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Posted on Aug 20, 2021 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

“Combat makes the pilot’s will to win stronger. With every fight they become much stronger. I got stronger with each victory. ”― Lieutenant Saburo Sakai, Ace Zero Pilot –  Zero Leader   Board Game  Review

“Combat makes the pilot’s will to win stronger. With every fight they become much stronger. I got stronger with each victory. ”― Lieutenant Saburo Sakai, Ace Zero Pilot –  Zero Leader   Board Game  Review

Rick Martin

“Zero Leader”  Board Game Review.  Publisher: DVG Games   Designer:  Chuck Seegert   Price $99.99

Passed Inspection:     perfectly captures the atmosphere and challenges of being a pilot for the Empire of Japan during WW2; fun to play; easy to learn; great AI; beautiful components and artwork; a nearly perfect game; years of replayability

Failed Basic:      the Pearl Harbor campaign needs a tweak; the box needs to be deeper to hold all the goodies

Full Disclosure – Rick Martin has designed Tiger Leader and Sherman Leader and is currently designing T34 Leader for DVG Games

In 2018, I reviewed a game called Corsair Leader. It was a solo World War II aviation game in which you fly for the US Navy or Marines in the Pacific Theater.  It was one of my favorite games that year and a game I continue to play over and over again.  Now DVG Games has put out a companion game to Corsair Leader called Zero Leader.  Zero Leader tells the tale of Japanese Army and Naval aviators in their epic and desperate air battles against the Chinese, Americans, British, Australians and New Zealanders during World War II.  Zero Leader is even better than Corsair Leader!

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Check Seegert and Dan Verssen have created a masterpiece with Zero Leader.  Let’s look at what makes this game a feast for World War II aviation enthusiasts.

The base game includes the following components:

Over 300 full color cards

11 full color double sided die cut counter sheets

A 20” x 15” mounted display

15 Campaign Sheets

5 full color help sheets

2 ten-sided dice

1 Player Log Sheet

A 49 page full color rule book with tons of examples of play

Components

Also included with my game were the following expansions:

Trainees Expansion Cards with extra event cards

Aces Expansion Cards with extra event cards

Expansions

Campaigns Expansions – includes China 1941, Burma 1942, Indian Ocean Raids 1942 and Malaya 1942 and extra counters.

Zero Leader is the sequel to Corsair Leader which came out in 2018 and was one of Armchair General’s top rated games of that year.  While Corsair Leader focused on flying for the American Army Air Corp, Marines or Navy in the Pacific Campaign of World War II, Zero Leader puts you in control of squadrons of Japanese aircraft of the Imperial Army or Navy.  Instead of flying with Pappy Boyington and his Black Sheep, you are given the chance to fly with Saburo Sakai or “Mike” Kawato and take on the Black Sheep!  Like Corsair Leader, Zero Leader is designed to play solo or co-operatively with another player.

After meeting Pappy Boyington when I was a young boy at the Dayton International Air Show where he was both promoting his book and the new TV show “Ba Ba Black Sheep”, years later at the National Museum of the US Air Force, I met Mike Kawato, the Zero ace who shot down Boyington.  I find the air battles of the Pacific especially engaging and have read many books by both American and Japanese pilots or aircrews. I was fortunate enough to have spent a great deal of time over several years with Haruo Nakajima who was a 14 year old gunner on a Betty bomber preparing for an Ohka mission but, in 1954, first donned the Godzilla suit for the original film and all of its sequels up to The Terror of Mecha Godzilla.   After hearing firsthand accounts from these warriors of the air, I can say with authority that Chuck Seegert, the designer of Zero Leader, has almost perfectly captured the experiences and challenges of the young men flying for the Empire of Japan.

How do you play Zero Leader?  It’s actually very easy to learn even if you have never played Corsair Leader.  The rule book is full of examples to walk you through the process.  The rules are written in a play as you learn format which is common of designs from Dan Verssen Games.

Before you start, make sure you photocopy the Player Log Sheet.  I usually make 10 copies.  This is where you keep track of your pilots and airplanes in between games.

First you pick a campaign.  For this review, I flew two complete campaigns.  The China Campaign and the Pearl Harbor Campaign.

The game is stuffed full of campaigns.  For each campaign, you can pick a short, medium or long duration. I played the medium China Campaign and the short Pearl Harbor Campaign.  Each campaign is rated for difficulty level.  On each campaign sheet is a listing of the features of that individual campaign as well as a map of the area with both a listing of what targets are found in the campaign and a visual key as to what targets are in what areas of the map.  To attack some targets deeper in enemy territory, your pilots will get more stressed out the further away the targets are from their airfields or aircraft carriers.

The campaigns included in the box are:

Pearl Harbor 1941

Philippines 1941

Wake Island 1941

Coral Sea 1942

Midway 1942

Guadalcanal 1942

Santa Cruz 1942

Port Morsesby/Lae 1942

New Georgia 1943

New Britain 1943

Rabaul 1944

Leyte Gulf 1944

Luzon 1945

Okinawa 1945

Home Island Defense 1945

As stated above, the Campaign Expansion pack includes China 1941, Burma 1942, Indian Ocean Raids 1942 and Malaya 1942 and extra counters for the campaigns.

Target Pearl Harbor

There are also expansion packs which adds 52  real life aces (including Saburo Sakai) to the mix of units.  Sadly, Mike Kawato wasn’t included with the other aces.

A Pair of Aces

Another expansion adds trainee pilots to your mix.  This allows you to feel the pain of the later war years as attrition has eliminated most of the skilled pilots and many barely trained young men were rushed in to air combat and sacrificed.

As with other DVG Air Leader games, each pilot card includes the aircraft most associated with the pilot.  Each pilot has multiple versions of his card rating him at different skill levels – newbie, green, average, skilled, veteran and legendary.  As the pilot increases in rank, his statistics get better and he learns new skills.  This ability to promote pilots makes the game wander in to the realm of a role playing game and allows the player to get very emotionally invested in his or her pilots.

Each iteration of the pilot includes the following data and statistics:  Pilot’s Name in Romanji, Pilot’s name in Kanji, Aircraft Type, Situational Awareness Level, Cool Rating, Stress Ratings and Status of the Pilot’s mental health based upon the Stress Level, Weapons carried by the aircraft, Number of Points Needed to Promote the Pilot to the Next Level, Aircraft’s Robustness and Maneuverability, Aircraft’s Years in Service, Pilot’s Samurai Spirit and Aggression, Aircraft’s Weight/Load Limit, Pilot’s Air to Air Combat Modifier, Pilot’s Air to Ground Modifier, Pilot’s Speed Rating (Slow or Fast) and finally the To Hit With Machine Guns and Cannon Rating.

There are other cards which are used in the game which drive the solo system.

Target Cards give the mission objectives and the defenses present both on the ground and in the air.

Event Cards provide random events and are broken down into events on the approach to the target, events over the target and events which occur on your way home.

The game is basically played like this. Based upon the campaign you pick you put together your squadron.  You’ll have a mix of beginner, intermediate and advanced skill pilots or crews of fighters and bombers. You then draw one or  more mission cards and you assign your planes and pilots to the mission.  You then arm each aircraft based upon the target you are tasked to attack. You’ll want to have fighters escort your bombers if you anticipate enemy interceptors will try and stop your bombers.  You’ll want to manage the stress of your pilots as stress will degrade their performance and possibly cost them their lives.  You’ll also have to manage your ground crews and may have to fly airplanes which have not been fully repaired if the needs require it.

Next your planes take off and you draw a “Target Bound Event” card.  The event may hurt your chances of success or help your chances of success.  You then place your aircraft on the mounted display board and you chose the altitude that your planes will fly at.  You then reference the target card and draw the stated number of enemy aircrafts and ground units from a draw cup.  The number of these enemy units may be modified by the campaign’s current “Intel Rating”.  When you fly successful missions, the campaign’s “Recon” and “Intel” levels are adjusted to reflect the overall success of the Japanese forces.

Bombers with a Fighter Escort

As your planes approach the target, draw an “Over Target Event” card and follow its instructions.

Then the action begins.  Any pilot with the notation “Fast” gets to attack and then move their plane by one band on the display board. You could move the fast pilot towards the target or towards ground targets or enemy airplanes.  Then the enemy units attack and then move if possible.  Some units, such as anti-aircraft guns, just sit there and shoot at you.  Then your pilots with the “Slow” notation get to attack and then move.  The game has a wonderful system for aircraft maneuvers both for the game’s bot planes and for your own units.  As in real life air combat of the period, it’s good to get on the enemy’s 6 o’clock and blast them to pieces and you and the enemy get positive and negative attack modifiers based upon the units’ relative positions to each other.

Attacking an Airfield

When your planes get hit, the range of the die number will tell you whether your plane has been slightly damaged, heavily damaged or destroyed.  When you hit the enemy, they are destroyed.  There are neat damage counters to put on your damaged plane to show that it is having issues.

Kozaki is Damaged

All the combat is handled by die rolls and everything you need to know is on the counters.  Combat is fast and furious.  An entire mission lasts about 10 or 15 minutes.

After hopefully destroying the target you fly back to base and on the return flight you also draw an Event Card.  If you didn’t destroy the target, you can assign other planes to hit it again.

Bombing a Truck Convoy

When you get back to base, you assign experience points to your pilots and see if they increase in skill.  You also assign stress to the guys who flew the mission.  If their stress gets too high, you’ll have to give them R&R.  You also track the number of planes your ground crews can repair each night.

The next day, your boys fly again.

At the end of the campaign, you add up the victory points you’ve hopefully earned and see how well you rated.

This is very much a game about managing your squadrons and pilots.  Unlike Corsair Leader, you don’t have almost unlimited war production resources so you must use your assets wisely. As the war years progress, you’ll be hard pressed to have many high quality pilots so you’ll be using more and more recruits with lower skill levels.  In the later campaigns, you may find yourself having to use Kamikaze units.

A P40 Attacks a Bomber

Rules are also included to allow one player to use Corsair Leader and the other to use Zero Leader and play against each other!  It’s a great rule set which adds value to both games.

I only have a few minor complaints with the game.  The Pearl Harbor Campaign references the number of days of the campaign. I would have used the term “waves” instead of “days” as it was a fast one day combat operation made up of multiple attack waves from the Japanese carrier force.  In real life, I believe that 2 waves of flights were sent out before the carriers moved back out to deep sea.

Also the game could use an index to help keep page flipping to a minimum.

My final minor gripe is that there is so much goodness in the game that the box hardly goes closed.  I wish the box was a little bit deeper to safely contain all the goodness.

All in all, Zero Leader is one of the best games I’ve played this year.  There is so much to like in this game that I’ll be playing it for years to come.

Armchair General Rating:  99% (1% is bad, 100% is perfect)

Solitaire Rating: 5 (1 is not suitable, 5 is excellent solo play)

About the Author

A college film instructor and small business owner, Richard Martin has also worked in the legal and real estate professions, is involved in video production, film criticism, sports shooting and is an avid World War I and II gamer. He designed the games Tiger Leader, The Tiger Leader Expansion and Sherman Leader for DVG and has designed the solo system for Forsage Games’ Age of Dogfights.  Currently Rick is designing T34 Leader for DVG.  In addition, Rick can remember war games which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!

2 Comments

  1. Great Review! Got me excited and I want to get the game! My Dad flew Corsairs in the Pacific in WW2, scoring 4 Japanese planes. He admired the Japanese “old timers” but said the ones he ran up against were lucky to get off the ground. Excellent Game! Excellent review!
    Thanks!

    • Thanks Skip. I’m glad you liked the review. So neat to hear about your dad’s service in WW2. He was a real hero it sounds like. Aside for Pappy, I met one other Corsair pilot who lived in Dayton, Ohio. I believe he had 3 or 4 kills as well. He said that he was pushing to get 20mm cannons put on the Corsairs but when they fit them experimentally on his Corsair, he couldn’t hit anything and had the 50 cals re-installed on his plane. Let me know how you like the game when you get it. I also recommend Corsair Leader especially based upon your dad’s service history.

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