Solitaire Sunday has been filled with a couple of games in recent weeks, one of my favourite of which is Phantom Leader Deluxe by Dan Verssen Games. This one is a tactical level game about individual planes and pilots from a single squadron of your choosing flying missions over targets in Vietnam, and now in the deluxe edition also during the Cuban missile crisis. If you’re looking for differences between this and the first edition printing of the game, the major differences are the added campaigns, there’s 4 different campaigns but they’re flyable by either military branch, USN or USAF, which both have very different planes, pilots and therefore tactics. The other major difference is that the game now has double the pilot cards and each pilot has all 6 levels of skill, as well as a mounted tactical display shown below. There’s just more of everything, which is a big plus for solitaire games, because the more there is the more I can replay it!
I decided to do the campaigns chronologically because I enjoy the story these types of games tell, and playing through the course of the war has been a fascinating experience. I chose to do US Navy all the way through and my next play through will be with the US Air Force, I did this because I wanted to gain a familiarity with the different planes and have that knowledge carry across so I could make more informed decisions during later campaigns.
So much of the greatness of this game and, I presume, other titles in the series [Thunderbolt Apache Leader, Hornet Leader, U-boat and Gato Leader..] hinges on the decision making. Another favourite solitaire game of mine is Silent Victory, by GMT games which has much less decision making, and is almost purely about the narrative and the stories that come out of the dice. But Dan Verssen has created something so much more than that here, there are so many important decisions to be made, and so many options to chose from the game feels huge even though it’s not overly complicated. And the best part is that all of these decisions are key to the narrative that you create, and each option you chose will indelibly alter the course of your story as squadron commander.
Pictured above are the munitions tokens, each of which are double sided and constitute about 1/4 of the tokens in the game. To the right is my campaign sheet that logs pilots’ stress, victory points earned, and other important information. There’s hundreds of pilots cards to chose from to build your squadron, and then there’s hundreds of ways to arm those pilots after you’ve decided which ones to take with you. Then you have to decide how best to approach the target and figure out your flight/tactics in an almost puzzle like way. A very rewarding experience.
Create your own narrative
This game is one where you create the narrative, if you pick and assign the wrong pilots, if you arm them in a unique way, if you make crazy tactical decisions, these will all form the story of your campaign. The dice in this game are just a support, and to throw some spice into the story. I’ve felt like a passenger being taken along for the ride in other games, but this puts you in the driving seat. This makes planning so much fun. I routinely spend three to four times as long planning my missions and arming my planes than I do flying them. Not that flying missions isn’t fun, it’s also riddled with decisions and spanners being thrown into the works of your meticulously laid plans. It’s just that once you become practiced at the sequence of play you become efficient and doing them.
There’s nothing like the feeling of laying down the pain and seeing all that planning come to fruition. Above you can see the pilots on approach and a few rounds later having bombed the target. The tactical combat is actually really well done, display is a form of puzzle where you try to minimize the exposure to enemy AA sites and to try and pick off bandits before they can pick you off. It’s not an overly complex system that you have to keep looking at the rules for, and mostly its quite organic. I particularly like this, as it allows me to focus on the game rather than the rules crunching.
- So many decisions that affect gameplay
- A ton of replay ability
- counters are really thick stock – they’re not going anywhere
- Some of the counter sheets weren’t centered very well
- Artwork on the target cards [only] is a little lackluster
Clearly I really like this game, it was hard to find things I didn’t like because it’s just so much fun to play. Preparing, flying and upgrading pilots is just a great experience. I’ve always loved aerial combat and this is tactical airstrikes in a box, I love it.