Abyss is a game about undersea politics (yes, that's a thing) where two to four players compete to have the most influence, by affiliating allies, defeating monsters, lobbying the council, recruiting lords, and controlling locations.
First, the game art, wow! More than 50 unique and beautiful pieces of art, each one a masterpiece, and only one artist (Xavier Collette) responsible for them all, quite an achievement!
There are numerous components, making up several moving parts to Abyss, some of which are tracked on the fantastic game board, and some of which have their own components that sit apart from the board, meaning that the game takes up a fair amount of table space, which increases in size during play, you have been warned!
- The rule book looks daunting at first as its pages are the size of the box, but it is very well laid out and easy to read, with simple gameplay examples, and lots of great artwork.
- The game board depicts the council itself, in stunning detail, and has space for cards from the main three elements of the game - the depths, the council, and the court.
- A separate threat track, plus tokens for monsters and keys, is used to track what bonuses are available to players who push their luck whilst exploring the depths.
- A deck of small cards is made up of the various ally races (squids, shellfish, crabs, seahorses and jellyfish) that live in the depths, plus the monsters that also hang out there.
- A deck of larger cards show the lords of the different guilds (politicians, merchants, soldiers, farmers and mages), which, in a nice touch, match up with the races of allies and all make thematic sense (for instance the soldier guild matches up to the crab race, and all these lords are depicted in crab-shell like armour, and politicians match the slimy squid race as you would expect). The final guild are the powerful ambassadors, who are their own race of bio-luminescent creatures from the deepest parts of the ocean.
- A pile of sturdy card tiles are used to show the locations that you can control with your lords, featuring yet more unique and amazing artwork.
- The currency of the game is represented by opaque white pearls, which do a great job of carrying on the undersea theme. Players store their pearls in oyster shaped dishes, another great touch in line with the theme.
Object of the Game
Players gain influence points (victory points) in several ways, but the core path involves exploring the depths to defeat monsters (worth random influence points) and gain allies; allies are used to then recruit lords (worth varying amounts of influence), and lords are used to control locations (which have their own criteria for gaining influence).
Once a player recruits their seventh lord (or the court runs out of lords), the game draws to a close, and the player with the most influence wins.
On the Cards
The small ally cards are pretty simple, coming in different values within each race, from one to five. These races/values are used to recruit lords. The lord cards are a little more involved; each is unique, with its own name, (fantastic) artwork, value, power and cost.
Simple things first, the value is the number of influence the lord is worth, with some lords also worth keys that help to control locations. Powers range from instant hits (e.g gain one pearl), to continuous effects (e.g reduce your recruitment costs for lords).
The cost requirements show a number of ‘bubbles’ showing the exact number of different ally races required, including one ally type that must be used, plus a number which is the minimum total value of allies required (the illustrated rules do a much better job of explaining this, it is simpler than it sounds!).
The locations are also fairly simple, each detailing its own way of gaining influence points.
At the start of Abyss, the small ally cards that make up the exploration deck are shuffled and placed face-down on the board at the start of the exploration track (the depths). The larger lord cards are shuffled and six are dealt face-up onto the board to populate the court (those available to recruit), the locations are shuffled and one is turned face-up, and the threat track, monster tokens and key tokens are readied beside the board.
Each player takes one pearl from the supply and they are ready to dive in.
The Game Turn
On their turn, players will do the following:
- Plot at the court - If there is space at the court (fewer than six lords there), players may, if they choose, pay pearls to lure new lords to the court, giving them more choice of lords to recruit.
- Players must then do one of the following actions:
- Explore the depths - This is a loose push-your-luck mini game, where cards are revealed one by one from the exploration deck of allies. If the card is a monster, it can be defeated (simply cashed in) to gain the reward at the current level of the treat track (increasingly valuable combinations of pearls, monster tokens and keys), or the player can carry on exploring but must move the threat token up the threat track, thereby increasing the reward for the next monster defeated. If the card is an ally, other players get a chance to buy it with pearls (which helps to keep players engaged at all times), before the current player can either take it or draw another card. Cards not taken are moved to the council and gather there in piles of each race.
- Request support from the council - As ally cards build up in the council, it can be an attractive option to take a pile to boost your hand of allies. Strangely, there is no disadvantage to doing this, no price to pay, it would have possibly felt more in theme if you had to ‘bribe’ the council with a few pearls to gain their favour.
- Recruit a lord - By discarding the appropriate ally cards.
As soon as a player has three keys in their possession, either the keys shown on recruited lords, or keys gained from defeating monsters, they gain control over a location. Each location is represented by a hefty rectangular board, showing a scene from the ocean floor, and detailing how best to use it to score influence.
Any lords used to control a location are placed under it so that their powers are hidden and no longer used, so timing when to gain a location is important.
One of my only negative comments about Abyss, and something that I find difficult to deal with in games in general, is that in several places there are no limits to the number of cards that can be in play at one time.
Firstly, there is no limit to the number of allies that a player can have in their hand, so it is difficult to physically hold them all. It is unclear if these are meant to be kept secret, but we find ourselves laying them out face-up so that it is easy for players (and other players) to see what they have. As long as everyone agrees to this we’ve never found it a problem.
Also, the allies that populate the council can just keep stacking up until a player chooses to call on them. This is great as you can grab a load of allies at once, but it tends to be far too many to keep in hand.
And finally (rant nearly over!), when a player gets to control a location they can reveal one to four locations (their choice) and take one, with the others remaining on as these cards are large, if all players choose to reveal four every time, they can quickly devour table space.
Final Thoughts on Abyss
What looks like a complex, heavy game from outside the box is actually a lot simpler and more straightforward than it looks, and it plays pretty quickly (45 minutes on the box is fairly average). Abyss plays better at higher player counts of three and four (less so with two), and from a complexity point of view, it plays younger than the 14+ on the box, as long as your younger players are okay with the ‘dark’ nature of the imagery (some of it spooks me and I’m not so young any more!).
There is a limited amount of player interaction, mainly in the form of the lord powers, and whilst these include some ‘take-that’ moments, they are fairly light, and won’t ruin the game for players at the sharp end of this.
Abyss stands up to multiple plays as the combinations of lords and locations seen during each game will be different, and the more you play, the more you can try out different strategies for gaining influence (e.g I prefer recruiting farmer lords who have no powers but high influence, and trying to combine them with locations to multiply up those points).