“G.I. Joe is the codename for American’s daring, highly trained special mission force. Its purpose: to defend human freedom against Cobra, a ruthless terrorist organization determined to rule the world.”
You feel that? Yeah, you’re thinking about Duke laying a Saturday morning beat-down on Destro, or perhaps a fuzzy memory of rolling over Storm Shadow in a chunky plastic H.I.S.S.
This one’s for you.
As a set of mechanisms, Renegade’s G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game is roughly comparable to Upper Deck’s Legendary series, particularly Legendary Encounters. There is a central row of cards to recruit and structured narrative challenges for those soldiers to deal with. All of you at the table work together strategizing as a team of Joe’s ready to kick some Cobra ass.
It’s more random than that Legendary touchstone, requiring players throw fistfuls of dice to thwart the serpent terrorists. Much of play is acquiring interesting synergies and abilities, perhaps focusing your deck on particular skills to increase dice pools, and then applying those talents to the story missions at hand.
Deck-building is alright. It feels like a genre where creativity goes to die. The best ideas are already spoken for and a general formula is ready to exploit.
Legendary is fine.
The G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game is fine.
Unless you’re a Joe fan. In that case, this T.C. Petty III design is hovering in the suburbs of greatness.
Success is achieved through a surprisingly strong coupling of nostalgic child-like play to that of the cardboard adult variety. Concerning nostalgia, I’m not talking about illustrations – which are very uneven in this collection of cards – but in actualizing a throwback sense of adolescent pretend.
Play in the G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game marches along, mostly feeling like those other genre games. Then it transitions to moments of toyetic inventiveness where it becomes something better.
There are two areas where the experience really rallies around this sense of clowning with dolls. The first is in gear. There’s a nice glob of equipment in the card pool which you can buy up and then equip to your Joes when it comes time to pound ground.
It sounds small, doesn’t it? Other games have weapons and items.
But there’s just something about deploying Snake Eyes with a service rifle and recon binoculars. I can feel the firearm snapping into his plastic grapplers and it makes me want to start articulating RAT-TAT-TATs through clenched teeth and spittle.
But that’s the appetizer. The game really hits its peak identity with vehicles.
Yeah, buddy. You find vehicles in the offer and then make ’em available in your hangar.
The vehicle is how your soldiers interface with missions. You want to stop the M.A.S.S. device from becoming operational? Going to have to cram Rock ‘n Roll and Airborne in a Skyhawk. Or maybe Torpedo, Alpine, and Muskrat into the VAMP.
Each vehicle has its own special rules, including specialization in land, sea, or air. These interact with the mission parameters and ignite discussion around the table. They also hold a limited number of Joes, making some better for side missions as opposed to the main attraction. There’s a real sense of juggling logistics here and scratch-building a team under a certain sense of parameters. It hits some of the same notes as the prep found in DVG’s Leader series of wargames, but this process occurs mid-game here instead of being front-loaded, and it’s a more exciting and concise action in Joe.
This mission system is excellent. While there is an active player currently taking their turn, they can receive help when building the squad for each mission, allowing other participants to toss in Joes and build synergies on the fly. This organic mission preparation is the meat of the game, it’s where the toy-line intersects with the more mature, hobbyist pursuit of strategy and tricks us into a sense of a nobler pursuit than childlike mirth.
Side missions are present alongside the main storylines. These consist of beats like unexpected Rattler attacks and drone strikes. They can be ignored, but usually hamper your progress and often push the venomous threat meter towards defeat. Villains such as Cobra Commander and Major Bludd appear on the scene, jamming up your gears and leading lesser soldiers to oppose you.
There are moments where that joy is perfectly supported by the mission system and the revelation of your deckbuilding crystalizes wonderfully. It’s where my enthusiasm in this piece comes from.
To be fair, there’s a lot of lesser inspired moments as well.
This game is messy. Each character in the deck is unique, which is great. But there are quite a few abilities, some possessing odd interactions that lack clarity in the unfortunately deficient rules booklet. It’s also unnecessarily opaque at times in working out when abilities resolve. Effects are applied when characters are played, but there’s a setup process to engaging missions that often feels like the game is stuck in a suspended state similar to Schrodinger’s fabled cat. You can work most of these out, particularly because the game is fully co-operative so it’s not difficult to simply make a judgment call, but there’s a coarseness to the mechanical apparatus under the hood that often sputters when it should be humming.
The moments between missions of building up your deck are also rather dull. If the vehicular squad building is the apex of the G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game, the absence is a bland cut of mediocrity. It can be very uneven in this regard.
It’s also too long at the higher player counts stretching to nearly two hours at its limit, which exasperates that jaggedness. But it plays so well in that scenario, otherwise. Discussion is great, additional effects and synergies are exposed, and there’s a sense of camaraderie which is very G.I. Joe.
Despite preferring it with a more crowded table, it does scale well enough. I’ve even enjoyed quite a few solitaire sessions. The challenge level is somewhat brutal at the loneliest number, but I’m perfectly fine with failing nearly every time. I cut my solo teeth on Space Hulk: Death Angel, so I’m ready to fly straight into the sun.
The G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game is an interesting craft. I wouldn’t place this as a hallmark design, and it’s certainly not mandatory for gamer accreditation. But there is a real aura of creative energy at its core, occurring in that linkage of rad childhood entertainment to modern deck-building. And it musters the will to reach for a moment of grandeur, even if a chunk of the experience is more re-run than primetime.
Wait, hold up. You didn’t actually think I was going to wrap this without talking about the other cultural element? In addition to being a nostalgic tie to childhood play, there’s another component here which the game ignores, but one a critic cannot.
As an 80s tot, I wasn’t concerned whether G.I. Joe was pro-war propaganda. Hell, even now as a middle-aged gamer this quality of the property has eluded me. It’s easy to overlook when your tether to the theme is thought of as a better time and place.
I don’t assess or criticize G.I. Joe with the same capacity as an Oliver Stone film. I wonder if that’s a personal flaw, or if we’ve been collectively hoodwinked.
The Joe I know was supercharged by Hasbro, wanting to sell toys and engage capitalism. The pro-American side of the product is secondary, like trans-fat buried on a label. I have to admit, none of this may have crossed my mind if I hadn’t just seen Top Gun: Maverick.
While that is an excellent modern action film – it really is quite spectacular – it’s brought about a great deal of internal conflict over patriotism and its place in society.
It’s funny, because the G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game is the perfect design to counter the oft-chanted “keep politics out of gaming”. By its very nature, this game is political.
You can ignore that, just as I have. You shouldn’t feel guilty for playing a tabletop design based on a cartoon from our youth. But we should talk about it.
Look, when I write about topics such as this, I tend to offer questions instead of answers. I don’t have answers. I barely know what I’m talking about regarding games, much less complex social issues. I want to provoke thought. This topic that we all want to shirk from is the exact bullet point where the culture of gaming intersects with the culture of everything that’s more important.
As I immerse myself in Top Gun, For All Mankind, and the G.I. Joe Deck-Building Game, I’m meditating and fumbling through my own thoughts trying to find the answer. There is no answer. Everything is complex and nasty. That’s why we play games, to get out of this headspace. But it’s an illusion. Everything is political and we lie to ourselves so that we can go to work and play with our children while still managing a smile.