Apr. 19th, 2011

yeloson: (Default)
[personal profile] yeloson
Phantom Leader is a solo boardgame where you play a flight commander for the Airforce or the Navy during the Vietnam war. I'm pretty skeevy on rah-rah historical war games, but I picked it up because a lot of the reviews pointed to some neat game mechanics.

Representation wise... well, I guess I can say it's not AS problematic as I expected, but that's still not saying great things. They do manage to avoid problematic representation of Vietnamese folks... because all you see in the game are jets, buildings, bridges, truck convoys, and tiny, tiny dots that might be people. I'm not sure how I feel about the idea that people are only represented in the game as targets, way below. It's horrifying and yet still better than most wargames.

The more... uh, problematic stuff is in the descriptions in the campaigns. For instance, a couple of them talk about airpower "forcing the North Vietnamese government to the negotiating table"... which is a ridiculous level of revisionism about what happened.

Gameplay

There's 6 campaigns to pick from and each one can be played at different lengths (short, medium, long) and also you can adjust the difficulty by picking various advantages or disadvantages that affect the core rules.

There's also a ton of pilots and planes to pick from. These are included on cards, and each pilot has a different skill level, and you're required to take so many Newbie, Green, Average, Skilled, and Veteran pilots.

Missions

During play, you draw so many Target cards and pick one as your target.

Just picking a target is a choice in and of itself- you're limited both by your Recon (higher recon means draw more cards) and political support from higher command- which also restricts which targets you can pick. Depending on the current state of your pilots, you may find some missions to be simply impossible to take on, also limiting your choices.

Each campaign gives you very few missions to score as many Victory Points as possible, and naturally, more difficult Targets tend to be higher in VP. Thankfully, the high VP targets are actually clearly military targets (radar installation, etc.). And they actually acknowledge that the targets in Laos were pretty ineffective as far as winning the war. There's a couple of targets which you can see being military/civilian - like a major bridge or a steel plant.

After you picked your targets, you randomly draw opposition to which are placed in the abstract target map (basically, the target and the 4 approaches around it).

Then you pick your pilots for this mission, and kit out their planes accordingly. Planes have limits on how many weapons they can carry, and which weapons they can equip. It's only a little fiddly, as all the info is kept on the cards. (That said, I wish they put the weapons on cards as well, the cardboard chits are tiny).

Combat

You only get 4 turns to complete the mission, so it sets up a simple dilemma: How much time to I spend taking out the defenses and making sure my squad is safe vs. how much do I risk them to complete the mission?

Each pilot has several stats, but it basically boils down to:
a) Bonuses to fight Air to Ground or Air to Air combat
b) How much Stress points they take before their stats get worse
c) Do they get to shoot before the enemy attacks or after?

Each turn, you can pick one target, and you roll a ten sided die for attacks. They have a simple system, where weapons have 1-3 numbers listed - if you beat 1 number you do 1 damage, if you beat 2 numbers you do 2 damage, and all 3 numbers means you do 3 damage. It's pretty easy and self contained.

Pilot's options to avoid getting shot down include using up your weapons to lay out suppressive fire, evading which forces the enemy to roll twice and take the worse roll (but builds 2 stress for your pilot), or just hope the enemy rolls low. 1 hit causes 1 stress, 2 hits damage the plane and make it impossible to attack, and 3 hits shoot the plane right down.

Long term management

Your pilots earn stress, which reduces their abilities, so you have to rotate them in and out to drop their stress level. You also end up having to pick between Missions which go straight for victory points vs. ones which improve your Recon, Intel, or Political stats which makes life easier all around.

Over time, pilots earn XP that allow them to step up one grade in ability. This seems to only really show up in longer campaigns, as the short games I played, it was not really an option.

Overall

If you're willing to overlook the sketchy problematic stuff and abstract out the real world history from the game (which, is big steps but at the same time if you're into wargame stuff, probably already doing a lot), it's a neat and solid game with a lot of replayability. It very much feels like a wargame that took a step or two towards boardgames in some ways, though I still wish the game used cards for everything instead of chits, for ease of handling and reading.

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Gamers of Color

May 2012

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