WBG Score: 9
Player Count: 1-4
Published by: Kayenta Games
Designed by: Dan Hallagan
This is a free review copy. See our review policy here
At this point you’re probably expecting a review filled with more Downton Abbey puns than Maggie Smith's film roles. Thankfully for you I’ve not seen Downton Abbey, Bridgerton or really any of those era programs for that matter so you’ve all been spared. Considering Maggie Smith has 221 credits to her name it seems like so have I!
How to court a Fairchild
I won’t go into how the setup works, but I do want to highlight one part. Get players to pick a house to play as, once they do hand them their house box. Now, if you’ve done the prep work when you were punching the game then this should be filled with all of their starting components including any starting bonuses they have. It makes life so much easier and is such a simple and beautiful component. Plus they look at you like you’ve just handed them a small box of chocolate. However if you just punched the game and threw everything into the big boxes then this is going to be an empty box and just know that Dame Maggie is very disappointed in you right now.
Games of Obsession will play out over 16 or 19 rounds depending on how long you want the game to run. Each round will play out the same way but some will have the added bonus of special events that will trigger on each player's turns that round (except for one which I’ll get into.) I won’t explain all of them but for example, the Village Hall round will net a player £300 if they have the private study tile flipped over.
On a turn you can do one of three possible things, each made up of a few steps.
The first thing you do on a turn will be to rotate your staff. As the game goes on and you use staff they will become exhausted and will take a couple of turns before they become useful again (honestly, nothing has been more relatable to me in board games than this sentence.) Rotating the staff shifts them one step towards becoming usable again. Next you trigger the rounds event if it has one.
Here’s where you have a choice of things to do. If you decide to host an event you choose one of the event tiles in your house that is numbered equal to or lower than your current reputation level. The tile will tell you which member of staff it requires and how many and what type of guests it requires. So maybe 2 gentlemen or 3 gentry. Because let’s face it, you can’t have any old riff raff looking into your Cabinet of Curiosities, it’s not an episode of Come Dine With Me. You play the required guests from your hand of cards and, like events, they have to have the same or lower reputation level as your own. Each card will have a number of benefits on them and some guests may also require you to spend staff to see to their needs. Which you’ll do next by taking staff from your available service and placing them on the cards they’re needed on. Next, take all the benefits from the event and the cards that you played. These could be money, reputation, gaining new guest cards or discarding guests. Be aware though as some cards have negative effects.
Next you get to add to your estate by buying a new tile from the market. New tiles mean new events to host, potentially better benefits and more points. Speaking as someone who's about to start their second house renovation, the idea of adding entirely new wings to my house is giving me all kinds of anxiety. Lastly clean the board by placing any used staff in the spent area, place the played guests in a personal discard pile and put the tile back in your estate. If it’s the first time you’ve played that tile then flip it over. This new side will now either be worth more points, have a better benefit when used or a combination of both.
Gaining new staff works largely the same with the same phase structure except rather than hosting an event, you play the staffing tile and take two new staff from the supply on the board which then go into the spent area on your board.
The last thing you can do is pass. Here you’ll reset all your staff to the available area, return all your cards to your hand and then you have a choice to either collect £200 or reset the market board. After that you can buy from the market as usual.
One important round event is the courtship. At the start of each phase you’ll reveal a theme card from the deck. This will show a tile type. When the courtship round begins whoever has the most victory points on this tile type in their house will have the privilege of courting one of the two Fairchilds. The winner takes one of these cards into their hand to use in future turns. These cards have powerful benefits and are worth eight points at the end of the game. The winner will also take a victory point card. These cards can be kept and used for their VPs at the end of the game, or cashed in at any time for the bonus on them. A couple of things to note are that ties for first place means that no one gets the card (but all tied players get a VP card) Also courtship happens a few times during the game so if in a future round someone else wins they could potentially take that card from you. The Fairchilds are fickle people and your opponents shiny new riding stables could be enough to sway them over to theirs.
The game will end after the allotted rounds and points will be gained from cards in hand, money, VP cards, tiles in your house and from objective cards you’ve completed.
Shall we take tea on the lawn?
I first heard about Obsession a few years ago while watching 3 Minute board games top ten games on YouTube. It seemed to have been out for a while and seemingly no one had heard of it, but it was one that I’d kept on my ‘to check out’ list. Then, out of almost nowhere, it was everywhere. Everyone was talking about it and like a phoenix from the ashes this game was reborn and was (yes I’m going to make this joke now to get it out of the way) becoming everyone’s new obsession. I’m still not sure what kicked the hype train into gear…..but the real question is, does it live up to it?
By the designers own admission this is a theme first type of game. Mechanisms are of course important but if they’re not serving the theme then, like the riff raff that your particular houses would turf out, they won’t be welcome here. I think that’s the perfect way to describe each mechanism here. Every one fits so well thematically, so well in fact that it really lets the theme shine and you can’t help but be drawn in by it. Within the first couple of rounds in our first multiplayer game we found ourselves loudly announcing, in our best Victorian voices, that “house Ponsonby would be hosting bowles on the lawn and in attendance would be (insert typical Victorian gentry name here)” Now all of this isn’t necessary for you to enjoy the game of course, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t add to the experience for me. The whole game delivers on its thematic promise. If you have any interest in this era of history or anything based on it either books or TV then this will instantly be in your wheelhouse theme wise. It’s a different type of theme that we’re used to as well and I think that’s one of the things that initially drew me to it. I’ve never really been into this era of media except a few episodes of Doctor Who, but I think it’s just a fun world to play in for a couple of hours whether you're into it or not. Everything about it is instantly recognisable and you know exactly how to play into this world should you want to.
“Do anything rather than marry without affection”
The mechanics aren’t just thrown together for mechanics sake though. Everything works together so well. It’ll soon have you questioning if you should build that music room, have people round to see your riding stable and most importantly, should you actually invite James Hereford esq. round for tea in the morning because he is the absolute worst.
Obsession gives you loads to think about, so much so that this could turn into an AP nightmare if you let it. Of course you’ll want to host the biggest and highly reputable events as soon as you can, they get you the most stuff after all, but you really shouldn’t ignore those smaller events either because they could be worth negative points at the end if you do. The whole game is a balancing act and just because you can hold a big event that lets you invite 7 gentry, doesn’t mean you should. Have you ever hosted a party with loads of friends and family? Do you remember how spent you were the next day? Yeah, well that’s exactly what will happen there with your staff and your guests if you do. I’m not saying don’t do that, but sometimes a nice game of Whist in the drawing room is what’s needed instead. I love that puzzle of trying to ration out your staff so you can do, at the very least, good turns rather than those turns where you’ve backed yourself into a corner and you can only use the family cards that you started with and a basic event.
I love the mini engines you can build in this game and it’s so satisfying to get them running. With the right combination of tiles, cards and staff you can host an event that will surely be the talk of the county and net you a whole cavalcade of money, reputation and guests to add to your roster. If played well then you’ll find that you’ll be taking very few full refresh turns in a usual game, but with big combos like that you may be tempted to take one or two more just so you can experience those big turns more often.
Aside from the big mechanics, there are a few other things that Obsession does that are really welcome ideas. At two particular points in the game the tile market will change. In one, all of the service tiles will now start to be put in their own section of the board rather than in the market and they can be bought at a set cost (taking into account any discounts on the tiles). At another point this will happen to the level one tiles. It’s a lovely idea that means the market isn’t getting bogged down with tiles that people are less likely to take because you’ve grown above those sort of petty events in your now flourishing house.
Throughout the game you’ll be drawing and discarding objective cards. This is another thing that I think more games should be doing. Making a choice of objective cards when you know which will work and what won’t just makes sense. You can still work towards each objective but if one isn’t going your way, bin it. I’m starting to feel a little tired of games that ask you to choose objectives at the start of the game before you even know how you’re going to approach the game.
My last little thing is in the way you can spend reputation to give you a boost. On your turn you can spend some reputation to gain some money, refresh a worker or refresh the tile market (this last one is only once per round). It may not sound like much but these little things could be the difference of an “ok” turn to a “great” turn.
“We must always travel in hope”
There are a few negative cards in the deck which could easily put you on the back foot, especially if you're unlucky enough to get a few of them. There are ways to mitigate this of course. Everyone starts with a card with the ability to get rid of those negative cards and some other cards will have this as well. There are also cards that let you take a number of cards and choose between the ones you’ve drawn. How well the mitigation works depends on if you can get your hands on those items and how many negative cards you need to rid yourself of. I know this sort of thing bothers some people but the randomness isn’t really something that bothers me personally, (heck one of my favourite games is Ark Nova if you want to talk about random draws) If you like, see it as hosting one of those parties where your friend asks if they can bring a friend from work with them. That person could end up being someone you hang out with in the future, or they could be the worst…..like James Hereford esq.
Another admission by designer Dan Hallagan is that the rulebook is “dense” so if you’re an avid rulebook only learner then be prepared for some reading. I personally used Meeple University's excellent rules video. The game is pretty intuitive once you’ve got the rules. The only questions I tend to get after a teach are about smaller things and not really about the main flow of the game.
So the question I asked earlier was, is it worth the hype? In this case! Yes. I’m always sceptical when a game gets this much hype. In a lot of cases you see those games everywhere on social media and then just as quick as they appeared they’re gone and never spoken of again. Obsession though will be one of those games that sticks around. Even after the initial social media burst I still see this one being played and posted about and I still see the love for it and deservedly so. One of the many reasons is that this game is a clear labour of love, that’s not to say that other games aren’t of course. But being the designer, artist and publisher of the game, Dan Hallagan goes all out to make this game the best experience he can for people. A great example of this is a thread on board game geek (here) that is full of ways and tips to get people playing the game with ease while giving them the best possible experience right out of the gate.
Obsession delivers a fun, thematic experience and at the same time has you deliberating harder over events and guests lists than you have done since your own wedding when you had to make sure that auntie Carol and uncle Roger weren’t on the same table because…well, you know. Come for the theme, stay for the brilliant puzzle and remember to not overwork your staff. I’m off to dive into some expansion goodness which includes the most important staff member of all, the cook!