Welcome to Obsession

A user-created strategy guide for the award-winning Dan Hallagan board game.

Preamble: Let me start off by saying that I am by no means an "expert" at Obsession, whatever that even means. But I do have quite a few plays under my belt and feel that I have a fairly good grasp on the various tactics involved in, at the very least, doing well. The game's designer, Dan, has a number of great videos on YouTube that discuss gameplay in depth. When I was first getting into Obsession, I watched them all like a good student, but I understand that sometimes watching solo-playthroughs and listening for information is not everyone's cup of tea. Conversely, despite Obsession's popularity, there aren't too many written guides that outline common tactics and general gameplay strategies like you see on the forums of most Top 100 eurogames. And I often see similar questions getting asked by newcomers, so I thought it might be worthwhile to get some of these rudimentary tips and tricks on paper for people just discovering this Victorian wonder. Forewarning that this will surely be longer than I intend it to be—feedback always welcome.

Table of Contents




The Families and Leverage


Closed vs. Open Courtship


Season One: The Most Important Courtship


The Roundtrack and Its Special Events


Building the "Upward Path"


Help Wanted: New Servants for Hire


F*** You, Pay Me: Money and the American Heiress


Reputation and What It Means to You


The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Casual and Prestige Guests


A Word About Monuments


Gardens, and Rooms, and Parlors, Oh My!


Doubling Down: The Double Turn


On What Should I Be Most Focused?


One More Word On Passing


But I've Done All These Things and Still Lost!


Yeah, But Do the Expansions "Fix" These "Issues"?


Common and Semi-Official Rules Variants


To Be Continued...

I. Introduction

If you're reading this, there's probably (hopefully?) no need for me to explain how Obsession works or cover the fundamental rules, so aside from a few common misconceptions and/or misinterpretations, this guide will stick to strategies, tactics, and general gameplay advice. Before getting into the nitty-gritty, however, there are always questions and comments that get wafted about the game's core mechanics and the luck factor involved therein, so let me address those first and foremost.

"The luck factor in this game is too high!" Well, first of all, "too high" is subjective, of course, because there are no requisites for how much luck a game should have. (This should be obvious.) That doesn't mean you have to like it, but it is there. Understand, however, that the luck factor in Obsession is 100% by design, a thematic induction of Victorian fate wherein consorting with various folks from around the town to gain favor is bound to attract a few unsavory figures now and again. Yes, you will sometimes find yourself at the mercy of the Casual Gentry deck and the negative VP guests you draw. There are ways to mitigate and/or make the most of the unfortunate happenstance which will be discussed further down, but know that this is an intended feature, not necessarily a flaw.

"But aren't there any ways I can reduce this variance immediately?" Of course. Dan encourages people to adjust gameplay rules within reason so that they can enjoy his game to the fullest extent. He has even published a large list of rule variations that alter various aspects and mechanics of the game. If you are truly hung up and struggling on the game's inherent randomness, read more about these mitigations in Sections IX, XV, and XVI.

LASTLY, I've written this guide with the expectation that you are playing the EXTENDED version game that runs for a total of 20 rounds, courtships included, instead of the "standard" sixteen. Despite the moniker, I find that most people are playing Extended games these days, anyway.

II. The Families and Leverage

The first decision you will make in any game of Obsession is your family. (Your family would be akin to a "faction" for my Terra Mystica or Gaia Project fans out there.) The families, as you might expect, have asymmetric advantages over one another. Everyone is bound to have a preference based on his or her favored playstyle, but each family is capable of winning based on how well one can leverage the family's perk (i.e., their "asymmetric power"). Most family perks have the greatest leverage earlier in the game. By Season Three (or even Season Two), some of them might be totally awash, so you need to reap the benefits as early and as soon as possible.


Perk: Begin the game with an additional family member gentry card.

Starting the game with another guest that has no reputation and no service requirement is helpful early when you're might be trying to prolong your first pass. Plus the favors offered by the extra Dowager Countess are equal to the heirs, except you don't have to choose! You get £100 and one reputation. She can also assist in flipping some Essentials tiles, many of which have "family member" gentry requirements. Lastly, having another lady in your hand is always beneficial, as you might be struggling to flip the Front Parlour early if you didn't get another lady from the starting guests. This is a perk that is obviously most helpful early, but can be helpful later in the game, too, as each pass puts the card back in your hand.


Perk: Begin the game on reputation level 1.4 (instead of 1.1).

Three additional reputation points won't mean much come Season Three or Four, so this is a perk that must be leveraged early. If you open your game with the Front Parlor, you'll be in Reputation 2 by the second turn, which opens up the possibility to play Level 2 tiles and gentry cards in Season One, a luxury other players might not have. This can start up a nice reputation engine and you'll be playing higher level tiles/gentry much earlier than your opponents. By the final season, most players should be at Rep 6+ above, so getting use of this perk in the first two seasons is critical. Ultimately, you want to be playing higher level Gentry and tiles earlier/longer than the rest of your opponents. Final note: With the Cook servant from the Upstairs, Downstairs expansion, the Cavendish perk is buffed a bit (e.g. you have the opportunity to be playing Level 4 prestige guests as early as Turn 3 or 4 of the game). More on that later.


Perk: Begin the game with the Cook supplemental servant.

The Howards start the game with a Cook who has the amazing ability of allowing Gentry cards up to 2 levels higher than the family's reputation to attend events. The Cook is a very powerful servant - you can theoretically be playing Level 3 Prestige guests as early as Season One, which can be huge. The Cook remains remains helpful throughout the first two seasons and even into the third, as she takes a little bit of pressure off gaining reputation, knowing you can still play higher level Gentry cards (who generally, in turn, may help boost your reputation further). This perk is balanced by the fact that any other player can eventually acquire a Cook, too, but starting with one is quite nice.


Perk: Begin the game with the £300.

Starting with three hundred pounds is extremely beneficial because you won't feel forced to play a Sporting tile or the Husband card right away. Oftentime people feel the need to play either one of those two things (or both) on Turn 1 so they can purchase something from the market. While I'd argue that a first turn market purchase isn't always necessary, it's nice to be able to snag a Service tile in the first or second spot without having to play specific tiles or cards. In the event that there's a great tile farther down the market, perhaps the only one available that aligns with Season One's courtship category, you can combine the Ponsonby perk with a Sporting Tile + Husband play and snatch it before your opponents have a chance.


Perk: Begin the game with an extra (sixth) manor tile.

The Wessex Family player can choose between starting with a Breakfast Room (Essentials) or Tennis Court (Sporting)—a very nice benefit that alleviates the initial pressure of needing to make a market purchase. Because VP is earned only when using a tile for the first time (thus flipping it), it always behooves a player to use an unflipped tile (versus a flipped one) whenever possible to gain that additional VP. Starting with an extra tile can also fortify the player's position in either the Sporting or Essentials category early on if he or hse is able to flip it. They're both Level 2, which is achievable before the first courtship in the extended game. (And I think the Tennis Court is the best Sporting tile in the game.)


Perk: Begin the game with an extra footman.

Another great benefit—possibly the best benefit—that is not only pivotal early on but continues to pay dividends throughout the game. As any other family, you will almost certainly hire another Footman at some point (unless you get the Butler's Pantry, but even then...) and this takes care of that for you. Starting with two Footmen means [1] you can play the Main Gazebo and Bowling Green back to back in Season One (critical because those are the only two starting tiles with no gentry "type" requirement), [2] you will feel less pressured or forced into hiring a Footman during your first hiring action and can comfortably take a Valet and Lady’s Maid (or two of either, depending on your Gentry card genders), and [3] if you eventually get the Brushing Room tile, you now have an extra Footman/Valet flex piece.

III. Closed vs. Open Courtship

This needs to be discussed before we go any further because this variation on the ruleset has the single largest impact on how the game of Obsession is played, fundamentally, strategically, tactically. If you didn't know, an "open courtship" reveals the Fairchild category of interest at the start of each season, whereas a "closed courtship" doesn't reveal it until the courtship phase itself (i.e., season's end). Therefore, in an open courtship, the players know exactly what category will win over the affection of the Fairchilds by the end of the season. In a closed courtship, they do not.


As you might imagine, open courtships remove a large aspect of randomness with respect to "winning" the Fairchild card at the end of each season, which drastically shifts the tactical landscape of the game. Players will be ravaging the market for the categorical tiles and bending over backward to get them into their country estate. Rest assured, tiles of the matching type will not last long in the market, and you must decide to either snipe them yourself whenever possible or shift your focus elsewhere for points. This mode is for players who prefer a game with less variance, putting the onus of competing for the Fairchilds directly on their shoulders. It gives them the opportunity to seek out and flip tiles that will put them in contention for this goal. It also awards them the agency to turn their attention elsewhere and actively plan ahead for countermeasures should the opponent construct an insurmountable lead.


When playing with closed courtships, on the other hand, no player knows what category the Fairchilds will favor come the courtship phase at the end of each season. This adds a layer of inherent randomness, obviously, but it also creates an interesting—and arguably more tense—decision space regarding the overall construction of your estate. What is the best way to boost your probability of winning a closed courtship? By leading in VP for the largest number of categories. Closed courtships force more critical decisions upon the players to the extent that, if winning courtships is something you care about, your goal should be outscoring your opponents in as many building categories as possible. Open courtships tell players what kind of tiles they should be buying and flipping. Close courtships do not offer that luxury, and therefore require a more balanced estate if one wishes to remain in contention.

Of course, this is all assuming that one even cares about winning the affection of Elizabeth or Charles in the first place. Courtships are a great way to score points and build/sustain your engine. You get a great Gentry card to use for the next season (no reputation restructions), plus a VP card that'll be worth either endgame points or a critical "anytime" favor. But games can certainly be won without wooing the Fairchilds as long as an appropriate plan is in place. One must weigh the cost required to compete for these cards versus the benefits they'll provide, and it isn't always cut and dry.

IV. Season One: The Most Important Courtship Season

I've recanted my stance a bit on this position, only slightly. Or, rather, I've realized that the first season is not simply the "most important" season solely because the first courtship is the most critical courtship (I still believe it is), but because the first season can absolutely have lasting, rippling implications on how the rest of your game plays out. Such is often the case withe eurogames, and there's no exception here.

To be clear, I still believe that of all the courtships in Obsession (there are four, one at the end of each season), the first is the most powerful. And by that, I mean you can radically adjust your position in the upcoming season and make great headway by getting Elizabeth Fairchild into your hand. Looking at it a little more deeply, here are three main reasons the first courtship is the best courtship:


[1] By the end of the first season, there's a good chance your family's reputation will be at 2. It could possibly still be only 1. Or, more situationally, if you pulled a few rep-granting Gentry cards and played your Prestige tile(s) wisely (and/or you're playing as the Cavendishes), you may even be at 3. But 2 is the most likely. Your reputation will continue to grow, surely, but this early in the game, your playable Gentry cards will be limited by your reputation. And lower reputation Gentry often don't come with quite as succulent favors. Winning the first courtship gives you a great Gentry card to use that has no reputation restriction. So, even if you're still a measly Rep 1, Elizabeth can be played. And yes, if you win the first courtship, you should absolutely be taking Elizabeth. Charles emerges in corner scenarios and fringe cases you might encounter later in the game, but if you're not taking Elizabeth during the first courtship, you've made a grave mistake.

[2] Elizabeth's favor—and yes, per the bolded comment in the aforementioned bullet, I will be assuming you've wisely taken Elizabeth after winning the Season One courtship—of a Prestige Guest draw is huge at this stage in the game and can be crucial in catalyzing your Prestige Guest engine early-on. The starting Main Gazebo tile gets you a Prestige Guest invite. Beyond that, the most common ways to get Prestige Guest invites are other Prestige gentry cards, or certain tiles (typically Estate category). The problem is that these gentries and tiles almost always have higher reputation restrictions (there are a few level 2 Casual Gentry cards with a Prestige invite favor, but not many), and again, at this point in the game, you will likely fall short of those requirements. Thus, getting that Prestige draw from Elizabeth—who is always playable—is great to have at the start of Season Two, nto say nothing of the +2 rep boost she gives you (which is kinda like a bonus at this point).

[3] You open yourself up to a lucrative tactic that I like to call the Fairchild Double Dip. There's a solid chance that by the start/middle of Season Two, you will be running low on Gentry cards in-hand unless you've been playing a lot of invite favors. Even so, you may have a handful of Cads and Scoundrels while all your respectable (useful) Gentry cards are sitting idly in the discard pile. I'd say in 90% of the games I play, my first Pass comes during Season Two. This is not a bad thing, and passing is not inherently bad. You will almost certainly have to pass at least once in the game, but more than likely twice. Which brings me to the Double Dip: If you win the first courtship, use Elizabeth in either round 1 or round 2 of Season Two then use your pass during round 3. This puts Elizabeth (along with the rest of your cards) back in your hand and ready to reuse for round 3 or 4. Depending on gamestate, you might need to pass on round 2, so just make sure you use Elizabeth round 1 so you can use her again before season-end. This is a powerful play, as passing around this time is nearly inevitable anyway, but now you can use the benefit of Elizabeth twice which, again, is massively powerful this early in the game. That puts yet another Prestige guest in your hand and bangs out another +2 reputation points.