From time to time, I like to get a game just out of pure curiosity like back in the old days. After an era of abundance and fear of missing out, the hobby currently seems to slowly turn to a phase of culling and more mindfulness when it comes to buying decisions. Case in point, I was standing in my FLGS the other day and discovered they had Stroganov as well as Carnegie in stock. But instead of picking either one up, I spent the next 30 minutes browsing through BGG threads and ultimately purchasing neither one. There was a mental checklist of sorts in my mind: are there known production issues (thanks Maracaibo: The Uprising for making that a constant concern of mine now), what do the reviews say (ignoring those that basically amount to just an “I like this game” statement), are there discussions of imbalance, and so on…
There is a feeling of blissful discovery that is somewhat rare lately. I remember when I picked up a second hand copy of Dune: Imperium last year, mostly due to having read the books. Without knowing too much about it, I was somehow sure I would be hating the game. The game board didn’t appeal to me and the idea of troops and combat wasn’t a plus either. However, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity and I discovered what became one of my favourite games very quickly. After a single solo game, I pushed the button on the Dune: Imperium – Deluxe Upgrade Pack and reached out to friends with a “you NEED to play this” vibe.
In quite a similar fashion, I wasn’t able to get Obsession out of my head. I looked at the graphics and they didn’t appeal to me. I read up on the rough game mechanics and wasn’t struck with something that stood out to me either. But there were so many people raving about this game that I just had to find out what they were seeing that I didn’t.
As usual, I won’t go into too much detail here and focus more on the feel. In essence, every player gets a player board, some service personnel, the corresponding family member cards and the asymmetric bonus of that family. From a bag of improvement tiles, the market row is filled and depending on the intended game length, the round board is turned to the standard or extended play side. Separate the normal from prestige guests, shuffle their decks, and similarly prepare the deck that shows what type of improvements is currently in fashion and a deck of bonus cards. Luckily newer editions of the game contain very nice boxes where you can store the start content for each family, cutting down the setup a bit.
When it’s your turn, you typically choose one of your improvement tiles and perform the activity printed on it. Depending on the tile, you need a specific kind of service personnel piece in your “available” pile (e.g. a butler), the correct type and number of guests (e.g. 3 ladies, 1 lady and 1 gentleman, etc) and your reputation needs to be equal to or above the number printed on the tile as well as on the guests. A number of guests also need service personnel when they attend an activity. In practice however, I found having the right guests available took more planning head than having the right service personnel available. The reason is that while used personnel becomes unusable for the next turn, guest cards go on your discard pile and you can only pick them up again if you do a “pass turn” where you are not allowed to perform an activity. You can try to acquire new guests but similar to Concordia, this only delays the inevitable.
Performing an activity gives you a bonus (such as hiring new personnel or earning money) but it also allows you to flip the tile. Flipping tiles is weird. Most tiles will increase their value in victory points but not all. Some times get more difficult to perform where others get easier. Some tiles even change color/category when they are flipped. But in general you want to rather use a new improvement rather than re-using an existing one. In addition, using the right guests is quite important. Some give you additional money, some reputation, some even negativ effects.
Regardless of whether you have performed an activity or passed, you are allowed to buy one improvement tile from the market which is important for two reasons: as stated above, the value you get out of an already used tile in general goes down, but also you want to get more tiles so you can earn more VP in that category. If you’ve flipped a green tile and it is now on the side that shows 4VP, those 4VP won’t get more if you used it again. In fact, once flipped, a tile stays on it’s back side.
The overall game is structured into multiple cycles called courtship seasons of first performing a couple of turns and then having a majority check. Depending on the variant you play with, the color/category that is currently of interest is either determined at the start of the new cycle or just before the majority check. For example, in the standard variant, a card is drawn from the theme deck and that card’s color determines the category of improvement tiles that decides who wins that cycle. E.g. if the cards shows green, the player with the most VP on green tiles at that point gets a bonus card as well as an additional, temporary special guest card that has to be returned at the end of the next cycle of turns and then majority vote.
To spice things up a bit, a number of turns have an event printed on their field on the round track. For example, at a certain day, all players can buy multiple improvements in a single turn. Or they can ignore the prestige requirements and use tiles/guests that require a higher prestige than they have.
The game ends after the final majority check where all previously drawn theme cards are used to figure who has the most points in the indicated colours.
Variants and Solo
There are a number of variants in the rules. As mentioned, one for example changes whether the fashionable category of improvement tiles is known in advance or not. I haven’t tried too many of them but think of them as individual rule tweaks rather than consistent variants that change multiple aspects as once. For me, these were a huge turn off. It reminded me of a famous board game author once telling me that in his opinion variants are a design smell and it should be the authors responsibility to figure out which the best combination is and just make it the game.
The solo mode is done quite nicely. There is a whole deck of potential opponents and an included d20. At the beginning of the game, pick one and that card indicates how many influence points your opponent will have in each category at the end of each courtship season (e.g. 4 in green at the end of the first season but none in blue). You are also supposed to play with the variant that only reveals the relevant theme of the season right before the majority check happens which gives you a nice target of buying (and using) just the right improvement tiles for risk mitigation. Otherwise, the automa just roles the die and removes the corresponding tile from the market using a reference sheet. It’s simple but quite enjoyable to play.
As always, I’ve glossed over quite a lot of details to focus on the feel of the game, and for a game that is lauded on it’s theme, you’re probably surprised by the rather mechanical description you’ve just read. Well, there is theme in there, lot’s of it, but you have to be in the right mindset to enjoy it. It reminded me of my experience of Nemo’s War (Second Edition) where I was halfway through the game and had to remind myself to read the flavour text on the event cards to not completely ignore all of the theming. I guess for me the abstract nature of the improvement tiles made it difficult to really get my imagination starting. When I play Castles of Mad King Ludwig and place a dungeon right next to the bowling alley, my mind wanders and imagines how crazy life in that castles would be. The theme integration of Obsession rather reminded me of the fun flavour text in The Colonists: I chuckle and enjoy it’s there, but I don’t feel like being in that world.
I can see though why others simply love this game. It’s a mid-level complexity game like a Suburbia or Castles of Mad King Ludwig with a unique, relatable theme. Where I prefer the polished mechanics of those other games, someone that wants a more “human” theme and enjoys digging into all the wrinkles and bells and whistles has a lot to sink their teeth in. Speaking of which, the shear number of side notes, added on rules and variants was a huge turn down for me personally. You don’t just draw tiles when refilling the market, you have to sort them, but not all the times only when you draw more than one and at the beginning of the game. You don’t give each player their four family members and two normal guests, no, you give them normal guests that have a special icon on them, forcing you to first separate them from the deck and then shuffle them in later. You have to figure out which of the multitudes of variants you want to play with or not. You have to prepare the tile bag by first removing all tiles, sorting out the monuments, than adding some back in depending on the player count. The monuments work different than other tiles. The list goes on and on. Add to that that there is a “take that” element in there as well. In one game, my opponent had a service tile that basically prevented me from ever having a reputation higher than 2, blocking me from using all of the interesting improvement tiles and guests in the game. You can also steal service personnel from the other player. If you are looking for thematic, all of this can be attractive, but for me it felt clunky.
In a similar fashion, you get VP for your service personnel and reputation level during end game scoring, but that scoring table cannot be found on the boards but just in the rules. You have to remember to sort out different tiles when they show up in the market after certain season. You also have personal goals which just add another set of rules to it all. There are three different sizes of cards with the theme and bonus cards so small that it almost becomes comical. The list goes on…
All of this produces a weird mix: on the one hand, Obsession shows in every pore just how much love the author has put and continues to put into this game. On the other hand, it feels like a bit of streamlining would have elevated the game even more. It reminds me of a statement I once heard in the context of airplane safety: you’re not done constructing the plane when you have put in everything you can imagine but when you have removed everything that isn’t necessary (so you have less potential areas of problems).
To sum it up: yes, the hype is real. This is a good, enjoyable game with an attractive theme. There is a reason why so many people love and cherish this game. But it still might not be for you! Personally, I’ve sold my copy to someone who I’m sure will have lots of fun with it. Yet I’m happy I was able to experience this game and continue to have some fond memories of it.