If there was a G.I. Joe Board Game, VENOM Assault would be it. With legal rights for such a game failing to materialise, VENOM Assault was created instead as a fond homage to those 80s cartoons. The question is, is the game any good, and does it have anything to offer those of us not quite old enough to remember the source material?
VENOM Assault: what’s in the box?
VENOM Assault is a cooperative dice and card game, which comes with lots of cards – cards for your Freedom Squadron forces, cards for the VENOM forces that oppose you, event cards that give context to what goes on, and reward cards to complete your mission.
The art is cartoon-style, very reminiscent of that military-yet-somehow-aimed-at-children vibe of the 80s animated series. This is the era when real men went into battle smoking large cigars and all the bad guys had snake obsessions. There is a good range of gender and racial diversity amongst the characters represented and, whilst there is a bit of the stereotyping you’ve probably come to expect in the depiction of some of the female characters, it never reaches the point where I’d worry overly about causing offence, or having to keep the game away from youngsters.
Aside from the art, the overall look of the cards is very clean, and it’s easy to find the information you need on a card. The iconography is straightforward and once you’ve played a game or so, you shouldn’t have much difficulty remembering what things signify.
Although the cards are the bulk of the game, there are also several dice, a handful of tokens, and a large, sturdy board to keep all of the decks and discard piles under control, as well as a handful of dice and tokens to keep track of VENOM’s progress, and to resolve the attacks you need to take them down. You could certainly survive without the board (not to mention that you could halve the size of the game box), but it’s a nice way to keep things organised.
Sounds good: How does it play?
VENOM Assault is, first and foremost, a cooperative game, and your main objective is to take down the forces of VENOM before they can execute their devious plan. If you win, there is a “Medal of Honour” for the most effective player, but the main objective is always winning together.
Probably the most similar game already out there to VENOM Assault is Marvel Legendary – you start with a hand of basic troopers, use their Recruitment points to purchase new, more powerful cards, and their combat points to take down villainous opponents. VENOM Assault isn’t just a Legendary re-skin though: combat is dice-driven, and there are decisions to be made about which cards you commit to which phase, along with a rolling selection of VENOM bosses and Henchmen to oppose.
Each game of VENOM Assault will be structured around a mission – capturing certain reward objectives, defeating particular VENOM Leaders and soforth. There are a good handful of different missions in the core VENOM Assault box, so you don’t need to worry about quickly running out of ways to play, then being sat around for a year or two hoping for an expansion.
Who are we? The Heroes!
Although you start with a mix of Recruits and Commandos, years of playing deck-builders has taught us that starter cards on their own won’t get you very far, so you’ll need to recruit some extra support. Each round you can recruit Freedom Squadron Cards: soldiers, support vehicles or (occasionally) even locations to strengthen your forces – as with most deck-builders, cards you recruit in VENOM Assault are added to your discard pile and when your deck runs out, you re-shuffle that discard pile to form a new deck, thus allowing you to draw and play those new cards.
Where your starting Commandos and Recruits are very simple, the upgraded cards will be more complex: some add dice, others modify the dice, or neutralise VENOM cards. Combat in VENOM Assault always occurs in one of 4 location-types: Land, Sea, Air or Arctic, and upgraded cards will often have a bonus that is specific to one of these areas.
Working out how to use these abilities is where a lot of the strategy is in VENOM Assault: ideally, you want to focus your deck on a few mechanics, or specialise in one or two geographical areas, so that you can stack up bonuses to a level of overwhelming force.
Who are they? VENOM
VENOM is a global terrorist organisation, and their leaders will be arrayed around the board, challenging you to come and take them down.
Each VENOM leader in VENOM Assault will have their own stats and abilities: their stats are Health (how many successes you need to roll to defeat them), Defence (how high you need to roll on a die to score a success) and Support (the number of VENOM support cards they will draw before a combat). Like the Freedom Squadron cards, they will also have special abilities which interact with an environment, or a particular support card.
When do we attack? As often as we can!
Preparing for a fight in VENOM Assault is a fair bit more complex than just adding up the stats on your cards. Every time you decide to launch an attack, you choose one of your soldiers to be the combat leader, and give them a number of dice equal to their combat rating. Slightly confusingly, your combat leader is the one member of your strike force who doesn’t get to use their special ability – they are too busy planning the attack. The support units, by contrast, get to use their abilities, but don’t contribute any dice based on their combat rating. They have to have something printed on their card saying that they provide a bonus during the Tactical Phase, and this can lead to a situation where you’ve bought lots of upgraded heroes with cool abilities, but are only actually rolling a small number of dice.
Instead of needing to roll 2 3s, you now need at least 4 4s, all whilst rolling 2 fewer dice!
After you’ve assembled your dice pool, the VENOM leader will reveal support from a randomised deck: either attacking your dice rolls, or buffing the stats of their leader. Eventually, you’ll be left with a leader who has a defence rating, a number of health points, and some dice you get to roll against them.
When you roll a dice, if it equals or exceeds the VENOM leader’s defence rating, it counts as a success. If (after all powers and modifiers) you score at least as many successes as that leader’s health, you have defeated them – you get to add them to your victory pile, and claim the reward underneath them. If you will be rolling fewer dice than their health, or have no way of equalling their defence, then the attack is aborted.
If these 2 come out in setup, and Guapo isn’t in a Sea location, you could be here a very long time.
It’s not all that common to have an attack aborted (unless you picked the wrong target to begin with), but support cards can move you from somewhere with decent odds, to somewhere with ridiculously long odds. Sadly, VENOM Assault has too many ways for random occurrences to make things impossible, no matter how you play, and leave you frustrated, without a way to make “better” play-decisions.
Build it Better? If only!
In a lot of deck-builders, defeat (whether it be a particular fight, or the whole game) is the impetus to come back and try again. Adopt a different strategy, or just hope for better luck. In VENOM Assault, defeat is often just frustrating in its randomness.
You can definitely see that there is potential in VENOM Assault to build for synergy, to create a specialised deck that focuses on a particular card-type, or even a particular part of the world. The trouble though, is that this makes a lot of assumptions about what you can buy. VENOM Assault contains 84 Freedom Squadron cards, and they’re basically all used in every game – at any point in time, you have 5 cards to pick from, and no guarantee that anything of use to your strategy will come up. As someone who likes to experiment with different Kingdom card setups in Dominion, or different Hero combinations in Legendary, I found this randomness to be a big disappointment.
The deck-building aspect of VENOM Assault will probably shine in high player-counts, where you can discuss, plan, and build very specific decks. With 1 or 2 players though, you’ll often just be buying what you can afford from the 5 cards available: you can’t build for synergy when the other cards to build the combo are either buried in a massive deck, or just too expensive.
VENOM Assault has lots of clever little mechanics, which it then nullifies with its own restrictions. For example you can retire (Trash for the Dominion Players, KO for the Legendary players) one card each round – which sounds like a brilliant way of thinning the starter cards for an ultra-lean, efficient deck – sadly, those Troopers and Commandos are often the only support cards actually contributing dice in combat (as opposed to abilities), so getting rid of them may not help.
The Main Event? Not Really
VENOM Assault also features an event deck, which is supposed to give some sort of narrative flow to the game. Although this one is probably a nice touch for the fans (I understand there are a lot of knowing nods to the GI Joe cartoons in there), I found this aspect fell particularly flat for me: lots of events are “nothing happens” – with a selection of strange and trite stories to fill out the card with fluff text. There are cards which offer a certain amount of benefit to one side or the other, but again this felt arbitrary, with the flavour not matching the effect (like the time I drew an event saying VENOM had gained control of all the world’s animals… …including the animal hero that I was able to play that turn to his full effect without penalty.
Events are probably needed in VENOM assault because otherwise, there isn’t a lot going on from the game’s side of things. Probably the most frustrating thing about VENOM assault, is that it doesn’t really beat you, it just stops you from doing things to it. Where Legendary would have escaping villains and the scheme racing to completion, or Aeon’s End would have the Nemesis destroying you and your home, the leaders of VENOM are happy to sit in their base round-after-round letting you attack, go home again, and then try again next turn. The game is effectively on a timer of 4 or 5 “VENOM strikes” cards appearing, which might be the first 5 turns, or might not come up until turn 20.
VENOM Assault – worth taking a chance?
A lot of people have said a lot of good things about VENOM Assault, but for me, this game fell really flat: I got this at a very similar time to Aeon’s End, which is a brilliant example of a cooperative deck-builder, where your decisions matter, but the game does just enough to always keep you on your toes. VENOM Assault is too random and too awkward: you might smash your way through 5 leaders in 5 rounds and pick up a load of great rewards, or you might sit there doing nothing for half an hour. I mentioned at the start of this review that I am (just) too young to remember the G.I Joe cartoons which so obviously inspired this, and maybe nostalgia is enough to make this worth getting, but personally, I can’t imagine ever wanting to play something this random over Legendary or Aeon’s End.
That’s why I can only give it a 6/10.
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.