Today’s review is of a game with some of the most beautiful artwork around:
Abyss is a game that was published in 2014 by Bombyx and Asmodee. It was designed by Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier. The game, which is for 2-4 players and takes about 45 minutes to play, comes with one of five different cover choices as seen above – CoolStuff will randomly send you a cover, and I ended up getting the second one from the left. The idea of the game is that the throne of the underwater kingdom of Abyss is up for grabs, and you are trying to gain the influence needed in order to become the new monarch. You’ll be gaining the support of allies and lords, as well as controlling locations to achieve your goal.
At the start of the game, six lord cards are dealt out to the board and each player receives a pearl. On your turn, you can start by spending pearls to fill any empty spaces on the lord track (one pearl per new lord you want to reveal). Then, you do one of three other actions: explore the depths, receive support from the council, or recruit a lord.
EXPLORE THE DEPTHS: Here, you reveal a card from the ally stack. It could be an ally, or it could be a monster. If it’s an ally, you must offer it to each of your opponents in turn. If one of them wants it, they may buy it from you for one more than the previous ally sold this turn. This means the first ally sold costs one, the second costs two, and the third costs three. Once an opponent buys an ally, they can’t buy any more for the rest of the turn. If no one buys it, you can keep it for free, which ends the turn. If you don’t want it, you leave it on the track and continue to the next card.
If the card you draw is a monster, you can choose to fight it or not. If you don’t fight it, add the monster to the track and advance the threat level. If you do fight it, you win automatically and take the reward for the current threat level, which then resets back to the beginning. Rewards include pearls, monster tokens, or key tokens.
If you get to the fifth card on a track, you must keep it if it’s an ally no one else wants, or fight it if it’s a monster. In either case, you also get a one pearl compensation for letting it get that far. Once you have taken an ally or fought a monster, you discard any remaining monsters and add all remaining allies to their corresponding stack in the council area.
SUPPORT FROM THE COUNCIL: If you do this, simply take one stack of face down cards from the council.
RECRUIT A LORD: To recruit a lord, you’ll need to turn in allies. Each lord shows a number inside a bubble that tells you the minimum value you must turn in. The number of bubbles indicates the exact number of ally types you need to use, and the colored bubble tells you a specific type of ally that is required. So an ally with three bubbles, including a red bubble with an 8, means you must turn in at least 8 ally points in exactly three different colors, one of which must be red. When you recruit, you also affiliate one of the allies you used – take the lowest valued one and place it face up in front of you, discarding all others.
Lords will sometimes give you immediate or long-term effects. They all give you points at the end of the game. And some have keys. When you have collected three keys, you automatically claim a location. You can either take one of the face up locations or draw some from the deck and choose from those. If you use lord keys, the lords are placed behind the location and you can’t use their powers anymore.
Once someone recruits their seventh lord, or when you can’t draw anymore lords, the game is over. Add up points from lords plus locations plus monster tokens, plus the strongest affiliated ally from each color to get your final total, and the player with the most points wins.
COMPONENTS: You have to start with the art when talking about Abyss. This is an absolutely gorgeous game. Artist Xavier Collette was not on my radar when I did my Eleven Artists You Should Know post, but if I ever do a volume two, he’ll be right up there. The designs in Abyss are just all completely imaginative, and the colors are bright and evocative. It’s very good stuff. And it’s everything – the characters, the allies, and the locations are all beautiful to look at. In fact, the art was so good, they need up not even putting the title of the game on the front of the box – all it is is a giant face glaring/sneering at you. Very striking.
The other components in the game are also very nice. The pearls are little white plastic balls. Bombyx easily could have included cardboard tokens, but by using these plastic pearls, the game is much more immersive. They even solve the problem of having the pearls rolling everywhere by having a plastic tray for each player, as well as one more for the extras. The cardboard is nice and thick, and everything is clearly laid out so that you don’t have to keep referring to the rules in order to figure out what things do. You do have to remember which faction is which – for example, you need to know that Merchants are the green cards – but otherwise everything flows together well.
I tend to give games a lot of flak for their insert, but Abyss has an insert that is quite good. There’s a spot for everything, and everything fits in its spot. There’s even a notch so the board will sit on top of the insert and not slide around. If you store this game on its side, however, you’re still going to have problems with things falling out, but it’s not bad.
My only complaint about the components is that the game comes with tiny cards. The lords are all on nice big cards, but the allies and monsters are all on small cards. I know you don’t really need big cards since there is minimal information – basically the faction image and the value – but tiny cards are just tough for a guy with big hands (like me) to shuffle. It’s more of a personal thing than a fault of the game, really.
To sum up: the components are great, and the art is amazing.
THEME: This game is set in an underwater kingdom. The world was created for the game, and the good part about that is that you can make the theme match the mechanics without having to adhere to any pre-existing notions about how things work. And you get the sense that there’s some good stories to be told in this world – all the different characters and factions just scream out for more story. However, here the theme is mostly a framework and there’s not really a lot of backstory. I would love to see some more games come out based in this world to expand some of the tales that could be told about the different lords. The art is very evocative and the theme is unique and creative, it’s just not THAT important to the overall gameplay.
MECHANICS: At its core, Abyss is a set collection game. As the game goes on, you are trying to acquire the allies you need to recruit lords. You need certain values in certain colors to get what you need, and there’s always an element of trying to figure out how to make the best of what you have. The process of affiliating allies adds some extra tension so it’s not just a case of turning in the right cards, you also want to manipulate things so you get stronger allies out in order to get more points. The lord powers are all pretty varied and keep with their thematic factions – Ambassadors will help you acquire locations, Merchants give you pearls, Mages give allies more weight, Soldiers attack your opponents, Farmers give lots of points, and Politicians help you get more lords.
The locations in the game can give some good combos if you find the right ones. However, you’re not usually going to get more than one or two of them per game. Sometimes that’s OK – it’s tough having to give up lord powers when you get a location. The process of selecting locations is a little like fishing – take one that you can see, or draw a few and pick the best one. I do wish you got a few more locations. I had an idea for a variant where players have a starting location – it might help focus your long-term strategy from the start. I haven’t tried it.
I enjoy the process of exploring the depths. Drawing a card and offering it around the table is interesting to me because it gives me an idea of the strategy others might be trying, and may point me in a different direction. Sure, some good cards might get snatched up, but you still get some pearls. There’s also an element of push-your-luck throughout the game – namely, how far do you want to go before you take something. However, this leads me to the part of the game that I like the least – the monsters. I like the idea of the monsters. They come out of the deck, and you can fight or pass to increase a later reward. That in itself isn’t bad, but the problem is that there are only six monster cards in the entire 71 card exploration deck. That’s not enough to push it much past the second threat level. On level two, you can get two monster tokens which could be worth up to 8 points, whereas level three just gives you a key. Keys are useful in getting new locations, but the monster cards are so rare, you might just want to take the points. I’ve never seen it go past level three – usually, people just take their reward and go. So I really wish there were more monsters in the deck. I’m sure there’s a very good reason why they are so limited, it just doesn’t work well for me.
That being said, I think the game works very well. I like how allies are selected (both in the depths and the council), and I really like how the requirements for the lords are set up. Overall, the game plays really well.
STRATEGY LEVEL: There is quite a bit of luck in the game in how cards and locations come out, but there is some mitigation in the process. Allies come out randomly, but by offering them up for sale, you get more choice than a straight random draw. And if you miss something you want, you can always go to the council on a future turn. Lords come out randomly, but they all have variable requirements so you can use different types of cards. Locations come out randomly, but you can choose to pick from some that were not chosen earlier. The most important thing is trying to find locations that work well with what you have.
ACCESSIBILITY: I think this game is teetering on the edge between a gateway game and a next step game. It’s fairly simple to play, but there are a lot of different paths to victory. I’d tend to put it more on the gateway side, but maybe an advanced gateway.
REPLAYABILITY: There is a lot of variation in the way cards come out. You’ll always see different lords and different locations, as well as different allies to use for them. I think expansions will enhance replayability, but I think there’s a lot there.
SCALABILITY: This is a 2-4 player game, and I think it plays well with every number. I feel like exploring the depths works best with 3-4 players since the prices go up. The game doesn’t change at all for any number, so 2-player is considerably shorter than 4.
INTERACTION: Exploring the depths has the most interaction as players are hoping to buy the best allies for the cheapest prices. There’s also some interaction in lord abilities, and of course there’s the potential to block someone by taking the lord or location they really wanted.
FOOTPRINT: This game does take up some space. There’s the board itself, and then you need some space for all of your lords and locations on the table. Additionally, you need space for the location pool – lords and allies have a home on the board, but locations are kept to the side. I’d say you probably need at least a medium size table for this one.
LEGACY: In a few years, I would imagine that this game will be most talked about for its art. I don’t think anything in the game is necessarily revolutionary – fun, but not ground-breaking. However, I don’t think I can overstate it – the art is INCREDIBLE.
IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes. I think it’s a fun, beautiful game that a lot of people will enjoy. It’s not the deepest experience, but I’m very glad to have it in my collection. On my Yeah-Meh-Bleah scale, Abyss gets a
Thanks for reading!
PS: If’ you’re interested in checking out more art by Xavier Collette head to his website: http://www.xaviercollette.com