Overworld – Preview

Indie Cardboard returns with this preview of the current Kickstarter game from Magic Meeple: Overworld. Check out whether Overworld’s 16-bit art computes.  The campaign is currently funded and ends on August 8th.

Nostalgia is big business (see also: Ready Player One, Stranger Things, and the return of shoulder pads), and so it’s no surprise to see companies and individuals climbing over each other to try to tap into what amounts to a built in audience. Lately, however, it feels like there’s a new tabletop game based on something I grew up with every time I turn around. There’s no denying my affection for yesteryear. I mean I can’t be the only one who still keeps his notes in a Trapper Keeper, right? But, of course, the past can only carry an experience so far. Thankfully, however, that’s not a problem for Overworld. In fact, when it comes to Magic Meeples’ latest release, this tile-laying game hardly leans on nostalgia at all.

Overworld is the second entry in Magic Meeple’s video game-inspired lineup of board games following last year’s Fire of Eidolon, and like that game this one also features lovely pixelated art to help carry the game’s 16-bit theme. Additionally, the game features wooden bits players use to claim territories as they place tiles on the table, and even these are reminiscent of sprites seen in popular video games which savvy players are likely to recognize. However, if you go into Overworld, as I did, expecting it to rekindle affection for classic video games, you’re likely to be a touch disappointed. Overworld’s video game influences don’t extend beyond the game’s art or bits. At no point while playing Overworld did it feel like I was involved in any sort of grand adventure, which is fine except that the game uses its video game aesthetics as a hook to drawn in players, some of whom will no doubt be disappointed by a game that is almost entirely divorced of theme.

Thankfully, however, there is plenty of gameplay and strategy included to help bridge this shortcoming. Overworld is a tile-laying and territory control game in the spirt of other familiar standbys like Takenoko or Carcassonne whereby players spend turns drawing tiles and placing them on the table, connecting them to other previously placed tiles in order to create an ever-growing and dynamic play area. Each tile in Overworld is double sided, with water regions illustrated on one side and land on the other. The tiles are cut in such a way that when flipped to one side, a tile may only be connected to a region of that same type, land to land, water to water. It’s clever, really, as tiles lock together not unlike a puzzle to create a unique game board every time.

In addition, a small number of tiles feature a pixelated sunrise illustrated on one side, affording the player who drew it the opportunity to either place that tile on the board using its opposite side or return it to the bag in favor of placing one of a handful of special coastal tiles that are set aside during setup. These tiles, as you might suspect, allow players to transition from placing one type of tile to another, in effect connecting land to water or vice versa.

After placing a tile, a player then places up to three tokens in their color, called explorers, onto the newly placed tile. These tokens come in two varieties, ships for claiming water regions, and giant birds (presumably a purposeful nod to Final Fantasy’s iconic chocobo) for land. These tokens are then used as a measuring stick to determine territory control both for end game scoring as well as for the game’s most interesting bit of gameplay: dungeons.

As tiles are connected to one another, inevitably gaps or holes will form on the board wherein no tile could fit. The player with the most explorer tokens occupying regions surrounding the hole is said to have discovered a dungeon, and places one of their special dungeon door tokens in the space to mark it as claimed. This same player also reclaims all of their explorers surrounding that dungeon, which incidentally is also the only way a player may get their tokens back. In this way, Overworld forces players to carefully weigh the costs and benefits of discovering a dungeon, for while it will afford points at the end of the game, it’s also potentially costing points as well in regions no longer occupied by their explorers.

All of this goes until either the last tile has been pulled out of the bag and connected to the board or the last coastal tile has been placed, after which players tally up their points to determine the winner. Unfortunately, I found the way Overworld handles scoring, particularly with regards to dungeons, too cumbersome for its own good. Dungeons are scored based counting the number of spaces between them according to the shortest route, however given the asymmetric nature of the board I found this often turned what should be a simple exercise into one of recounting and sometimes even bickering between players as to what does and does not constitute the correct path.

Players also score points based on the number of explorer tokens of their color left on the board at the end of the game, which thankfully is a much less trying ordeal. However, given that the lion’s share of points are more often than not hung on dungeons and their distance from one another, I would have much rather Overworld leaned on a different scoring mechanism than what’s offered.  During one game we even used a cloth tape measure to determine distance between dungeons, a hack that actually worked out better than expected. Of course, as with any house rule, your mileage may vary.

That said, I still enjoy Overworld, and despite misgivings I still wouldn’t hesitate to bring it to the table. True, for all but the most ardent fans of classic video games, Overworld may be difficult to recommend on theme alone without first making clear that its retro-inspired roots merely rest on the surface. Nevertheless, even if stripped of what amounts to a thin veneer of theme, Overworld remains both fun and strategic, occupying similar brain space as other lighter, tile-based classics. Think Alhambra or Tsuro. Admittedly, the scoring is a bit wonky, but if everything else I’ve mentioned above sounds like your cup of tea, I’m confident that Overworld would almost certainly find a welcome spot on your shelf.

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