I'm completely obsessed with Obsession! I received a review copy of the updated second edition along with all the expansions (Wessex, Useful Man, Upstairs Downstairs) and from the moment I took everything out of the boxes, my excitement was over the top. Actually, that's not even the half of it - I remember I was already quite excited before the game even arrived. I'd wanted to get my hands on a copy as soon as I learned there was a game that brought the lifestyle that we all fell in love with watching Downton Abbey to the gaming table. Back in 2021, I was having a great time at the Dice Tower Summer Retreat and a new friend Bonnie sang the praises of Obsession. She had seen me eyeing the box on the shelf and gave me a summary of the game mechanics as she owned the first edition. She explained that the theme is centered on running an estate in Derbyshire and competing against others to have the best home, reputation, gentry guests, etc. Based on her enthusiasm and description of the game, my husband and I sat down to play it that afternoon. I ruthlessly squashed him 96 to 78 in our first game and I was hooked.
Back at home, months later, with the second edition and the expansions in front of me, my first task was organizing everything into one box. The publisher had included all of the expansions to ensure I had the complete experience, but as far as I could tell, some of the materials sent were duplicate cards or tiles. And that was true, even after carefully reviewing and incorporating the items that seemed to be dupes but turned out to be replacements for base game components with subtle changes. I think this happened because the Upstairs Downstairs expansion comes with materials to update the 1st edition of the base game, but those materials are already included in the second edition of the base game that I received, resulting in duplicates. I mention it in case you order the newer edition and all the expansions and find yourself wondering what’s going on with extra items you find. I just set them aside in my spare parts box.
Anyway, let’s start by cataloging the components in the base game, shall we? The 2nd edition comes with:
- Supply Board
- Used to hold the Builder’s Market of improvement tiles available for purchase, as well as the guests, servants and objective cards that may be acquired as the game unfolds.
- Round Track Board
- Keeps the progress of the game flow through each round and season (a season is 3 rounds plus a special round called a courtship). There are 16 or 20 rounds to a game, depending on whether you play a standard or extended game. The Round Track also holds the theme cards, the victory point cards, and the two very special guests every estate is dying to get an audience with – Mr. Charles Fairchild and his sister Elizabeth Fairchild.
- Player components (given to each player)
- Family board to organize and process their estate’s reputation, servants, improvement tiles, and hosted events
- Starting estate tiles (improvement tiles)
- Set of basic servants
- Small hand of family guest cards + 2 casual guest cards designated as starter guests
- Reputation wheel counters
- Reminder tiles
- Player aids
- Any addl bonus guests, rooms, money, or servants granted by the family’s unique profile
- Other components
- Money (pounds)
- Improvement tile bag
- Components for solitaire play
- Rulebook and Glossary
These components are all well made and under normal use should last a long time and wear well. The rulebook is well written and the glossary makes it evident this was a passion project for the designer, as it goes into great detail regarding the historical significance of the various tiles and guests. Absolutely love it! Both the font and the artwork help to carry the theme across the components, which was a great point of detail.
Gameplay is relatively straightforward. Across their turns, players are responsible for managing estate tiles, guests, and servants while seeking to conform to courtship themes, improve their reputations, and complete objectives. At the end of the game, the player with the most victory points is the winner.
Managing Estate Tiles
During the game, each player will be responsible for managing the improvement tiles on their estate. Initially, each player only has a handful of starter tiles, but over time their estate will expand to include additional tiles purchased from the supply board. Each tile confers one or more benefits (called favours) when played, in the form of money, the ability to draw additional guests or dismiss guests one already has, the ability to hire additional servants, increased reputation, and end game victory points. Improvement tiles are flipped over after first use, typically revealing different favours on the backside. Most tiles remain on their backside after initial use, but some improvement tiles are designed to be flipped after each use. Note: each improvement tile has requirements as to which type of guest[s] and servant[s] are required to host an event with that tile so it’s essential that players approach estate tile management in a coordinated fashion with guest and servant management.
In addition to their estate tiles, players must also manage a hand of guest cards (which are discarded individually after use to a personal discard pile and recalled en masse when passing). At the beginning of the game, the hand is comprised of family members and casual guests dealt directly to players, but as with the player estates, as the game continues into successive rounds, it will expand. Additional cards added to the hand will be drawn from the casual and prestige guests on the supply board. Just as improvement tiles provide favours, so do guests. Prestige guests give better favours and are generally worth more end game victory points. Some guests, based on their thematic description, have destructive favours that you have to watch out for. For example, a male guest labeled a cad might lower your reputation should you invite him to an event and offer negative victory points if you find him in your hand at game’s end. Adding a bit of complexity to the puzzle, guests may often have requirements for servants printed on their card; this is in addition to any servant[s] specified on improvement tiles used to host events.
With improvement tiles to host prestigious events and guests to attend those events, of course servants will be needed to keep things proper in high society. After all, the guests aren’t going to serve themselves! Not to worry; players begin with a few starting servants, and will hire on more help as they wish to during the course of the game. In this way, staff management becomes the third leg of family affairs. Servant management can be especially tricky. This is because you typically cannot hire additional servants without having one of your most useful servants available (the butler). Additionally, to be kind to our staff and not overwork them, after a servant has been used during a turn, it’s not available again until two turns later (although a player can spend reputation if they are desperate and force a servant back to work early). It’s very easy for a player to back themselves into a corner with plenty of improvement tiles and guests ready to go and a shortage of servants to make the event happen.
At the beginning of each season, an event theme is drawn, revealing the improvement tile category that will be evaluated at the end of that season, during the courtship round. During evaluation, the player with the most victory points showing on the tiles in their estate matching the theme will be awarded a victory point card and their choice of the Fairchild guest cards. The victory point cards offer a player the choice of a useful one time in-game benefit or a chunk of end game victory points. And while the player must give the Fairchild guest back at the end of the next season, having them in hand during the next season to take advantage of their favours is very beneficial. Hence, tailoring improvement tile purchases and tiles selected for hosting (to flip them and reveal their higher VP side) to the theme each season is an essential tenant of good strategy and game winning players tend to correlate with VP card awardees.
You cannot win this game without paying attention to reputation. Every improvement tile and guest card has a minimum prestige rating printed on them (or implied as in the case with family and the Fairchilds) which represent the minimum reputation required to use them for a hosted event. If you don’t improve your reputation as the game plays out, you’ll eventually be shut out of using the tiles and guests that have the greatest impact on final scoring. Additionally, a player’s reputation level at game end directly confers victory points, ranging from 1 point (for having a reputation level of 1) to 45 points (for having the maximum reputation level in an extended game). Finding ways to steadily increase reputation through favours found on improvement tiles and guest cards is very important. In every game I’ve played, the winner was among those with the highest reputations at game’s end.
At the beginning of the game, all players are dealt a number of objective cards. These are end game goals, that if accomplished, reward victory points. They may be variable, such as x VP per servant on staff, or fixed amount, such as 16 VP for a player if they have tiles x,y, and z in their estate. While objectives are a great source of victory points and should not be entirely disregarded, I have generally found that the winners in our games are not the players who attain the most VPs from objectives. For example, in our most recent game, my friend Brian won a 5 player game with a total score of 221 (next closest player had only 189) and yet he brought in 28 of those points from objective cards while I had 38 points from objectives and two of the other players also had higher VP totals from their objectives than Brian.
On a player’s turn, they begin by rotating their servants a step toward active service. If they’re currently resting in the servant’s quarters they move to active service and if they were in the expended service area they move toward the servant’s quarters. Next, the player observes any round events (for example, some rounds designated as village fairs provide income and some tiles provide favours at the beginning of each round). After that’s completed, the player decides which tile they’d like to use to host an event, moves it to the active event box on their player board, and decides which guest[s] (of those that meet the requirements) will attend the event. To be eligible, the guest[s] must be in the player’s hand and not their discard pile. This is the point where they most also provide the required servants – placing those required by the tile on the tile and those required by the guest[s] on the guest[s] card. To be eligible, the servant must be in the available service area of the player’s board. Once servants have been placed, it’s time to collect favours from the tile and the guests (gathering or giving up money, reputation, additional guests, and additional servants as indicated). As a final step in the turn, a player may buy an improvement tile from the market. The market is setup with tiles that have been drawn randomly from the tile bag and placed in market slots with prices listed above. When a tile is purchased, tiles in higher priced market slots are shifted over to fill the gap and a new tile is drawn from the bag and placed in the most expensive market slot. Normally, each player is limited to buying only one tile during a round, except during a special round that represents the Builder’s Holiday that allows them to buy as many tiles as they can afford and wish to purchase. Once a player finishes their turn, play passes to the next player. Once every player has had a turn during a round, the round marker is moved to the next round and the process begins again. During the courtship round of each season, no player actions are taken; this round is used exclusively to evaluate player performance against courtship themes.
So that’s the nuts and bolts of the base game. It’s on point and the gameplay is both a challenging puzzle and entertaining adventure at the same time. Highly recommend! I can’t find a single fault in the game. Not a one. I could probably play Obsession dozens and dozens of times as presented in the base game and still be enthusiastic about it, just like my friend Bonnie was. But I was lucky enough to have all the expansions in front of me from the get go, so of course I started incorporating them as well, in the second or third play of the game. Let’s go over those now.
Wessex adds a fifth family to the game, giving players an additional choice when selecting starting families. Dan provides a great deal of narrative backstory for the new family in the expansion insert booklet and I just love that. Again, great attention to detail, and it’s really appreciated by players like myself who care about theme and want to understand the backstory of who we are playing in a game and what our motivations are all about. This expansion also includes two new improvement tiles and an extended mode solitaire option. You’re going to want to pick up this expansion for the variability it provides. I have a personal goal to win the game as each family, so this adds to my challenge.
Upstairs Downstairs Expansion
This is a major expansion that adds complexity, variability, and extra joy to the base game through a lot of new and updated components. There are four new servant types, each of which has a variety of effects when integrated into the game. Very clever and all seamlessly thematically appropriate. There are dozens of new guests (including very unique promotional guests), objectives, and improvement tiles. There’s a new set of cards called milestones that offer in-game shared objectives that award victory points to the players who complete them first. There’s even a new round track board to facilitate a new game variant. For those who aren’t madly in love with the cute little mini sized VP and Objective cards included in the base game, this expansion provides a duplicate copy of these decks in a larger format. It’s actually a little debate in our group as to which set of decks to use every time we sit down to play as I really like the little cards but some of my friends appreciate the easier-to-read larger cards. As an added bonus, the expansion also allows the game to scale to 5 or 6 players (by providing an additional family/extra improvement tiles/extra basic servants). You’re going to want to pick up this expansion because it’s nothing short of amazing. It's a can’t live without.
Useful Box Expansion
This expansion is mostly a correctional tool, updating tiles from the base game (both the 1st and 2nd printings) that have errors as well as problematic tiles from the Upstairs Downstairs expansion. There are also a few new tiles and some components to expand solitaire variants. While this expansion was necessary for me, I would expect the entirety of the corrections and new tiles to be folded into the next printings of the respective games (base or U/D expansions) and likely unnecessary for future buyers. Just make sure to check your edition to determine if this expansions provides value for you or not before you spring for it.
I might be on the dark side of the publisher for recommending these (as they appear to be unlicensed) but I found these adorable meeple stickers on Etsy (https://www.etsy.com/listing/1008836394/obsession-meeples-upgrade-kit-free) that really took the servant components over the top. Highly recommend them.
I just want to add a final note about theme. Obsession is so perfectly themed, that it lends itself to glorious costuming around the game table in historical period appropriate attire. If you’re not willing to take it that far, at least consider hosting a formal tea with gourmet sandwiches and delicate sweets for your friends who come to play the game. It really elevates the whole experience.
Publisher: Kayenta Games
Players: 1-6 (We played with 2,3,4,and 5)
Actual Playing Time (vs the guideline on the box): About 3 hours per game
Game type: worker placement, hand management, tile placement games
Jenni’s rating scale:
OUI: I would play this game again; this game is ok. I probably would not buy this game myself but I would play it with those who own it and if someone gave it to me I would keep it.
OUI OUI: I would play this game again; this game is good. I would buy this game.
OUI OUI OUI: I LOVE THIS GAME. I MUST HAVE THIS GAME.
NON: I would not play this game again. I would return this game or give it away if it was given to me.