VENOM Assault, from Spyglass Games, is a competitive co-op deckbuilding game for 2-5 in which players rally the forces of Freedom Squadron to defeat the evil schemes of the terrorist organization VENOM. Players work together, as they strengthen their decks and attack VENOM’s strongholds, but in the end, if VENOM is defeated there is an individual winner as well. Do you and your friends have what it take to foil the plots of VENOM? Gear up soldier, the world needs you to find out!
*Note: I was provided with a review copy in the relatively late stages of design. However, much of the art was not complete and it will not be judged on the graphic presentation in a negative way. It is also possible that rules or cards may change prior to the final version, so keep that in mind.
At the start of the game, players select the mission that the want to play and follow its set-up requirements. This generally involves a number of reward cards, colorful description, how many VENOM Leaders to use, and the various victory or defeat conditions for that particular scenario. Once the board has been set, players take their starting decks of Commandos and Recruits (Basic Freedom Squadron soldiers), determine starting player, and begin the game.
The Starting player has one additional phase at the beginning of his turn where an event card is drawn. As the name implies, events occur as a result of these cards that affect the game state including the chance to reveal a VENOM Strikes card. These are the cards that show VENOM making progress towards achieving their nefarious ends. If enough of these are revealed before the players can meet the victory conditions and any last chance opportunities run out, the players are defeated. However, if the players accomplish their goal prior to this outcome the world continues to be safe for baseball, Mom, and apple pie!
Each player draws the top five cards of their deck to form a hand. In the event that a player lacks sufficient cards to complete a draw at anytime, that player simply shuffles his discard pile and takes the needed cards from the refreshed draw pile.
Next, a player enters the Recruitment Phase, in which the cards in hand are played one at a time in any order that the active player wishes and hopefully to his greatest advantage. Any abilities specific to this phase may be activated, but the primary purpose of this phase is to generate recruitment points that may be spent to acquire new soldiers, vehicles and buildings to place in ones deck.
The Tactical Phase is where a players bring the fight to one of VENOM’s many doorsteps. The player may choose to attack a VENOM leader at one of the well themed bases around the globe. Each VENOM leader has a Defense Rating, a Health Rating, and a Support Rating that will give the player a rough idea of what kind of trouble they might expect to have with a given leader. Once a target is determined the Defense Meter is set, the Health meter is set and any abilities that the target leader has appropriate to the tactical phase are activated. Now, the player chooses a combat leader, a soldier who may not have used an ability during the recruitment phase, and the decide which other cards to use as support for the attack. This will tell the player how many combat dice they will have available to use while battling the VENOM leader. An unsuccessful attack is simply wasted effort that allows VENOM to move closer to victory as well as pushing the player further behind in the individual contest. A successful player receives the reward card, takes the leader card for individual VP, and resets the board with another leader and reward at that base if any are available. This continues until VENOM has no leaders to replace, the primary base is cleared, the mission goal is achieved, or all of the above depending on the scenario being played.
After combat has been resolved and all of the abilities resolved, comes the Retirement Phase the Freedom Squadron player may choose one card in his play area to remove from the game prior to discarding and redrawing.
If the players fail to stop VENOM in time, they are defeated as a team with no winner. If the players thwart VENOM in time they are all winners, but the player with the highest individual victory point total from rewards and leaders defeated is the individual victor.
To begin with, I will give my disclaimer regarding co-op games in general…The only way to win a co-op is not to play. You might wonder, then why would I agree to review a game from a class that I am strongly inclined to dislike? Simply put, I can set aside personal preferences and judge a game for what it is and not what I wish it would be. In addition, I do believe that there are exceptions to every rule and the only way to find out is by not prejudging. All of that being said, I enjoyed VENOM Assault a great deal! Here is why…
Clearly a strong G.I. Joe motif!
First and foremost, I loved G.I. Joe as a child growing up in the 80’s and while not an officially licensed product, VENOM Assault perfectly captures the feeling of the cartoons! I had armies of action figures and vehicles I used to wage countless battles and reenact scenes from the tv show constantly. If this was your experience as a child I strongly recommend giving VENOM Assault a try! While I am primarily a hardcore strategy gamer that eschews dice when possible and loathes co-ops, I must say that VENOM Assault succeeds at being thematically representative of the G.I. Joe experience. The art, that is finished, on the cards and board look as though they were pulled right out of an 80’s cartoon or comic book. Clearly this game was designed by people with a great love for the “source” material as it shows at every level of the presentation.
Now, with theme covered, I have some thoughts on the mechanics. In general, there is not a ton of new stuff here mechanically as the game plays very similar to many co-ops and is quite reminiscent of Marvel: Legendary with dice added. The deckbuilding mechanics are pretty standard with one particularly innovative mechanic during the Retirement Phase. The ability to remove on card per turn automatically is a stroke of genius! I have not played every deck builder and cannot say for certain that this is the absolute first game to use this mechanic, but either way it should be used in all future deckbuilding games. Being able to weed out those crappy starting cards as a play decision and shape one’s deck going forward is great!
I found the layout and symbols on the rulebook, mission cards, game cards and board to be intuitive and easy to grasp. My wife and I learned the game from scratch in 15 minutes which is impressive even considering our veteran gamer status. Clearly Spyglass Games did a fine job of organizing the material in a manner that makes the game accessible and enjoyable very quickly. Always a plus!
Evil bases galore!
As I mentioned earlier, VENOM Assault has a great deal in common with Marvel: Legendary, but it does differ in some significant ways. One of the biggest knocks against Legendary is that it takes forever to set-up and put away based on which heroes one is using and the scenario being played. VENOM Assault does a much better job at this by using the same hero and VENOM support decks each game while it is smaller card sets that are modified for specific missions to provide variability. While it may lose to Legendary a bit on the massively different deck buiding opportunities available it makes up for it with the different missions and the ability to start a game much more quickly. A worthwhile tradeoff in my opinion.
I did have a few issues and concerns that need to be addressed. The dice do frustrate me a bit, as they certainly add a degree of luck that can ruin the best laid plans, but given that this is a co-op and not a truly competitive strategy game it is less of a problem. The actual event deck that drives the plot felt a little clunky compared to some similar games I have played, but it was certainly serviceable. In truth, I did not play all of the missions, and it is possible that on some of the more difficult ones the pace accelerates making for a more consistent progression of the storyline. Honestly, my biggest complaint, by my reading of the rules, is the seemingly huge advantage that the first play has in the competitive side of the game. Starting player never changes and it is very possible that the first player will have more turns than the other player or players. I went first in all of our games and I won all of them with the game ending on my turn. As far as I can tell, the game ends immediately upon stopping VENOM and I ended the game every time. However, the game is co-op first and competitive second, so this will likely bother players to a greater or lesser degree based on their own preference.
If you are a G.I. Joe fan who enjoys gaming, VENOM Assault is well worth taking the time to checkout. If you are already inclined towards co-op games or semi co-op deck builders VENOM Assault is very likely a game you will enjoy. If all of the above are applicable to your tastes, I absolutely recommend looking into their Kickstarter that launches January 5th 2016! VENOM Assault provides a thematically engrossing experience in a familiar mechanical package with a taste of nostalgia thrown in for good measure. I had my doubts that I would enjoy it given my opinion of most co-op games, but now I know…and knowing is half the battle!
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