Reviewed by James Davis
ZERO LEADER (Dan Verssen Games [DVG}, 1 player, ages 12 and up, 45-120 minutes; $109.99)
In high school, while I was blissfully happy playing games, Dan Verssen was designing them. He tried his friend’s patience often by making up new rules for Dungeons & Dragons. He took many existing games he loved and added his own rules. And eventually he started making his own. Dan was born to design games. I would be completely unsurprised if at the age of five he was inventing rules for Candyland.
And he is very good at it. To date, he has designed over 100 games. And he’s won many awards for doing so. In fact, his first awards (notice the plural) were given for his first published game design: Modern Naval Battles, published by 3W. These awards included the 1989 Charles S. Roberts Award for Best Post- World War II or Modern Game. This was his first – he’s won a few more “Charlies” since. He went on to work for many game companies such as GMT, Avalon Hill, Decision Games and others. He created the Down in Flames series as well as the very popular solitaire games, Hornet Leader and Apache/Thunderbolt Leader.
In 2002, he and his wife, Holly, decided to stop working for the “man” and created their own company: Dan Verssen Games (DVG). They started very small, working out of their house and storing the games in the garage and various nooks and crannies. They then went on to a small storage unit. Then a bigger one, and a bigger one, etc. They now have 6,000 square feet of storage, a devoted following, and an established presence in the gaming community.
I own and have enjoyed playing many of his games over the years. And his solitaire games have especially been helping me keep (mostly) sane during the pandemic’s social distancing. I especially like his Warfighter series, and I found Fleet Commander: Nimitz to be very fun. And of course, Corsair Leader, a reworked version of his original Hornet Leader. And Zero Leader, which was published this year.
This is a review of Zero Leader but is effectively also a review of Corsair Leader, because the rules are almost the same. There are some needed details made to Zero Leader to reflect the historical differences between the US squadrons and those of the Imperial Japanese squadrons. Including new and very welcome crossover rules to combine both into a two-player competitive game.
One thing you will notice is that Dan Verssen is not the game designer for Zero Leader. Instead, Chuck Seegert has that title. He is a wargamer and self-proclaimed “WWII nerd”, who also loves to alter game rules and come up with his own designs. He worked hand in hand with Kevin Verssen and Sarah Eandi at DVG to develop the game, using Dan Verssen’s design of Corsair Leader as a starting point.
The object for both games is to take a squadron of pilots on a series of missions to take down as many targets as possible, all the while trying to help your squadron survive and gain experience. Within historical limitations, you have full control over what type of aircraft, weapons and strategies you use for each mission.
The primary area of the tactical game board is a map with many boxes. The center box is the target area and where you place a target card containing the target’s information. Around the center area are four boxes towards each cardinal point. These boxes comprise the approach area. Outside of that is the pre-approach area with eight boxes. Four of them, again at each cardinal point, share a single border with each approach area box. The remaining four, in the corners, share borders between two adjacent approach area boxes. Your aircraft and the enemy’s bandits and sites will be placed in these boxes to simulate relative location with each other.
And there are cards. There are a lot of cards. A veritable plethora of cards. But don’t let that intimidate you. There are only three types of cards in the game: Pilots, Target and Event. The vast majority of cards are your pilots, but you will only need around ten pilot cards for each campaign. Both Corsair Leader and Zero Leader give you an impressive number of aircraft to pilot, based on the actual fighters and bombers used in the Pacific during WWII. Each aircraft has six to twelve pilots you can choose from. And each pilot is represented by three double-sided cards that are used to show that pilots’ experience level: Newbie, Green, Average, Skilled, Veteran and Legendary. Thus, the reason for so many pilot cards. But sort them well and you’ll have no problems finding which cards you need to play.
To begin a game of Zero Leader, you choose one of fifteen campaign sheets and choose the length of the campaign. For the Pearl Harbor introductory campaign, this translates to either 2, 3 or 4 “days”. Each day your pilots will fly one, or possibly two missions. In the expert level Home Island Defense campaign, set in 1945, your choices are 6, 9 or 12 days. Your choice will also give you a number of Special Option (SO) points to spend to create your squadron. The Midway campaign, for example, gives you 12 SO for the short, 18 for the medium and 24 for the long game.
Throughout the rules, you will see notations such as this: “Pilot Skills: 1/2/3”. The three numbers reference the choice of game length. So, if you chose a medium length game, the cost of adding a pilot skill would be 2. A rather clever and easily understood method of determining costs. I mention this because you will be using the SO points to purchase a number of options, such as pilot promotions, skills, maintenance crews, and special weapons for the mission.
The campaign sheet will list the numbers of specific target cards that should be used. Find those numbered cards, shuffle the resultant deck and place it on the game board. All cards in the event deck are used for each game, so just shuffle them and you are set.
You’ll then need to find the counters that will be used to represent the enemy. The enemy fighters are called bandits. Each bandit counter has a year listed on it and the campaign sheet also lists which bandits and bombers to use, such as the P-39 or F4F. Match up the type of bandits with the year of the campaign and set them all in a cup to be drawn randomly. Some campaigns require you to adjust the counter mix before playing, so make sure you check that.
When you choose your pilots for the scenario, I would suggest you look over the appendix where you’ll find a very good description of each of your aircraft, such as the Mitsubishi A6M2 Model 0 Zero‐Sen “Zero” or the Aichi D3A Type 99 “Val”. It will give you a better idea of the capabilities of your squadron, and help you to better match your pilots with the requirements of the campaign. You are limited in your choice by which campaign you’ve picked, based on historical availability. The Pearl Harbor and Midway campaigns, for example, allow only the A6M2 “Zero”, D3A “Val” and B5N “Kate” aircraft. While the Home Island Defense campaign lets you to choose from a list of 9 different aircraft.
The setup isn’t at all arduous as I’m making it sound, once you get the hang of it. But the first game will be a bit of a slog as you punch and sort and bag and organize.
The sequence of play is simple: Pre-Flight, Target-Bound Flight, Over-Target Resolution, Home-Bound Flight and Debriefing. The Over-Target Resolution is where most of the action takes place, and is repeated up to 5 times before moving on to the Home-Bound Flight phase. So, let’s take them in order.
This is where you determine what the mission will be. Depending on the campaign it could be anything from sinking a carrier to bombing an airstrip to taking out a fleet of bombers. On each campaign sheet there are two tracks: Recon and Intel. As you take out targets, these tracks will increase. The recon track shows a number that limits the amount of target cards you can draw during this phase. You can draw over this limit by spending SO points. I’ll explain the Intel track later.
Draw the cards one at a time. If you draw a card with the word “Scramble” it automatically becomes your primary mission, you don’t get to choose. If you have drawn a card with the word “Secondary” you can choose it as a second mission during this day. But a single fighter cannot fly in both missions, you’ll have to separate them into two teams.
The target card shows how many enemy bandits and sites will appear. You only set out the sites during this phase. The bandits show up in the next step. Sites are almost always anti-aircraft gun emplacements. The bandit counters are double sided. A bandit on one side and a site on the other. Some of the counters show “No Bandit” or “No Site”. Just toss them back in the cup; you lucked out.
And then choose who among your squadron of pilots you’ll be sending on this flight. Allocate weapons, spend SO points and place tokens representing the pilot’s abilities.
Draw an event card. The event cards have three rows or sections: top, middle and bottom. These rows represent events occurring on the way to the target (top), over the target (middle), and on the way home (bottom). All effects are immediate, but there are a few that can be kept and used later.
Next you set out your pilots anywhere in the pre-approach area. Some sites can attack into an adjacent box, and so you’ll want to avoid any deadly overlap. After you set out your pilots, you set out the bandits, using the same method used for the sites. The campaign sheet has a numbered track called “Intel” as I mentioned above. You can remove that number of bandits from the mission. This simulates pre-existing intelligence about the enemy’s position and tactics.
You then draw a second event card and follow the middle section’s text that will affect the…
As mentioned, this is the main event. It is repeated up to five times before you move on to the Home-Bound Flight phase. I’ll be glossing over many details here in the interest of keeping your interest. Here’s the basic overview:
- Dive bombers and Kamikaze dive to low. This is in preparation to attack the target later in the turn. Doing so will add some significant modifiers to your roll. Otherwise, your aircraft can not change their altitude.
- Fast pilots attack. Pilots are either fast or slow, and typically they are all slow until they reach the higher experience levels. Each fast pilot you have attacks one enemy or the target. You use air-to-ground weapons for targets and sites, and air-to-air weapons and the dogfighting rules (see below) for the bandits.
- Sites and bandits attack. Each bandit and site counter on the map attack a single aircraft. Sites are limited by range and altitude and bandits can only attack in their same area. You have a way to react to these attacks with your unengaged aircraft by canceling a hit at the expense of adding stress.
- Slow pilots attack. Exactly the same as the fast pilots. Only slower.
- Aircraft move. Your pilots can move to an adjacent area.
- Bandits move. The AI rules are simple and logical. They move with the attempt to engage.
- Advance the turn counter. If the counter is on the fifth box, or the target is destroyed, then move to the Home-Bound Flight phase. If not, rinse and repeat.
The first thing to understand about the dogfighting rules is positioning. The pilots and bandits can be either engaged (actively gunning for each other), or unengaged (looking for a target). If a pilot or bandit is engaged, then you push the counters together on the map board and orient them in one of five positions: Tailing, Advantaged, Neutral, Disadvantaged and Tailed.
If the plane counters are pointed towards each other’s noses, then they are neutral to each other. This is also the initial position when first engaged. If your pilot is pointed towards a bandit’s side, then you are advantaged and it is disadvantaged. And if you are pointing towards the tail of the bandit, you are tailing and it is being tailed. This is an elegant way to abstract the complicated push and pull of a dogfight.
Maneuvers are made for engaged aircraft by consulting the Dogfight table. You choose a maneuver from the table, such as “Tight Turn” or “In My Sights”, and then roll a d10 and hope for a high number. The roll is modified by both your pilot’s and the bandit’s air-to-air modifiers as well as your aircraft’s maneuverability rating. The result will either increase or decrease your position with your enemy and/or add a bonus to your attack roll.
Each maneuver is quite different and the choice makes a big difference to the outcome. The “Tight Turn”, for example, is a very reserved maneuver and is the only one that won’t decrease your position, no matter how horribly the dice hate you. While the “Out of the Sun” maneuver could seriously wreck your position if you roll low, or it could give you a +4 attack bonus. The bandits use the same table, but their maneuvers are chosen randomly based on which position they currently have.
If the attacking fighter is not Disadvantaged or Tailed, then it can attack with a d10 modified by the air-to-air modifiers of both planes, and you get a +1 if advantaged or a +3 if tailing. You then compare it to the fighter’s attack number. For your pilots it is his Guns rating, which is typically an 8. If you equal or exceed that number, then you have a dead bandit.
For the bandits and sites, it is a range like this: 3/6/7. This means that a 1 or 2 misses, a 3 to 4 adds a stress to your pilot, a 5 (always the middle number minus one) inflicts a stress and minor damage, a 6 means your fighter is damaged and a 7 or more destroys it.
Your bombers also have a range of numbers on the weapon counters but the damage is different. A 500# bomb’s attack numbers are 7/10, meaning a roll of 1 through 6 misses, 7 to 9 is one hit and a 10 is two hits. All enemy sites take one hit to destroy. Targets have a range of hit points. An ammo dump or fuel depot have 4 while a troop ship will be 6, for example.
One thing that is new in Zero Leader is the addition of an Aggression number to the Japanese pilots. At the expense of adding stress to your pilot, instead of one die you can roll two dice when you attack and choose the better. Not all pilots can do this, but those that do have a range from 0 to 2 which is added to the chosen die roll.
Draw an event card and follow the bottom row’s instructions.
Bookkeeping! Gain victory points, adjust the recon and intel counters, maintain your aircraft, try to mitigate your pilot’s stress and promote your pilots if they received enough experience points.
The maintenance rules are new for Zero Leader. You start with a certain number of maintenance crews and you can spend SO points for more before the campaign. Each of your aircraft that returns requires maintenance and each maintenance crew can work on two of them. They can also do other things, such as remove damage counters. You can force them to work a second shift if needed, with the likely possibility they will not be available for the next mission. The maintenance crews are invaluable when your fleet becomes chewed up, and you’ll be wishing you had more.
If your campaign has another day to run a mission, start over at Pre-Flight. Otherwise, compare your victory point score to a table based on the campaign’s length to see how well you did.
I really enjoy the incredible amount of detail in this game. The statistics for each of the aircraft and sites are well researched and designed to emulate their historical counterparts. And the difference between weapons and types of aircraft are quite noticeable as you play, as they should be with a good simulation.
Chuck’s crossover rules for combining Corsair Leader and Zero Leader together to make a two-player competitive game is something I very much want to play. He’s included detailed rules and the needed charts to convert each game’s solitaire AI rules to allow each side to act as the opponent to the other. You will of course need a copy of each game to do this.
And there are three expansions to Zero Leader: Trainee, Aces and China. The trainee and aces expansions add additional experience levels to your pilots. The China expansion comes with new aircraft, weapons and campaigns to simulate the Japanese missions over Burma, Singapore, China and Malaya during 1941 and ‘42.
I think Chuck Seegert did an excellent job studying the innumerable details of the Imperial Japanese fleet and converting them into Dan Verssen’s game system. And his addition of rules to simulate each aircraft’s differences adds even more realism. He added two modifiers, maneuver and robustness, to each plane that adds much more granularity to the differences between aircraft than what existed in Corsair Leader. I mentioned above the new aggression stat for pilots. I like how that adds yet another critical choice for me to make during a mission. And Chuck’s maintenance rules add some engaging choices to the debriefing phase, instead of just simple bookkeeping.
I just wish he had updated the rules.
That is, unfortunately, the only problem I have with both Zero Leader and Corsair Leader. While they are not anywhere near the worst rules I’ve read, they aren’t entirely all that good either. Mr. Seegert did add some nice touches, such as adding appropriate quotes from The Book of Five Rings beneath each chapter heading. And his new rule additions are clearly written. But he otherwise simply copied over Corsair Leader’s rules, which were formatted poorly.
For example, engagement between pilots and bandits occur during the move steps. But there is no mention of that in the movement rules. It only exists in one easily missed paragraph. Under dogfighting. At the end of the rules for aggression, the text continues to seamlessly explain the results of the dogfighting table. It is one of a few places where there is no header or indication of a transition in the text from one subject to another. Under the sites and bandits attack section, the list of results of a bandit’s attack roll are inexplicably duplicated on two different pages.
Dan Verssen is a brilliant game designer and he deserves every accolade he’s been given. I very much enjoy playing his games, and look forward to each new one he publishes. But his rules, while quite comprehensive, are not written well. I will say he’s gotten better over time, however. His Warfighter rules are much better than his earlier games.
But that said, if you enjoy solitaire simulations such as this, I think both Corsair Leader and Zero Leader are very much worth the effort to understand the rules. Even if you only purchase Zero Leader, check out Board Game Geek’s listing for Corsair Leader. Fans have uploaded some excellent cheat sheets that will translate very well for the newer game. I hope this introduction to this engaging and instructive game has proved helpful. – – – – – – – – – – – – – James Davis
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