The Leader Series from Dan Verssen Games is a very interesting solitaire system that has tackled some very interesting topics including WWII air combat operations in Corsair Leader and the recent Zero Leader, modern air combat operations in Hornet Leader and Thunderbolt Apache Leader, WWII ground combat in Sherman Leader and Tiger Leader as well as WWII submarine combat in Gato Leader and U-Boat Leader. Recently, I caught wind of a totally new system that would attempt to model Cold War era naval Task Forces in the aptly named Spruance Leader which is currently on Kickstarter. We were interested in the details and reached out to the designer Dean Brown to get an inside look at the game.

If you are interested in Spruance Leader: The Cold War Fleet Combat Solitaire Strategy Game, you can order a copy from the Kickstarter page at the following link:

Grant: First off Dean please tell us a little about yourself. What are your hobbies? What’s your day job?

Dean: I am 57 years old, married, and a systems engineer for a defense contractor. I like reading about history, primarily WW2 history. And, of course, I enjoy playing wargames.

Grant: What motivated you to break into game design? What have you enjoyed most about the experience thus far?

Dean: I purchased U-Boat Leader by DVG 10 years ago. I had just started purchasing wargames, and I really enjoyed U-Boat Leader. I started creating helper files, and then created game variants and posted them. From there, I approached Dan Verssen about creating a B-17 WW2 Leader game. Which led to my first standalone boardgame design B-17 Flying Fortress Leader.

Grant: What designers have influenced your style?

Dean: The primary designer that influenced me was Dan Verssen. The B-17 FFL game I designed, and Spruance Leader which is now on Kickstarter, are part of the DVG Leader Series. Dan helped guide me when designing B-17 Flying Fortress Leader to make it the best game I could, and helped ensure that it “felt” like a Leader game.

Grant: What do you find most challenging about the design process? What do you feel you do really well?

Dean: I think that most designers would agree that the most challenging part of the design process is writing the rulebook in a clear manner. It takes a fair amount of time to organize and write it. However, writing the rulebook does help identify design issues or overly complex design aspects. What I really enjoy is converting the game objectives and my historical research into a game prototype that brings to life some of the decisions that real commanders have to make.

Grant: Why did you want to design a game around the face off of the US and Soviet ships, subs, and aircraft in the Cold War era?

Dean: One of my favorite video games that I played on my Commodore 64 was MicroProse’s Red Storm Rising. You are a sub commander tasked with destroying Soviet surface and submarine forces to accomplish missions, where each mission contributed to winning the war. The fun part was taking on a Soviet task force of both ships and subs, detecting the ships and subs, and then determine the best way to attack them. I created a SSN sub expansion that really does capture the feel of the Red Storm Rising game.

Grant: What type of research did you do for the history of the game? What one source would you recommend?

Dean: The difficult part of designing a Cold War naval game is that there was actually no naval war. But there was a lot of thinking done by the DOD to define and evolve the US Maritime strategy. The Naval War College Newport Papers published several papers on the Evolution of the U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy throughout the late 70’s and 80’s. They provided a lot of insight into how the DOD thought a naval war might unfold. Plus, I purchased about 20 books, including Janes Fighting Ships.

Grant: How long have you been designing the game? What are some specific examples of design challenges you overcame?

Dean: I have been working on some version of the game for about 2 years. My initial objectives were pretty high. To make the game more operational and to have task forces maneuvering at sea. But the resulting game ended up being more complex than the typical Leader game, so I had to scale back the game. The hardest part was figuring out how to manage naval combat between the Task Force and enemy ships and subs. I wanted the encounters to be dynamic where the enemy ships and subs close on the task force, detect the ships, and then attack. It took some time to pull together the Task Force setup and the range/azimuth display. Another challenge was designing the game system so that I could support ship, SSN, and Carrier squadron combat to support the SSN and Carrier expansions.

Grant: I know the game is a Leader Series game. Is it difficult to design a game in an established system? Why or why not?

Dean: Designing within an established system is both easier and more difficult. The easy part is that the Leader System provides the core combat concepts for the game, so that I don’t need to start from scratch. The ship skill levels and corresponding attributes were easy to define and create. The harder part is to design a Leader game that still meets my design objectives, but doesn’t feel like a reskinned Leader game. I was able to add some tweaks to the system to help differentiate the Task Force ships and make the naval battle a little more dynamic.

Grant: Do you feel that your creativity is stifled having to stay within the system?

Dean: As mentioned earlier, I had hoped to make the game more operational where the Task Force maneuvers on a map to reach the target. But feedback indicated that it was too complex for a Leader game, so I removed that aspect from the game. There were some tweaks made to make the Tactical Encounters more interesting and to make the ships more distinctive, but they still fit within the overall Leader system.

Grant: What mechanics, rules or game characteristics are common to the Spruance Leader and other games in the series?

Dean: The core Leader Series game focuses on mission planning around a selected target, which involves selecting the appropriate units for a particular mission, purchasing ordnance, and managing stress that your units accumulate as the campaign progresses. Spruance Leader has various ship types, ordnance, and stress that maintains that focus. It also maintains the 6 skill levels, where your ships gain experience throughout the campaign and increase their combat skills.

Grant: What new elements does this game introduce to the Leader Series?

Dean: There are a couple of new elements added to Spruance Leader to make the Naval Battles more dynamic. Borrowing a page from Warfighter, each ship and the Task Force commander can perform actions during their turn. Actions include performing detection, attacking enemy units, launching and retrieving helicopters, rescuing crew, repairing damage, moving the task force,… This allows the player to develop a strategy utilizing each Task Force’s ships strengths to destroy the Soviet enemy task force. Each Task Force also has a Task Force Commander that has special actions they can perform as they level up in skill.

Grant: Were there any rules that needed to be adjusted for a naval game?

Dean: There are some parallels between Spruance Leader and Tiger/Sherman Leader by DVG. Enemy units are placed on a hex map, along with your ground, vehicles, and armored units, and each side takes turns maneuvering within the terrain and firing at each other. Spruance Leader follows a similar model, except your Task Force is basically split into a Screening Force, Main Force, and Supported/Protected Force that typically stay in the same formation during the battle. But the enemy units can move, detect, and attack your TF ships. So there are a lot of similarities between Naval battle and land battles. However, Naval combat needs to worry about air, sea, and undersea units, which requires ships that can attack all threat areas.

Grant: How do players decide the makeup of each of their Task Forces?

Dean: The Campaign defines how many Special Option (SO) points that the player gets at the start of the Campaign, and for each mission. Typically, the larger the ship, the more damage and stress it can handle before becoming unfit or sunk. Although the Frigates are weaker than the cruisers and destroyers, they still have significant firepower for a much cheaper SO cost. So a balanced force of different ship types is required to take on a range of Soviet forces.

Grant: What are the different positions within each Task Force and why are they important?

Dean: There are basically three different positions in the Task Force; the Screening Force, Main Force, and the Supported/Protected Force. You choose which position to place your Task Force Ships.

The Screening Force is the force out in front of the Main Force, and operates Fast (i.e. before the enemy forces). They also suffer more Stress. They are more likely to be attacked, but also get a +1 detect modifier for enemy ships and subs.

The Main Force ships are slow (i.e. perform actions after the enemy forces).

The Supported/Protected Force ships don’t perform any actions (except for Carriers), are less likely to be attacked, but lose stress during an encounter.

For longer missions where there are multiple enemy encounters, the player can reshuffle their Task Force positions around based on current Ship Stress levels.

Grant: How much of the game is about building the correct Task Force for the job?

Dean: Mission Planning for a particular Target is a critical component in Spruance Leader, as it is in all Leader games. Success means that picking the proper ships and ordnance. Each ship has various strengths and weaknesses when it comes to attacking enemy aircraft, ships, and subs. In addition, some ships can carry and launch helicopters to help detect and attack enemy subs beyond the Task Force range. Because there is a limited number of SO points available, selecting the right ordnance for each ship is critical to success. Several of the Cruisers and Destroyers support can fire TASMs (RGM-109) that have a longer range, allowing Soviet ships to be detected and destroyed outside of their weapon range. Ships with Helicopters allow long-range detection and attack of Soviet Subs without endangering the Task Force.

Grant: How does the player buy units to add to their Task Force?

Dean: The Campaign starts with a number of Special Option (SO) points to purchase their initial Task Force units, including Helicopters. For the Carrier expansion, you can use SO points to purchase Carrier Squadrons. Prior to each mission (performed weekly), the weekly SO points can be used to purchase ordnance, with leftover SO points used to purchase additional units for the Task Force.

Grant: What Core Ship Types are available to the player?

Dean: There are a variety of Cruisers, Destroyers, and Frigates in the core game. The cruisers are the Ticonderoga, Virginia, Belknap, and Leahy Classes. The Ticos have the Missile Shield capability that when in the Screening Force provides missile defense for the entire Task Force. The destroyers are the Spruance, Kidd, Farragut, and Charles F. Adams classes. The frigates are the Oliver Hazard Perry, Garcia, and Knox classes. The Kickstarter Stretch Goal for the Iowa and Missouri was reached, so the Battleships will provide close-in gunnery support.

Grant: What role does the Tactical Display play in the game?

Dean: The Tactical Display is where all the Tactical Encounters occur. Enemy ships, subs, and aircraft are placed on the Tactical Display, and the player’s Task Force and Enemy units take turns performing actions and attempting to destroy each other. While the Tactical Display has various Azimuth and Range cells, subs can also be at normal depth or deep (i.e. below the Thermal Layer). The Tactical Display also has pots for various cards, tables for enemy unit placement and movement, and the Sequence of Play. Basically, the Tactical Display is the focus for resolving naval combat.

Grant: What is the player looking for when selecting a Commander?

Dean: The Task Force Commanders are given Fast and/or Slow Actions that they can perform anytime during the encounter. Each Commander has a core set of General Actions, and based on their focus area have some specialized actions that they can perform to help meet their Mission Objectives.

Grant: Can you show us a few examples of the Commander cards and describe their differences?

Dean: The picture below shows the highest skill level of each Task Force Commander type, including their Specialized Actions they can perform. The 6 focus areas summarize the impact of the specialized actions on the Tactical Encounters.

Grant: How do players use the Target Deck?

Dean: The selected Campaign provides a map and location of Targets on the map. At the start of the Campaign, the player creates a Target Deck using the numbers on the map that correspond to Target numbers. At the start of each mission, the player draws 2 Target Cards (unless the first Target number is in Red on the map), and chooses which Target they wish to attack.

Each Target location corresponds to the area on the Campaign map where the Target number is listed. In some cases, this may be close to the Task Force base, in other cases the farthest away from the base. As the Task Force enters each Campaign Map area, there is the potential of having random encounters (based on the Campaign Task Force and Activity tracks). The Player must fight through each random encounter until they reach the Target area.

Grant: How are Targets attacked and how are they destroyed?

Dean: Each Target Card identifies how many Victory Points (VPs) can be earned for destroying the Target, as well as its influence on the Task Force, Activity, or War tracks on the Campaign, which can help reduce the number of random encounters. The Target card identifies the individual units that make up the target, so when the target is reached, the Target encounter is setup and the Task Force attempts to destroy it. The Target card identifies what needs to be destroyed to earn the VPs.
As mentioned earlier, the enemy ships and subs move, attempt to detect Task Force ships, and destroy the detected ships. Destroying the Soviet forces while minimizing ship damage or destruction is critical to long term Campaign success.

Grant: How does the buildup of stress effect the game? How can players manage the stress?

Dean: Stress in the Leader Series represents the reduction of capability as your units participate in combat. AS Stress accumulates, a unit can become Shaken (reduced combat capability) or Unfit (unable to participate in combat). Stress is applied a little differently in Spruance Leader, where the position of each ship in the Task Force can add more stress (Screening Force), or reduce stress (Protected Force). So Stress is one factor to evaluate when setting up your Task Force. Each enemy encounter adds Stress, which accumulates as the Campaign progresses. So there may be times where ships must be rested instead of going on a critical mission. So Stress management is critical to success in the Campaign.

Grant: What campaigns are included in Spruance Leader?

Dean: Spruance Leader consists of Cold War Naval Combat. Because there wasn’t an actual war, creating Campaigns was a little challenging. The U.S. Navy’s Maritime Strategy document did help identify Soviet and US strategies in multiple theaters, which helped me create the Campaigns. There are various theaters (Atlantic, Mediterranean, and Pacific) and types (war, protecting sea lanes, holding the line, sinking the Kirov,…). There are also Campaigns for the Carrier and SSN.

Grant: What type of stretch goals are included in the Kickstarter campaign?

Dean: There are some pretty exciting stretch goals, including some optional components that make the game more realistic (sensor performance cards), Allied ships, and new Campaigns that add more ship cards.

Grant: What do you feel the game does really well in the historic simulation of naval operations in the Cold War?

Dean: It is interesting seeing how certain ship classes are obviously optimized to conduct anti-surface warfare (ASuW), anti-sub warfare (ASW), or anti-air warfare (AAW). It is challenging to create a Task Force to balance all the different types of Soviet ships, subs, and aircraft that could be encountered on the mission.

Grant: What other games are you currently working or plan to work on?

Dean: I have some notes written down on a variety of games, but I’m not seriously working on anything right now. Dan and I talked about moving the Spruance Leader system to WW2, which I am excited about. We also talked about creating some Spruance Leader expansions to handle more contemporary Naval combat. But I’m looking forward to taking a break and playing more wargames after Spruance Leader is sent to the printer.

Thanks for your time in answering our questions Dean. I am very excited to see how this one turns out and to get it to my table to see how it plays.

If you are interested in Spruance Leader: The Cold War Fleet Combat Solitaire Strategy Game, you can order a copy from the Kickstarter page at the following link: