“Tell the Vietnamese they’ve got to draw in their horns or we’re going to bomb them back into the Stone Age.” –General Curtis LeMay
DVG’s Leader series is unique among solitaire designs for combining low complexity with separate strategic and tactical phases. Instead of focusing on a complex simulation of one thing at one level, it lets players manage a campaign, outfit their unit for a particular mission, and then play out that mission on a separate board to see if their planning paid off. You can get a better sense of this by reading my review of Thunderbolt-Apache Leader, which turned out to be one of my favorite solitaire games of all time.
After playing that I was itching to try Phantom Leader, which is set during the air war in Vietnam. This is a complex period to capture in a game, particularly one as boiled down as the Leader series, but DVG simply nailed it. Each campaign weaves a rich narrative that incorporates the politics of the time, the various challenges faced by the Air Force and Navy, and lots and lots of ever-evolving planes and weapons. I am stunned by how well this sprawling game works on the iPad, despite some bugs and interface issues. (Note that it doesn’t work the iPad 1 at this point at all.)
PLAYING THE GAME
“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it.” –Unidentified Army Major, cited in a report about the bombing and shelling of Ben Tre
The best way to describe Phantom Leader is to combine a review with a session report and walk you through a campaign mission, detailing my decisions as I go so you can get a sense of some basic strategies. Campaigns can begin in 1965, 1967 (Rolling Thunder), or 1972 (Linebacker), and you can play as the Air Force or Navy in Short, Medium, or Long games. I’m going with the Air Force in 1972 because I want lots of toys to play with. Unfortunately the enemy gets planes and surface-to-air missiles in this period to offset my fun. If you’re new to the game, go with 1965 to cut down equipment choices and make mission planning easier.
TALLY HO, SQUADRON LEADER!
“The truth is you never do get used to the SAM’s; I had about two hundred fifty shot at me and the last one was as inspiring as the first. Sure I got cagey, and I was able to wait longer and longer, but I never got overconfident. I mean, if you’re one or two seconds too slow, you’ve had the schnitzel.” –General Robin Olds
The first order of business is choosing a squadron. Planes are represented by cards that vary depending on what military branch and time period is selected, and include the following:
- A-4 Skyhawk
- A-6 Intruder
- A-7 Corsair II
- F-4 II Phantom
- EA-6A Electric Intruder
- EB-66 Destroyer
- F-8 Crusader
- F-100 Super Sabre
- F-104 Starfighter
- F-105 Thunderchief (including Wild Weasel variants that specialize in anti-missile attacks)
Each plane has inherent values for the types and amount of weapons it can carry, along with an inherent pilot that has a Skill level, Stress values, a Cool level, a Speed value, and air-to-air and air-to-ground attack bonuses or penalties. The Skill level reflects the overall experience of the pilot, and can improve as he completes missions. Pilots incur Stress from flying missions and taking hits, and their Stress values determine how much they can accumulate before they become Shaken or Unfit for duty. The Cool level determines how much Stress is reduced when the pilot doesn’t fly a mission. Speed is critical, as Fast pilots shoot before the enemy, while Slow pilots shoot after the enemy. The attack bonuses or penalties are straight-up numbers added to or subtracted from die rolls made when attacking enemies.
Since I have MiGs and radar-guided SAMs to worry about, I need a good mix of planes that complement one another. I get two Skilled pilots, and take Mad Dog in his F-105 Wild Weasel as my first pick. He’s a bit brittle when it comes to Stress, but should make up for it with his incredible +3 in air-to-ground attacks, his Fast speed that lets him shoot first, and his ability to carry AGM-45 missiles that are custom-built to knock out deadly long-range SA-2 SAM sites.
There are only two other Skilled pilots, and they are in versatile F-4 Phantom IIs that can carry a useful mix of air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons. F-4s during this period also had internal cannons, unlike earlier models that relied solely on air-to-air missiles for self defense and lost a lot of dogfights as a result. Here the choice is tougher. Both pilots are Fast, which I love, but Robin has no attack bonuses while Splashdog has a +1 in air-to-air and a -1 in air-to-ground. Robin handles stress a bit better, but I see that if Splashdog is upgraded from Skilled to Veteran he becomes a beast, gaining 1 Cool and nearly doubling his ability to handle Stress. I decide to go with Splashdog, and then use similar criteria to select four Average and two Green pilots to round out the squadron.
One interesting choice is Bat in an EB-66 Destroyer. This plane carries no weapons, but will let me ignore in-mission Events if I roll a six or higher on a d10. Events add a lot of flavor but can be devastating, making the EB-66 a great plane for dodging disaster. It also can be added to any mission for free, not using up a combat plane slot, and any of my planes flying in the same area with it get a -1 to enemy attack rolls. Bat is a no-brainer as far as I’m concerned.
In the end, I have five F-4 IIs, two F-105 Wild Weasels, and the EB-66. One more thing I can do before locking them in is spend SO (Special Operations) points to bump pilots up by one Skill level. SO points are precious, and you only get a handful to play with in the short campaign, so using them sparingly but wisely here is key. Pilots in short campaigns also don’t fly enough missions to level up via experience points. Just remember that SO points are also used to give you better target choices, in-mission refueling so you can carry more weapons to distant targets, and special weapons that hit harder and more reliably than the freebies do, among other benefits.
There are several things to look for when selecting pilots to upgrade, and one of my favorites is when it changes them from Slow to Fast. Phantom Leader is unforgiving, and pilots who can shoot things before they are shot at gain a tremendous edge. Another thing I look for is how upgrading impacts their ability to endure Stress, which accumulates quickly during missions and can keep your best pilots out of the war if it gets out of hand. Often one pilot level can double his ability to bear Stress without breaking down, letting you reuse him several missions on a row. Finally, I look for bumps in attack bonuses and Cool points, but these rarely change dramatically.
For this game I see that upgrading Junior in his F-4 II dramatically boosts his Stress rating, so I dump 2 of my 11 SO points into him. Vapor in his F-105 Wild Weasel also gets a Stress rating bump, along with a ground attack bonus of +2 and a Cool point, so I promote him as well. That leaves me with 7 SO points for putting out fires during the campaign.
LINEBACKER: DAY 1
“We seem bent upon saving the Vietnamese from Ho Chi Minh, even if we have to kill them and demolish their country to do it.” –George McGovern
Before getting down in the weeds, it’s important to note that overall campaign progress is tracked in a Player Log with tracks measuring Recon Points, Intel Points, Politics Points, and Victory Points. This translates into an overall Evaluation score which begins at Dismal and (with any luck) gradually works its way to Great as you blow things up and bring your planes and pilots back intact.
Each day of the campaign is broken down into Pre-Flight, Target-Bound, Over-Target, Home-Bound, and Debriefing phases, each with their own sub-phases.
STAY ON TARGET!
“The Air Force comes in every morning and says, ‘Bomb, bomb, bomb.’ And then the State Department comes in and says, ‘Not now, or not there, or too much, or not at all.’” –Lyndon B. Johnson
The first phase of Pre-flight is Target Selection. A number of cards equal to your Intel score are drawn (2 in the beginning), and if the Politics number on them is lower than the current number in the Politics track of the campaign you can fly the mission. The Aircraft rating tells you how many planes you can assign to it, the Data section has information about how many Sites (randomly-drawn enemy chits) and Bandits (randomly-drawn enemy planes) defend the target, and how many hits the target can sustain before it is destroyed. Special rules for the mission are detailed on the bottom of the card, and rewards for completing the mission are listed in the number Victory Points, Recon Points, and Intel Points you receive.
If you don’t like any of the missions, you can spend 2 SO points to activate Recon Priority and draw a few more. This sounds like a waste, but as you lose planes or pilots are incapacitated due to stress you may need to fish for missions that require fewer assets to complete.
I drew a Barracks, which is well-defended beast that requires 8 hits to destroy and nets me 1 Victory Point, 2 Recon Points, and 1 Intel point if I complete it. The alternative is a Search And Rescue mission that requires me to kill 8 infantry chits in 6 turns to gain 3 Victory Points. Killing infantry is easy, and that’s a lot of loiter time relative to the 4 turns I would have to hit the barracks, so I eagerly accept the noble duty of helping a downed comrade-in-arms.
Range to target is something else to keep in mind when selecting missions. A map is displayed showing where the target is, and distant enemies cut down on the carrying capacities of assigned planes as they have to load up on extra fuel to get there. It is possible to pay 2 SO points to activate Tanker Priority and negate this penalty during the Arm Pilots phase, but it isn’t a decision you should make lightly.
Once the mission is selected Sites are placed according to the rules on the card. Normally they are drawn randomly, but this mission calls for 2 infantry on each edge of the target, so they are plopped down on the target map at this time. This is an area where the iPad version has a tremendous edge over the board game because fishing 8 infantry chits out of a random draw pile isn’t fun in the real world.
LOCKED AND LOADED
“I love the smell of napalm in the morning.” –Kilgore, “Apocalypse Now”
Now comes one of the most fun and satisfying parts of the game: Arming your planes. This is another area where the iOS implementation shines, as sorting weapon chits in the real game is a nightmare. They have two different weapons on each side, and there are loads of them, so fiddling with them stinks. Here everything is laid out neatly, and weapons a selected plane can’t carry are crossed out so you won’t waste time considering them.
There are tons of death-dealing toys to choose among here, especially in 1972. Air-to-air missiles include the AIM-7 Sparrow that can hit targets 2 areas away, and the AIM-9 Sidewinder that has a range of 1. There are dumb bombs and smart bombs (though the latter cost SO points). There are inaccurate rockets that are great for suppressing attackers and preventing incoming hits. There are cluster bombs and napalm, which are devastating against soft targets (just remember that using napalm costs you one point on the Politics track the first time you use it each mission). There are AGM-45 long-range missiles that are only good against SA-2s surface-to-air missiles, and AGM-62 and AGM-12 missiles that allow for stand-off attacks against all sorts of things if you want to spend SO points on them. Finally there is an ECM (Electronic Countermeasures) Pod that lets the carrying plane roll a d10 during an incoming attack and ignore it if it rolls a 6 or higher. 50/50 odds might not sound worth it, but every edge you can get in this game adds up.
You can move the weapons panel out of the way to look at the target area and get a better idea of the strike package you want to create, but in this case it isn’t necessary. I’m attacking a bunch of soft targets that can only hit my planes when they fly at low altitude. I also know I have 6 turns to take out 8 targets in 4 areas using 3 planes, so although I have a little wiggle room I want to make sure I’m taking pilots and weapons that have excellent chances to hit.
First I add Bat in his EB-66 because he doesn’t count against my plane limit and he might help us get through nasty event cards (or he might do what he usually does and roll ones and twos and make us wonder which side he’s on). I can also keep him at high altitude where the grunts can’t reach him, so barring any calamities he’ll be 100% untouchable. (Of course, Phantom Leader has a knack for creating calamities out of calm, but that’s a feature, not a bug.)
Mad Dog’s F-105 doesn’t carry any bombs that can be safely launched from high altitude, but he’s Fast and has a +3 ground attack bonus so he’s an easy pick for this mission. The target is far enough away that all planes lose 1 point of carrying capacity, taking him from 6 points to 5. It isn’t worth the SO points to add Tanker Priority just to get that point back, and I can only attack one enemy chit at a time so taking weapons that generate multiple hits isn’t as important as it would be if I was attacking a fixed target. I give him 2 cluster bombs that hit on 4+ due to their bonus against soft targets, which means they will hit automatically when Mad Dog’s ground attack bonus is factored in. Then I add 1 Mk.84 that will hit on 2+ with his bonus, and 2 Mk.82s that will hit on 3+ since Mad Dog is such a badass. Lovin’ those odds.
I pair Mad Dog with Vapor, another Fast pilot flying an F-105 who has a +2 ground attack bonus. I give him 4 cluster bombs that will hit on 2+, leaving no more cluster bombs or napalm for my remaining pilot.
Not that I’ll need them. The two F-105s could clear the map all by themselves, but I’m hedging my bets with Junior, a Slow F-4 pilot who will fly high cover in case any bandits somehow show up, and who will carry some ground attack weapons in case the Thuds somehow blow it. I give him an AIM-7 Sparrow and an AIM-9 Sidewinder that will each hit on a 5+ thanks to his +1 air-to-air bonus, and give him 2 rocket packs that can hit targets one area away on a 6+ thanks to his +1 ground attack bonus. I shouldn’t splurge, but I also invest 1 SO point in a GBU-12 guided bomb that is launched from a safe high altitude and will hit automatically in case he desperately needs to mop something up.
The idea here is to send the F-105s in as a pair, with each of them flying in low and nailing both units in each area before they have a chance to react. The F-4 will approach from a different side, engage bandits if any pop up, and trail the F-105s in case they miss a target. The EB-66 will fly with the F-105s to help them shake off attacks if they miss a target.
THE WILD BLUE YONDER
“Think about us flying a Navy plane, carrying World War II bombs, a gun sight in front of my face not as good as the one I had in P-38s, and going up there to bomb some railroad yard. We’ll face a sky full of flak, missiles and MiGs, but don’t worry about it because I’ve got it on good authority that none of this is happening.” –General Robin Olds
Finally we arrive at the part where all that meticulous planning either blows up in our faces or pays off. After wheels-up an Event Card is drawn. These have three Events, with the top one used if planes are Target-Bound (which they are now), the middle one used if they are Over-Target, and the bottom one used if they are Home-Bound. I draw AAA Site, which gives the enemy two free attacks against random planes in my flight. On a 3-5 the pilots add 1 Stress, on a 6-8 the plane is Damaged, and on a 9+ the plane is Destroyed. Attacked planes can negate the attack by discarding one air-to-ground weapon chit. Hoo boy.
This might not be too bad because I have my trusty EB-66 along to provide the potential to ignore the event, right? Wrong. It turns out I accidentally de-selected him when I was prepping my flight (which is easy to do), and this exposes one of the great weaknesses of this implementation versus the board game. There is no going back at any point. If you accidentally choose the wrong mission, pick the wrong plane, load the wrong weapon, or do something really dumb like leaving your EB-66 in the hangar, you have to live with it. In the board game I’d just slap myself in the forehead and undo the mistake, but here you get what you get. I asked the developer about it and he’s working on a back button for the mission prep phases.
The Event puts Vapor in the crosshairs of a Zu-23-2, and there’s no way I’m leaving his fate to chance. I discard one of his awesome cluster bombs and he’s safe. The enemy slaves their gun to Mad Dog next, and he gives them a middle finger in the form of a Mk.82. These guys haven’t reached the target yet and they’re already down two bombs.
The next phase lets you send planes home if any were damaged in the Target-Bound event, but there’s no need for that so I press on to the Place Aircraft phase. The mission area has the target card in the middle, surrounded by 4 Approach Areas that are further surrounded by 6 Pre-Approach Areas. I drag Mad Dog and Vapor to the north Pre-Approach Area at low altitude, and put Junior in the west Pre-Approach Area at low altitude so he can fire off some rockets.
With everyone in position, I move to the Over-Target Event and get a bit of a break with the AC-47 Spooky card. This lets me roll a d10 at the start of every turn and destroy a random site on a 6-8 or a site of my choice on a 9+. With any luck it’ll make up for those lost bombs, especially since I have extra turns to benefit from it. Since the turn is about to begin I make my first roll of this campaign and get a 4. Figures.
Speaking of rolls, the dice use a physics-based system that sounds like a cheap marketing tactic but is thoroughly awesome. They skitter across the screen just like they would on a table, often rocking up slightly on one side before settling on another. Many iOS board game translations lose the feel you get when throwing real dice and respond more like spreadsheets, but this does the best job of simulating that bit of board gaming bliss of any iOS conversion I’ve played.
Back to the mission, the game has skipped ahead to the Slow Pilots Attack phase, leaving the Fast pilots and enemies out of the loop. I don’t understand why it did this, but it may be a rule I’ve overlooked or some sort of bug with the AC-47 card. I only have one Slow pilot, so Junior’s F-4 targets an infantry unit in an adjacent away. Planes can only fire at one target per turn, but can launch as many eligible weapons as they want to at that target. I’m tempted to shoot both rocket pods at once to have two rolls to hit with, but am feeling lucky and select only one. Junior fires, needing at least a 6 to hit, and he rolls a 9. Sorry, Charlie.
Now it’s the Aircraft Move phase, which is one of the few letdowns of this game. In Thunderbolt-Apache Leader your planes must move forward each turn and maneuver around a hex grid, which works great and feels great. Here you can move each aircraft to one adjacent area per turn, or just leave them sitting where they are as if they have the hovering capabilities of a Harrier. It feels cheesy and undynamic, especially considering the high attack speeds most of these aircraft had in the real war. You know all those Vietnam movie scenes where a flight of jets rockets in at a critical moment and unloads nine hells worth of napalm before screaming off over the horizon? You don’t get that sense here, and I vastly prefer the way TAL handles it, even though I understand that it works at a smaller scale and with (mostly) slower aircraft.
I leave Junior where he is so he can get off another rocket attack, and move Vapor and Mad Dog into the north Approach Area, where two juicy targets await death as long as the game doesn’t force the Thuds to skip their turns again.
The AC-47 rolls a 3, proving himself useless, so it’s on to Turn 2. The game now lets my Fast pilots attack, so Vapor pickles off a cluster bomb. Normally it needs an 8 to hit, but with +4 against soft targets and +2 for Vapor’s ground attack bonus we’re only looking for 2+. He gets an 8, and another target is toast. Mad Dog follows up with the same attack against the other infantry unit, and needs a 1+ to hit. This is a real nail-biter. And thank God for that +3, because he rolled a 1. The North Approach Area is now clear.
But there are more bugs afoot. The game has skipped right past the Slow Pilots Attack phase and into the Aircraft Move phase. Junior didn’t get a turn. This is getting aggravating, and I’ve never seen anything like it in any of the half-dozen campaigns I’ve played so far.
Mad Dog and Vapor move into the east Approach Area, and once again Junior stays where he is. The AC-47 whooshes in like Solo and Chewie are manning (and wookieeing) the controls, rolling a 9 that lets me kill any target. Based on these turns getting skipped I kill the remaining unit in the west Approach Area, clearing it for Junior.
Turn 3 begins, and I’m in the Fast Pilots Attack phase. Mad Dog and Vapor repeat their pattern from the previous turn, with the former rolling a 10 and the latter rolling a 3. I have 3 turns left and only 2 targets remain in the south Approach Area. Now I’m really regretting spending that SO point on that laser-guided bomb, but hindsight will do that to you.
Once again the Slow Pilots Attack phase is skipped for no apparent reason, but I’m not as upset now because Junior didn’t have anything to shoot at anyway. It’s time to go to the Aircraft Move phase and set up for complete overkill in the south Approach Area. Mad Dog and Vapor move into it, and Junior moves to the Pre-Approach Area next to it so he can launch some rockets and get into position to drop a laser-guided personal greeting if something awful happens.
Han and Chewie have moved back to a galaxy far, far away, as the AC-47 rolls a 4 and misses completely. That takes me to Turn 4, where Vapor lobs his last cluster bomb, hitting with a 6. Mad Dog follows up with his last remaining bomb, a Mk.84, which will hit on a 2+ thanks to his sweet, sweet +3 ground attack bonus. He squeaks it out with a 2, and the Target Destroyed notification pops up. Nice work, gents. Everyone got at least one kill, and nobody got a scratch.
I end the mission and enter the Home-Bound phase, where a final event card is drawn. It is Show Of Force, which lets me move the counter one to the left on the Politics track. It is also completely irrelevant as that counter is already as far to the left as it can go. Better than a poke in the eye with a sharp stick, I suppose.
At last, I get to the Debriefing phase, where I am reminded the target is destroyed and I get 3 Victory Points. Next the pilots get an experience point for going on the mission and another one for not losing a plane. This doesn’t even come close to leveling them up, but eyes and sticks and all that.
After that each pilot receives stress based on the value in the target area where the mission was flown. This amounts to +2 stress for all involved, but Junior and Vapor only get 1 each because they have a Cool value of 1. At this point you can spend SO points for Priority R&R to alleviate some stress, but that isn’t at all necessary right now. On to Linebacker: Day 2.
RINSE AND REPEAT
“Some people just wanted to blow it all to hell, animal, vegetable and mineral. They wanted a Vietnam they could fit into their car ashtrays.” –Michael Herr, “Dispatches”
The above represents one day of a campaign, and the three that are left in this Short one all proceed in the same basic fashion. This play-by-play covered the most boring mission possible in this game–one where pretty much everything went right. You missed out on the parts where most targets are heavily defended and can absorb an ungodly amount of hits, and where MiGs show up at inopportune times to fill your planes full of holes, and where event cards murder you. You didn’t have to watch helplessly as the pilots accumulated stress from evading waves of enemy attacks, sometimes making them catatonic in the middle of a fight. You didn’t see planes get shot down or the rescue missions that ensued, where the fates of your pilots are left to the mercy of a heartless d10 roll. You were spared the agony of drawing targets that require a squadron of planes to attack when you only have a handful of pilots fit for duty, no SO points left to buy them the weapons they need, and the universe is out to get you. You also didn’t get a taste for how differently the three campaigns and two branches of the military play out due to variations in available equipment and eligible targets.
Phantom Leader doesn’t mess around, and I love it for that.
“I seriously doubt if we will ever have another war. This is probably the very last one.” –Richard Nixon
This game ain’t pretty, and it ain’t easy, and it has some bad bugs, but overall it’s a triumph on the platform. It’s a solitaire design so there are none of the AI issues that plague many other iOS board game conversions, and no need for network multiplayer. The computer handles all of the miserable chores that detract from playing this game on a tabletop, letting you focus completely on the fun parts and the rich narrative this game weaves as a campaign runs its course. You will come to love your pilots even as they routinely let you down. You will find yourself frantically tapping away at insane hours just to see what happens next. You will feel compelled to tell stories about your adventures to people who will look at you as if you have just been possessed by the wandering spirit of a nostalgic Vietnam-era squadron leader.
Or you will hate it. And I imagine most people will. It is rough around the edges and difficult to learn (especially if you know next to nothing about the equipment used by the Navy and Air Force during the Vietnam air war). The design is ruled with iron fists by a pair of d10s that often seem like they are conspiring to inflict as much agony on you as possible. There are lots of weird little bugs (that are actively being worked on, but still), interface quirks, a hopeless tutorial, and a general lack of polish that could have made this an absolute standout game on the platform in every regard. Instead we have to settle for it being one of the best straight-up board game conversions in the App Store.
There has been much squawking about the price point, which I can kind of understand due to the general insanity of the App Store, but mostly consider to be a textbook case of what happens when you cast pearls before swine (even if this pearl is covered in grit and a bit misshapen). If you like the subject matter even a little, can appreciate action that requires brains instead of reflexes, and don’t mind having some dice tell you a story $15 is a pittance for this game in this format. Give DVG your money and enjoy one of the best things that has ever happened to the iPad. (Well, every iPad except the first one. Hope they fix that soon.)
“Come you masters of war / You that build all the guns / You that build the death planes / You that build all the bombs / You that hide behind walls / You that hide behind desks / I just want you to know / I can see through your masks.” –Bob Dylan, “Masters of War”