If anyone starts singing that little mermaid song, I will roll my eyes hard :p
The idea behind Abyss is simple – you take on the role of an underwater lord and become the ruler of the ocean. Really, you try to earn the most victory points. Primarily a card game, Abyss is an auction type game with push your luck elements. Mainly the game revolves around set collection.
Bruno Cathala has designed a lot of my favourite games. He can integrate game mechanics in surprising ways. One thing that I feel he can’t incorporate as well – a theme. Abyss is a sterling example of this.
Oh wow, complaints right out of the gate! This game must be terrible!
Nope. That’s the thing about a Bruno Cathala game – the theme is optional. Stick the same mechanics in a different theme, and the game would still be as fun. They also tend to sound basic and hard to see how they could be fun.
Then three hours later you realise you have played a fun game multiple times for three hours and didn’t even realise it!
The problem I have describing Abyss is I try to tie the concepts back to the theme, but in Abyss this can be not very clear. It all makes sense when you have everything laid out in front of you. Unless I drag this review out into an instructional piece, you will probably get a little lost.
So if I sound cynical or something is unclear, remember this – when you are playing, it all makes sense. Playing Abyss is a fun experience, but without seeing the mechanics explained in a tutorial run, everything looks like a confusing mess.
Wait, so you like the game you can’t explain?
Yes. That’s it. Really, I could almost end the review here on that point. It’s one reason why when you see different reviews, they either teach the game or gloss over the gameplay itself.
I have had people ask me about other reviews on Abyss. Not my opinion on the game, but why the review didn’t actually talk about the game very much. Well, now you know why. You can either teach it, or give your verdict.
Today I will be choosing to gloss over a lot of the finer gameplay details. Abyss is an experience, and I haven’t met any people that didn’t like it. Some like it more than others, obviously, but everyone enjoyed their time at the table.
So why would anyone want to play Abyss if it’s so hard to describe?
That’s easy. Just look at the pictures. The art is dark, which fits the depths of the ocean. It’s also beautiful. The board in Abyss is almost optional, but just putting it out has had people come over and ask about it.
There is also the components. The cards are lovely to hold and look great, and the monster tiles and the monster track get people looking at them. The real thing that everyone loves playing with before learning the game is the currency. Everyone is given a little dish, which is usually met with a raised eyebrow. Then you start handing out the ‘money’.
No cardboard token or paper money here. You get these little plastic pearls that feel great in your hand. Even though they are currency, I have watched people torn about paying for something. Sure, they get something that helps there scores, but at the cost of losing a pearl they love to play with during the game.
So what can you tell me about the gameplay?
Each turn, you have a couple of different actions to choose from. The most common action is exploring the ocean depths. During this phase, the active player has the last chance of receiving that card.
Everyone else in order can pay the active player to recruit that creature before them. This might sound unfair, but each player can only buy from the active player once. This means the amount of money in the game stays relatively constant, but the players’ pearl stashes change each turn.
There is also the possibility of drawing a monster – the ocean depths aren’t safe after all. You can choose to fight the beast, in which case you get a set reward from the monster track. If you decide to leave the creature be, you raise the monster track by one and keep drawing.
This is where the push your luck element comes in. You can keep drawing, meaning you may give your opponents a chance to recruit better cards. This also means another player may receive a better reward the next time a monster appears!
It’s these sorts of decisions that make Abyss such a great game to play.
The next type of action you can take is Requesting support from the Council. This means you take a pile of sea creatures into your hand. That’s it. Not an exciting turn, but it can be a potent one.
I thought you weren’t explaining the rules! Fine. Why do you need to collect ocean creatures?
It does look like I am teaching, but I am skipping a lot of speicifics and nuances I would explain while teaching in person. Also, I am missing a lot of rules that only affect you when you are in specific situations.
As to what you need creatures for, that is recruiting (buying) Lords.
Lords have multiple advantages. Firstly, they are worth victory points. Most Lords have special powers that change the conditions of the game in different ways. Lastly, some Lords have keys.
Collect 3 keys, and you can control a Land. Lands have their own unique powers but at a cost. What cost? You can no longer use the skills of the Lords that gave you that land!
Once a player has recruited 7 lords, or you cannot put out a Lord onto the recruitment track, the game is over. Add up your points, and the player with the highest score wins.
Well, that sounds OK? I don’t know if it sounds fun though.
That’s the catch. It sounds solid, but not fun. But during a game of Abyss, there are so many decisions that can end up helping your opponents, that joint tension makes for an incredibly enjoyable experience.
Yes, you can make a choice that can cost you the game. But so can everyone else. The fact that the game depends on random card draws so heavily means there is no one winning strategy. Also, did I mention you get to play with pearls?
Who do you think will enjoy Abyss?
I tend to enjoy it more with a maximum of four players. But I will sit and play with one other person a lot. Abyss hasn’t made it to the table as often as I would like, but that is because of the large number of new games that I keep buying.
If anyone wanted to buy my copy of Abyss, I would politely decline. That is not something I can say about almost half of my collection!
A lot of people will be drawn in by the beauty of Abyss, and then look at the components and expect a complicated mess. While it can seem like a lot of little rules, learning the game only really takes a round or two.
Setup is so quick that a learning round isn’t a hassle, but most people I offer this to choose to continue. Once you are in the rhythm of the game, Abyss tends to grab most peoples attention.
There are plenty of newer games on the market, but to say that Abyss is guaranteed a spot on my shelf 6 years after it’s release should show the long term appeal of this game.
- Gorgeous art and components
- No game is ever the same
- New players are not at a complete disadvantage with experienced players
- Visually intimidating for new players
- Terminology seems a little over the top
- Theme tacked on to solid game mechanics
Until next time,