Exploring three mechanisms from Obsession
Obsession is currently an 8.5/10 for me. While not in my top 10 games, it’s definitely in the top 15 right now!
Tom and Quinns do a far better job reviewing the game than I ever could, so I’ll leave that part to them. Instead, let’s look at three mechanical systems in the game that I think are really interesting.
A brief overview of Obsession
Here’s the pitch from BGG:
You are the head of a respected but troubled family estate in mid-19th century Victorian England. After several lean decades, family fortunes are looking up! Your goal is to improve your estate so as to be in better standing with the truly influential families in Derbyshire.
Choose from one of the four families: Asquith, Cavendish, Ponsonby, and York. Each has it’s own starting benefits, be it money or reputation.
Each of the 16 turns, you’ll be sending guests to various places for social activities at your estate, such as the Billiards Room or Sculpture Garden. You’ll collect reputation, additional guests, or money, depending on which guests are chosen. You’ll also be able to purchase improvements for your estate, giving you more options in the future.
End game scoring is based on improvement tiles (e.g. Front Parlour), gentry cards (guests), objective cards (e.g. have three lady’s maids at game end), reputation, service workers, wealth, and VP cards.
Definitely a game where points are coming from so many places, it’s difficult to know who is winning at any given time. The rule book even includes a VP distribution chart based on empirical data (N=48)!
There’s a lot going on in this game, but here are three systems I think are worth exploring:
1. Reputation system
The reputation system is an interesting take on board game tracks.
Reputation is a core element of Obsession. It determines which guest cards can be played, and which improvement tiles can be used.
The tracking system on each player board is a central reputation value token (e.g. “3” as above) surrounded by a circular 1 - 5 track.
Each time reputation points are gained, the black marker moves clockwise to the next number until it loops past five and back to one. Each time you pass 5, the central reputation counter increases to a maximum of 7. In the example above, the reputation would be 3.4. Two more reputation points, and it would increase to 4.1.
The opposite is also true. If you were, for example, to invite a guest such as Susan Norris (card shown above), you would lose three points of reputation. The black marker moves counter-clockwise, presumably denoting the scandal of hosting an American.
This could have been represented by a single track of 35 spaces (i.e. 5 x 7) for each player. I could imagine a separate “Reputation Track” for each player on the main board, but I really don’t think it would have been as fun for two reasons:
Getting a reputation boost every five points is very rewarding. If it were just one long slog across a 35 space track, there would be less intermittently reinforcing moments. This way, every five points you get to replace the center counter, and it feels like you accomplished something! See Geoff Engelstein’s recent post about Staggered Goal Engagement Theory for a similar concept.
It reduces the feeling of getting left behind. Visually seeing a track for each player where you are 10 - 15 spaces behind everyone else could be discouraging. Using this method, you are only 2 points behind.
It reduces the milestone numbers for card and tile use. Rather than trying to show a tile can only be used with a reputation “higher than 25” you can reduce that to just a tile with a 5 on it. It keeps the numbers small and easy to use.
Tracks aren’t uncommon in games, but this is an interesting way to use one.
2. Workers as a resource
Worker placement is a common mechanisms in modern board games, but I think Obsession uses them in a novel way.
Obsession, however, almost uses workers like a resource. To activate an improvement tile you need to use both (1) the appropriate guest cards and (2) the required workers. Worker requirements could be on the tile (e.g. one footman as in the Main Gazebo above) or on the guest card (e.g. Hazel, Viscountess Crosse requires two Lady’s Maids).
You play the cards with the workers, and get the benefit. The workers are expended, eventually becoming available again later.
It’s definitely a thematic worker placement mechanism, but an interesting change from “more workers lets you take more actions” as in many games. In Obsession you need the right combination of workers available to match what your current guests and tiles might need.
3. Penalties for unused purchases
It’s not always a good move to purchase better improvement tiles just because you can.
While BGG doesn’t include tableau building as a key mechanism in Obsession, I think it’s definitely present. Each round you’ll have a chance to purchase new improvement tiles, opening up more (and better) options for social activities.
Tiles are double sided, flipping over after they have been used the first time.
Most tiles are worth VP at the end of the game, but this depends on which side is face up. Some tiles are beneficial even if unused (e.g. State Room is 5 VP), but many are worth negative VP until they are used (e.g. Croquet Lawn is -1 VP if left unused).
This creates an interesting choice vs. simply “buying more tiles is better.” Do you purchase a valuable tile, knowing it will be a penalty if you can’t use it right away? What if you wait to purchase until you are ready, but someone buys it before you do?
I think the concept of buying things but assessing a penalty if they are left unused is really interesting.
Some things to think about:
Consider breaking long tracks into smaller ones. Showing the reputation track as an increase every five points is an interesting alternative to one long track. It also takes up less board real-estate. I think this could be applied effectively in roleplaying games.
Worker placement is rich area for innovation. I’ll probably do an entire post on worker placement in the future, because there’s just so much variation. New ways of using the mechanism are invented all the time, with no sign of stopping.
If you buy it, you need to use it. I’m sure this shows up in many board games, but this game made me really think about it. I could imagine a roleplaying game where you can acquire spells or skills easily, but they are a detriment until used in a specific way. It makes acquisition a meaningful choice, rather than the de facto action.
What do you think of circular trackers vs. linear trackers? Do you think worker placement will ever become stale? Have ideas on how to work “if you buy it, you need to use it” into other games? Leave a comment below!
See you next week!
— E.P. 💀
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