Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Phantom Leader

In between extended bouts of scheduling for GameStorm, I managed to play a campaign from the newly released Phantom Leader solitaire wargame from Dan Verssen Games. Having played DVG's Hornet Leader II on VASSAL, I needed very little prep time to play, essentially only clipping counters and sleeving cards.

Way back in the early 90's, a fledgling GMT Games released two solitaire modern air games - Hornet Leader, focusing on carrier air operations in modern conflicts, and Thunderbolt/Apache Leader, which focused more on ground support in a land war. Dan Verssen and Gene Billingsley were the designers/developers. The games were popular, with both fetching high prices in the used market after they went out of print. I bought T/AL when I was lucky enough to find a store in San Francisco that had it in stock when I was on a business trip. I bought Hornet Leader while it was still in print, and it was the game of choice that I took on business trips back in the days before I had a laptop handy to play in the hotel room on nights I had nothing else to do.

I will assume that the reader is familiar with Hornet Leader, but for those who have never played or seen the game the core idea is that of resource management - you have a "stable" of aircraft and pilots on your carrier, who must execute a series of missions of varying size and difficulty. Each aircraft is loaded out with various modern weaponry, from air-to-air missiles to camera-guided missiles to old-fashioned iron bombs. Pilots can become "shaken" and as a result have lower combat effectiveness, and aircraft can be destroyed or damaged with a variable repair time. Missions were carried out over a generic 3x3 battlefield grid with the target in the center and both ground-based and air-based defenses in the center and the inner ring (called the "approach" area).

T/AL was a much different game in feel, although the core resource management mechanisms were left more or less intact.

Hornet Leader in particular was the recipient of a couple of campaigns published separately in GMT's C3i magazine, one concerning Iraq (original Desert Storm version) and Korea. There were also several additional weapons systems added, as well as the ability to add some extra aircraft such as stealth fighters.

When Dan Verssen struck out on his own, he began by publishing VASSAL/DTP games, some of which used the Leader system as their foundation. Of these, Hornet Leader II (HL2) was the one I picked up in the VASSAL version. There were considerable changes to the system, including the idea of Stress being point-based instead of a die roll, the elimination of separate aircraft from the pilots, and a much different combat system that was much simpler to execute. In general, I find the changes to be for the better, as the game moves along very quickly, with missions finishing in 30 minutes or so. HL2 has several add-on campaigns that add different aircraft and run from modern (post-Cold-War) campaigns to mid-80's hypothetical campaigns against the Russians. In all cases, it's assumed that the Hornets are flying against Russian hardware, if not against Russian pilots.

Phantom Leader, which was a GMT project for some time under the name Thud Leader (named after the F-105 Thunderchief, a very good ground support aircraft but a terrible fighter), is for all practical purposes the same system as HL2. All of the changes to the system are still in place, with the single exception of the Political Track which reflects the changing rules under which combat aircraft operated in Viet Nam. Taking place in the late 60's into the early 70's, the weapons systems are surprisingly similar to those in HL2, the primary exceptions being HARMs (high-speed anti-radar missiles intended to take out Surface to Air Missile launchers), which was just becoming a part of the battlefield at the time.

The game comes with six different campaigns, three of which are USAF and three of which are USN (Air Force and Navy, respectively). This is very interesting, because USN units were based in the Gulf of Tonkin and thus had a much shorter range to targets in North Viet Nam, while USAF units must travel from the Philippines or from South Viet Nam airbases. There are three periods - War in the South in 1965, Rolling Thunder in 1967, and Linebacker in 1972. Each has limits on the types of aircraft and weaponry that is available.

Once you've selected a campaign and a length (short, medium, or long, each of which varies based on the campaign), you select aircraft based on the experience levels of the pilots. The F-4 Phantom, clearly the "star" of the game and the most versatile aircraft represented, is not the only aircraft you can select, however - there are Super Sabres, Thunderchiefs, A-4s, A-6's, A-7's and other aircraft of the period. Interestingly, you gain "Special Operations" points for taking non-Phantom aircraft, which can be used for several different benefits during the campaign.

Each mission in the campaign follows the same sequence of play, divided into Pre-Mission, Mission, and Post-Mission phases. Pre-Mission involves selecting a target, chosen based on the Recon level (which initially allows you to choose from one of three targets). You can also use SO points to draw extras if you wish. There is also a Political Track which dictates which targets you are allowed to attack - bigger targets tend to require a higher political level, which becomes harder to maintain if you choose targets of high political value. You also draw the air-to-ground defenses, which consist of AA, SAMs, and small arms fire from infantry at this time. Finally, you choose which pilots you wish to take and load them up with ordnance, each of which has Load Points. Different targets will require more fuel and thus fewer Load Points available, making some targets more difficult to destroy.

The mission itself involves determining if there is a Target-Bound event (which can be good or bad), finding out if there are enemy aircraft over the target, placing your aircraft on the battle grid, seeing how good your intel was (again, sometimes good, sometimes bad), and if you've gained enough Intel points for destroying various targets, you may be able to remove a ground-based Site or an air-based Bandit. Then the combat starts in earnest.

In HL, pilots were rated Aggressive, Normal, or Defensive. In PL, they are either Fast or Slow. This is important, because enemy sites and bandits fire *after* Fast pilots and before Slow ones. Also in HL, any HARMs fired were done before the SAMS did (as they reacted to Lock-Ons immediately), but in PL the tech isn't quite there yet, so they fire as any other weapons package. Combat consists of rolling a d10 and trying to hit various target numbers. For enemy fire, each firing unit has a three number rating. If they hit the highest number, the target aircraft is destroyed. The middle number damages the aircraft (effectively taking it out of the combat, although it can stay over target), and the lowest number simply adds stress to the target pilot. Target aircraft in this case may roll to see if their Electronic Counter Measure pods spoil the attack, may go evasive, and/or may have any aircraft in range try to suppress the attack by firing ordnance at the firing unit.

The Phantoms (and other aircraft) by comparison are simply trying to generate hits. If on the target, the number on the weapon package may have from one to three numbers, and hitting that number or higher generates one or more hits. For example, a Mk 84 Iron Bomb has a rating of 5/7/8, which means a 5 or 6 causes one hit, a 7 causes 2 hits, and an 8 or higher causes 3. These numbers may be modified by the pilot's skill at air-to-air or air-to-ground combat, sometimes in a negative way. If you hit a site or bandit, it's destroyed. If you hit the target, it takes that many hits. If you get enough hits on the target, it's considered destroyed, and if you come back with all of your aircraft the mission is considered a success and generates a number of victory points. Once all of this folderol is done, you can move your aircraft one area, change altitude (which will affect which weapons you can deploy and which sites can attack you), and the enemy bandits move as well.

Your aircraft have up to four turns over target. Once they decide to get the heck out of Dodge, the Mission part is over. Post-Mission consists mostly of checking for Post-Mission events (hold a couple of weapons in case you run into enemy forces on the way back, which are highly abstracted) and then some admin tasks to figure pilot stress for the mission, experience points, and to see if any pilots that ejected over target require search and rescue. Pilots that get enough XP to flip to their reverse sides get improved stats and a higher experience rating.

Once you've completed the requisite number of missions, you compare your VP to the mission goals and see how you did. There are five levels of success, ranging from "Great" to "Really Not Great". Or something. In my 6 mission USAF medium length Rolling Thunder campaign, I scored 15 VP, enough for Good but three points short of Great. Looking back, I would have needed to have been aggressive with my target selection in order to get a Great result, but I almost certainly would have had more difficulty choosing targets as most of these lower your Political points significantly.

So how did I like the game? I've had very mixed results with DVG games, to be honest. I've really enjoyed his Field Commander series, and despite intellectually understanding that Down In Flames (which he has republished - GMT published four games under this moniker as well) is not much of a simulation and often not much of a game, it is still a sentimental favorite. I find the rules often overly simplistic and hard to parse at times. PL did a very good job of organizing the rules (although I would have put the rules for the ECM Pods in the combat section), although I was more or less familiar with the system before even starting so I'm a bad person to judge.

The counters are larger in PL than in HL, and the 22x17" map has been broken out into three separate 8.5x11" heavy cardstock sheets. Cards are much higher quality than in the original HL game, with rounded corners and a heavier stock, although I recommend you sleeve the Event and Target cards. There are no more Campaign cards, the information for which is now on the various play aids.

When I first got HL2, I was very confused by the way that things were done compared to HL, but once I figured out the system I found it to be very straightforward. In HL, bandits and sites operated differently from each other, but now they work exactly the same. Having more control over things like stress reduction and choosing targets makes for a game with more control, which is always a good thing. Many of the weapons (smart bombs, guided ATG missiles) require use of the SO points, so there's an additional resource management element that I find I really like. Do I load up on long-range missiles to avoid having to face heavy AA, or save the points so that I can make sure the pilots all get extra R&R to relieve the stress levels? In HL, you got a mission and did it, and how quickly pilots recovered was not up to you. Now it's something you can do something about.

The other thing I'm very happy about is that you can play as Navy or Air Force, which have different aircraft (other than Phantoms, and even then there are a lot of similarities other than the lack of gun pods on the Navy aircraft through Rolling Thunder). Being able to mix and match aircraft is nice as well, allowing you to have more mission-specific aircraft (A-6's for ground attack but useless for air combat, for example).

All in all, I think that while this is really not a significantly different game in execution than HL2, it does have the benefit of being a professionally published game as opposed to VASSAL or DTP. I really prefer to have a physical game under my fingers, especially since I can put the game into my poster frames and thus in the art trays I use to store games in progress. I find that these games play faster as well since I don't have to fiddle with using the mouse for everything.

Having dipped my toes into the Downtown system a year or so ago, I am very interested in the Viet Nam air war, and I'm happy to have a game that I have an opponent for (me). While it's nowhere near as detailed as Downtown, it does scratch the itch to a certain extent.

If you played HL or T/AL years ago and are looking for a new game that has evolved in some really neat ways, this is an excellent choice for you. If you want a game that you can play for an hour or two then put away, playing a campaign over a few nights, this is also a good game, and very portable if you travel. However, if you're looking for a detailed simulation, this does some things very well and abstracts quite a few others. Viet Nam era bombing raids were very involved, with fighter sweeps, Iron Hand missions to take out ground defenses, and photo recon runs after the fact. PL will not simulate any of these in anything other than the highest level of abstraction, so if you want a game that does those things I recommend Downtown if you can handle the complexity and prep time requirements.

All in all, no surprises here from HL2, which is a Good Thing. So far I have played three of DVG's solitaire systems, and I've enjoyed all three of them.

Even better, this counted as my solitaire wargame for March, so I got it out of the way quickly and easily!

1 comment:

Torsten said...

Thanks for posting your opinion on Phantom Leader! I'm considering buying it and your post might make the difference :)