One Sentence Synopsis: Devotin’ full time to floatin’ will leave you beached.
Abyss is a light, competitive game for 2-4 players where each player attempts to become King of the Abyss by utilizing hand management, set collection, and push-your-luck mechanics to recruit Lords, to affiliate Allies, and to take control of underwater locations in order to gain influence points. The game plays in under an hour and is very easy to set up: the board is placed in the center of the table, and the exploration/Allies deck is shuffled and placed on its space at the top right of the board. The Lords deck is also shuffled, and six Lords are revealed across the bottom of the main board. Finally, the location boards are shuffled and one is revealed, and the threat marker is placed on the first space of the threat track.
Players start the game with one pearl each and then take turns in sequence, with each turn composed of 3 phases. During the first phase players have the option of spending one or more pearls to reveal a new Lord if one of the six spots on the board is empty.
The second phase is the action phase, and is where most of the substantive elements of the game take place. During this phase players must choose to take one of three actions: explore the depths, recruit a lord, or request support from the council.
The primary action of phase 2, exploring the depths, is a clever push-your-luck mechanic that includes an auction-style card drafting element. The exploration/allies deck itself is composed of cards from 5 races of different colors with values from 1-5, as well as 6 monstrous eels. Cards are flipped one-by-one, and if the revealed card is an ally then going in clockwise order each of the other players have the opportunity to buy the card off of the player flipping the cards for 1 pearl, or possibly more if another player already bought one. If none of the other players want the card, or if they’ve each already bought one, the player whose turn it is may either choose to add the ally to their hand, or continue flipping until the cards get to the end of the board in which case they take the final card, as well as one pearl. If a monster is flipped the player can choose to either keep exploring, which increases the threat tracker by one, or to fight the monster and take whatever reward is currently showing on the threat tracker in exchange for ending their phase, and then resetting the tracker to 1. In either event, ally cards that were not taken are separated by their colors and placed in the corresponding Council stacks on the board.
The threat tracker itself offers players a number of rewards that increase in significance the higher the threat is built, giving pearls, influence point tokens, or even keys that help players control locations. Players never know when another player might flip an eel and decide to take the reward and reset the board, however, so everyone must balance increasing the threat tracker with snatching the goods before other players.
Choosing to recruit a Lord during the second phase enables the player to pay the cost for one of the Lords showing at the bottom of the board, each of which is aligned to one of six factions. Each Lord has a different, unique ability depending on its faction, as well as an influence point value that will add to the player’s points at the end of the game. Their costs are determined by the bubbles at the bottom of the cards; the total number of bubbles indicates the exact number of different allied race card types needed, the large bubble indicates the mandatory race type, and the number underneath indicates the total value of ally cards that must be used. If a player discards the correct types of ally cards from their hand that add up to that number or more, they get to take the Lord from the center and place the lowest value ally used in the transaction in front of them as an “affiliated Ally”.
Finally, a player may instead choose to request support from the council during their second phase. To do this, the player takes the entire stack of any color of Allies that have accrued in the center of the board. They can’t count the cards or peek at what is there, but it’s a good way to quickly supplement hands with lots of Allies to use for acquiring other lords.
You’ll notice from the above screenshot that some Lords have small key icons on them ranging from 1-3. If at any time a player has 3 keys, whether combined on various Lords or as tokens from the threat tracker, then during Phase 3 they must take control of a location which nets bonus points based on different criteria at the end of the game. To do so they may either take control of a face-up location by taking the location and placing any Lords they’re using to control underneath it(thereby preventing those Lords’ abilities from being used for the remainder of the game), or they may choose to look at between 1-4 locations from the draw pile, choose one, and put the others face-up for others to potentially take during future turns. Players must therefore not only balance controlling locations with still wanting to use certain Lords’ abilities, but they must also decide whether to give themselves more choice in exchange for potentially helping their competitors, or perhaps resign themselves to the luck-of-the-draw.
The game ends as soon as one player reaches 7 Lords, or if there are no more Lords to draw and one needs to come out. If either happens, each other player gets 1 more turn and then influence points are totaled. Lords are worth the number of influence points shown on their cards, and locations provide influence points based on the criteria on each. Those locations may give bonuses for a certain number of Lords of one faction controlled, or even for the various different colors of allies someone might have. Players also gain points for the highest value affiliated Ally of each type placed in front of them throughout the game. In an interesting twist, before those points are calculated players get to take the lowest value ally of each type in their hand an affiliate them as well, potentially changing which ally of each type is actually the highest for scoring. Finally, any influence point tokens acquired from the threat tracker are turned over and added to players’ scores, and the player with the highest points total wins. Leftover pearls, oddly enough, don’t count for anything.
Abyss plays much lighter than the box size and number of components lets on. My wife and I played it on a recent cruise, and in passing one of the other passengers remarked, “whoa guys, what’s that game!? Looks intense!” But yeah, not so much. As you can see from the rules explanation the game hinges on a couple of different set collection/hand management elements and a push-your-luck mechanic, so gameplay is pretty straightforward and simple to learn for most audiences. The game should realistically take no more than 10 minutes to figure out, helped by a well-write rule-book with plenty of good diagrams, and the game itself is over within an hour. That said, I’d caution that there’s potentially too much going on for younger audiences to understand some of the finer points of the game like the affiliated allies system.
In my experience light games usually start to run into trouble at about the one-hour mark as they start to lose their legs and seem like they’re dragging out beyond their means. Abyss, however, feels like it ends right about when it’s supposed to. Gameplay tends to ramp up quickly as the game goes on and players find themselves with more cards to choose from, maybe some extra pearls to spend, and acquire location boards which help people to focus their strategies. In fact, in many cases the end of the game is going to sneak up on players, especially since some of the Lord cards enable the buyer to take a second Lord immediately. In those instances a game that looked like it had at least three more turns may be over after the next round.
Quick, sudden escalations towards the game’s completion can be a bit frustrating, and I can see more methodical players taking issue with it. It also means players who get off to a slow start compared to others are on a potentially truncated time table to catch back up. While it’s possible for those players to still win with a few less Lords than everyone else, it’s more likely their scores will utterly pale in comparison to everyone else’s since they won’t have hit the same stride as others for the final turns.
The affiliated Allies scoring system does serve to mitigate the chances of someone falling behind since it keeps players focused on the end of the game, and it adds a nice layer of strategy to the game even though it can seem a little “mathy”. Rather than just mindlessly throwing cards down to recruit Lords, players need to actively think about whether it might be more beneficial to play higher cards than necessary in order to affiliate a higher value Ally, and to also determine what that’s going to leave in their hand for future turns or for the end of the game. Those considerations are important because the points for allies factor heavily into each player’s total points.
Keys can be somewhat hard to come by depending on the lords available and whether people let the threat tracker get higher than the first couple of tiers, so locations end up playing a smaller role than I thought they would; players will probably have one, maybe two, by the end of the game. Even so, they can add a significant boost to player scores if they’re gained early enough for a player to strategize around, or if the player is lucky enough to draw one relevant to them later in the game. That last bit is my only real issue with how locations function within the game. They’re rather integral to getting a good score, but the usefulness of the ones you get to pick from can be hit-or-miss, and unless they’re gotten early players have a higher chance of floating through the game with no real set collection strategy outside of trying to find some useful synergies between Lords, or Lords that impede other players, none of which are likely to net extra points when all is said and done.
As-far-as Lords’ abilities are concerned, there’s a good mixture that makes for lots of potential strategies. In some cases players may opt to focus on a certain faction, tailoring their acquisitions to hurting other players or perhaps helping themselves gain more cards or pearls, or they may even opt to forego Lords with strong abilities altogether and just focus on how many total points each is worth.
Concerning components, Abyss has a very high production value in my book. The board elements are all of an excellent thickness, the cards are sturdy, and the individual cups shaped like shells each player gets to hold their pearls is a great, thematic touch. The pearls themselves are also very nice, and although they tend not to stay inside their shell in the box’s well-designed insert if the game is turned sideways, the components on top of their compartment at least keep them from spilling out into the rest of the box.
I think it goes without saying the art in Abyss is also beautiful, and I’d say Xavier Collette easily contends for best art in a game from 2014. The whole game has a very dark, deep underwater feel, but the saturated color palette keeps it feeling like you’re involved in a vibrant underwater seascape rather than a barren trench. For one of our plays we even put an animated fish tank on a large tv, turned the sound up, and put a dyed light cover over the room’s main lamp to cast a bluish-green hue across the room. Very cool, thematic experience that night!
COG Takeaway: If you’re looking for a lighter competitive game without much direct negative interaction, and one that is heavier than a filler but still only takes about an hour, then add Abyss to your want list. The game’s set collection, hand management, and push-your-luck elements are easy to learn(though may be a bit too much going on for younger audiences), and there are lots of different, viable ways to gain points. Most of the game’s elements are randomized which contributes towards a different experience each time you play, and there’s lots of gorgeous art to discover in the process.