Overboss aims a huge dose of '80s nostalgia to your retinas. If, like me, you're a child of '80s/'90s, then you'll inhale this 8-bit artwork with sheer glee. The setting's straight out of a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) game. As you open the lid, you half-expect to see a cheery, moustachioed plumber leap out at you.
This isn't Brotherwise Games' first tango with retro computer game locales. Before Overboss came 2013's Boss Monster, a tableau builder. In Boss Monster, your aim was to build a dastardly 'side scrolling' dungeon. You play as the level's boss, thwarting the proverbial Link or Alex Kidd, sending them to an impending doom.
Overboss has a different design team behind it, though - Aaron Mesburne and Kevin 'Calico' Russ. Boss Monsters have become bored of holding on for a hero that could stand up to their challenging dungeons. Here, they've left the dark, dank comfort of their subterranean strongholds. The world of Arcadia sits ripe for the taking. Which evil so-and-so can craft the most deadly sector? Who can populate it with malicious monsters? Have you got what it takes to become the most artful, despicable and odious Overboss of them all?
Have You Started Humming The Mario Theme Tune, Yet?
The core mechanism at play in Overboss is tile drafting and tile placement. You'll take turns drafting tiles from a public flop. Different terrains score set collection points in contrasting ways. Monsters tokens add further spice into the mix, for extra points. Each player has a board containing a 3x4 grid of 12 spaces (short game) or 4x4 grid (longer game). Overboss sees you draft tiles one at a time and figuring out how best to arrange them in this grid.
There's 10 different terrain types, but you play with five of them. There's 12x tiles for each of those five terrains, plus the eight Dungeon tiles (so 68 tiles in a game). After shuffling them all, four get flipped face-up, forming a 'Market'. Each terrain also comes with its corresponding Monster tokens. (There's ten of each, so 50 in total.) These, along with a Crystal token for each terrain, six Miniboss tokens, plus the seven Portal tokens, all get chucked into a draw-bag. (That also makes 68 tokens!) You pluck out four random chits. Arrange them so one accompanies each of those four terrain tiles.
Like Azul, A Blank Template Is Easy To Fill
Chances are terrain tiles and Monster tokens won't match - but that's the puzzle of Overboss, in a nutshell. The first player has their pick of the four Market tiles. They choose one, also taking the token that chaperones it. You decide where to place the terrain tile within your grid, but place with care. It remains there for the whole game.
If the token is a monster or a Mini-Boss, it sits on that terrain tile. If it's a Portal or a Crystal then it sits in your Lair, instead. If you draw a Dungeon, you can't place that token on it; instead the token sits in your Lair for now. (That's a puzzle to solve later - figuring out how to get that token into an optimal location.)
At the end of your turn, flip over another Terrain tile, and draw another token from the bag to go with it. Then the next player picks a tile/token combo, and play continues. On paper, that sounds simple. Almost… too simple. But beware - that's how every evil boss entices naïve adventurers into their mad-cap schemes! Similar to games like Azul and Sagrada, the first half of Overboss is easy. You have all that grid space to play with! But your options condense in the latter half, with limited gaps remaining…
Let The Points Salad Scoring Commence!
The game ends once everyone's placed their twelfth/sixteenth tile. There are many ways to earn points. There's a hefty scorepad! You score if you've constructed a 'band' of same-type Monsters in a row or column. (Longer the band, the more points.) You also earn 1 point per Monster sitting on its corresponding terrain tile. (Such as a skeleton in a Graveyard, a vampire in a Castle, harpies in Cloud Islands, and so on.)
Mini Boss tokens score 2VPs on their own, regardless, providing they're on a tile and not stuck in your Lair. Terrain crystals score you 1VP per tile you've placed of their matching terrain type. You'll also earn points according to each of the terrain's set collection scoring system. Five of the terrains are 'simple', and five a little more advanced.
The simple terrains all feature familiar, tried-and-tested set collection patterns. Forests score more points the more you have of them. Orc Camps score increasing points - provided they each house different-colour flags. Graveyards score a guaranteed few points, and then extra if you have the most/second-most. Caves score 1VP on their own, but an extra 2 points if they sit next to mountainous terrain (around the edge of your board). Likewise, Swamps score 1VP, plus an extra 1VP if next to water, plus another 1VP if it sits next to another Swamp tile.
These five simple terrain types are the ones suggested for your first game of Overboss. You'll score your Dungeons, too - they get 1VP per unique terrain that surrounds them (up to 4VPs). Playing with this selection of five is 'gateway' in nature. Yes, you have six plates to spin, terrain-wise, but they all score in ways you've seen before. The other five are not mind-blowing in comparison. They do, however, start drip-feeding multiple things for players to consider…
Every Evil Overboss Needs Their Own Volcano
Castles are worth 2VP on their own, but an extra 2VP if they have a vampire in it. That's their matching Monster token; plus you get a standard +1VP for achieving this anyway, remember. With each of these worth a possible 5VPs each, vampires become high in demand! Desert scores increase upon quantity, but only if Deserts sit in a contiguous manner. Should you sacrifice other goals in favour of building that mega-Desert? It's worth 20VPs, if you get five!
Summoning Circles only score 1 point each. But whenever you place one, you may swap the Monster token that came with it for a different one among the Market. (Or, you can swap a Monster token on a tile that borders that Summoning Circle, with one in the Market.) These help you build up bands, or cherry-picking Monsters to sit on matching terrain. (Vampires on Castles, anyone?)
Volcanoes score big on their own: 4VPs each! But beware: whenever you place one, it erupts and destroys all tokens on adjacent tiles on your board. Ouch! All that hard work trying to build matching bands, blown to smithereens…
Cloud Islands score even more points; 7VPs per tile! But there's an evil twist in the tale: they decrease in value by -1VP per terrain type on your board that isn't a Cloud Island. They drive you towards trying to collect as few terrain types as possible. (This is harder on the 4x4 grid.) The dream is to build a grid of Cloud Islands, a mass of connected Deserts, and Castles housing vampires. But what are the chances of your opponents letting you get away with that free ride?
Nasty Command Cards That Make Evil King Croak Go Crying To Mummy
You can appreciate the value of Portals now, when I tell you they let you move your Monster tokens around. You can spend Portals at any time to add Monsters from your Lair onto vacant tiles. Or, you can spend them to switch two Monsters around within your grid. You'll move them around to matching terrains, or to build epic bands. It's so satisfying! You'll feel bitter if you don't have any chances to draft them though, due to lack of opportunities in the Market. At least this gets mitigated if you play with Summoning Circles.
Like any kind of drafting game, you have the choice to focus on your own board choice, or to hate-draft. When attempting the latter, remember: another tile and token gets revealed afterwards. Talking of playing mean, you can play with an advanced variant in the form of Command Cards. Four sit face-up, in a first-come, first-served manner. These demand same-terrain requirements in particular patterns. (Such as an 'L' shape, a 2x2 square, three diagonal tiles, and so on.) These bring a whole new layer of consideration. Complete one and you get to take the bonus action on it. You can perform this action on any players' board - including your own.
Easy-to-complete 'Intimidate' Commands let you slide a tile (and its Monster token) one space. Intermediate 'Demolish' Commands let you remove a tile (and token) from a board. That player replaces it with one from the Market. Tough 'Overthrow' Commands let you swap two tiles on a board. (Either swap two to different places on one board, or swap one from your board with one from another.)
When I first heard this advanced variant, I felt apprehensive. I'm not keen on outright take-that mechanisms. (I'm too soft! As a Euro-gamer, I prefer less direct, in-yer-face conflict like this.) Giving someone an inconvenient Volcano could wreck their entire game. I will admit though, that this is a thematic addition - you're playing as rival big, bad Overbosses, after all. But the idea of screwing around with someone's hard-earned layout felt hollow. It caused more bitterness and vexation than it did a sense of triumph.
The neat thing here is, though, that yes: you can opt to sabotage an opponent's layout. But you can choose instead to perform these action on your own board. I loved that I had the player agency to decide whether to use these to fix a mess I'd created, instead.
Analysis Paralysis? Or Subtle Layers Of Deviousness?
Games of Overboss - even with those 'advanced' tiles - are quick. Taking turns to draft 12 (or even 16) tiles can whizz by in 25-30 minutes. It sits dangerously close to that ironic family of games that can take as long to teach as it does to play! The good news is though that with games hurtling along, you can play two or three games of it, back-to-back.
The range of five terrain tiles for set-up always provide interesting decisions to prioritise. Other advanced variants include a solo campaign, and 10 asymmetrical player powers. You keep yours secret, until you opt to trigger it's game-changing, once-per-game ability. (Or, it provides yet another opportunity to score end-game points.) There's a lot of replayability, here.
Sometimes the tile-and-token choice to draft is obvious. Matching pairs are hard to turn down. But even when this rarity occurs, is that bonus 1VP worth it? Are you even collecting that terrain? Can you place it to extend that Monster band (and so it doesn't block others)? If you don't draft it, are you gifting easy points to your rivals? Ignore their plans at your peril. The decisions you have to make feel satisfying.
You're trying to solve two puzzles at once. One in the form of set collection for terrains; the other for aligning consecutive Monster tokens for bands. Spinning both of these plates is a wonderful challenge, without feeling overwhelmed. The considerations don't hang over you like a dark shadow. Instead, they're more akin to a subtle layers of deviousness, lurking in the background.
Despite the mounting considerations - even with the advanced variants - analysis paralysis didn't seem too problematic. There's only ever four tiles to pick from, which felt like the ideal range. AP wasn't devoid, though. Overboss is a game about reacting, rather than planning your turn in advance. In some ways, Overboss has echoes of Alhambra to it. You can't rely on a particular tile or token remaining present in the Market by the time it comes back to your turn. This goes double if you play up to five players! (As a result, I prefer this with a smaller player count.)
Due to the shuffled nature of the 68 terrain tiles, it might prove impossible to build up an array of any particular set. Sometimes the Market offers four unappealing tiles (or four identical terrain types). You have no choice but to pick one of them. This is 100% luck-based. The only way around this is by completing an Overthrow or Demolish Command. And even then, you're reliant on the state of the Market at the time.
Fuzzy, Warm, Nostalgic Waves, And A Bugbear Or Two
To my tastes, the art style is evocative and stirring for those who grew up with NES or Master System titles. I was so ready to let the fuzzy, warm, nostalgic waves take me back to side-scrolling, arcade adventures. Each tile has a unique design - twelve different Forests; twelve different Caves, and so on. You'll marvel as you observe the details in every single one of them. You could imagine each being individual drop-down levels as you traipse through an old-school console game. The cardstock's solid; the iconography on the tiles logical. The rulebook has boxout tips written from the witty perspectives of the egotistical, asymmetrical Overbosses. That's entertainment.
There's a gametrayz plastic insert included, for you to store all the tiles by their terrain. You can slot in the 10x Monster tokens beneath them, and there's spaces for the Command and Boss cards, too. A lid keeps it all in place, meaning you can stack the box vertical without fear of chaos exploding within. It's an immense design, and it looks phenomenal in its strong purple tone. But…
…a gametrayz set-up like this provides a slight bugbear. Setting up a game of Overboss is a pain. You need to select five terrain tiles sets, plus their matching Monster/Crystal tokens. Chucking the tokens in the bag is no problem. But shuffling 68 tiles that you previously had stacked into neat sets is both time-consuming and cumbersome. Of course, this works in reverse too, when you want to pack the game away. You need to separate all the tiles and tokens back into their sets when you put them back into the insert.
Final Thoughts On: Overboss
I'd rather have the insert than not, but it creates problems as well as solves them. Set-up isn't a major pain, but it's enough of one. For a game that plays in as little as 20-30 minutes, there's a lot of sorting involved between back-to-back games. Regardless: what Overboss provides is a tight tile-placement, set collection puzzle. The artwork pops. There's oodles of point salad scoring opportunities; a span of difficulties you can chuck into the set-up. There's gameplay challenges here for newbies and point salad veterans alike.
While the theme is a fun one - evil end-level bosses building an empire - does it make sense? You're competing to be the Overboss that best creates a landscape filled with… patterns? It's a little abstract in places. At least using Portals to teleport Monsters around is apt. Putting Monsters on matching terrains, too, feels logical. A witch should cause adventurers more havoc in her favoured, backyard swamp. But that's only worth one extra point. You score more for building a band of witches across unmatched terrains.
I'm not complaining; honest, I'm not. Juggling the dual management decisions of scoring the most out of your terrains and Monsters is fulfilling, and punchy. What I will stress, though, is don't expect Overboss to provide you with the same vibe as Boss Monster. The game's subheading title reads "A Boss Monster Adventure", but this is misleading. The only parallel here is the charming 8-bit setting. The mechanisms between the two are vast. There's no 'narrative' of witnessing pesky heroes interacting with your wacky board. Is that a trick missed?