In Phantom Leader, some day this war’s gonna end

, | Game reviews

Years ago, every boardgame was a solitaire game. I know that because I played a lot of them solitaire. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, there weren’t a lot of ways to play board wargames against someone else unless you wrote your moves on a piece of paper and put them in the mail, or went to a convention, or somehow knew someone in your area who wanted to sit around pushing cardboard counters back and forth for days at a time. When you add that to Soviet Communism, it was a pretty bleak world.

Commies defeated and gaming saved, after the jump

The advent of solitaire games was quite a revelation for those of us who didn’t like having to switch sides of the table to plan counteroffensives to our own offensives. People had long been trying to adapt systems to game as a form of “manual AI” (such as Rick Mathews’ epic adaptation of the Tobruk system in The General magazine, pictured below) but suddenly there were games designed from the ground up for one seat at the gaming table. Games like B-17: Queen of the Skies or Patton’s Finest were essentially just random story generators, where you flew your planes or drove your tanks, and enemies showed up, and you shot at them, and the dice told you a tale of victory or defeat. More ambitious designs like Ambush! put the story in the game, and hid as much from you as possible until you made certain decisions. The former were pretty terrible strategy games, while the latter were limited by the fact that once you played through each story a few times, you knew exactly what was coming. Then computers showed up and kind of fixed everything until everyone realized that “this AI sucks”. For continuing coverage of this story from that point onward, please see any computer wargaming forum.

But designers kept on designing, and the best ones eventually came up with pretty creative solutions to previously intractable problems. Dan Verssen, creator of the non-solitaire but clearly brilliant Down in Flames series (originally released by GMT Games in 1993), devised an intriguing system for solitaire modern air combat and packaged it as Hornet Leader. It came out in 1991 around the time of Operation Desert Storm to good reviews, and showed how a game can tell you a good story, stay replayable, and have a fair bit of strategy included. Being a smart businessman as well as a talented game designer, Verssen went on to create a whole slew of games in the “Leader” series, including Thunderbolt/Apache Leader, U-Boat Leader, Gato Leader, I.A.F. Leader, along with a bunch of expansions for the core games, even to the point of having dedicated miniatures. There is even a Cthulhu expansion planned for Hornet Leader. You can check it out here.

Whatever you think of that last idea, the basic system works great. In the air games, you choose your pilots from an available pool, and kit them out with weapons of various types. Then you generate missions, and try to blow up the bridge, or the dam, or the bridge over the dam, or the River Kwai, or anything else that seems like it might have military significance.

The key to this system is introducing tradeoffs for each decision, and allowing these tradeoffs to drive the pacing of the campaign, which is just missions played sequentially. Each mission is (literally) centered on a target, which is placed in the middle of the map display. Around the target, you place defenses such as sites (anti-aircraft) and bandits (enemy fighters). Then you choose your pilots, weapons, and approach, and roll some dice while moving across the map (really just a couple areas) until you attack the target or abort the mission. Do it a bunch of times over and then add up your score. Did you win? Nice work!

The concept is simple, and could easily devolve into “push your pieces, roll the die, see which planes can still fly”. But Verssen knows all about simple systems yielding interesting interactions, and that’s the whole hook of the Leader series. Phantom Leader chooses the air war over Vietnam, which lets him model a lot of different weapons of different classes which were all in use at the time. Smart bombs, iron bombs, napalm, anti-radar missiles, electronic countermeasures, rockets, and a bunch of other systems with distinct capabilities and all interact to give you a variety of non-trivial choices. Some pilots are great at ground attack but terrible in dogfights. Rockets are great for defense suppression but do little damage to target structures. Laser-guided bombs are coming into use but need to be dropped from high altitude, where the radar-guided SAM threat is greatest. Almost all these choices are meaningful.

Furthermore, the missions are tradeoffs in themselves. The Vietnam setting allows the use of a Politics track, which is a clever way of keeping players from choosing high-value targets each time. The more lucrative the target, the higher the Politics rating. Push the Politics track too far, and you’ll lose the political will to keep hitting high-value targets. Preserve political will by hitting low-value targets, and you won’t garner enough victory points to win the campaign.

The strategic layer doesn’t end there. Each target also has ratings for Recon and Intel. Recon is a straightforward track which allows you to remove some defenses from the target prior to your mission. Intel, however, increases the number of target cards to choose from, and is the key to giving yourself enough flexibility to pick the targets you need to win the game. Successful play requires manipulating these tracks so that you have the ability to choose the right card when you need it, hit a big target where it counts, and maybe soften it up with some good Recon before you send in the flyboys.

Combining these strategic elements with an engaging tactical game creates a series of dramatic moments that hang together as a game narrative experience — one driven by what is essentially a manual AI like in the bad old Tobruk days. But designers like Verssen have gotten so much more sophisticated about stuff like this that you just appreciate its elegance rather than struggle as in the old days with a rigid and mechanical system. Furthermore, because the AI doesn’t have to plan a strategy, the difficulty is in the individual scenario setups, and this has been calibrated to offer a consistent challenge. Success in the game will depend on a combination of good choices and good luck.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the Leader series’ use of event cards. On each leg of the mission, whether inbound, over target, or outbound, you draw an event card which modifies the experience in some way. The flavor and uncertainty of this random element paints the distinctive background for each individual drama. Extra bandits, rescued pilots, even political restrictions (prohibitions on attacks in the target approach area to limit collateral damage) can change the makeup of a mission and force desperate improvisation.

There are some other nice touches: different historical target zones are modeled, with planes carrying fewer weapons as they attack targets deeper in Vietnam. Lose planes on a secret strike in Laos and lose victory points along with deniability. Spend special operations points to carry special weapons like napalm or to promote pilots. Pilots earn experience and can level up just like any good rogue or paladin. It’s a grand solitaire adventure through the air war in Vietnam, with some role-playing dressing.

The iOS version (iPad 2 and above only!) of this gem pretty much takes everything about the game and translates it to the tablet screen. Every. Thing. Almost every action you’d take in the boardgame has its tablet analogue, right down to the dice rolling across your map and coming to wobbly rest on the number you did not want. With the added bonus of some bugs and spelling errors.

Taking the game and substituting hand swipes for card shuffles works better than you might expect simply due to the game’s sequential, procedural system. The game proceeds using the sequence of play, and highlights each step. Select target? Okay. Choose pilots? Check. See target site layout? Roger. It’s like having your own handy assistant to move the game along and make sure you didn’t cheat on the die rolls.

The problem is that due to the screen size, you’re often scrolling to look at different cards, which is most frustrating when choosing pilots. In the board game, you just lay all the cards out and compare abilities, allocate weapons, and whatnot. On the iPad, it’s all scroll here, oh wait did that guy have a +1 air-to-air modifier? I think I have another guy who is +2. No wait did he have 5 stress? Dammit, why did the screen reset to the first plane in my list? Oh yeah, because I minimized the weapons window. The game still always tells me I have no available rocket counters to allocate, until I actually try to allocate one and then it says I have four. You get the idea. It’s still easy to play.

But replicating the mechanics stops at the game itself, and thus leaves out some of the Leader series’ best storytelling hooks. There is no way to preserve results of prior campaigns, whereas I always hang on to my printed log sheets from the boxed game. Ah, that seven-plane raid on the rail yard in Route Pack Six where I inflicted 17 hits on the target and moved the Politics marker back two boxes (success breeds appetite for war). Or how about when Moose, my F-8 Crusader ace, got shot down on mission 9 of 9 on what was otherwise a successful campaign. That sheet is still in my box, too. The game doesn’t keep track of air-to-air victories, even though I always note it on the paper player log in the boardgame version and save it. In a game where experience points and stress levels are role-playing elements, not visually presenting your earned experience or a level up screen is a serious omission. And how oh how could an iPad game not have achievements or even a high score record? Understanding game mechanics and understanding tablet game presentation are two different things, and on the latter Phantom Leader comes up somewhat short.

Right now, there are theoretically at least four different ways to buy Phantom Leader. You can buy the original boardgame, which was $45 once upon a time (last year). But that is out of print, so you’ll probably end up paying significantly more for a used copy on the collector’s market. You can buy the new deluxe boxed edition, which has extra cards of every type, a Cuban Missile Crisis campaign, and a mounted tactical display. That’s $72, but is still in production with another 58 people needing to pre-order before it goes to the printer. You can get the VASSAL version, which is a VASSAL module of the original (non-deluxe) game for download, for $30. Or you can buy the iOS version (non-deluxe, described above) for $15.

That’s a lot of ways to buy the game. I can’t tell you how to do it, because I have no idea what any of these prices mean to anybody. For the same reason, I can’t comment on the $15 price of the iOS version. For some people, $15 is trivial, less than they spend daily on lunch. For others, it’s a serious purchase to be weighed carefully. So that’s between you and your wallet, or you and your wife’s budgetary allotment for games. The bottom line is that if you don’t have Phantom Leader in some form, you absolutely need to own and play it. How you go about doing that is your decision, a right you still have in today’s America. Thanks to history’s real life Phantom leaders.

I was going to write up a game diary, but figured instead you can just watch Lonesome Gamer play a mission on Boardgamegeek. Thirty-five minutes for this one episode and there are ten total; he does a whole campaign!

If you can’t decide, or just TL;DR, then just watch my second-favorite* wargame reviewer, Marco Arnaudo, review the boxed version on Youtube. Twelve minutes. Go Marco!

4 stars

6 stars

* Ok, since you might be wondering, this guy is my favorite wargame video reviewer. I will watch any wargame-related video by him for any reason.