Obsession + Expansions Review

Designer: Dan Hallagan

Artist: Dan Hallagan

Publisher: Kayenta Games

Year Published: 2018

No. of Players: 1-4

Ages: 13+

Playing Time: 30-90 min

Main mechanic / Theme: Worker Placement with different worker types

Find more info on BoardGameGeek.com


In Obsession, you manage an English manor in Victorian England. Your goal is to improve your place in society by out-snooting the snootiest Gentry. You have a moderate staff at your disposal, but lean decades have left your family in a less than desirable position. You only have one footman, for cripes sake! Your reputation is too low to mary well, so it's time to get creative. Whatever shall you do?
Renovate, of course. Renovate, take on staff, and renovate some more! When you've finished, carry on renovating. You must spend money to make money, after all.
My manor at the end of a game. 
(Note: These coins are from Yedo. I use them for every game and just now noticed they were in a few of these pics. Obsession comes with a ton of high-quality cardboard tokens, but they don't make that satisfying clanking sound. ?)
 Gameplay and Mechanics:
Obsession sports a mid-weight ruleset with deep strategic gameplay and interesting decisions every round. I don't think that any description of the mechanics can do this game justice. All the variables are weighted so that (IMO) there is a perfect balance of resources and action potential that makes almost anything possible while avoiding a brain-melting, AP-inducing amount of math. 

Obsession is a fresh blend of card/worker drafting and strategic cycling of resources. You start off with four family members (cards), two friends (cards), five servants (workers), five rooms in your manor (tiles), and one variable bonus depending on your family (money, reputation, an extra worker, etc.). Rooms represent an event you put on by playing guest or family cards and using your staff to accommodate them. Most rounds, you will host events and gain the rewards shown on the tile and cards you use. Each room and guest provides something different (generally money, reputation, or cards). Rooms also tell you how many Ladies, Gentlemen, Family, or gentry (anybody) are required to put on the event. The first time an event is put on, the tile flips, and another event becomes available. The second side (with the flower) is usually a more powerful version of the first, and the flipped tile usually provides more endgame VP.  
Usually is a key term when describing this game. The cornucopia of cards and tiles provide a staggering amount of variety while somehow remaining simple and intuitive (usually). Some of the promotional tiles took me off guard at first, but everything has a reference.        

Each turn, you carry out these steps:
1. Rotate Service: There are three areas where workers spend their off time. They cycle from active (the rightmost rectangle) onto the various rooms and guests you play during a round. After they have done a job, they get to rest a bit (move to the leftmost inactive area). So, this phase is simply moving your meeples one box to the right (Expended > Servants Quarters or Servant's Quarters > Available). Only servants in that box can be assigned jobs, so you have to hold some people back and plan carefully to get the most out of your resources.
I think of 2-5 as one thing, but the player board breaks it down into steps.
2. Host Activity: Move your event tile to the active spot on your player board, then place the necessary servent on the tile.
To put on the Cabinet of curiosities event, you would place one white meeple in the space marked. Each lion pictured means you gain 1 reputation point (so 4). Once the marker goes all the way around the wheel, flip or remove the token to reveal the next number, This is your new reputation value.
3. Invite Guests: play cards that the tile requires to be activated (i.e., gentry, ladies, gentlemen, or family). 
If you had two ready purple meeples and a reputation of at least 3, you could play these two Ladies.
4. Provide Service: Place workers on the cards (in this case, two purple meeples).
5. Enjoy rewards: Gain benefits pictured on the tile and cards. In this case, you would move your reputation marker six spaces clockwise (gain four from the event and two from a guest) + gain two prestige guests, one casual guest, and 300 monies.  
6. Clear Board: Move cards to discard pile. Move meeples to the leftmost box on your manor. Put the active event back in the appropriate column of your manor.
7. Buy a renovation tile and add it to your manor (optional). The cost is listed above the space. Some rooms have a modifier in the corner, making it cheaper or more expensive. The remaining tiles slide down, and a new tile is drawn from the bag. Oddly, this step isn't mentioned on the player board. 
This is what you will be doing most rounds. Some rooms give you guests, others money or renown. The brown rooms mostly just allow you to play a lot of cards. Blue mostly provides a special ability that stays in effect. 
However, you have another option. Passing allows you to take your played cards back into your hand, refresh your service, and take one of several bonuses. Usually, passing in a game is bad. Not this time. The worst I ever did was in a solo game where I only passed once. I kept getting cards that gave me cards, so I didn't have to pass. You don't want to invite cads and paupers (cards with penalties) to your events simply because you can, though sometimes a butt in a seat is more important than who is attached to it. 
A red border means you lose something for inviting that guest. This lady increases your reputation by two but bums £200 and costs you 2 VP if you haven't gotten rid of her by the end of the game. The symbol in the bottom left means she doesn't have to be attended by a servant.
The optional passing bonuses are to gain £200, refresh the market tiles, (or hire 2 servants, if you have the Upstairs Downstairs expansion).
One more important aspect is that some rounds have special rules. 
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Courtship 3x- There are several courtship rounds. Instead of the normal actions, you see who has the most rooms of a specific type and whoever wins takes the eligible Lady or Gentleman (your choice). Each has a different reward when played. The goal is determined with a deck of cards, and you have the option to play with the goal secret or revealed so that all players know what they are going for. 
Each courtship round, whoever won the previous courtship has to turn that card in and take a VP card with various points. If you gain the Lady or Gentleman, you could play them on the next round, pass the next to take them back into your hand, then play them on the third round, but they  
Builders Holiday 1x- No limit to the number of tiles you can buy.
National Holiday 1x- Rooms and guests all have a number on them that tells you how much renown you need to use them. On a National Holiday, you can ignore these numbers and play whatever you want.
Objective- You'll start the game with some objective cards. Each round marked objective, you get to draw new objectives and discard down to your hand limit. For instance, some objectives require you to have specific tiles in your manor. There are a lot of tiles, so you might have to exert a lot of effort to find them. You might want to start the game with a couple of tough objectives. You might get lucky. Later, you might decide to replace them with ones you've already accomplished.      
Finer points:
VP cards: Various things will give you VP cards. Many VP cards will have an ability that can be used if you discard it, but you lose the VP for doing so.
Milestones (Upstairs Downstairs expansion)- These are common goals that provide VP for the first and second person to accomplish the task (i.e., having 11 servants.)
You always have the option to spend renown to do things as a free action (refresh the market, gain £100, or refresh a servant.) Generally, this option will only be used if you screw up. Renown lets you put on better events and invite better guests, so giving it up really hurts.
Fans of point salad will be pleased with the variety and plentitude of opportunities here. Scores are usually 150-250. Guests and tiles can be =/- points. Renown is worth a ton. During the final courtship, all the VP on the desirable tiles are added up, and whoever has the most total points will get a VP card + either the lady or gentleman worth an additional 8 points. Every two coins are worth a point as well.      
Wessex: Wessex adds some more variety to the cards and rooms. It has one new family that starts with an extra room. This is great, because you tend not to want to put the same event on more than once. The side 2 events may be more powerful, but they aren't going to get you the points that flipping a new tile would. Buildings are expensive, and you won't be able to afford many in early rounds. Having an extra can make all the difference in the first courtship, and winning the courtship gives you VP and a splendiferous guest for the next three rounds. It's one of the better starting abilities, but all the families are worth playing. I wouldn't call this expansion necessary, but I'm glad I have it.
Upstairs Downstairs: You'll want to snag this one. It adds a lot of cool new stuff. However, I recommend playing the base game for a while before adding it in. Take time to savor it because once you add this expansion in, there's no going back. The base has tons of depth and doesn't really need expanding, but U/D adds 4 new worker types and tweaks several rules that expand the potential so much that I now consider it essential. It adds a lot of neat new tiles and guests. You can now hire workers with a pass action. Increased staff provides a plethora of new options to tailor your machine and mitigate luck.

During setup, you will put out one of each short servant, and everyone will draft one of them, adding to the variable player power element.
New workers: These can be added to cards in addition to the required staff to gain extra benefits.
The Useful Man (black): He can be used five different ways. 1. Gain extra money during Village Fair. 2. Decrease the cost of a tile in the builder's market by 100. 3. Place him in a room to decrease the prestige rating (he fixes it up.) 4. Remove him from the game to refresh the builders market. 5. Remove him from the game to search the bag for a specific tile and place it on the £800 space on the market.
The Head Housemaid (pink): Can screen guests. Place her on a card that allows you to gain a new card. Now you can draw two and keep one of them. She helps you avoid pesky ner do wells and find guests that give you the benefits you're looking for. She can also stand-in for the housekeeper on cards. 
The Hall Boy (blue): Place him on a guest that provides a money reward and gain an extra £100. He can also stand-in for the Butler on cards or stand-in for a footman in the Carriage House.
The Cook: She can be placed on a tile to attract guests of higher reputation than would normally come to your event. She also gains you 1 reputation. Some tiles require her for activation.     
U/D also adds:
A new version of solo mode
A lower luck variant.
Milestones: A secondary public set of objectives.   
Theme, Artwork, and Components:
Bravo! There is more theme than you can waggle a scone at. Everything is thematic. Each guest has a unique blurb and picture that explains why they give their reward or penalty. Every mechanic is inspired by some aspect of Victorian life, making for an easily digestible ruleset. A lot is going on, but it all makes sense. Nothing felt shoehorned in, and nothing was missing.
This game looks great, especially for a first/indie game. The components are all high quality. The iconography and card layout are excellent. Reference cards remind you of almost anything you need to know. Anything beyond that is covered in the glossary, a second book that clarifies many specific cards and tiles. The layout of these books is okay but could be improved upon (more on that later). I haven't needed them much because it's all very intuitive.  

What I liked:
The gameplay, mechanics, and theme are spectacular. I've never seen Downton Abbey. I could care less about English manor houses, but Obsession dragged me in from round one. It's one of the most engaging games I've ever played. 
It's unique enough that I can't directly compare it to another game. 
You have nine types of workers, two guest levels, with hundreds of colorful individuals, five main types of room, each with a multitude of variations on their theme, plus some weirdo tiles that can move around and change types. There's so much there that it should be a mess, but it's not. I'd even go so far as to call it tidy.  
Excellent look and feel.
High-quality components.
Obsesion has a good bit of randomness, but several variants let you dial it up or down to your taste. I generally don't love randomness, but I feel that there are plenty of ways to play around it. 
There are two solo modes and a whole stack of automa cards with a range of difficulties.

What I didn't:
The rules and reference book have a lot of flavor text. They do a great job explaining the logic of why and how, but it makes it annoying to clarify a specific rule. Some small things could have been arranged better, but nothing had a significant impact on my ability to learn. If I need to find a clarification for a specific tile, I can usually flip through the glossary and find it by looking for a picture of that tile. It would have been faster if they were arranged by tile number.
Not so much a flaw, but worth mentioning; with all the expansion stuff, there are so many tiles that you can't shuffle them well in the cloth bag.
This thing is about the size of a medium bag of potato chips, and it's a little more than halfway full.
It's not a big problem. I just think the bag needs to be bigger. Maybe a small pillowcase? Lol.     
Each game, you only add a small number of Monument tiles (special, usually high VP tiles that provide renown each round). You go through a lot of tiles, but there are so many that it's a lot of trouble to find specific ones for objective cards. In the second edition, there are two new spaces in the market for level-1 and service tiles respectively. After the first courtship, all the service tiles drawn will go directly to a special stack where anyone can buy any of them on their turn. After the second courtship, the same thing happens with level-1 tiles. It's an excellent solution to the overproliferation of potential events.  
The tiles felt more balanced before I added the new stuff. The promo tiles might be responsible for that, though. A note on the promo pack warns that they were designed by Kickstarter backers and not tested for balance. There are some fun rooms in there, but you may regret adding these if you are hypercompetitive. If you play for fun, you'll probably love them. I like them enough to leave them in.

Final Thoughts:
I would never straight out say "buy this game," but if I did, it would be Obsession. I have never wanted to play the same game this many times in a row. I have stacks of birthday games I really want to play, plus hundreds of others, but I keep playing this one. That's not like me. I may be a bit obsessed.
Obsession is only available through the Kayenta Games Shop.

For Players Who Like:
Deep strategy, multiple types of drafting, worker placement, and mustaches. 
About the Author: 

Stephen Gulik is a trans-dimensional cockroach, doomsday prophet, author, and editor at sausage-press.com. When he’s not manipulating energy fields to alter the space-time continuum, he’s playing or designing board games. He has four cats and drinks too much coffee.