Teaching Time: 20 mins
Playing Time: 40 mins
Setup Time: 10 mins
Value For Money: Mid
Website: Obscurio – Libellud
Great central game mechanics can withstand multiple different iterations. The idea of Deck Building, for example, has been iterated in countless different directions since Dominion bought it to public attention. Image interpretation is a very robust mechanic, as seen by its iteration in games like Dixit, Mysterium and Greenville 1989, but however robust a mechanic might be, it can eventually collapse if too much weight is put upon it, and in the case of image interpretation, that weight is Obscurio.
As a product Obscurio is extremely impressive, as is necessitated by its overly complex mechanics. Semi-transparent overlays, magnetized markers and a solid magnetic presentation book make for a very impressive package, along with circular image cards the game has a lot of table presence. The essential idea of Obscurio is that its in image interpretation game with a hidden traitor mechanic. This is the first place the game falls down, its marked as being available for two players, but since the whole point of picking it up is to play Mysterium with a hidden traitor and the traitor mechanic isn’t even possible at the lowest player count and doesn’t shine until higher counts the 2-8 count is realistically closer to 5-8 for it to be worth picking up.
Gameplay wise a set of abstract images are set out alongside the “doors” of a hidden library. The guiding player places a pair of other images in their magnetic spell book and indicates features within them using a set of magnetic markers, sometimes with a series of traps that can overlay obscuring overlays or shift how markers are laid. Players then vote on which of the doors the indications are trying to indicate, if the vote is correct often enough the players win, if not they lose. As such its already a more finicky version of similar games, and then a traitor is introduced. When present the traitor mechanic revolves around guessers closing their eyes in order for the traitor to insert images into the set to be chosen from that are as close to the intended door as possible. There is then an additional option to vote out the traitor.
The upshot is that a game genre that can have issues with slow play has those issues magnified exponentially. Players have to wait for the guide to select parts of the images to be indicated, including applying the trap effects to the images, which is always a lull in gameplay. With the addition of a traitor step they then have to spend a while with their eyes closed to allow additional images to be selected. When playing with an indicating player who agonizes over their choices and a traitor in the same position this part of the game can drag interminably, particularly since the fun of the game is the discussion that follows this ultimately feels like a set of hoops to jump through before the fun starts.
Image interpretation games can be inherently hit and miss, some players don’t gel with them and while Obscurio takes the Mysterium approach of more defined objectives and clues over the freeform nature of Dixit this tendency still remains. Social Deduction games can be similarly hit and miss, they tend to require players who enter quite enthusiastically into discussion and whole heartedly lean into accusations of betrayal and mendacity. Mixing the two together results in a game that has double the chances of falling flat with any given group. Worse, if the traitor is identified it results in their more or less sitting out, banned from even offering opinions during table discussion. In a game that is listed as taking 40 minutes but realistically comes in quite a bit longer than that and already has passages of little action, sitting out potentially over half of the available play time can be excessively painful.
For a game to effectively use a traitor mechanic the option of being the traitor should be one of thrill and excitement, in Obscurio it’s a role that genuinely and effectively cuts a player out of the majority of the fun of the game, the interpretation of images itself, instead replacing it with the chance to mix hazy abstract images into an already hazy and abstract situation. Between the fiddly enaction, unsatisfying traitor role and punishing results of discovery the traitor mechanic frankly drags this game down rather than allows it to fly.
Possibly the most frustrating part of the design of Obscurio is one of its most interesting visual flourishes, the image cards being in a circular format, required by the magnetic book that they are to be inserted into. Image interpretation games suffer from built up private language, when one group has a set of attached meanings to the image cards they can quickly break down through no fault of the players. Its for this reason that Dixit has the swathe of new image card expansions that it has. What is helpful for fans of the genre is that Dixit can be played with Greenville 1989 cards, and visa versa, and including Mysterium cards, or Shadows Amsterdam cards. Obscurio can only be played with Obscurio image cards, seriously cutting down on its potential lifespan with a given group and making it a much harder choice for a fan of such games with an existing and usually cross compatible collection.
If your group loves social deduction games and image interpretation games, regularly plays with four or five participants as a minimum and has a good deal of patience for a game where play is maybe 30% while busy work takes up 70% of game time, then Obscurio could actually become a firm favourite. If any of those features sounds like it would potentially see it not leaving the shelf, then count that potential as a fact and avoid bringing it into the collection.