Reviewed by Kevin Whitmore
OBSESSION (Kayenta Games, 1 to 4 players, ages 13 and up, 30-90 minutes; $54)
Obsession is an enjoyable new game released in 2018 by first-time author Dan Hallagan and published by his own Kayenta Publishing company. Obsession is a large boxed game, similar in size to Ticket to Ride (Spring 2004 GA Report). Picking it up reveals its substantial heft and opening it up you find an impressive amount of cardboard.
Obsession has up to four players take on the roles of Derbyshire society back in Victorian England. As an estate owner, you will have several goals. You will wish to improve your estate, attract the “best people” to your social events, and ultimately, you’ll wish to arrange a good marriage for your children. For any player who has watched Pride & Prejudice, Sense & Sensibility or Downton Abbey, this will be a familiar theme.
Obsession is a deep strategy game. But its attachment to a familiar theme makes the game accessible. Obsession has been that rare game in my collection that satisfies both deep-thinkers and casual game players, even at the same game session! Let’s take a closer look:
Obsession has a large quantity of components.
- Each player gets a player board where they will track their family prestige, house their servants, and store any family wealth attained. In addition, each player has a “Country Estate Improvements” board where initially five improvement tiles are placed. Over the course of the game, players will likely add tiles to further improve their estate. This organizer helps keep your estate tidy and organized.
- The central board provides a place to organize a builder’s market, servants for hire, the bank, and various decks of cards.
- A second side board is where the turns of the game are marked and additional cards are stored.
- A very large number of improvement tiles are provided. These tiles provide multiple ways to add to your estate. These tiles fall into five distinct categories: Essentials, Service, Estate, Prestige and Sporting. How you choose to improve your estate will greatly shape your individual game.
- There are many Bridge-sized playing cards, collectively called Gentry cards. Each player has at least four family member cards. But in addition, there are many casual-guest and prestige-guest cards. Social life in Derbyshire is very much about who will be seen in public with you!
- Obsession has a delightful array of custom meeples, who represent your servants. Each player will have a butler, at least one footman, a valet, a head-housekeeper, and a lady’s maid. As the game progresses each family will have a chance to add to their staff, and possibly pinch a lower-level servant away from one of their neighbors.
- There are even more components, including a very sturdy bag as well as some miniature decks of cards for special purposes. All in all, this is a well-built game. The quality of all the components are very nice.
At the beginning of the game, each player has a family that is coming off of tough times. The family’s reputation is low and the estate needs renovation. Each family has a patriarch, a matriarch and both a son and daughter of marriageable age. Thematically, each family will want to outdo the other families and arrange the best marriage for one of their children.
In game terms, there are several ways to score victory points, but one of the strongest elements of doing well revolves around raising your family’s reputation. Reputation is tracked on the family’s player board. Many guests will not be seen in public with your family until you raise your reputation. Further, some events you will not be able to host with insufficient reputation. Fortunately, there are several early game opportunities to raise your profile in Derbyshire society.
Each turn you may host a single activity. Generally, these activities are hosted by members of your family and/or close family friends. An activity is hosted at your estate and is specifically conducted at a tile selected from your available tiles in the Country Estate Improvements board. For example, one early activity might be to host a Whist game for two ladies in the Front Parlour. This is done by selecting the improvement tile that lists the activity you wish to host. The tile indicates how many gentry (playing cards) must attend. Some activities require family members, others might require only ladies, or only gentlemen attend. The activity will sometimes require a certain servant to be available to facilitate the activity. If so, you will deploy one of your meeples to the event. While family members are self-reliant, some guests can only be invited if you will the needed servant. For example, the prestigious Thomas, Earl of Kellynch, always needs a valet to be seen in public.
Each activity will usually give some reward such as an increase to your reputation, access to new friends, or money. In addition, most every gentry card will also provide a reward, similar in nature. By hosting larger events, your family will reap more rewards. However, this fatigues your servants, who need a turn to recover.
After each activity, you receive a chance to visit the builder’s market. This is where you can purchase estate tiles to improve your estate. Estate tiles provide victory points and provide opportunities to host new activities. Some of the new tiles can be very expensive or require a high prestige to be used. Every estate tile in Obsession is two-sided. Once an activity is hosted, it will flip over to the back side. It will never flip back. Effects vary, but generally initial activities are the most effective. Once flipped over, most tiles reward the player with enhanced victory point values.
The game also embeds the concept of Victorian romance. In Derbyshire live two rich eligible young people, a brother and a sister, who would be ideal marriage prospects, the Fairchilds. Each season the four families will vie to catch the attention of the Fairchild heirs. To catch their interest, a random theme card is revealed, setting the type of estate improvement that will attract the Fairchild family’s interest. The family that has the most victory points in the selected theme (sporting/service/etc.) will receive the benefit of associating with one of the Fairchild heirs. This means the player will have use of one of the Fairchild playing cards for three turns (a season). The Fairchild cards are very good and useful, a substantial reward.
At some point a player will feel their options for a good turn are too few. This can happen as they have played most of their cards, or possibly have too many tired servants to host a good event. When this happens, a player will choose to pass their turn. This allows the player to retrieve all played cards, refresh their serving staff, and collect some money. Even so, they can still add a tile to their estate.
I’ve touched on the importance of reputation – it unlocks using guests of higher repute and enables hosting higher level activities. But high reputation is also its own reward. Reputation can range up to level “7” or even level ”9” in the extended game. Each level of prestige scores higher in a triangular progression (1, 3, 6, 10, etc.). So, do not neglect your reputation!
But there are other ways of scoring points.
- Each improvement tile will impact your victory points. All estate tiles are double sided. Initially you place them on the first side up. When you host the listed activity, you will flip it over to its second side. Often the victory points jump up for having flipped over an estate tile.
- Most gentry cards are of some value, and prestige guests are often very valuable. The guests you have attracted over the course of the game will add victory points to your overall score. However, there are some guests you will wish to dispose of before the end of the game, such as the gossip or the American Heiress, who provide in-game benefits but will cost victory points at the end of the game.
- Having many servants is very useful during the game, but also lucrative as each servant is worth 2 victory points at the end of the game.
- During game set up, and shortly after the game starts players select from a suite of objective cards. Some are modest and easy to accomplish. Others are extravagant but might prove impossible to complete. Scoring objective cards can be very helpful. Just ensure you don’t select mutually exclusive objectives!
- Courtship competitions provide winning families with victory point cards. The final courtship event is the marriage of one of the Fairchild heirs to a Derbyshire family. This awards an eight-point Gentry card, a substantial reward.
There are 16 turns in a standard game of Obsession. It is inevitable that players will be forced to pass during the game. Of course, passing is not very productive so try hard to limit the amount of times you must pass. In my experience, players will pass at least twice and often three times before game end. It is also possible to play an extended 20-turn game of Obsession. This extended game opens up the opportunity to use some of the highest level tiles and guests for the most lavish parties even seen in Derbyshire. Whichever duration you choose, the family who has accumulated the most Victory Points will be the winner and the talk of Derbyshire. (The Wessex Expansion adds a fifth family board that gives the advantage of a larger starting country estate. A player selecting the Family Wessex player board will have their choice between the Breakfast Room and Tennis Court—second level improvements—in his or her manor house at the beginning of the game. The expansion also adds five additional Starter Guests, five additional Casual Guests, five additional Prestige Guests, and six new Solitaire opponents. $19)
This reviewer is quite taken by Obsession. I love the theme, as I have watched many of these “English Manners” shows with my wife. I love that the theme of this game appeals to many casual gamers in my life that often crinkle their noses at my usual heavy-strategy games. However, Obsession does have some faults. None are fatal, but in the spirit of critical examination I offer these points:
- Set up is a slog. Some tiles are always used. Others are dependent on the number of players. Of the tiles you will use, some are handed out at the beginning. Others are restricted from the bag until initial set up is complete. Players need to pay close attention when setting up the game, as there are several details to manage.
- Tear down is a slog. Obsession has a lot of components. It sprawls over a large area, and if you don’t carefully tear it down, the next game’s set up will be that much harder.
- The “Country Estate Improvements” board lists the five categories of tiles in an unhelpful order. When multiple tiles are to be added to the Builder’s Market at the same time, there are rules about how to order the market. The order of precedence amongst tiles could have been embedded into this organizer. It isn’t. So players must check the rules when ties must be resolved.
- The rules organization leaves gaps that needlessly cause confusion. For example, there is a special servant called the Under-Butler. In the basic rules, you are instructed to put the two Under-Butlers into the pool with all the other servants available for hire. Only in the glossary do you learn that the Under-Butler may only be taken if a certain room is added to the estate. I suspect many players have unwittingly hired Under-Butlers from the pool, as there is no restriction given in the “Hire Servants” instructions of the main rulebook.
Overall, I have found Obsession to be a delightful addition to my game library. It has caught on with many gamers, as the forums at Board Game Geek are filled with vibrant discussions about the game. I do not play solitaire games very often, but Obsession includes special rules and components to support a solitaire game. Currently, Obsession is not widely distributed. But the publisher offers direct sales service at https://www.kayentapublishing.com/obsession. While I wish the publisher the greatest success going forward, I recommend getting this game while it is currently available. Since Kayenta Publishing has only ever released this one game, I would land on the side of getting it while you can. – – – – – – – Kevin Whitmore
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