One of my favorite solitaire boardgames is Dan Verssen’s Hornet Leader, which is the original game in the Leader series when it was published by GMT in 1991, and also the pinnacle of the Leader series when it was revised and reprinted by Dan Verssen Games in 2010. The Leader series has gone in various directions during its 30-year history, and it’s mostly gone off the rails in the last ten years. Speaking of, I recently broke out Sherman Leader, which takes the action from jets to tanks. It’s an iteration of Tiger Leader from 2015, but as you might infer from the title of Sherman Leader, you play as the good guys. As near as I can tell, the two games are identical aside from the changed names and artwork. Basically, Sherman Leader is a de-Godwinned reskin of Tiger Leader.
The premise will be familiar to anyone who’s played a Leader game. Take a team of soldiers and their hardware through a series of missions arranged into a dynamic campaign (after all these years, the juxtaposition of the words “dynamic” and “campaign” still gets me going!). This is a consistent strength of all the Leader games, and it usually works by combining two cards, and then randomly drawing a set of chits. In Sherman Leader, you combine a theater card with an objective card. This then sets up rows of randomly drawn enemy battalions that create a latticework of special rules. Here is the tableau to which you apply your plans.
For instance, the North Africa theater card plus the invasion objective card. The theater limits you to early war hardware and it gives the enemy a bonus to hit your tanks, called “Olive Drab Paint”. Smooth move, America, driving a bunch of green tanks into a brown desert. The invasion objective makes the planning grid act more aggressively against your reinforcements, but it also gives you a bonus in close range combat. Together, North Africa and invasion determine the pool of points you can spend for your starting forces, as well as an income of new points for repairs and replacements.
The randomly drawn enemy battalions give your campaign its structure, which you interact with by attacking different battalions. A fast invasion battalion incurs a penalty to my reinforcement and resupply points. An infantry headquarters adds an additional infantry unit to each battle. An outpost makes it more expensive for me to buy a rest action for my soldiers. As I destroy these battalions, their special rules are canceled. I might also earn special rewards for attacking certain battalions. A supply convoy gives me extra points to spend on repairs and reinforcements. A large armored assault gives me extra victory points. So I pick and choose among the targets on these rows, untangling the latticework of special rules in the pursuit of victory points. In the end, it’s a score chase. The more victory points I get, mostly from destroying battalions, the better my rating when the time runs out.
This latticework for planning, this dynamic campaign structure, is a consistent concept across the Leader games. It’s the context for the missions, which are where you’ll find each Leader game’s unique identity. Tiger and Sherman Leader, designed by Rick Martin and developed by father and son Dan and Kevin Verssen, work from two elements that were introduced in an earlier game, Thunderbolt Apache Leader. Whereas Hornet Leader was about fast ground support doing a single pass over the target and then getting the hell out of dodge, Thunderbolt Apache Leader is about more intimate and interactive ground attacks. You’re down in the weeds. Close air support that’s truly close. It plays on a tactical map at the nap-of-the-earth. Instead of Hornet Leader’s simple grid defined mostly by the relationship between the target and its air defenses, Thunderbolt Apache Leader has terrain. You randomly assemble hex tiles to create a map on which you’ll navigate its various elevations, whether flitting around it in a helicopter (the Apache part of the title), or roaring through it in a ground attack jet (the Thunderbolt part of the title). Hornet Leader takes you low and fast over the target once, through whatever gap in the defense you can find. But Thunderbolt Apache Leader is about dancing with the terrain. The maps are a fundamental part of how you’ll navigate the target’s defenses.
Thunderbolt Apache Leader also separated the men from their machines. In Hornet Leader, each card represents an aircraft and its pilot. This F-14 is piloted by Tonto, that F/A-18 is piloted by Thor, and the AWACS overhead is piloted by Animal. Everyone uses a goofy Top Gun monniker instead of a real name. Pilots must be an eccentric lot, kind of like people on the internet. But in Thunderbolt Apache Leader, you have one card for the aircraft and another card for the pilot. This allows you more opportunities to mix and match your way around morale and machinery issues. As Moose cracks under pressure, you can let someone else fly his A-10. Or as your A-10 gets shot up, you can transfer its ace pilot to your undamaged Apache AH-64. Hardware and software, if you will. In Hornet Leader, if Tonto accumulates stress, his F-14 is effectively grounded as surely as if it had taken engine damage.
So Sherman Leader marshals these two elements — maps and a hardware/software separation — to present ground combat in World War II. The battles play on a random map, with a ton of terrain interaction. The soldiers are separated from their machinery, and there will be lots of broken vehicles and stressed out commanders. There will even be total losses. Attrition is a big part of Sherman Leader. Don’t get too attached to your soldiers, much less your equipment.
But whereas Thunderbolt Apache Leader still plays like Hornet Leader, that’s not at all the case with Sherman Leader. The actual missions in Hornet Leader are about looking at a target site and working out the puzzle of what ordnance you need and how to deliver it. When you actually fly the mission, there might be cock-ups. An unexpected defender might appear. A bombing run might miss. You have to anticipate and work around these crises. But ideally, you execute the mission without any mishaps and everyone makes it home, a little tired and stressed out, but ready for the next day’s mission. The heart of gameplay is the planning.
(Remind me to tell you one day about a game called Enemy Coast Ahead: The Doolittle Raid, which is an extensive, complex, epic, and oh-so-gratifying marriage of planning calculations with in-mission drama).
But Sherman Leader plays out very differently from the flying Leader games. There is no equivalent to the planning. Instead, it’s about chits randomly scattered onto a random map trading shots with each other. They roll to hit, and you roll to defend against those hits. Then you roll to hit, and they roll to defend against those hits. Back and forth, back and forth, the whims of the dice reigning supreme. The drama is entirely in the d10s. There’s no concept of putting a plan into action. In fact, you have to put your guys on the map while it’s still empty. Then you randomly place the enemy units. Now do five rounds of back and forth.
This might seem appealing to some folks. Units punching each other. A lot of dungeon crawls work this way. Throw out some random monsters and trade blows. But the problem with this approach — and the fundamental shortcoming of Sherman Leader as an entry in the Leader series — is that the developer has opted out of any meaningful tuning (a recurring problem in Dan Verssen Games releases). Sometimes you’ll get a brutally hard set-up. Sometimes you won’t. Sometimes the dice go your way. Sometimes they don’t. It’s all just randomness, where meaningful decisions take a back seat to whatever the d10s decide. Dice instead of design.
You’re almost always going to be outnumbered, but your units are hardier. One hit kills an enemy unit, but when your units are hit, you draw a chit from a cup to determine damage. Because your guys are the heros and their guys are the trash mobs. So what if they’re in Panzer IVs or even Tiger tanks. Land a hit and they’re dead. Meanwhile, their die rolls dictated a hit, but the damage chit draw was just a glancing blow, or maybe just a borked machine gun, or even a “no effect”. It’s a weird unexplained asymmetry, there because the design is based on throwing lots of dumb units at fewer player-controlled units.
This isn’t an issue in Hornet Leader because airstrikes are inherently unfair in favor of the attacker. I’m flying a squadron of fast attack jets over a target, with the benefit of planning to work around the defenses. It’s a heist, really. Hornet Leader is a heist game for people who are into airplane porn. I’m the con man, the target is the mark. But the land battles in Sherman Leader are exchanges of random numbers, back and forth, back and forth, back and forth. The dice play the game. The dice dictate the drama. There is no meaningful reason for me to be here. I’m barely along for the ride. This is such a simplistic design that the AI to determine enemy moves might as well determine my moves.
I don’t mind games that let dice drive a narrative. The Hunters and its latest iteration, Silent Victory, are about submarine captains in World War II. You’re constantly rolling dice in those games. But the dice are telling lots of different elements of the story. What do I find on my patrol? When do I find it? Did I hit? Are the torpedoes duds? Did the escorts see me? Did their depth charges hit me? What got damaged? Could I repair the damage? Did I get away? Did the target get away? Did air cover arrive? Did a random event happen? Did I get a promotion? These are the questions the dice answer. This is the litany of dramatic story beats across Silent Victory’s encounters. Although the dice determine the outcome of the story, it’s a varied story in which lots of different things happen.
There’s no real game design in Silent Victory either. It’s a flow chart that you navigate by dice. Which isn’t intended as a criticism so much as an observation. A lot of work obviously went into that flow chart. It’s a way to create a narrative about a submarine captain’s career. But if Silent Victory is a flow chart, Sherman Leader is a small interminable loop. Roll to hit, roll to hit, roll to hit. The dice in Sherman Leader tell the same facile story over and over and over: Did the attack hit? Roll to hit. Roll to hit. Roll to hit. There’s not much more to it.
Because there’s a five-turn limit on every battle, each unit will get five attacks, at most. A tight time limit makes sense in a game about aircraft carrying just enough fuel to reach the target and return home (every pound of weight spent on fuel is one pound fewer of ordnance). But in a ground encounter, when rumbling tanks and marching soldiers have come this far to kill each other, it seems like they’d want to stick around for a while. Yet the action ends abruptly after five turns. It makes no narrative sense that soldiers are tangled up with each other and tanks are angling for kills and suddenly a whistle is blown and everybody goes home.
So five attacks for each unit, and each of those is a roll of a d10. Roll to hit. Roll to hit. Roll to hit. Roll to hit. It’s the same story beat over and over and over. Did the attack hit? Yes, yes, no, no, no, yes, no, yes, no, no. It’s a steady, droning, and tedious staccato of shots landing or whistling past their targets. A two-note jazz ditty played by dice.
(Another issue with Dan Verssen Games is the poor quality control. There are several cards that need errata, and the publisher charges $15 to ship them to you. There is also the godawful rules book. There’s no excuse for a company that’s been around this long to still write rules this poorly. For instance, a major rule about how combat works at range zero is completely missing from the rules. Units normally have a penalty if they move and attack on the same turn. But at range zero, that penalty is instead a bonus. I have no idea what’s being modeled here, but in a game with relatively few modifiers to die rolls, it’s a doozy. What kind of rules book doesn’t include it? A Dan Verssen Games rules book, apparently.)