanes. In Phantom Leader, it has unparalleled reach in that you can’t fly over it like other guns, and you can’t fly under it like missiles. Furthermore, it will never miss. That bears repeating because it’s hard to believe. It will never miss. If it gets an attack, it will at best inflict stress on your pilot, possibly degrading his ability to fight. At worst, it will straight-up shoot him down. The KS-19 is — pardon my French, but there’s really no other way to put it — a fucking nightmare.

When you place defenses in Phantom Leader, you draw from a cup of 48 tiles. Only two of them are KS-19s. One of those two KS-19s is sitting along our approach to the facility, and what’s worse, thanks to the tile draws for lines of sight, it’s got a clear view over and beyond the target.

We could attack the KS-19, but that would use up munitions better delivered onto the petroleum facility. So we’re going to rely on rockets, which get a bonus to something called suppression. This is a way to use up a weapon to cancel an enemy attack. Our veteran pilots will carry a few extra rockets to cover our less skilled pilots, who will load up on 1000-pound bombs for the target. We’ll rain rockets down onto the KS-19 and it hopefully won’t even get to fire. You can’t never miss if you never fire.

But the god of war and boardgaming loves random numbers. The same random numbers — expressed by drawing tiles from a cup — that let us avoid most of the site’s defenses come into play again. This time they’re cards from a deck. In Phantom Leader, you draw event cards at different stages during a mission. As we’re flying to the target, an event called Political Considerations rears its inconvenient head. We are not allowed to attack targets outside the target area. In fact, we’re not even allowed to suppress those targets with our rockets. Do we scrub the mission, which will endanger our adequate rating for the campaign, or do we push on?

Phantom Leader is mostly set over Vietnam. It was published in 2010 as a Vietnam themed follow-up to a series Dan Verssen developed 20 years ago. Those games were centered around the more modern F/A-18 Hornets and A-10 Thunderbolts. Since Phantom Leader’s 2010 release, Verssen has been charging full speed ahead with the Leader series. This deluxe re-release of Phantom Leader includes new planes, new pilots, new cards, and a sturdier board. Here’s the skinny.

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Phantom Leader originally included three campaigns, each with separate versions for the Navy and the Air Force. Phantom Leader Deluxe includes this bonus Cuban missile crisis scenario. Unlike the Vietnam scenarios, where politics often means you can’t choose a particularly choice target, the politics slider for the Cuban missile crisis is mostly a no holds barred situation. Bomb whatever you want to bomb. But one of the hallmarks of Phantom Leader is that nothing apparently baked into the game is sacred. Phantom Leader, like real war, loves random upsets and triumphs. Phantom Leader loves to hit me with a Political Considerations card. In the previous mission, it hit me with Forward Air Controllers, which gave me a huge bonus to my grounds attacks. Phantom Leader loved that, too.

As a boardgame, Phantom Leader Deluxe is really chit intensive. As if that weren’t enough, you have to shuffle through a whole mess of cards to find the right version of your pilots. This is the price you pay for classic pre-Ameritrash solitaire boardgaming. But it’s not Ameritrash gameplay. My colleague and sometime archnemesis Bruce Geryk, in his review of the ungainly iOS port of Phantom Leader, neatly pegs Verssen’s talent as a developer: “simple systems yielding interesting interactions”. But as even the ever-meticulous Geryk appreciates, this is the means to an end. The end is the narrative. Narrative is king in these games. Which is why I’m reviewing this game by telling you about my mission over a petroleum facility in Cuba in 1962.

Naturally, we push on despite the Political Considerations, which means that damnable KS-19 is going to light us up for the entire run. What follows is some particularly dire randomness, this time at the hands of dice. The KS-19 shoots down my AWACS and a Phantom as we approach. This leaves me with only half the bomb tonnage I intended for the target. But the upside of being unable to use rockets to suppress the KS-19 is that I can use the rockets on the facility. We destroy it. As we’re high-tailing it out of there, we lose another Phantom to the KS-19, which is rolling some really unfair numbers. Only a single aircraft makes it out. I alone survived to tell the tale, muses Batdog as the smoke of a burning fuel storage facility and three downed American planes roils up into sky behind him. Cuba, man.

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And here again the god of war and boardgaming who loves random numbers appears in all his glorious terrible splendor. The event card for our trip home is a squadron of A-1 Skyraiders. The A-1 is a carrier bomber that just missed the action in World War II. It was in the process of being replaced during Vietnam, so it was usually used for second-tier workhorse duty. In Phantom Leader, it’s a search-and-rescue aircraft. And it couldn’t have come at a more welcome time, because when it shows up during the trip home, it means the pilots of any aircraft shot down are automatically recovered. A little freaked out, but automatically recovered and fit for duty after a little rest. Since it’s the waning days of my Cuban campaign, these pilots won’t fly anymore missions, but I’m spared the morale hit surviving pilots take when their friends go MIA.

So what would have required the sort of crazy lucky rolls that KS-19 rolled instead happens with a single fortuitous card draw. The Skyraiders event would have been useless during a mission with no casualties. But on a mission when three planes were shot down because of Political Considerations, these nondescript A-1 Skyraiders are the kind of unlikely deus ex machina that makes memorable narratives. You don’t have to invent your own story. It will invent itself. It’s almost as if someone up there knew the Political Considerations were going to hurt, so they sent some Skyraiders down to Cuba. And by “up there”, I mean about 1000 miles north in Washington.

5 stars
Boardgame

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  • Phantom Leader Deluxe

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  • Boardgame
  • Phantom Leader places you in command of a US Air Force or US Navy Tactical Fighter squadron in Vietnam between 1964 and 1972. You must not only destroy the targets but you must also balance the delicate political repercussions of your attacks. If you strike too hard, your air offensive might be put on hold, strike to light, and you’ll be blamed for losing the war. Welcome to the Vietnam Air War! We might get to win this time.
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