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Posted on Mar 30, 2011 in Boardgames

Phantom Leader – Card Game Review

By Rick Martin

Phantom Leader.  Card Game Review.  Publisher: Dan Verssen Games.  Designer: Dan Verssen.  $59.99 

Passed Inspection: Detailed but simple to play, nice quality counters, maps and a good rule book, solitaire immersion is amazing! Tons of replay value.

Failed Basic: Counters could be a little thicker, mounted maps would be nice and the price seems a little high.

…a stunningly good game system.

The turbines roar as three jets of a five jet squadron came in high over Vietnam in 1965. The target was pinpointed before take-off – a cement factory of strategic value protected by troops and various types of anti-aircraft guns. The flight was made up of one of the newer arrivals to the unit – an F4 Phantom piloted by Scorpio plus two older planes still serving with the US Air Force – an F100 and an F105. The other two aircrews were standing down with their new Phantoms but were ready to fly at a moment’s notice should they be needed. The three planes were outfitted with M84 iron bombs which seemed best for attacking a target of that nature but could only be dropped from low altitude with any degree of accuracy. Unfortunately, these weapons had no stand off capability and that, combined with the need for a low level attack, would bring the American aircrafts within range of the anti-aircraft guns.


As the planes approached their target, they dropped to a lower altitude and spotted the factory. but tThe Vietnamese flak was intense, most seemed to be directed at Stash F105 – Stash evaded but a couple of close shots rattled his nerve. Surfer dropped his bombs on the factory but both missed while Stash scored a minor hit with one bomb and, because of his evasive flying, missed with two more. Scorpio flew his Phantom in to a low level run and dropped two M84s on target – the factory exploded in a huge fireball. His last bomb was dropped on a flak gun – a dead center hit – silencing the gun forever. The three pilots increased their altitude and headed back to base. Stash was shaken and would sit out the next mission – the anti-aircraft guns had not damaged his plane but the stress put him out of action for several days.

The next mission was a cakewalk, busting Vietnamese tunnels – Surfer and the two back-up pilots with their new F4 Phantoms flew. The Phantoms performed well but Surfer wanted to engage in some plane to plane combat with enemy migs MiGs – none rose to the challenge and the three pilots flew back to base after devastating the tunnel complex and knocking out a few anti-aircraft guns with their AGM Bullpup missles. Just another few days of action during the air war over Vietnam.

The description above was completely based upon the two first missions I flew in Phantom Leader – a solitaire air war game from DVG. Utilizing the same system as their much more extensive Hornet Leader solitaire game, Phantom Leader focuses on the Vietnam War and the political ramifications of that conflict.

The player picks whether he flies for the US Air Force or the Navy and then picks the campaign scenario – either The War in the South (1965), Rolling Thunder (1967) or Linebacker (1972). The player then selects whether to play a short, medium, or long series of linked scenarios for the campaign. After picking the number and types of airplanes as well as the pilots who make up their squadrons, the players then fly the missions. Each mission carries with it the risk of death or psychological damage for the pilots involved. Even if they are not shot down, the more flak, missiles and MiGs the pilots have to face, the greater the chance that they will take “stress” points. The more points of stress, the greater the chances that the individual pilots may not make it back to base alive. The player balances their squadron with weapon selections, support materials and pilot rotation with the goal of seeing their pilots survive the campaign and avoiding stress. Sometimes pilots will have to be “stood down” in order to recover – a little R&R can be a wonderful thing. Each target has a “political rating” so even after the threats to the lives of the pilots are resolved, the game takes in to effect account the political ramifications of the air war on the home front. With the media and politicians putting their own spin on the war in order to sway public opinion, the pilots may find themselves taking heat for doing too good of a job attacking the enemy.

The game system itself is as streamlined as the airplanes themselves. Each airplane and pilot/aircrew gets a full color card with their data and the data for the plane on it. Event cards control random encounters both on the mission to the target, over the target and flying home to base. Counters are randomly drawn for threats, which are encountered based upon the random target which are randomly chosen. The threats which can include ground troops, flak, MiGs, and missiles are also annotated by year of availability as are the US airplanes. The well thought out and presented instructions come with a nice guide to the airplanes and ordinances. Each mission takes a little under ½ hour to play while each campaign could lasting between 1 one hour and 8 eight hours to play.

While the game is written to be a solitaire game, it can be played by groups of people with the system controlling the game play and each player controlling one or two airplanes.

The only negatives of this game are minor – the counters, while artistically nice, could have been a little thicker and the maps would have nicer and sturdier had they been mounted instead of printed on card-stock. In addition, the price seems a little steep based upon what comes with the game.

All things considered, for those interested in the air war over Vietnam, Phantom Leader is a stunningly good game system. Highly recommended!

Armchair General Rating: 90 %

Solitaire Rating: 5 (perfect solitaire playability)

About the Author:

A college film instructor and founder of Nouveau Cinema Group, Inc., an organization which rescues old movie theaters, 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 who can remember wargames which came in plastic bags and cost $2.99 (he’s really that old)!


1 Comment

  1. I own the original “Phantom Leader” and share you fondness of the game. You spend more time flying the mission than flying the plane, as in real life as I see it. Not having to log down everything every plane does at every turn makes for a better gaming experience. This is not a dog-fighting game, but it does have air to air combat. Its also very upgradeable and variants can be made by the dozens. I have a self made variant where the pilots improve as they survive missions by using markers with stats on them representing the pilots abilities.
    A little fudging and research and you can add all kinds of aircraft to it for both sides, even B-29s and Sabres and Mig-15s for a Korean War experience.
    Once again, a great game and updateable. Only complaint is the price.