I love a good board game. I also love a good story. It should therefore come as no surprise that I love board games that tell a good story.
Surprisingly though, there aren’t that many that do, or do it well enough.
Presenting…. Obsession, 2nd Edition, with both the Wessex and Upstairs, Downstairs expansions.
If ever there is a prize for a board game that best marries mechanics and theme so eloquently and elegantly, Obsession 2nd Edition would have to be a serious contender. It’s a game that wears its heart on its sleeve. And make no mistake, the use of the word ‘marries’ is absolutely intentional because it is the entire premise of what the game revolves around – love and courtship.
You play as a respected but troubled family estate in mid-19th century Victorian England. After several lean decades, you’ve suddenly come into some money and things are beginning to look up again.
In short, you desire to improve the reputation and prestige your family so as to be in higher standing with other influential families in Derbyshire with whom you will be competing with to win the hand of one of the wealthy and highly eligible Fairchild siblings, Charles and Elizabeth – whose very names invoke royalty – and who are preparing to settle down in Derbyshire.
But don’t mistake Obsession for a “Make Love, Not War” type of affair.
On the contrary. Obsession takes a more “Make Some War To Mostly Make Love” approach to things – there are opportunities for you to be backhanded in thwarting the other families, albeit with a curtsy and a superficially polite smile.
Just think of Obsession as “Downton Abbey-In-A-Box” and you have an accurate description of both the game and its theme. Which is to say it can often be engaging, ostentatious, and brilliantly evocative all at once.
In boardgamespeak, this game is a tableau-building, hand management, card and tile drafting Euro. You win the game by accumulating the most VP from your Estate (tiles), Gentry (cards), Prestige (level), Objective cards, and Courtship/VP cards. You also get some VP from the number of your servants on staff and your endgame wealth.
You start the game as one of up to 6 aforementioned families vying for the hand of one of the Fairchild heirs. A typical turn sees you choosing a suitably lavish event to host, which could yield either reputation (which increases prestige), and/or money with which to improve your estate tableau and allow you to host even more lavish events future. Other benefits may include widening your social connections by meeting new Casual or Prestige guests. Prestige guests are almost always good but usually require you to raise your Prestige to their level before you may invite them to events. Casual guests are easier to play but may likely include scoundrels, cads, and gossips which may ultimately prove detrimental to your social standing.
You begin the game with five staff: Butler, Housemistress, Valet, Lady’s Maid, and Footman. Events you host and guests you invite often require some combination of service and attention. The five servants you begin with are hardly enough and – unless you make some time to hire more servants – your life could soon turn into a living logistical nightmare as you attempt to host more grandiose events. In each of our games, we often finished with 10 or more servants on staff, and since each one is worth 2VP in endgame scoring that’s not a bad thing by any means.
But hiring servants can take up one whole action, and there are only… good heavens!… 12 actions spread over 16 rounds in the Standard Play game.
But as board games go, Obsession 2nd Edition isn’t too complicated although I will say it’s not really suitable for beginners or for very casual gamers.
While the base game alone ranks similar to a mid-weight Euro and can certainly be taught to a casual gamer (especially one who is passionate about the theming), the expansions are what turn it into a true gamers’ game.
To date I’ve played Obsession 2nd Edition a number of times, with and without expansions, from solo to 2-player as well as 3-player, in both Standard Play (16 rounds) and Extended Play (20 rounds).
As someone who leans towards heavier games, my overwhelming preference is to never play without the expansions, especially Upstairs, Downstairs. I also prefer the 20 round Extended Play version which allows for a much more intriguing tale to ripen and bloom. Having said that, I will not turn down an invitation to play Obsession in any configuration.
Board Game Analogy #1:
The Upstairs, Downstairs expansion is to Obsession as what The Norwegians expansion is to A Feast for Odin – it transforms a perfectly competent base game into something quite special indeed.
If that makes sense to you, great. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.
A word of warning for gamers who are averse to any randomness and luck: Obsession can be swingy. Even though all players start off on a more-or-less equal footing, for much of the play time your fortunes are tied to the Guests that you are able to draw into your hand, the Improvement Tiles that appear in the Builder’s Market for you to purchase, and the Objective cards you decide to pursue for endgame scoring.
Obsession is largely a tactical game as opposed to a strategic one – most times you are forced to respond to things happening to you that are beyond your control. Much like in matters of Love and Fate in real life, which just makes the theme all the more appealing to me.
The rulebook also lists an interesting array of interesting gameplay variants which are themselves thematically named; there is a Jane Austen variant, a Queen Victoria variant, a Charles Dickens variant, and an Emily Bronte variant. You can mix and match between each variant and they all do add a fresh yet subtle nuance into the gameplay. I’ve already sampled the Bronte and Dickens variants and I’ll be trying other combinations soon enough.
Board Game Analogy #2:
When I play Robinson Crusoe: Adventures on a Cursed Island I naturally play to try and win but most times I suspect I’ll probably lose because the game can be so unforgiving. But I also don’t resent the game too much for chewing me up and spitting me out because, along the way, it spins such an incredible story of the journey from my initial shipwreck to my ultimate demise.
In my few games of Obsession thus far, I have not always won but I’ve always finished the game with a “Robinson Crusoe feeling” and the same sense of satisfaction one gets after finishing a good book.
Again, if that makes sense to you, great. Otherwise, don’t worry about it.
The production quality of the components and documentation deserves mention. The individually distinct Family boxes for component storage are lovely, the servant meeples are all handsomely crafted, cards come with a quality linen-finish (but in somewhat slightly odd-sizes), and the Improvement tiles are made of nice thick cardboard.
The Rulebooks and accompanying documentation are well-written and well-illustrated, especially the Glossary which is a splendid reference. Every item in the game has a place and there is a place for everything in the Glossary. I’ve rarely come across a game that’s been so well-researched, and which takes pains to elaborate on its thematic justification in such careful detail. Fittingly, this game about love and courtship is also clearly a labour of love.
Remarks: Pride, Intrigue, and Prejudice in Victorian England. It says so right on the box, and that’s the game it delivers.