Game development is hard, and I am very dumb, so I’m not going to say exactly what makes a good game development ethos. That said, a general rule of thumb I’ve seen several career devs employ is “cut until you can’t”, removing extraneous mechanisms and ideas until the game’s as focused as possible. This seems to broadly work, but no rule is universal and in the specific case of Overboss the opposite method appears to have been employed. Where other games would seek to chisel at a set of ideas until only fun remains, Overboss opts for excess to mixed results.
We have to start by acknowledging the contents of the box. It wants to be the boujeest pixelated tile layer on the market and I’m fairly confident they pulled it off. As a product it’s frankly ludicrous: tons of thick tiles, gorgeous spritework that’s unique on every single terrain tile, postcard-sized bosses to play as, and a fancy purple Gametrayz insert that sorts everything under a snap-on lid. The bag sheds strings like a mop in a blender but I can forgive that when the actual game pieces are this nice. That said I’ve never considered fancy plastic inserts especially necessary when bags and bands exist, and in some ways the insert being very inflexible contributes to a very slow game-packing process.
On a basic level the game is a simple drafting and placement puzzle. 4 randomized pairs of tile and minion are in the center of the table. Your turn will consist of picking a pair then placing it on your playerboard. The two pieces don’t necessarily have to go together, though early on they likely will as minions would rather burninate the countryside than twiddle their thumbs at home. Crystals and magic gates change things up a bit but not massively so. In the end everyone’s board will be full, the scorepad is broken out, and everyone does over a dozen calculations to get their point totals.
Of course that’s not all there is. The word of the day here is “module”. Overboss has loads of them, settings you can toggle on/off depending on your tastes or how complex of a game you want to play. The base game is relatively simple but you’ve also got the larger 4×4 playerboard for longer games, 10 different terrain types of which you pick 5 of per game, boss characters that give you one-shot powers as well as scoring conditions, and command cards that inject some direct conflict into the mix.
Are all of these necessary? No! God no! The command cards in particular feel like a bridge too far. I thought I’d love them and in theory I should – they allow you to touch other players’ boards in a genre that is typically chaste – but in practice they add too much fuss to a system that is otherwise not built to support that conflict. More often than not it just leads to players poking at each other a bit until endgame, then someone fires off a card or two that significantly shifts the point totals at the last minute.
Complaining about Overboss offering a broad range of options may seem like whining about a non-issue, but their hodge-podginess leaves every session never feeling quite right. The 4×4 board offers better opportunity for long-term strategy than the 4×3, but takes longer and makes initial placements somewhat meaningless as tiles can go pretty much wherever. The tile types aren’t created equal in terms of point potential or interesting effects. Including Command cards adds an entire extra level of complexity that encourages everyone to stop during every draft and overthink. My personal mix is bosses on, command cards off, a terrain set that includes volcanoes because they force hard choices, and the 4×4 board. This isn’t compatible with the maximum player count which requires the 4×3, but it’s the most satisfying combo we found at every other count.
By the time you start really trying to dig in and find the strategy of the game it has a tendency to buckle under its own heft. This is a light tile layer with a massive setup and teardown for each play, a variable scoring setup that concludes in a laundry list of point conditions, and not nearly enough control over its myriad of variables in play. At lower player counts in particular the sheer number of tiles (5 types + dungeons) makes drafting strong combos feel more like the result of fortunate draws than anything else. The modular approach adds a significant amount of straws to the proverbial camel’s back but the source of the problem is foundational. Or to take the metaphor to its logical conclusion, Overboss‘s core ruleset makes for a pretty flimsy camel.
In the end Overboss uses a lot to achieve a little. The game has ideas upon ideas, many of which are genuinely compelling, but that all end up jumbled and disjointed when put together. Had it focused less on presenting a seemingly endless point salad bar and more on its unique strengths (bosses, interaction, etc.) I really think this could have been a solid companion game to the likes of Cascadia, if not better. I hold no ill will towards the thing and would play it more if asked, but I shed a tear for the excellent game this almost was.
A copy of this game was independently purchased for review.