The undersea world is fascinating. Since we still haven’t figured out how to overcome that nasty pressure-related implosion thing, we know more about outer space than we do about the oceans. That lack of knowledge leaves a lot of room for the imagination to fill in the gaps yet, strangely, the undersea world isn’t a theme that’s been exploited to death in movies, books, or board games. Which means that a game like Abyss has a chance to be original and fresh in a way that space games or medieval-themed games do not. So, does Abyss take advantage of this chance, or does it squander it?
How It Plays
Playing Abyss is a lot like running a presidential campaign, except you want to become king of the Abyssal people rather than president. To achieve your goal, you will buy or schmooze council votes, recruit influential lords to your side, and use (or abuse) their powers to gain control of useful territories. You might even slay some monsters to earn a little extra goodwill and income. Succeed and you’re king. Fail and you’re just another peon.
A turn in Abyss consists of three steps which must be performed in the following order:
Plot at Court. This step is optional. At the beginning of your turn, you may pay one pearl to the treasury to add one lord to the next available empty space in the Court. You may perform this action as many times as you want as long as you can pay and there are empty spaces in the Court.
Take one action. This step is mandatory. You must perform one of the following three actions:
– Explore the Depths: When you explore, you reveal cards from the top of the Exploration deck one by one and place them on the game board’s Exploration Track. If the revealed card is an Ally, you must first offer the other players the opportunity to buy this Ally from you. If none of the other players want to buy that Ally, you must either add it to your hand for free, which immediately ends your turn, or leave it in its space on the board and reveal the next card. You must then offer the new card for sale, and so on.
If the revealed card is a monster, you must either fight the monster or keep exploring. If you choose to fight, victory is automatic. You win the reward shown on the Threat Track and the monster card is discarded. The Threat Token is moved back to the first space on the Threat Track and your turn ends. If you decide to keep exploring, move the Threat Token one space up the track and continue revealing cards.
When you are finished exploring, any remaining Ally cards are moved from the Exploration Track to their matching space(s) on the Council section of the board.
– Request Support From the Council. Take all of the cards from one stack in the Council (without looking at them first) and add them to your hand.
– Recruit a Lord. If you want to recruit a Lord and be able to use that Lord’s powers, you must pay enough Allies from your hand to pay the costs shown on the Lord card. All Ally cards used to recruit a Lord are placed in the Exploration discard pile except for the one with the lowest value. This ally becomes “affiliated” with your cause and is placed face up in front of you. If you discard multiple Allies with the same lowest value, you choose which one to keep. Affiliated Allies cannot be used to recruit Lords, but they are counted in the final tally of Influence Points.
Take Control of a Location. This step is mandatory if you gain a third key token. Keys are gained from recruiting Lords with key symbols on their cards, or from fighting monsters. When taking control of a Location, you may either choose one of the available face-up Locations, or draw 1, 2, 3, or 4 Locations and choose one. Any locations you do not choose are placed face-up beside the board, making them available for later turns. Place your chosen location in front of you and slide any Lord cards used to obtain it underneath the Location so that their powers are covered. (Those powers are no longer available, but the Influence Points still count at the end of the game.) Going forward, you will want to exploit the power of your Locations to maximize the Influence Points you gain from them.
Once you’ve completed the three steps, your turn ends and play passes clockwise to the next player. Turns continue until either of the following occurs:
– Any player recruits their seventh Lord.
– Any player recruits a Lord and the Court needs to be refilled, but there are not enough Lord cards left to completely fill the Court.
Regardless how the end of the game is triggered, the active player completes their turn normally and then the rest of the players get to take one more turn. Each player then adds up their influence points. Points are gained from the Locations you control, the Lords you have recruited, the strongest affiliated Ally from each race, and any monster tokens you have. The player with the highest point total wins the game.
Into the Deep or Wading in the Shallow End?
Abyss is a set fairly simple set collection and hand management game at its heart. In the most simplified terms, you’re trying to collect Allies that allow you to buy the Lords who will give you the powers and ultimately the locations you need to build a point and currency generating engine/economy.
As simple as this is, Abyss throws in some other interesting mechanics that add to the challenge of the game without appreciably increasing the difficulty. First, there is a press your luck element in exploring and drawing the Ally cards. This presents questions for you to answer: Do you keep drawing, hoping that the card you need will come up and not be bought by another player, or do you stop drawing because you’re just helping your opponents by giving them more cards to buy? Do you take the risk of getting stuck with the card that no one else wants and having your turn end immediately, although the pearl you get for doing so might make this worthwhile? Do you try to hold out for a monster card if the reward is something you need? Do you refuse to fight the first monster you get so that the reward increases and then keep drawing hoping for another monster and the better reward? These choices add tension and strategy.
Second, you must weigh your choices carefully because much of what you do can also benefit other players. If you choose to blind-draw multiple Locations, you’ll have more choices but the discarded locations will now be available to other players. If you keep exploring, the cards you need might come up but so might your opponents’. If you don’t fight the first monster you see, he’ll be more valuable the next time he crops up, either on your own turn or on your opponents’ turn. If you buy the fourth Lord on the track, you may get the Lord you need but the next player who buys a Lord and leaves the track with only two Lords on it will also get a two pearl reward. Do you want to set that up for someone, or wait? Choose your moves carefully to avoid giving the upper hand to an opponent.
Third, there is a memory challenge in requesting support from the Council. Since the cards that make up the Council for each race are the “leftovers” from the Exploration process, players with good memories can remember which cards have been placed into the Council piles. Since you must take the entire Council pile for a race without looking at, a good memory can make this “blind” card pick up considerably less blind and give you an advantage over players who either weren’t paying attention or who cannot remember the cards.
Finally, there’s a tiny bit of screwage in the Ally drawing process. It stinks to see that great Ally card that you need come up only to have it bought by another player. That you must offer cards for sale to other players before you can buy on your own turn seems counter-intuitive, but it adds to the tension. Will you get what you want, or see it go to another player? The pain of losing a card is mitigated, though, since players pay the costs directly to you, giving you more pearls to bring out additional Lords, recruit Lords, or buy your own Allies on someone else’s turn.
Obviously there’s some luck involved in all of this. Which Ally cards come up is random and you could get a great draw, or a bad one. You could draw nothing but cards that other players need and can afford, or you could get cards that you need and no one else wants or can afford. You could get nothing but monsters. There’s also luck in which Lords appear on the table and which Locations become available. That said, there’s almost always something available that you can work with and as the game goes on and your economy builds, you have more and more interesting choices which minimizes the luck factor.
Two things I really enjoy about the game are that it plays differently each time and that there are many ways to earn points. Since different Allies, Locations, and Lords will come out each game, no two games are exactly the same and no one strategy is going to dominate. You’re also almost never without an option to earn points or help build your economy. Very few actions in the game leave you with absolutely nothing, or nothing upon which to build in later turns. Some people find this to be a turn-off, as they feel that the game is too nice and doesn’t offer a serious challenge. However, I prefer games like this where everyone is in it until the end over games where either one strategy dominates or one bad choice dooms you forever.
This game got quite a bit of buzz when it came out, but much of that buzz quickly faded when people began saying that they were disappointed with Abyss. I think that a lot of the people who were disappointed with Abyss felt that way because it looks and sounds like it should be deeper and more challenging than it is. The overall impression from the description and the art is of a thematic, immersive, medium/heavy game of duking it out to become the king of the Abyssal people. In reality, Abyss is less than that impression, thus the disappointment from some.
What’s confusing about Abyss is that it’s almost a gateway game, but not quite. It’s definitely simple enough that most people can grasp it, but it’s not as simple or intuitive as other gateway games. Players unfamiliar with the hobby can play it, but it may take them a few turns before it comes together in their minds. I think this makes it harder for the game to find its audience. People looking for a light game end up disappointed because it’s a bit more complex than they hoped for, but people looking for a true medium-weight game end up disappointed because it doesn’t quite offer that experience, either.
It’s a bit like base-game Fresco in that respect. I find that although Fresco is often touted as a gateway game, it’s really not. It doesn’t miss that mark by much, but yet it falls short of being a truly challenging experience. Abyss is the same way and die-hard gamers may struggle to find a place for it in their collections. It’s not something so easy that you keep it around for family visits, but neither is it the heavy main course of a game night.
None of this means that it’s a bad game. It’s not. It just means that you need to have the right expectations before playing or buying it and accept that it occupies an odd space in the gaming market. We really enjoy it precisely because it’s not a three-hour, brain-frying affair. It’s short enough and the set up simple enough that we can play it on weeknights, yet somewhat challenging without being overbearing. It’s one of the few gorgeous games that meet that criteria. Most weeknight-type games are far less attractive on the table.
Of course, looks aren’t everything. While Abyss might not be the immersive affair that some had hoped for, there is enough theme here to satisfy for a 45-minute game and it’s one of my favorite aspects of this game. I loved the movie “Abyss” and I’m fascinated by the one part of the Earth that we’ve been unable to fully explore. Anything that feeds my imagination about what’s under the ocean is automatically going to thrill me. Since there are very few, if any, games exploiting this theme, it also scores high on the “uniqueness” chart.
It helps that the art in this game is gorgeous. The colors are vibrant and contrast well with the darkness. It looks exactly how I imagine the undersea world would look and when I’m playing, I swear I actually cool off as though I were underwater. That said, the art won’t appeal to everyone. If you’re not a fan of aliens or monsters, this might not be for you. The Lords and monsters are a bit weird-looking, but not scary. Most people I’ve talked to love the art, but there have been a few who found it too dark (color-wise, not theme-wise), or simply not to their taste. If you liked the movie “Abyss,” you’re going to love this.
Abyss is great for casual game nights amongst either gamers looking for lighter fare, or non-gamers who’ve had at least some exposure to the hobby. I wouldn’t recommend it for total newbies to the hobby, or for those looking for a challenging game. Abyss is light on strategy, but it’s also not overly luck dependent as many light games tend to be. There are choices to be made and since a bad choice isn’t cruelly punished and the game never gets really mean, it’s the sort of game that’s easy to relax into. Which is nice, given that the underwater theme is also relaxing and quiet. I highly recommend Abyss, but only if you can appreciate it for what it is instead of lamenting what it is not.
iSlaytheDragon.com would like to thank Asmodee for providing us with a review copy of Abyss.