Board Game Review: Phantom Leader
Scott Udell returns to The Wargamer to explore the essence of the air war in Vietnam in this solitaire board game from Dan Verssen.
Designer: Dan Verssen
A Game of Essence
Computer wargamers get it easy. For all but a very few titles we always have a ready opponent in the AI… often not a very “good” opponent, of course, but at least willing in a sort of I’m-programmed-to-do-this-no-matter-what kind of way. Going solo with a board wargame, you have to look in the mirror to find your opponent. Playing both (or all) sides of a board wargame can be surprisingly fulfilling. But for the times you just need an opponent other than yourself you have to look to a game with either added rules for solitaire play or to game designed specifically for solitaire. In these games you are playing the system—your opponent is the rules and the game mechanisms described therein, often with a good dose of randomness.
Solitaire board games come in two general categories: those with complicated rules and those that are fairly simple. Complicated ones have long rules, perhaps lots of charts, all designed to provide an exacting opponent for you. Games like Patton’s Best and, especially, Tokyo Express are prime examples of this class. The “simple” ones have shorter rules and generally only focus on a more narrowly defined portion of war they are simulating. A good example of this category are the States of Siege games from Victory Point Games—I’ve played Israeli Independence in about ten minutes and had a fine time with it, but I know it’s not a title for a meaty examination of the subject.
DVG’s (Dan Verssen Games’s) Phantom Leader manages to straddle these two categories by representing the subject of the air war during Vietnam in a series of “essences”, or representations, of the different aspects of the war. This can give either a nice survey of the subject without skimping on gameplay, or may be a set of gameplay hors d’oeuvres that may not fulfill the player looking for a multi-course extravaganza.
Leading Through the Years
Dan Verssen is a board war and strategy game designer who’s been around the gaming block, to say the least. Perhaps best known for his Down in Flames series of tactical air war card games, he also has a strong presence in solitaire wargaming (although cards and air warfare play a big part in many of his games). The Leader series of games first appeared in the GMT titles Hornet Leader and Thunderbolt/Apache Leader back in the ‘90s. Verssen, though, does have his own company, and several years ago started publishing his own games in addition to still having some titles available from other publishers (notably Decision Games). He started this publishing venture with PDF print ‘n’ play and/or VASSAL games, including new versions of Hornet Leader and various expansions. The first of his physical board games that I became aware of was Field Commander Rommel (recently republished in a deluxe version). For a new publisher, the game had quite decent production values and was well received.
After his foray into print ‘n’ play and VASSAL versions of the venerable Leader series (not to mention a full computer version published by Matrix Games), interest ran high with his updated versions. Instead of starting with an existing title, he developed Phantom Leader, a new entry in the series. All Leader games share a similar set of game mechanisms, but have a unique spin on the base system, including theme-specific mechanisms. In Phantom Leader the main difference is that it covers a wide stretch of time, a touch of multiple scales from strategic to tactical, with a strong flavor of the impact of politics and diplomacy on the war—particularly the air war—in Vietnam.
The Weight of Cardboard
Wargamers often like to say that it’s the gameplay that matters, not the appearance. But let’s face it, be it graphics in computer wargames or production values in board wargames the presentation does matter, both to improve gameplay (for example, clean graphics portray information more efficiently) and just to improve the experience through good aesthetics. Phantom Leader shows the progression of this in wargaming, both in general and in DVG specifically.
From right to left: the original GMT Thunderbolt/Apache Leader, the earlier DVG title Field Commander Rommel, the 2010 Phantom Leader, and the newest Hornet Leader.
Production-wise, the GMT versions of Leader games were good for the time, but definitely show their age: flat print colors, black and white rules, flimsy, small cards, light-weight boxes, and much simpler graphic design throughout. Jump forward to DVG’s early entry into self-published board wargames, with Field Commander Rommel (2008 version), and you see improvements: glossy heavy-duty box, color rules, and better graphic design. But maps and a player log were on heavy-weight paper (not even card stock, let alone mounted). Two years later and Phantom Leader comes out, with further improvements: the outstanding and signature-of-the-series cover art by Wan Chiu, a larger and even heavier box, a more colorful manual, better counters, and heavier cardstock for player aids, the campaign maps and tactical display. The more recent updates to Hornet Leader and Thunderbolt/Apache Leader are even better, in particular with the use of mounted boards. These improvements were enough to cause DVG to develop a deluxe version of Phantom Leader, including mounted boards, more cards, and an additional campaign. This is a good thing, as the 2010 edition I’m reviewing here is out-of-print and hard to get—I’ve only seen it in stock in one or two online retailers in recent weeks. Technically, the new edition is in pre-order and, at least on the DVG website, hasn’t gotten close to its minimum number of pre-orders. But Dan Verssen has informed me that they currently plan to go ahead with the new edition later in 2012 (I expect hitting their pre-order numbers would help change that from “plan to go ahead” to “are going to go ahead”).
Let’s take a look at the components in the current 2010 version, set-up for play:
On the left you see the box top and box bottom. (NOTE! The counter tray is not included—I added my own. In fact, no counter storage is included.) You’ll want your counters organized, especially your munitions, as you’ll be digging through them a lot. Next over you see the card display/sequence of play summary card with target, event, and non-active pilot/plane cards. Right from that you see one of the six campaign cards (in this case the USN Rolling Thunder campaigns) and then the player aid card. Across the bottom are my current campaign’s pilot/plane cards with those from the active mission sporting a variety of munitions counters, and the tactical display card where the majority of your action takes place. Right from that is the player log for this campaign. A cardstock version of the log is included in the box, but it’s not reusable. So I printed copies from PDFs available from DVG (I tried laminating one to save on printing, but the log was too cramped to really use even with finer-point dry erase markers). A bigger fan-made version, or—even better!—a tablet app, spreadsheet or some such electronic tool would be helpful. On the very right you see a mug that contains enemy site/bandit markers: you use this to randomize the draw of these objects as per your mission’s specifications. (NOTE: mug not included, nor is the iPad in the upper right!)
I’ll go into the cards, counters, and rules in more detail. But as for the rest of the components… well, they are definitely functional, but missing some things. The player aid card seems incomplete—some of the “SO Point Costs” are missing—and a glossary or index would be most helpful.
The six campaign cards (one of each campaign for the USN or the USAF) are fairly complete, but have one irritating weakness: only certain target cards are used for each campaign. So the unused ones need to be removed from your target deck. The problem is that the campaign card lists the actual location of the matching target number (the blue circles), but doesn’t give a numeric listing of the targets, so you’ve got to spend extra time in hunt-the-right-blue-dot to see if a particular card is needed or not—certainly no game-breaker, but a pain during setup.
The Tactical Data card set up with target, defending sites, and my planes in-bound.
The “Tactical Display” card—the main “game board”—will definitely benefit from being mounted in the deluxe version. But even more, I’d like to see some better way to record special modifiers that apply during the mission. Many will be on the target card itself, but the ability to place markers to highlight this in some fashion would be appreciated; and there’s currently no place on the card to indicate modifiers other than those on the target card (things purchased for this mission, modifiers from event cards from this or previous missions, etc…). I also hope the deluxe version does something to spruce up the appearance of these cards, especially the Tactical Display card. Nothing on the cards is really evocative of Vietnam-era air combat, especially in comparison with the art/graphics design on the box cover, in the manual, and on cards and counters.
These are "plain" pages in the rules!
Production-wise, the rules are great: good use of color, easy-to-recognize examples of a particular rule, samples of all the game components, and a detailed walkthrough of a sample mission. They are organized in a fairly standard way: intro, description of components, the main mechanics of the rules stepped through in sequence-of-play order, detailed descriptions of each of the planes and munitions in the game (but not of the enemy site/bandit counters), and the sample walkthrough. As mentioned previously, here is no index or table of contents, but rules are short enough so that they aren’t really needed. Some important parts of gameplay mechanics—SO (special operations) points and pilot stress—are scattered throughout the rules, which results in a fair amount of page flipping as you learn the game, or coming back to it after some time away. Side-bar summations of these rules would be appreciated.
Some sample event cards.
Some pilot/aircraft cards: Navy on the left, Air Force on the right.
The game comes with three decks of cards: pilot/aircraft cards, target cards, and event cards. All the cards are quite nice—glossy, slick, and colorful, but with a sturdy feel (not linen-coated. C’mon! That’s too much to ask). One issue really isn’t a fault of the cards—some of the decks are small enough that they are hard-ish to shuffle (may want to sleeve them to reduce the risk of damage). Pilot/aircraft cards are double-sided, with the flip side of each card showing the same pilot at a higher experience level. A change in each of the following air-themed Leader games is that each pilot gets three cards to show all six experience levels: something missing from Phantom Leader but planned for the Deluxe version. This lack is particularly pronounced if you try to link campaigns across the course of the whole war—some pilots will never advance beyond “green”. A few of my pilot cards had some scratches that I expect came from the presses. DVG says this does happen rarely and offered to supply replacements; none of the other decks had these scratches, nor have I seen them in any of my other Leader games. So I suspect I was one of the rare cases, and they really don’t impact gameplay.
Sample player aircraft counters.
Counters are all sharp, colorful, and informative. They are standard counter stock—not flimsy or chunky. They have a glossy coating that some may not like but that I find attractive; the coating also should protect the counters from smudging. The aircraft/bandit counters use overhead views of the aircraft. Those of us used to a more plan (side) view of aircraft may find a few of the airplane types with similar overhead profiles hard to distinguish.
Air war in Vietnam: From Echoes of World War II to Glimpses of Desert Storm
In my introduction I called Phantom Leader a game of “essences.” By that I mean that it doesn’t model any one part of the air war in Vietnam in detail (let alone all of them), though it touches on the essence of most of them—both in time and scale.
The 2010 version of the game includes six campaigns, although it’s really three campaigns shown from both the USN and USAF perspectives. In the game’s world these campaigns, or campaign settings, cover the scope of the war in chunks: “War in the South” (1965), “Rolling Thunder” (1967), and “Linebacker” (1972). Each of these settings is divided into short, medium, and long campaigns of varying numbers of days, both by campaign setting and USAF or USN: the USAF medium Rolling Thunder campaign is six days while the USN’s is seven, and a USN long War in the South campaign is seven days while a USN long Linebacker campaign is twelve days. This selection isn’t all-inclusive, but you can generally understand why. Operations Arc Light and Menu were primarily conducted with strategic assets, and Operations Babylift, Bolo, and Ranch Hand were specialized events outside of the scope of Phantom Leader. Operations Pierce Arrow and Flaming Dart were smaller and generally within the scope of the War in the South, although they might have made nice single-scenario/mission settings. Perhaps most notably is the missing of Operation Barrel Roll, the covert interdiction/close-air-support campaign conducted in Laos by both USN and USAF assets.
Overall, though, the included campaign settings touch on both the largest operations and give snapshots of the conditions that existed in the air war in different phases of the larger conflict. Only the Linebacker setting has specific campaigns that stretch the length of the actual campaign (well, only if you consider it Linebacker II, and only then if you take a day off during the long campaign for Christmas). Linebacker I lasted months, the War in the South setting covers a year or so, and Rolling Thunder was actually multiple efforts (Rolling Thunder 51, 52, etc…) across some four years (although the 1967 period was the most intense).
The campaign settings elegantly represent the conditions at the three phases of the war without requiring a ton of specialized rules. While two of the settings (War in the South and Linebacker) do include a handful of special rules: these can be found right on the campaign cards themselves and are nicely brief. By changing the mix of target cards, event cards, weapons, “SO” (special operations) points—basically abstractions of extra resources, command influence, etc…—weapons, and the aircraft available, a campaign played within one setting can feel quite different from a campaign in one of the others. Even if you don’t know the history of the air war—when SAMs appeared or how to deal with them when they did, when politics at home put you in an operational and tactical straight jacket, or when “almost anything-goes” becomes the norm—you’ll quickly learn about it yourself as you operate within the campaign restrictions elegantly imposed.
Each campaign setting gets two different cards: one for the USN and one for the USAF. While both services operated in the same campaigns most of the time, the areas they operated in were segregated into “route packages” or “route packs” where only that services’ aircraft (tactical aircraft at least) would operate in. This avoided conflicting targeting and friendly fire incidents. Similar airspace coordination issues with ground forces (you don’t want to fly through an artillery bombardment) aren’t represented explicitly, but that’s really too much detail for the level of this game. Similarly, strategic-level assets (B-52s, F/B-111s) aren’t included as specific pilots/planes; at most they are abstractly represented through event cards. Things like refueling or “chaff corridors” aren’t activities you concern yourself with; as Dan Verssen points out, these would generally be part of the pre-approach phase so aren’t explicitly modeled (although you can choose to purchase “tanker priority” prior to a mission).
The game doesn’t specifically model a full USAF “strike package” or USN “alpha strike” mix of aircraft (especially later in the war when support craft might outnumber actual strikers by quite a margin), but instead focuses on the aircraft conducting the strikes themselves. The mix of aircraft you have available for a campaign are a bit odd if you think of them and their pilots as part of a single squadron under your command (although USN alpha strikes were generally put together from the same carrier, so it makes more sense in that context). But again, we’re looking at the essence of things here, and the game gives you a good feel for the mix of elements involved in a strike.
There is a fighter sweep event card. But in general, fighter aircraft in the game are restricted to strike escort, something that Shaw says in Fighter Combat: Tactics and Maneuvering is “…one of the most difficult and most frustrating missions assigned to fighters.” Still, and despite the abstract representation of a mission, you’ll find yourself developing strike escort tactics for your fighters just as they are described by Shaw, especially the close and detached escort and perhaps the remote; even in the four turns and limited number of zones in a particular mission.
Play the Game Already!
After you’ve chosen which campaign to play you’ll need to choose the pilots/aircraft in your “squadron”. The choices available for aircraft types will be limited by the time of the campaign—some aircraft weren’t available before or after certain dates. In addition to those restraints, your choices of pilots will be limited by the size of campaign (short, medium, or large) and the campaign setting—later in the war you will get more skilled and veteran pilots, and for a long campaign you’ll get more pilots across the board than you will for shorter campaigns. Each pilot has two experience levels. So if you want a pilot to have a chance of advancing during a campaign you’ll want to choose his less-experienced side, particularly if you think the aircraft he flies, and its capabilities, will be needed.
A very capable all-around pilot and fighter—use him wisely, as he’s a rare gem!
An USAF "newbie" pilot. In addition to being unskilled, he’s flying an F-105. While the frequent core of a strike package early in the war, this was an already out-classed aircraft; if you take one into your squadron you will earn 1, 2, or 3 extra “Special Operations” points for your campaign as recompense.
Aside from whether a pilot/aircraft is even available for a particular campaign setting, you’ll want to pay attention to the campaign special rules and target sets: a War in the South campaign doesn’t have enemy aircraft so pilots/aircraft specialized for air-to-air combat aren’t needed. For this campaign you want to focus on those pilots with high air-to-ground skills and the planes that can carry the best mix of ATG munitions. Similarly, you should study where the majority of targets are located. A USAF Rolling Thunder campaign will have most of its targets in Route Packs 5 or 6A (route packs with high weight penalties and high stress levels), so you’ll want aircraft with higher weight allowances and the pilots with a skill level better able to handle stress.
Once you’ve picked your pilots and started a log for you squadron you can choose to use some of your Special Operations points to “buy” extra things for your campaign. Or, you may choose to alter your campaign difficulty at the risk of losing more SO points for an easier campaign or gaining more ones for a harder campaign. You’ve pulled out all the targets, events, and sites not used in this campaign setting; shuffled everything well, and now you’re ready to go.
All set up for a long Rolling Thunder campaign.
You are now ready to start in on your cycle of missions, one per each “day” of the campaign. First you look at your “recon” level. In game terms this tells you how many target cards you can draw—the more cards, the more mission choices. Choosing a mission based on its “perceived” versus “actual” impact was quite common—aggressiveness was encouraged, except when it wasn’t throttled for political reason. (Note that all your missions are day and fair weather: while there were night missions, they generally weren’t performed by the tactical strike aircraft and weren’t very common anyhow. Similarly, the monsoon season often shut down air operations for months, and all-weather capabilities were still in their infancy and therefore aren’t represented here.)
Once you’ve drawn your targets you check your politics level—the more active you are, especially against high-profile/high-value targets, the more you stir things up politically at home. If things are too stirred up, you may be forced to choose a target with a lower “politics” rating; if none of the targets you drew are at or below the politics level, too bad—you get a rest day whether you wanted (or your score needed) it. I haven’t see this limited-set-of-tactical-events-impacts-the-strategic-level mechanic since the computer game Red Storm Rising, where your actions as a single submarine commander could move the battle lines in Europe during WW III.
You’ll now look at your target card and draw “Site” counters for the four approach and center (target location) areas. For example, with the VC Build-Up target I drew 2 sites for each of the approaches (North, East, South, and West) and three sites for the center. “Sites” can be infantry, AAA guns, and SAMs. You get to draw these before selecting pilots/munitions—consider this intel available before the mission. Choose your pilots/aircraft and munitions based on the mission target and the foreseeable threats, but keep an eye on the costs to the campaign as a whole: if you choose to spend “SO” points on a high-value weapon to make a quick kill on a low-value target, you may hamper yourself in future missions. Do you choose that experienced pilot for a low value mission even though his stress level is high, or do you keep him at home to rest?
(An aside on stress: As Special Operations points are an abstraction of a combination of factors, and so is “stress”—it’s really pilot physical/mental stress combined with pilot injury and/or plane damage. Reminder: plane and pilot are as one, you can’t kill off a pilot and keep his plane to give to another pilot, or transfer pilots between aircraft. If an aircraft is shot down, the pilot goes with it. If he’s later rescued, he comes back with his plane or, rather, one identical to the one he was flying before.)
You now draw the first event card of your mission (you’ll pull three), the “target bound event”. This represents some special event that happens just as you are prepping for your mission or flying to the mission site. Each event card is divided into three portions: the top is the target bound, the middle is the target event, and the bottom is the home-bound event. These run the gamut from political influences to extra threats popping-up, to events from the home front impacting your stress. They remind me a lot of the events in many “card driven wargames”. Getting these events can really test your ability to pick pilots/planes and munitions: did you plan for all eventualities at the risk of doing poorly on the mission, or did you go high-risk and focus on killing the target?
Now here’s another important tactical decision: where to place your planes for the best approach to the target, considering you don’t know the locations of any bandits that may be present. After doing that risky placement, you nervously draw for bandits if your campaign allows for them (War in the South does not); hopefully you get the “No Bandit” chit instead of the “MiG-21” bandit! If you have a high intel level, as tracked on your campaign map, you may be able to remove air defense elements from the map (think of this as accurately targeted SEAD/Iron Hand missions that flew in before your package). Only now do you draw your over-target event card, hoping you never see the hated “Political Considerations” card….
Now here is when you get “all down and tactical”. You’ve got four turns (generally) to fly your approach, hit your target, and fly out. Your aircraft can be at high or low altitudes, and can move one zone per turn (or choose to loiter in their current zone). How you do this is entirely up to you. There aren’t specific rules on how to conduct a particular kind of strike, or who to use to do what. But you’ll find yourself developing these tactics all on your own after a few missions make it VERY obvious that you don’t want your key strike aircraft sitting at high altitudes when SAMs are in play, that you should’ve brought more anti-radiation (anti-radar, anti-SAM!) missiles along to deal with those SAMs, and that maybe your fighters should have been on the corner approaches to deal with bandits before they can get to your strikers, or to at least draw them off.
Over the target: this is one “high threat environment”!
Each turn repeats the “Over Target” part of the sequence of play. First, do you jettison munitions and pods for maneuverability? Next, your pilots with a “fast” rating attack: hopefully you’ve given them munitions and placed them in such a manner that they can defeat threats to your much-more-common “slow” pilots. Then the enemy sites and bandits attack using some simple rules (attack closest, roll for multiple target choices). For each attack you may be able to attempt to suppress the site/bandit (at expense of munitions that might actually be able to destroy the site/bandit later) or to try to avoid the attack at the cost of added stress. Now your slow pilots get a chance to attack. You move and change altitude on your aircraft as your plan calls for, and then the “AI” bandits move (always gunning for the closest threat). Advance the turn. Repeat.
All aircraft must leave the target area in turn 4, although I found the rules for timing of egress to be unclear: can you instantly egress everyone as soon as the target is destroyed, even if they are in the “Center Area” and have yet to had site/bandit attacks applied? I assume that if you are in the center at the end of turn 4 you automatically egress, otherwise you’d spend only one turn in the target area. The rules state that if one aircraft is flown out of the tactical display, all aircraft have to be. But how does this work if some are still in the center? I handled these questions by checking on a forum or two and by applying common sense, but it’s still a weakness in the rules that could be improved.
On your way out you draw an event card and look to its home-bound section. Hopefully you’re not jumped by a bandit after you’ve depleted all your air-to-air munitions—even if you’ve got guns, they most likely have a poor chance at countering effective opponents. You now roll on the SAR (“search and rescue”) table to see if you’ve rescued your downed pilots; if so they come back with a greater or lesser degree of “stress”, and are probably not going to be much use for a day or more. Even if they are lost, don’t retire their card—events in the future may bring them back.
During the debriefing phase you handle all the bookkeeping relating to pilot stress, politics, and pilot experience. Tracking the stress is a lot of work, especially on the longer campaigns. You may not have enough stress counters of the right types to put on the pilots flying a particular mission, and you definitely won’t have enough to cover all the pilots participating in the campaign, you’ve got to track this in your log—a right nasty pain when you are trying to both add target stress costs, and to reduce stress based on a pilot’s “cool factor” and/or him having sat out the mission.
A (rare) successful mission.
The row of pilot/aircraft cards right above the Tactical Display card are the aircraft I have after the mission. The pilots to the left have lower stress levels and it climbs as you move to the right. If a pilot has enough stress to be “shaken”, I usually turn his card on its side as a quick visual reminder of pilots I might want to let rest. If a pilot card in this row is upside down (the right-most card here), that means he’s totally combat incapable—I can’t use him even if I wanted/needed to. The upside-down pilot cards next to the “Campaign” card are those who’re MIA—pretty brutal losses during this campaign!]
You now move on to the next day in your campaign, choosing either to draw a new target or to rest your squadron for a day. After the last mission you, compare your score against the range shown for that length of campaign for that setting and see how you did.
More Successful than the War?
Phantom Leader is defined by how it represents the full scope of the air war in Vietnam through a variety of abstractions and simplifications—the “essences”. There’s simply no way to model everything from the strategic geo-political impacts down to whether to shoot the AIM-7 or the AIM-9 without creating an unplayable monster. Even the well received, but much more detailed, Downtown from GMT Games doesn’t try to cover the full and total sweep of the conflict. Using this approach for this particular game (the only one I’ve played so far that covers historical instead of hypothetical events—U-Boat Leader is another) both fails and succeeds depending on which part is being analyzed.
For me the failure comes in the essence of targets and role-playing. Targets are generic; while their placement on the map might indicate a historical target, you don’t get this feeling from playing a mission. Pilots have call signs, but I really don’t connect with them—given the stress bookkeeping, I often feel more like an accountant than a leader. The game “campaigns” are really only segments of longer campaigns, and aren’t enough to develop your pilots. There are crude rules for linking campaigns, but with only two skill levels for each pilot you’re not going to go too far. In a way these two complaints are somewhat akin to the issues I have with Advanced Squad Leader (call it “genericness”). As with ASL’s “historical modules”, I think Phantom Leader would benefit from some kind of historic campaign modeled after specific targets, pilots specifically modeled after particular squadrons (albeit with modified names) and the events in their lives (pilot gets reassigned, pilot stress drops with news of birth of a child or increases with receipt of a “Dear John” letter, etc…). True, replay ability may be reduced in such a “historical module”, but enjoyment could be increased. I don’t know that this is something really incumbent on DVG, although I think it would be an opportunity. Instead, it may be something for the fan community to take on (if it hasn’t already).
The successes, though, outweigh the weaker points. I love that the system leads me into developing historical tactics on my own, without shoving them down my throat through complex rules. I was surprised to find out how naturally this happened, and how close my style of play has gotten to these historical tactics that I’ve since read about. Now, actually applying those tactics successfully is another story—it’s the old “easy to learn, hard to master”.
I’m also quite impressed by how well the event cards can bring forth the feelings and experiences I’ve read about, especially the frustrations of political straight-jacketing of operations. The use of “Special Operations” points let me feel I had some control of my operational level activities, while at the same time the limitations in aircraft and munitions (sometimes depending on the period of the war I’m playing in) left me feeling realistically hampered in my operational specifics.
Overall, I consider Phantom Leader a success. It’ll be interesting to see how or if the Deluxe version addresses any of the issues I’ve discussed; but even if it doesn’t, the current version leaves me, if nothing else, wanting to try more of the Leader series, especially the other “historical” title U-Boat Leader. Even absent those other games, Phantom Leader is definitely worth consideration on its own merits. Once you get the rules down, it can play very quickly; you can complete a single mission in 15 minutes or less. So even if you wanted to play just one mission, you’re not looking at more than half-an-hour. A long campaign will take a gamer new to the system a day or less (say 6-8 hours), a very reasonable length if you aren’t bothered by the possible generic feeling that might creep up on you. Here’s one last gameplay tip I’ve yet to try: even though this game is solitaire, I suspect it would be a lot of fun to have a friend playing at your side, especially if he or she is knowledgeable about the air war in Vietnam—just talking about the events of the game in the larger context of the war could bring it to life in a way that the solitaire system alone can’t… and might even be more fun than facing that friend across the gaming table as opponents.
Review written by: Scott Udell, Staff Writer
About Scott Udell
Scott Udell, who's been wargaming for over 30 years, now considers himself a "casual grognard"—he likes the detailed stuff, but can be happy with beer 'n' pretzels and "conflict simulations" in the fantasy and sci-fi realms. The first wargame he saw was Panzer Blitz, a heavy box in a "men's gift" section of a department store that just HAD to be filled with little tanks. Not long after he learned that such games had hexes and chits instead, a love of board wargames started. A lack of opponents, though, soon generated an interest in computer wargaming. An interest that led, years later, to a gig with Computer Games Strategy Plus as Associate Editor for wargames, strategy, and simulation, and to a variety of jobs in the military simulation world; the latest of which feeds his interest in AARs. In the last few years he's gotten back into collecting board wargames, although play-time is limited by the presence of a five year old and a dratted game-killing cat.
Forum username: Splusmer