The Hum of Neon – An OverDrive Review

OverDrive is a new kind of sports game that is best described as the flow of Dreadball with the format of TimeSplitters 2 and the showmanship of the WWE. Perhaps that makes sense and your attention is secured. Maybe it doesn’t and I may as well be speaking whatever language the big shark-man on the cover speaks.

Dreadball is the successful sci-fi sports tabletop release from Mantic Games. This is the U.K. publisher that’s hit us with Kings of War, The Walking Dead: All Out War, and the wonderful Hellboy board game. The thematic ignition of OverDrive is a “what if” scenario where the mercenary giants – oversized MVP terrors – leave behind the game of Dreadball and instead execute their brutal craft in an altogether new sport. You could liken this to an all-star game where the rosters feature oddballs like a mecha-Kaiju and space spider. It’s a bit absurd, but in a similar way to the Meg fighting Doctor Strange or perhaps Barney throwing down with a Teletubby.

The problem is that the genre of sports tabletop game is becoming a bit crowded. OverDrive is competing with the usual suspects of Blood Bowl, Battleball, Guild Ball, and of course Dreadball. But it’s also throwing its weight around in the arena combat crowd. There we have splendid titles such as Warhammer Underworlds, Rumbleslam, even Gaslands. People and monsters and robots beating each other up while others watch is as old as papyrus or Keith Richards.

I mentioned TimeSplitters 2 as touchpoint earlier, let me clarify. That classic first person shooter carved out a bit of a lifespan due to its wild multiplayer modes. That is a primary influence here as OverDrive‘s signature move is its wide array of contests.

The standard mode in this game is King of the Hill. This is where each player alternates activating their three giants in an attempt to secure whichever random scoring zone is highlighted for the round. It’s a brutal throw-down where you are just as likely to score by maiming your opponents and knocking them out as you are by offensive maneuvering. This opportunity to pursue both point vectors enforces a requirement of versatility onto the players as it’s easy to find one of your characters stuck in the middle of no-man’s-land surrounded by foes. It’s fluid and dynamic and emphasizes the tactical heart of the game.

Pass the Bomb is also a delight. This removes the scoring zones in favor of an explosive orb one must lug around. At the end of each of the three rounds the bomb explodes inflicting a hefty amount of damage on the holder. Gameplay quickly degenerates into chasing down your opponent and hurling the bomb into their flesh which is a bit like Squid Game’s take on Hot Potato. This is outright hilarious as action is focused on tagging your target with the bomb, and then running as far away as possible. There’s a tension in the positioning on this one that is a joy to experience.

The third mode is Capture the Flag. While there are no real surprises here, I’ve seen a couple of downright nasty matches. One such play featured masterful board control through carefully timed use of OverDrive maneuvers.

Let’s take a detour.

Each character possesses a unique OverDrive special power. You can only trigger one each round so its imperative you time their use and selection properly. They’re also the most dramatic moments in the game, providing highlights such as mind-controlling your opponent into lashing out at their own teammate. These abilities collide with the various modes of play to manufacture a distinct personality that separates this game from others in its class.

Now, back to the matter at hand.

Killing Streak is the next option, a method of play where you go all out in crushing skulls. The prime add here is that the first character to score a knockout is awarded the killstreak token. This is worth a point at the end of the round as well as a bonus to combat during the conflict. The twist is that it transfers to an opponent if the killstreak holder is removed from play. So you get this over the top functionally VIP target that alters the dynamics.

The strongest mode is Invade. This is an exhilarating combat where you work to occupy your opponent’s side of the board, splitting your attention methodically between offense and defense. This setup places a significant emphasis on character matchups and positioning. Often you will try to create or block lanes of approach, and it can result in the more nuanced stats and abilities of each character affecting the state of the field. It feels tighter to some degree, players often starting off a bit slow and conservative before the whole thing breaks open and characters are busting through opposing lines.

Invade also frames the tight action economy in its best light. In OverDrive you do not activate characters uniformly each round. It is indeed an alternating activation system similar to Necromunda or Deadzone, but each player receives four total activation tokens. On your turn you can assign one of these to a character to activate it, but each character may only receive two such tokens per round. So this results in a lopsided set of activations where you can’t exercise strategy with symmetry. Certain portions of the field will receive less attention and where you place your limited attention is shaped by both your character abilities as well as the type of matchup.

The final option is DodgeBrawl. This is another humorous method of play where a single ball is available to be scooped up and tossed at an opponent. You deal additional damage when hurling the heavy object and it’s a great alternate way to shift up the strategic landscape. You have to be somewhat picky though about your taking your shots, as the target can make an opposed roll to catch the ball, transferring momentum.

I’m particularly interested in how this game’s dimensions measure up against other titles. As a pure sporting affair I’m not sure it attains the velocity of Blitz BowI or the opulence of Techno Bowl. In terms of straight arena combat I’m more likely to reach for Mythic Battles or Warhammer Underworlds if given the opportunity.

However there is a legitimate niche in between those two genres and OverDrive functions as a ligature joining some of the strongest elements of each. There are moments when I want a sampler, a taste of both worlds where I can grapple with monstrous entities and break their backs before trotting into an end zone.

And that preference is certainly fragile. This game could fall into obscurity at a moment’s notice, but it manages to overcome that frailty with ample diversity courtesy of the six modes of play and six asymmetric characters. These various combinations provide a strong exploratory component which beckons players return to the arena for a stretch of commitment.

While OverDrive the game is substantially rad, OverDrive the product is somewhat less so. I’m quite pleased with the very bright and energetic aesthetic, including the thick multi-fold board. The miniatures, however, are less impressive.

I do appreciate that the miniatures are pre-assembled which makes jumping in relatively quick. The details also are solid and many of the cuts sharp. There is some disappointment in that the poses for the most part are somewhat lifeless and fail to capture the dynamism of the sport they’re playing. They also are not shy, containing a fair share of flash as well as mold-lines requiring some cleanup.

The mix of characters is strong in terms of their diversity and does in fact allow for you to play a full game, but you will find yourself yearning for more not long into your season. The strain lies in match setup. You bring six different options to the table to form a pool. Players then alternate selecting a character like some twisted high stakes game of playground Red Rover. This is a delightful quality to the design as identifying synergies and working to exploit them forms the emergent depth, particularly over multiple plays as your experience grows. Variety in this regard also mirrors the zaniness of the various modes of play and enhances the richness of the system.

The downside is the need for expansion content relatively soon after your first plays. This is particularly a bummer in the league format, which is actually a rather slick system for long-term play where you gain sponsorship and coach abilities. Of course most miniatures games of this format suffer a similar issue. In fact, most products are labelled “starter” for a reason.

Why it’s more of a blemish with OverDrive, however, is that other sports and arena titles sort themselves out once each player has acquired their team or faction. Here, you would likely want ten or so giants for a lengthy league and it’s not clear on how to divide these purchases amongst the members since character ownership is not a factor. I imagine that once you hit near that threshold the diversity issue fades away and each matchup will offer its own idiosyncrasies and unique challenges.

My complaints here are not major ones. The system as a whole manages to establish an identity in a very competitive sports tabletop genre, which is a noticeable achievement in and of itself. It’s a bright and lively game and one I’d be happy to dedicate a frantic 90 minutes to any day.

 

A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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  1 comment for “The Hum of Neon – An OverDrive Review

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