Tuesday 16 July 2019

Review - Overbooked

Designed by Daryl Chow
Published by Jumbo
For 1 - 4 frequent fliers, aged 8 to adult

Overbooked board game box art

I'm not a frequent flyer.

I mean, to the point where I had to check it wasn't spelled "flier." Which it is, apparently. Apart from when it's not.

I got confused.

It's not that I hate flying. There's something incredible (magical isn't really the word) for that moment you hurtle down the runway, and the plane leaves the ground, and every fibre of your body is screaming, "This is against God." Flying is, perhaps, the ultimate testament to humankind's achievements.

But flying comes with its own baggage, and as someone with anxiety issues, I can't think of anything more stressful than airports: Dragging your case into the overcrowded foyer, the sinking feeling you get the moment your luggage disappears from sight on the conveyor belt, the pre-flight, nerve-killing, slightly overpriced drink at the bar, your last desperate patting of pockets to ensure you have your passport, and the waiting.

Just so much waiting.

Every step of the process is an individual agony to endure.

And so it's with some surprise that I can report someone, somewhere, somehow, has managed to take this most arduous element of any adventure and transform it into something truly enjoyable. That someone is games designer Daryl Chow. The somehow is his really rather lovely game, Overbooked. And the somewhere is my house (since I received a copy from the publishers for review and sometimes the world is awesome).

The box for Overbooked, showing some of the fantastic artwork.

Overbooked puts you in control of an airline with one simple goal: Fill one plane to maximise profits on the flight. And if that sounds pretty straightforward... well... it is. One of the game's biggest strengths is just how accessible it is. It's one of those games that you can set up in a few minutes, and after you've played a single round you know exactly what you're doing. The box says it's suitable for gamers as young as eight, and having played it with my eight-year-old daughter, I can testify to that.

Each player (up to four) has a board representing the interior of a plane, with little rows of little seats to fill. In the centre of the table, there's a separate board showing the departure lounge where there are four face-up cards in a row representing the queue of passengers outside the boarding gate. Each card shows a specific arrangement of coloured suitcases, with each colour corresponding to a particular type of flyer. On your turn, you simply take one of the cards from the departure lounge, take matching coloured passenger tokens, and then arrange those passenger tokens in your plane. Finally, you shuffle up all the passenger cards left in the queue, and add a new one to the end.

And that's basically it.

It sounds simple.

It is simple.

But it's not easy.

An excerpt from the Overbooked rules.

First of all, you can't just take whichever card from the departure lounge you need. You can take the card at the front of the queue for free (after all, they are next to board), or you can take any card from further back in the queue if you place a food voucher from your limited supply on each card you skip. Whenever someone takes a card, they also get any food vouchers on that card as an added bonus. This is a clever balancing mechanism that means there are never any simple choices. Sure, you can take the first card, but it's rarely going to be the one that's most beneficial to your requirements; however, if you take a different card, you're spending your vouchers and potentially gifting them to your opponents, which gives them a lot more options later in the game. And, of course, later in the game is exactly when you need the most options, because it's when your plane is almost full and you need to be extra careful about which cards you pick.

But why, exactly, does it matter which cards you pick?

As I already mentioned, each card shows a number of coloured suitcases in a specific arrangement. You need to position the corresponding passengers in your plane in that exact arrangement, making sure you don't split the pattern across an aisle or put a new passenger in a seat that's already taken (which kicks the existing passenger off the flight and costs you victory points at the end of the game). To begin with, this is relatively straightforward; but as your plane fills up it becomes more difficult to slot the shapes into the room you have left.

So yeah... It's Tetris.

Without the catchy tune.

A game of Overbooked in progress.

And, of course, you aren't just trying to make rows here. The aim of the game isn't just to fit the passengers in, but to fit them in so that they're positioned in a way that scores you the most points.

Red passengers are romantics, who want to be seated in couples with no other romantics adjacent to them. White passengers are minors who must be completely surrounded by adult passengers so they feel safe. All other types of passengers just like to be in large groups of their colour. If you are able to seat the passengers based on their requirements, then you score points. At the end of the game you tot up your points for each type of passenger, add some points for any leftover food vouchers you have, then deduct points for each passenger you kicked off the plane. Highest score (as if I need to say this) wins.

It really is a beautifully streamlined gaming experience. But what makes it even more interesting is the designer added a few "advanced" modules to plug in when you want to add some extra challenges. These modules comprise a set of extra hard passenger cards to shuffle in with the regular cards, and some event cards that provide objectives for scoring extra victory points at the end of the game.

There are also symbols in the corners of the passenger cards that you ignore in the basic game, but which provide additional benefits if you choose to play a more advanced game. Benefits include extra points at the end of the game, the option to ignore one passenger on the card, or being allowed to split the pattern across an aisle. These symbols are incredible powerful, and have the potential to change a useless card into one you're happy to take.

Being able to use these modular advanced rules to tailor the experience for your players without dramatically changing how the game actually plays is one of my favourite aspects of Overbooked. Not my absolute favourite aspect though.

My absolute favourite aspect is the art.

I mean, just look at it! It's utterly charming. The departure lounge is bustling with funny cartoon characters, including a superhero who looks suspiciously like Iron Man having trouble with the metal detector. Each player's check-in counter also features some fun characters, including Dracula with his pet werewolf, and someone who may well be trying to smuggle Cthulhu through customs. The passenger tokens are equally delightful; and every single one is unique. There's also a cool 3D radio tower to use as a first player token.

A close-up view of the departure lounge artwork from Overbooked.

Ultimately, this game would work just as well as a themeless abstract game, but the theme is applied so cleverly it elevates the gaming experience. Buying off passengers with food vouchers so you can usher other passengers to the front of the queue, ensuring amorous couples are kept in pairs well away from other couples to preserve their intimacy, the way some passengers have a preference for an aisle or window seat: It all just works.

And you can say that about the whole game. It just works.

It's not a revolutionary game. It's unlikely to wing its way into your top 10 games of all time. But it does what it set out to do incredibly well. It's... safe. (Which may not be the highest praise you can give a game; but it is pretty damned important when you're running an airline.)

A selection of passenger cards from the Overbooked board game.

Overbooked is solid. Fun. Quick to play. Easy to learn. Something the whole family can get involved with. Not that you need a family to play, because the designer even included a solo variant. It's much the same as the standard game except you can take any passenger card you like without spending a dinner voucher (the vouchers are used instead to discard a card you have no use for), and you play to a scenario, such as the "romantic city break" where you win if you have at least five pairs of romantic passengers on board along with a specific combination of other flyers.

The game does lend itself rather well to solo play for two main reasons:

1. There is some potential for analysis paralysis. With so many cards, and so many ways to fit the passengers into your plane, some players may take a little too long to make a play.
2. There isn't really any kind of direct competition.

It's this second point that may be the biggest mark against the game for some people. There's no way to "attack" the other players, steal their passengers, or otherwise be a nuisance. The only way you have of interfering with a player's plans is to take the cards you know they need while denying them access to your food vouchers as much as possible. You're going to spend most of your time focusing on solving your own puzzle, and that's certainly going to be a problem for people who prefer a more confrontational, interactive, or social gaming experience.

Really, it just depends on your outlook.

A selection of passenger tokens from Overbooked, ready for take off.

The term "multiplayer solitaire" is often used in a disparaging way, and while I would suggest the cap fits here, I don't personally see it as a problem in this particular instance. This is a light, family game. It's something you can play with your kids. The lack of direct interaction makes it all a bit more laid back, and you don't have to pull your punches or refrain from taking actions that would be particularly damaging to the younger players at the table. This is a game where you can work at your own pace, on your own puzzle, and then sit back and enjoy watching your children working out their own solutions without the risk of someone snatching their personal victories away.

And that's just nice.

Which is something I thought I would never say about spending my time at an airport.

My copy of Overbooked was provided by the publisher for review. You can get your own copy from good games stores and online retailers

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