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Updated: Oct 25, 2020

We’ve shown this game off a couple of times before on the Board’s Eye View page on Facebook but this is the first opportunity we’ve had to write about Obsession at any length. Obsession is designed by Dan Hallagan and is published by Kayenta Games.

Set in a country estate in Derbyshire in the middle of the 19th Century, TV fans may well think of Obsession as a board game version of Downtown Abbey. Players start off with a small group of family members (cards) and a basic staff of servant meeples (for the benefit of those not to the manor born: a housekeeper, a lady’s maid, a footman, a valet and a butler). Their estate starts with five basis improvement tiles. These, and further tiles acquired for cash as the game proceeds, generate benefits including money, which is in short supply: the gentry may be asset-rich but they sometimes struggle to find the cash needed for the upkeep and development of their vast estates. In order to make an improvement (flip an improvement tile) a player has to allocate servants and gentry to that tile. The servants automatically return for use two turns later but gentry cards usually give the player a bonus benefit when played but, once they have been played, they can only be recovered by sacrificing a turn (which you'll have to do at least once during the course of a game).

There’s more to Obsession than worker placement. Reputation is all important. Many of the improvement tiles and the guests that can be attracted to the estate (more gentry cards) can only be utilised when the family’s reputation reaches a particularly level. Some guests can turn out to be cads or bounders who will reduce a player’s victory points total unless you can find a way of getting rid of them. There are even brash American heiresses who bring much wealth to the family but who, as you might expect, reduce the family’s reputation.

As you can guess, there is much fun to be had with this game. Every character card gives us a flavour text back story so you will almost inevitably find players trying out their cut-glass upper class English accents and getting wrapped up in the theme. And theme is what this game does exceptionally well. Obsession is dripping with theme. It is hardly a gateway game (it isn’t overly complicated but you have to plan how to make the most effective use of your gentry cards and servants, and there are a lot of different ways of racking up victory points) but you’ll still find non-gamers eager to give it a go because they are so captivated by the theme.

Obsession plays reasonably quickly because players can usually plan their actions while others are taking their turns. This is possible because, in the main, players are doing their own thing: concentrating on developing their individual estates. There are some competitive scoring opportunities but you won’t be interacting heavily with other players: other than being first to snap up a desirable improvement tile, you probably won’t be cursing other players or subjecting them to ‘take that’ actions. This is a game for rather more refined tastes.

That said, you may yet find yourself bemoaning poor card draws. The ‘guests’ do vary very widely in their value and capabilities. You can mitigate the luck of the draw to some extent by using tiles that let you draw two cards and choose which one to take, but you’ll find there will inevitably be occasions when you take a chance on a card draw and face the disappointment of it being an unhelpful guest. This isn’t the fault of an overly random game; it’s just that you’ve taken a push-you-luck decision that didn’t pay off. Arguably more arbitrary are some of the secret objective cards that players draw at the start and during the course of the game; some of these can turn out to be much more valuable than others as a means of piling on the victory points.

Obsession is a great game that does an astonishingly good job of bringing to life a bygone age. For an even more immersive experience, substitute real gold sovereigns for the cardboard coins supplied with the game :-) You could easily imagine an American version of Obsession but that would surely have to be set in the Deep South, evoking a pre-Gone With The Wind world. Problem is, that would require replacing the servants with slaves and that would probably touch on too many sensitivities.

(Review by Selwyn Ward)

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