You’ll start a game of Venom Assault by selecting one of the twelve gloriously shlocky missions that come in the box, each mimicing a different episode of the Joes 80’s cartoon show. As you’d expect from a Saturday morning kids show, missions are appropriately bonkers, with a decent side helping of fun. You’ll do everything, from searching the globe for the DNA of ancient warlords, to collecting parts of a weather manipulating machine. However, which ever mission you choose, you’ll inevitably end up fighting armies of evildoing snake soldiers in a kaleidoscope of red and blue laser fire. YO JOE!!..err I mean…Freedom?
If you’ve never played a deck building game before, they kind of work like this – players start out with a small deck of relatively basic cards, and as the game progresses, you’ll upgrade your deck by purchasing more powerful cards from a central tableau on the board, opening up new possibilities for play. Venom Assault follows this formulae to a T. You’ll begin the game with a deck of fresh faced recruits & commandos and spend ‘recruitment points’ each turn in exchange for elite, thousand-yard-stare, star-spangling, super-soldiers, ready to dispense freedom one shell at a time.
Once you’ve drilled your troops into shape, you can then plan your attack on Venom. Choosing one of the Joes, I mean Squaddies, from your hand as the ‘combat leader’, while the rest provide ‘support’, you’ll launch strikes against various land, sea, air and arctic locations around the globe.
Of course Venom isn’t going to idly sit by while you take an eagle sized dump on their evil plans. Just like their cartoon counterpart, Venom has a variety of colorful characters, each with their own distinct abilities. And that’s just the named bad guys. Venom also has access to an army of faceless goons, which they’ll happily throw at you during missions.
Turns in Venom Assault are broken out into phases and focus heavily on tactical card play. You’ll be going back and forth against Venom, playing cards and performing actions, eventually arriving at a point where you think you know the current ‘sitrep’…but you know what they say? “Knowing is half the battle”….the other half is extreme violence.
Combat itself is pretty quick, but just like the Joe cartoon, it’s less of a well coordinated military strike, and more of a ‘pew-pew-pew fest’. Hopefully something gets hit! Spoiler, no one in the cartoon ever got shot. You roll a number dice equal to your crack teams combat value and check if enough shots landed to take out the Venom Leader. A hit is successful if the die is equal to or higher than the Venom Leaders defence rating and you eliminate the target if you score hits equal to the Venom Leaders health value. If enough shots found their mark, you vaporize the Venom Leader and earn a reward card with a powerful once per game effect. If not, the Venom Leader stands triumphant and cackles at Freedom Squadrons impotent assassination attempt.
However, as is customary in the coop genre, the game will constantly try to derail your mission with random events. Every round, the first player draws a card from an event deck, some of which are favorable for Freedom Squadron, but more often than not they’ll do something bad like boosting the Venom Leaders stats or restricting recruitment that round or limit what type of terrain you can fight on, but most importantly, they also progress Venom’s nefarious plans with ‘Venom Strikes’ events. If Freedom Squadron hasn’t reached the goal stipulated on the mission card by the time 5 Venom Strike cards are revealed, they only have one more shot at glory. Otherwise it’s game over.
When I think of deck building games, titles like ‘Dominion’ or ‘Ascension’ are the first to come to mind, and in many respects, ‘Venom Assault’ stands equal with these titans of the genre. However one of my pet peeves with deck builders in general, is that quite often the flow of the game is so frenzied that you very quickly ignore a games theme and start looking at the board as nothing more than a series of transactions. In that sense, Venom Assault takes a bit of a slower approach. Not only does the coop structure of the game lend itself quite well to as a slower burn, but also the economy in the game is so finely balanced that you’ll rarely buy or retire more than one card on your turn. In most deck building games, efficiency is the ultimate goal, so having extra phases and machinations in the way is usually not ideal, but in Venom Assault it works really well. The game constantly asks wants you to give it more consideration. Should you take this card? Is this the best target to attack? Do we stand a better chance if we work together or can we just go for broke?
If efficiency is the meat and bones of the deck building genre, then customising your deck is its soul. Here is where I think Venom Assault is an absolute triumph. The card play and synergies between the Freedom Squaddies really makes it feel like you’re building an elite team of super soldiers. One player might take on the roll of the “blizzard team” and tackle Venom in the Arctic regions, while another can be the vehicle specialist with the “big-guns”, or maybe you like the death-like certainty of a team of ninjas. All doable and more. Quite often deck building games overlook this element or it’s simply reduced to collecting cards of a certain color, which is fine from a mechanics perspective, but weaving theme into your deck makes it far more likely that the game will see lots of play.
It’s not all rosy though. Although the team building is exceptional, encounters with Venom Leaders can feel a bit anticlimactic at times. In most situations if you fail at combat, nothing really happens. You’re just kind of…stopped. Normally I wouldn’t have a problem with that, but in some games you can be smashing your head against an absolute wall of an enemy, over and over again and get nothing out of it, nor suffer any ill effect. However, this is completely different on more difficult missions, where losing a battle could lead to forced retirement of some of your Squaddies, or just wreck your hand before you even get to fire a shot. Fortunately there is enough variation in the missions that everyone can find something to enjoy. For me, if I’m going to lose a fight, I’d much rather have my heart torn out, than just have some dude dressed as a snake stand in my way.
Of course it would be remiss of me not to point out that the real attraction to Venom Assault is it’s theme. If you were a cynical person, it would be easy to dismiss ‘Venom Assault’ as a cash grab that skirts close to plagiarism, but that would be flat out wrong. Venom Assault is a celebration of 80’s & 90’s action cartoons. As mentioned already, the mission cards follow story arcs of the G.I.Joe cartoon and even have references to more obscure cartoons like “The Inhumanoids”. Nostalgic tributes seep off of the event cards which are filled with memorable moments from the cartoon. A personal favorite is the line on one card “We all go home or no one goes home” from the animated Joe movie, which is to this day one of my favorite movie quotes of all time. Venom Assault is an excellent example of fans pouring all the love they have for an IP into something that everyone can enjoy. It may be a little rough around the edges at times, but sometimes, it’s enough to be reminded what it was like playing with toy soldiers in the back yard on a sunny Saturday afternoon. If ‘Venom Assault’ can do that for an hour or so every now and then, it’s totally done its job. As of writing this review, the expansion ‘Villains & Valor’ is soon to be released, otherwise it’s not hard to track a copy of this hidden gem down.