Thank you for checking review #81 by Cardboard Clash. My aim is to focus on reviewing board games and how they play for two people and, on occasion, how they play for one person. Because my wife is my primary gaming partner, a lot of consideration goes into finding those games that play well with 2 players, and we typically prefer to find those games that do not require a variant (official or otherwise) in order to play it with just the two of us.
***Note: A review copy of the game was provided in exchange for an honest review.
An overview of Obsession
Obsession is a board game designed by Dan Hallagan that was published in 2018 by Dan Hallagan. The box states it plays 1-4 players in 30-90 minutes and has a BGG weight rating of 3.17.
You are the head of a respected but troubled family estate in mid-19th century Victorian England. After several lean decades, family fortunes are looking up! Your goal is to improve your estate so as to be in better standing with the truly influential families in Derbyshire.
Obsession is a game of 16 to 20 turns in which players build a deck of Victorian gentry (British social upper class), renovate their estate by acquiring building tiles from a centralized builders’ market, and manipulate an extensive service staff of butlers, housekeepers, underbutlers, maids, valets, and footmen utilizing a novel worker placement mechanic. Successfully hosting prestigious social activities such as Fox Hunts, Music Recitals, Billiards, Political Debates, and Grand Balls increases a player’s wealth, reputation, and connections among the elite.
Each turn, players choose a building tile representing a room or outdoor space in and around their 19th century British country house. The tile chosen dictates the event that can be hosted and the guests to be invited. Players must carefully plan, however, to have the proper staff available to service the event and support guests as needed. The reward for success is new investment opportunities, permitting further renovation of the estate (acquisition of more valuable/powerful building tiles), an increase in reputation in the county, an expanding circle of influential acquaintances, and a larger and highly-trained domestic staff.
Throughout the game, a competitive courtship for the hand of the most eligible young gentleman and lady in the county presents specific renovation and reputation objectives. The player who best meets these objectives while accumulating victory points will win the hand of the wealthy love interest and the game.
—description from the publisher
Differences for 2 players
There are fewer tiles seeded into the bag for a 2-player game. Only 3 monuments are used total, one copy of each blue building is used, and all tiles that do not have a solid black dot by the Reputation value are removed from the bag. There are also fewer servants to hire: 4 footmen, two valets, two ladies maids, and one underbutler.
Let’s start with the thing that first interested me in Obsession: its theme. I get it, not everyone is going to go nuts over the 19th Century time period, the literary-inspired box, or the period-appropriate photos on the cards. It might even turn some people away from the game. My wife’s first words, when she saw the box, was that it looked boring and dumb. Yet it is this very quality of the game that makes it stand out from the crowds of zombies and Lovecraftian-themed games that oversaturate the market. The theme sets it apart, rather than being something that caters to what is currently trendy.
And I’d be a horrible reviewer if I didn’t mention how thematic a lot of the game’s mechanics are. You host events in the rooms you’re adding to your estate, inviting family and guests to attend. You need to make sure one of your servants is there to make sure the event is in order, and some guests require additional support from valets of ladies maids so having a vibrant, diverse staff pays off. Those valets and maids, however, can’t be out there entertaining every time – in general the servants you use this turn will be out of rotation for the next turn, but will be back to your pool on the following turn. There’s a lot of great intertwining of mechanics with the theme that went into the design of Obsession, something Dan Hallagan should be commended for.
I love the process of growing my estate, and the simple decision in the design that encourages players to continue that growth rather than spam the same room or two all game. When a building is used for the first time to host an event, it is flipped over to the side showing a rose in the corner. The first thing this does is usually adds victory points to its overall value – which means that purchasing a tile is sometimes only worthwhile if you intend to use it before the end of the game. This means that a strategy of just buying tiles for the sake of buying a ton of tiles isn’t necessarily a winning one as they can start at 0 or a negative value before that first use. The second thing that happens is that, in most cases, the buildings cost more guest cards from your hand to play again while giving smaller rewards from the room itself. So instead of getting 5 reputation from 2 cards, you’re getting 4 from 3 cards. And while using more cards isn’t necessarily a bad thing (as they give you benefits, too when used), there’s another key ingredient:
You’re going to have to pass and skip a turn at least once in this game. You get 12 actions, and one of those goes to “nothing” but taking cards back into your hand. It actually isn’t a bad action, but it won’t flip those precious buildings to make them more valuable. You can only go so long before you run out of people, or worthwhile people, to invite to events. I’ve even had a game where I passed twice. But all is not lost when you pass – not only do you get those cards back in hand, but you get some money or you can wipe the building market…
Money is tight in this game – at the very least it FEELS tight most of the time. Buildings cost from 300-800 pounds, and have modifiers ranging from (I think) -200 to +400. Most guests that provide money give around 100-200 pounds when you use them, and most buildings that provide money give 200-300 pounds. Most of the time, you’re treading just above water. I don’t think I’ve finished a game yet with any money, because it is just that tight for spending. It makes those decisions on what to purchase, and when, even more important.
The Cabinet of Curiosities is a tile in this game. It is Narnia, and I must buy it every time I see it. Dang it Dan, but you make me have to buy this tile every single time it comes out…and I’m yet to fail to get it when it appears! It is easily my favorite thing in the whole game.
I enjoy the balance you need to have in order to do well. You want to get a bigger estate, but to use it effectively you also need to gain more guests to invite to events. But in order to use those buildings and guests you probably are going to need to increase your reputation some. And once you start getting more reputable rooms, you’re going to need even more guests, and those more reputable guests are going to demand servants to assist them. Which means you probably need to hire a bigger staff at some point. You’re definitely doing a little engine building, which is one of my favorite things to do in a game.
The objectives are varied and interesting. I like having secret objectives, and getting 3 of them over the course of the game to score. However, the “easier” ones such as 1VP per Prestige Room in your estate are too undervalued in points. The most valuable ones tend to involve getting 2-3 specific rooms in your estate, but there is no guarantee you’ll see them. The last game I played, we saw all but 7 tiles from the bag and I needed one of those seven tiles (from the start) but it never appeared. That potential for 10+ points never surfaced. The game prior to that, I wiped the market twice in the final three rounds to finally get the two rooms I’d been waiting for to appear in the market. I think I probably broke even, having spent 8 reputation and a passing turn in order to make those market changes. Even when I actively try to avoid taking more than one of those cards, sometimes you just get dealt really crappy objective cards compared to your opponent. Nothing is worse than spending a ton of effort to get those 10 points, or impractically miss them, and then see your opponent getting even more points for collecting servants or hording money.
I state this solely for those who keep their inserts: this box lid does not close with the insert in there. I haven’t been able to remove it yet as I haven’t pulled out my baggies for sorting yet, but I cannot get this box to close properly no matter how I try. I’m relatively certain it’ll close once that insert is gone, though.
Perhaps my biggest gripe with this game, even though it is delightfully thematic in a way, is that the rich get richer in this game. I’ve seen it play out two different times, once a 2 players and once at 3. If a person gets one or two key buildings (such as a monument), they can win more than their share of those VP cards. Not only that, but the game rewards the person who gets the most of those VP cards (because let’s be honest, the person with the highest combined VP on the building types needed is almost always going to be the one who was winning most of them along the way) by giving them another 8 VP at the end of the game via one of the Fairchild cards. I would rather see, especially in a 2-player game, one player get a VP card and one get the Fairchild until the next courtship along the way. At least then there’d be a chance to keep up along the way.
Monuments feel way too powerful. Yes, they cost MORE money than the spot they are on. But they give a boatload of VP, almost assuring a victory in that category if needed for the Courtship. Nothing is worse than seeing your opponent wipe the market just once in the game, but happen to see a monument pop into the market and they can afford it and swipe that building without contention. And let’s not even talk about the bonus of gaining a Reputation on every. Single. Player. Turn. It feels so broken, and it is disheartening when your opponent gets a monument first because that adds to their advantage in several key areas. Again, the rich get richer here.
A week ago, fresh off playing the game with my sister, I was ready to herald Obsession as a potential best game of 2018. It still might earn that honor since there is yet to be a standout game for me, but it has a longer road to climb after my last play where there was a 60-point difference in a 2-player game. I got steamrolled in a bad way, and that play showed just how important the right set of circumstances can be to this game. For a game that doesn’t feel random, it has a relatively high amount of it tucked into the nooks and crannies of this game. Casual and Prestige guests are blind draws off the top of their respective decks (with few exceptions, which may allow you to draw 2 and keep 1) and their benefits can range wildly. If you happen to draw all low-point guests who provide you with the same things as most of your hand, you’ll do really well in one area but struggle in others. You’ll see 7 different Objective cards and keep 3 during the gameplay, but some of them are dependent on getting specific buildings (which may never appear) or specific colored buildings (which this game isn’t going to reward that specialization over the course of the entire play). The Fairchilds are going to want a specific type of estate focus every quarter of the game, but you only know the current quarter’s focus. Someone can eek ahead because there were 2 green buildings to buy and they happened to get the one that flips to a +3 rather than a +2 and thus get those extra VP and add a Fairchild to their hand for the next quarter.
I could keep going on here, but you get the point by now. I don’t need a game of perfect information – some randomness can add a lot of fun and variety to the game. But when you can look back on a single play and see where every lucky break went the same way then it can be discouraging. Was it an anomaly? Perhaps, but that’s twice where the 1st place player won by 40+ points in my 6 plays of the game. That’s far too high of a percentage so far, and lends me to be cautious toward what this game can hold.
Yet when luck doesn’t trample the players, Obsession brings about a fun and delightful experience. You have some great decisions right out of the gate, such as whether or not to try and get the bonus money and reputation at the two Fairs or keep the 3 VP tile. Trying to figure out how to maximize your one play per round – with 12 rounds of actions across the standard game – is a fun puzzle as long as you don’t play against severe AP opponents. The tiles flip after use, usually giving more VP and making the usage of that tile less appealing (higher cost or diminished rewards, usually) and so that encourages players to make purchases and use those purchased tiles rather than just repeat the same cycle.
Theme is all over in this game, from the delightful meeples to the literature-inspired box to the various guests and their photos and text on the cards. Put on a kettle of tea, play some 19th century music, and revel in the time period that the game tries successfully to evoke. You don’t even need to be a literature buff like myself to enjoy the thoughtfulness that went into making things thematic throughout the game’s appearance and mechanics.
It has a fun solo mode that I need to play a few more times before speaking intelligently about how well that experience goes, but it might provide the best experience out of all the player counts in the box because it gives you several known milestones to overcome from the start and places some pressure on the player to be aggressive in their approach.
Ultimately, this game is one I look forward to exploring more in the future. I was sad, when it was on Kickstarter, that I didn’t have the ability to back the game. It has mostly lived up to every expectation I had of the game from the first time I saw its Kickstarter page – and hopefully with more plays I’ll see the steamrolling victories happen less frequently and can enjoy the package this delivers. While I did get a review copy of the game, I’ll put it this way: If I could travel back to last year when it was on Kickstarter, armed with the experience and knowledge I have of the game so far and with the money available to back it in my bank account, I wouldn’t hesitate for a moment to back the game. It is a good game, probably even a really good game. It has the potential to even be a great game, especially if the solo mode lives up to those first impressions. While I’m not ready to crown this one yet as the best game of 2018, it definitely stands up there as a legitimate contender for that honor.