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Playing With Myself - G.I. Joe Deck Building Game

You know, as much as I enjoy dice-chuckers, I’m REALLY starting to suspect they DO NOT like me!

Hold up…isn’t this a review for G.I. Joe: The Deckbuilding Game?

Why yes, yes it is, dear reader. But this entry of Hasbro Property-based tabletop games doesn’t necessarily fit in one strict gaming genre. It’s mission based…and it’s foe based. It’s a deck-builder but it’s also a dice chucker. Essentially, this game has everything but the kitchen sink…and since I haven’t worked through all the cards, who knows, the kitchen sink may in fact be a draftable card! The question is, though, can all of these elements combine to create a great game? Or will the game fall apart under its own mechanics? Let’s take a look and find out!

A lot of what we find here in the set up is very standard for any deck-builder: a main deck consisting of Joes, Vehicles, Gear and Utilities (these are essentially actions, like, say, re-roll dice or impacts on mission difficulties). The top 6 cards from this shuffled deck will comprise your line-up, where you’ll recruit cards. And here’s where we come to the first difference between this and typical deck-builders: cards you recruit don’t go into your discard pile as you’d expect. No, they go on top of your active deck, so what you recruit will be showing up in your next hand. I gotta admit that after playing with this mechanic that other games of this type would embrace this. Not only does it add a layer of strategy as to how you recruit…thus limiting the throw-away draft that comes standard with all these games…but it also gives you an instant gratification…so when you do finally get your mitts on that awesome card in the line-up, you don’t have to wait to unleash it! Longtime deck-builders will also recognize the Cobra Battalion cards and the Cobra Troopers: Battalions cover up cards in the line-up, making them unavailable for purchase until the Battalion is beaten while Troopers are the empty slugs in your deck, much like the Weaknesses in the DC Deck-Building Game or Wounds in Marvel Legendary. Lastly, we have the starter cards which every player will start with: 6 G.I.s, grunts who are not quite yet Joes, 1 Comms that allows you to boot a card from the line-up and replace it with the top card of the main deck (although I’ve been using it to boot Battalions out of the line-up), 1 Second Effort gives you a re-roll of one of your dice and 1 Diffuse which allows you to decrease the threat meter if you pull off a successful side mission. I know, there are some terms here we haven’t quite covered yet, but we’ll get there.

Where we start to stray from the typical formula are the cards associated with Missions. First up we have the missions themselves…two of which have been included in this set: Destroy the MASS Device and Operation: Total Control. Each Mission is comprised of three acts and each three acts has two chapters and a finale (indicated by a gold boarder on the card). Excluding the finales, each act has 5 cards, so there is some variability here as you’re not stuck replaying the same missions over and over. As each Mission is revealed, they may call for Complications to arise…unsurprisingly from the Complications deck. These cards are divided into three groups, each group going with an Act…so you’ve got Complications specific for Act I, Act II and Act III. Complications come in a couple of different flavors: actions and Side Missions. Actions can range from upping the difficulty of a Mission, kidnapping one of your Joes or bringing a Cobra Officer into the fray…such as The Baroness or even Cobra Commander. Side Missions don’t necessarily need to be tackled before you head off onto the Mission proper, but more often than not, these Side Missions are going to have negative impacts on the players until someone defeats it, so it’s best not to let these sit out too long…as I have found out the hard way.

We’re now to the point where we bring the dice into play. In order to defeat Missions, Side Missions, Cobra Officers, Cobra Battalions and hell, yes even Cobra Troopers, you need to keep track of the skills needed to defeat them and how many hits it takes to do so. Now, each of the cards you draft can chip in on this action. Any Joe you recruit will have a number and a skill on their card, the skill dictates what situations they’re best suited for and the number beside that skill indicates how many dice that skill will provide under the right circumstances (i.e. when that Joe finds himself against a Mission or foe that requires that skill). Now, you’ll see that the starter G.I.s don’t have a skill. Well, as it turns out, any Joe that doesn’t have any skills or doesn’t have a relevant skill to contribute will add 1 ‘wild’ skill, basically putting into game form the old phrase “even a blind squirrel finds a nut some days”. So, how do you choose the right Joe team for the task at hand? Every card that can be defeated will have their own skill(s) and difficulty present on the card. The difficulty basically says how many ‘hits’ you need to roll on the dice to defeat the card you’re attacking. The skill(s) indicated on the adversarial card are those that are needed to take down this foe. Thus, if the card calls for a Martial Arts skill, and you’ve got Jinx in your hand with a 4 Martial Arts, that means she can contribute all 4 of her dice to the resulting dice pool you create by adding Joes to this mission. However, if the mission called for 3 Recon, and you had that same Jinx in hand, she’d only provide 1 ‘wild’ skill and thus, one die to the pool. It’s also important here to mention that many foes and missions will have TWO skills listed on their card, separated by an OR or an AND. If you see an OR, then the players will pick which of the two skills displayed will be needed to defeat this card. If you see an AND, then Joes with either skill can contribute to the dice pool. One last thing to talk about here is whether or not you succeed or fail in a mission. Now, when it comes to side missions or Cobra Officers that emerge from the Complications deck, those will hang around until you defeat them. Story Missions, on the other hand, once you have a go at them, that’s it, they go out of play once your attempt is finished. You see, each card has both a failure and a success result. As you can imagine, the success will bring good things to your team…failure, not so much.

This brings us to the last game feature, the threat meter. Successes and failures in Missions, Side Missions that linger and card effects all come into play here as, depending on the number of players, a series of complications arise as the threat meter increases or decreases. As you’d expect, there are three levels: Green, Yellow and Red. Also harboring no surprises is that green is good, yellow sees things starting to go wrong and red means Cobra is poised to win the game. This is the device that has killed me each time I’ve played and depending on how many side missions or foes are out of the board, this can be incredibly hard to keep track of. Heck, it can be easy to forget once you’re deep into the game with all sorts of effects kicking in that this meter is supposed to move up one space at the end of every turn!

This leads to the biggest flaw in G.I. Joe: The Deckbuilding Game – There are A LOT of things to keep track of! Sure, there are turn cards to walk you through the mechanics, what to do when and so forth, but in my two solo playthroughs, something always managed to fall through the cracks. Perhaps karmically it only seems natural then that I’d lose each of my games. I almost feel like playing this with more players would be more fun due to the interactions and coordination but also just in having multiple brains keeping track of what’s going on and what needs to happen next as opposed to one dude sitting there trying to keep track of everything. This overcomplication tends to spill over into other aspects of the game too. For example, I didn’t mention this above, but you need Vehicles to take you and your selected Joes out on the missions you plan to tackle. Sure, these can add bonuses or more dice and what-have-you but if I’m brutally honest, the starting VAMP proved sufficient. It takes up to 4 Joes anywhere they need to go, it’s always available…whereas other vehicles have to spend a round resting before they can be redeployed…and I found myself relying more on the bonuses from either Joes or other cards I’ve recruited to be worried about what the Vehicle is going to contribute. And that’s another thing: as the game progressed, I found myself less and less concerned about recruiting as I found myself neck deep in Mission after Side Mission after Cobra Officer. At some point in the game, you switch gears from trying to get help to just putting out fires with what you have available!

Using that as a fulcrum to turn to the positives of this game, I must admit that G.I. Joe here has taught me what many of the deck-builders I’ve played have failed to…and that is the importance of a thin deck. As nice as it is to have those G.I.s to provide at least one die for each Mission or whatnot, making sure that multiple Joes show up in your hand instead, offering a better selection of skills and bonuses, is critical to keeping your head above water in this game and G.I. Joe is very good at driving that point home. For fans of the franchise, there’s a lot here to love: Missions are based on the old cartoons, there’s no shortage of Joes or Vehicles here either, both of these providing one heck of a nostalgia hit. Of course, not everyone is going to be included in this starter set, but with three expansions already available, it’s no doubt that the ranks are already growing. And even though I was just complaining about it, it’s amazing how much this game is crammed with different mechanics. I loved being able to take on Destro or succeeding in a mission or drafting an effect card that was a game changer. I can see where this would be fun with a group of friends around the table, because the game is set up for the different teams of Joes to collaborate…you take this mission since it leans toward Snake Eyes’ skills while I’ll do this one since Duke seems better able to handle it. There are a lot of positive reviews for this game on the web and really, there’s nothing from my play experience that says any of them are wrong or misleading. It’s fun to recruit. It’s fun to take those recruits and kick some Cobra butt. It’s fun to up the pressure as the threat meter rises. So, yeah, while there’s a lot to keep track of, it’s a chore that is rewarding enough that players continue to want to do so…and that makes for a solid game in anyone’s book.

There’s a lot happening in G.I. Joe: The Deckbuilding Game…and that’s both a good thing and a bad thing. If you’re playing in a group, a lot happening can translate into fun conversations, tactics and everyone double checking to make sure that every strand is taken care of before moving to the next round of play. If you’re playing solo, while still fun, the sheer volume of things to keep track of can get a little overwhelming. Now, I do hope that this is a result from my inexperience in playing the game and as I become more familiar with it, my brain will better juggle all the strands that need to be followed for a successful campaign. Oh, one last thing…set-up and take-down for the game itself are about on average with any deck-builder mostly, however I’d lean toward doing things a little slowly as the manual is okay…but not super great at how to set up all the decks correctly. The short version is that there are more positives than negatives, encouraging me to keep playing until my familiarity hopefully pushes me through having to juggle so many different aspects of the game at one time. I totally see why so many people like this game…but with the complicated nature, alas my review can’t be quite as glowing. No matter the negatives, I still say G.I. Joe: The Deckbuilding Game earns a solid Happy Cat rating.

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