Let me guess. You found your way here because you’re board-game-curious and heard that Obsession has a Pride and Prejudice / Jane Austen vibe. How am I doing so far? If that’s the case, Chances are you fall into one of two categories:
- You’re a fan of all things Austen, and you can’t believe your luck – there’s a game with this setting.
- You have a special someone in your life who isn’t as into board games as you are, and you want to know if this game could be the one that lures them into your hobby.
Regardless of which camp you’re in, the answer is a resounding maybe. Obsession is a great game and no mistake. It may just be a little troublesome for someone unaccustomed to a modern board game’s disposition.
The very first moment I beheld him, my heart was irrevocably gone
Despite that opening salvo, I’m not a big Austen fan, nor do I have anyone I think I could necessarily tempt into my cult of cardboard with such a game. I had heard, however, that Obsession is a great Euro game in its own right, so my curiosity was piqued good and proper. There’s no denying that the setting is a very clever twist on the standard Euro fare, and it is gorgeous.
There are plenty of games set in 19th Century England, and some are fantastic. Brass: Birmingham is a great example. All too often these games are very industrial in nature. They’re about the businesses, the resources of the time, and the Industrial Revolution. Few games take on the people of the time, and it’s a gap that Obsession gratefully squeezes itself into.
While you’ll spend time in the game adding to your house’s facilities, Obsession’s roots are planted firmly in the families and guests involved. Your family members are all cards in your deck, as are the various guests you entertain. Some are casual guests you invite into your home, while others are more prestigious, and it’s this sense of gentry, breeding, and society which pervades.
If I loved you less, I might be able to talk about it more
Obsession’s 19th Century Derbyshire veneer is very nicely applied, but what really matters is the game beneath. It’s a mixture of deck-building and worker-placement, and it’s one which seemed to slip past everyone’s radar when critics were waxing lyrical about other new games using the same combination of mechanisms over the last couple of years. Dune Imperium, Endless Winter, Lost Ruins of Arnak – all of them do the same thing, but poor old Obsession was always the bridesmaid, never the bride.
It’s a crying shame really because I believe Obsession does a better job of working the deck of cards into the game than any of those other games. Each player’s board houses a set of tiles which represent the various rooms and areas of their family’s home, and it’s these same tiles which act as places for your workers to go. Take the example of the Riding Stables tile. You can host any two guests, as long as they’re a gentleman and a lady, and you’ll earn £200 for their afternoon ride.
Of course, being of landed gentry, the very idea that you’d deign to let them ride without sending a servant to escort them is unthinkable. That means you’ve got to move one of your wooden servants from the Available Service box on your board to the tile, but only if you’ve got the correct type available. There’s no use in trying to send a Lady’s Maid off to the stables, they need a Footman.
Obsession, then, is a game of carefully planning your various actions, ensuring you have both the staff (meeples) and the ladies and gentlemen (cards) available to carry them out. There’s a very satisfying feeling of ‘getting stuff’ when you carry out an action, because you not only get the bonus from the tile (money, in the afternoon ride example) but also the bonuses from each of the cards you played. Your money goes towards new tiles to add to your board, giving you more worker spaces, and more combo opportunities. It’s a really nice set of systems.
I have not the pleasure of understanding you
Looping all the way back to the opening of this review then, and me telling you that Obsession is maybe the game that bridges the gap between board game enthusiasts and period drama fans. Obsession is a great game, as I said before, but it’s one that can prove too difficult to explain to someone who has never played a modern board game.
The principles are simple enough to explain. You have to put the matching colour worker on the space you want to use, spend the cards which match the conditions, and if those cards demand workers themselves, spend those workers too. But the planning that goes into making sure you have the cards (guests) you need to visit those tiles, and the servants to go with those tiles and cards on your turn… that’s tricky to get your head around. It can lead to a level of frustration that turns people off.
On the flip side of all of this, hardcore Euro gamers might find annoyance at the random draw of tiles and guests. There is a rotating storefront of tiles to add to your board, and you can spend reputation to refresh them, but when it comes to guests it’s usually a case of blindly drawing a card, or if you’re lucky, drawing two and keeping one. If you draw a guest who needs to be gone by the end of the game (some reward you with negative points if they’re ne’er-do-wells), it might fly in the face of your strategy. It’s a game of adaptive tactics, rather than strategy. If Terraforming Mars, Everdell, or Ark Nova vex you because of their dependence on lucky shuffles, Obsession might do the same.
For what do we live, but to make sport for our neighbours and laugh at them in our turn?
Those of you who revel in multiplayer-solitaire games will love Obsession. The only real competition is in the scrapping over the buildings on offer, and the odd tile that lets you recruit a worker from another player’s board. Other than that, it’s just you against your own brain. To be honest, that’s just as bad for me, my brain is my own worst enemy. That sort of game should be a natural fit for a good solo game, and guess what – it is.
The solo mode in Obsession works well and is smoothly implemented. There’s a choice of opponents, and the reality of playing it means rolling a D20 and removing the matching tile from the builders’ market. There’s a little more to it than that, but what I want to stress is how easy the solo mode is to run. It’s one of those games which doesn’t alter the goal to make solo gaming fit. You can play using the same ideas and tactics you would if you were playing against real people, and that’s a really nice touch.
Theme and Euro game aren’t always the best of bedfellows. Some games’ themes are applied like gilding a gearbox – pretty from a distance, but still just a bunch of interlocking cogs and gears. Obsession, on the other hand, is an exemplar when it comes to making a thinky game that’s practically brimming with life and colour. Dan Hallagan – the designer of Obsession – has done a sterling job of finding that balance between a Turing Machine wearing an Easter bonnet and a vacuous box of swooning fan service. Fans of novels like Pride & Prejudice and Sense & Sensibility will absolutely lap it up, as will hobby gamers. Just bear in mind those couple of caveats around perceived difficulty, and Mister Strategy stepping aside for Lady Luck at times.
A special mention has to go to the overall level of presentation throughout. From the portraits on the guest cards to the beautiful boxes included to store the game’s components, everything has had so much attention to detail lavished upon it. Critics might argue that the tiles are bland and uninteresting, but they’re very much about function over form. The clear iconography throughout makes it possible to discern everything you need to know about a card or tile at a glance.
It’s fair to say that Obsession’s position as an outlier when it comes to board game themes may well have helped it climb the rankings over on BGG (it’s #107 overall at the time of writing), but it’s the game itself which is keeping it there, four years after its release. It’s a fantastic game which I think would go down a storm with people who like games like Castles of Burgundy. People who like games with a fast gameplay loop once learned, but with room for a lot of tactical, reactive play, with a strong focus on your own little world.
Obsession was recently released on Board Game Arena (play it here), so you can try it out right now before spending any money. If you enjoy it, I encourage you to pick up a copy, because it’s a beautiful thing to own, and a game which you’ll play time and again.
Review copy kindly provided by Kienda.co.uk. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Designer: Dan Hallagan
Publisher: Kayenta Games
Art: Dan Hallagan
Playing time: 30-90 mins