Full disclosure: A review copy of Abyss was provided by Flat River Games.
I guess one positive of the shipping crisis whole thing is that a lot of publishers were much more interested in having me check out games that weren’t as new or recent, which has been pretty cool? I got into reviewing in 2015, so, there are a number of games that I wasn’t exactly aware of when I got started. Now, with an, uh, “more critical eye”, I’m excited to see a few games for the first time and see what they’ve got going on. I had only heard of Abyss as “that game with the five different covers”, and it seems like they’ve gone back to one single cover (which makes sense). So let’s see what’s up with it? I actually ended up watching Rodney’s how to play for Abyss, which helped a lot.
In Abyss, players wish to rule! However, as with any good power vacuum, there’s a bureaucracy to manage! There are palms to grease and promises to make. Each turn, allies will present themselves to you, hoping to make a friend on your rise to power. Your opponents can woo them away with pearls, granted, but you’ll at least be able to recruit someone to your cause. If you can’t, you can always beseech the Council for more friends, if you can remember which Council is most powerful at the time. Once you have recruited enough allies to the cause, you might be able to catch the eye of powerful Lords and maybe even claim Locations under your control. You’ll need all the help you can get if you wish to take the throne and rule the Abyssal people. So push your luck, get the cards you need, and use the power of the Lords to take your enemies down a peg. You’ll find all sorts of things in the deepest seas; will you manage to be part of their world?
Player Count Differences
I actually like Abyss a lot at two players, though that’s where most of my plays have been. With more players, there’s some tension on the turns that you Explore the Depths (reveal potential Ally Cards and your opponents can give you a Pearl once to take the card you just revealed). With more players, you’re increasingly less likely to walk away with “good” cards unless you’re particularly lucky, which makes the Explore the Depths action feel less good. At two, you just need your opponent to take a card early and then you’ve got the rest of your turn to yourself. Beyond that, I also prefer games with a bit less competition within the random market. Getting Allies to recruit Lords is fun, but having to compete with increasing numbers of other players to do so can be frustrating, even though it causes that market to cycle more regularly. It makes the game a bit more chaotic, which, if you’re a long-time reader, you’ll guess is not as much what I’m into. I do really like Abyss at two, though! It’s tense and tough, and you have to think a lot about how your abilities will help you or hinder your opponent. It’s a blast, and that’s probably where I’d most strongly recommend it.
- Generally, more cards is better, but there are a few times where that’s not particularly pragmatic. There’s a Lord that forces your opponents to discard down to 6 Allies, maximum, which is a particularly terrible outcome. So hoarding cards may not even help you that much. Plus, if you’re hoarding low-value cards, you’ll only be able to Affiliate your lowest-value Ally, so the one you keep out for scoring will just be low-value, anyways. It’s not necessarily bad if it makes the difference between Recruiting a Lord and not, but you may get more points with strategic acquisitions.
- You should be paying attention, even when it’s not your turn; you can see which cards get sent to the Council stacks. It’s not always prudent to just take the biggest Council Stack; plus, hasty players can often send 3s (and the occasional 4, if they’re greedy) to the Council Stacks. If you see it, you can try and grab them (and whatever extra cards are there) on your next turn. Try not to draw a ton of attention to it, though! Your opponents might not have noticed, and you’d much rather you get it than them.
- Keep an eye on which cards your opponents are taking; that can often tell you which Lords they’re prioritizing. Generally speaking, if players are going after certain colors, that means they’re likely going to try and grab a Lord of that color, but not always! Keep in mind that plenty of Lords require cards of various colors, so they may be trying to recruit up.
- Taking a high-utility Lord might be nice and all, but make sure that doing so doesn’t immediately activate a Location and neutralize that Lord’s power; you might be better off taking one that’s worth more points, instead. Some Lords have really good abilities, but keep in mind that taking the third Key means that you immediately must take a Location, which might, in turn, make that Lord’s ability useless. Not every Lord has a Key, so, just keep an eye out and be open to changing it up if you don’t want to necessarily get a Location right now.
- Don’t just take Locations for no reason! Locations are pretty useful in context, but they also negate the abilities of the Lords, as I mentioned. More problematically, they are kind of dependent on your current tableau for points; you score more if you adhere to their guidance and get the Allies or Lords or whatever that they want. So if you just take the first Location you see, you might not be maximizing your overall points. Be strategic about the Locations you take!
- Also, it may be worth spending Pearls or holding on to high-value cards so that you can Affiliate higher-value allies. At the end of the game, you score your highest-value Ally in each color. Naturally, spending a few pearls now to make sure that you can Affiliate that 4 or 5 means you’ll get even more points towards the end of the game.
- Ambassadors are tough Lords to recruit; it’s hard to go wide in Abyss. It’s just hard to get a bunch of Allies of different colors unless you’re intentionally trying to do so. That said, they pretty quickly get you a Location, so they may be worth the work, if you can make it happen. Just don’t expect to recruit any particularly high-value allies, either.
- A lot of players tend to ignore Monsters, which can occasionally work in your favor; that said, you should likely fight the Monster if it’ll give you a key for free. A Key is one-third of a Location, which is excellent, and the more that players put off fighting the Monster, the better the rewards get. Just remember that no player is going to let the Monster Track get to two Keys, so you might as well take it when you can.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- This is probably one of the most visually striking games I’ve played, from cards to boards to components. It’s got a very particular art style, but I’d be lying if I didn’t note that it’s pretty impressive! Abyss has a very detailed and particular art style that just works for it. It evokes an entire world under the waves that is foreboding and sinister but still colorful, which I appreciate. It’s just a good-looking game.
- I’m actually not 100% sure what I thought this game was, but it’s got a lot of mechanics that I like. I really like the press-your-luck elements of getting Allies to use to recruit Lords; it’s very fun. I like the various abilities that the Lords have, and I like how those dovetail with and are complicated by Locations. I think the various parts of the game mesh very well together into a satisfying result. Abyss was not what I expected, but I’m super glad I played it!
- I thought I would dislike the memory element of “what allies are inside of the Council stacks”, but I think it adds nicely to the game. It helps somewhat that the memory element has strictly benefitted me in a few games, granted, but also, I think that it’s not quite as persnickety as several games I’ve played with a “you need to remember cards” mechanic. If you see a pile with a lot of cards, it still likely behooves you to take it, even if the cards are all 1s; so your memory might help you prioritize, but there are still Obviously Good Choices, even if there might be slightly better ones under certain circumstances.
- Letting players choose between lower-value Lords with access to high-value Locations and high-value Lords that don’t have keys is a nice bit of tension that allows players to choose how they want to play the game. It depends a lot on your strategy, but I like that the choice is there; it makes the game feel balanced between going for useful abilities and going for points. They’re both good options!
- Similarly, the various specialties of the Lords let players play more aggressively (Soldiers) or focus on other parts of the game in an interesting way. I tend to focus on “what I can get, quickly”, but there are a few Lords I try to go after (or discard with prejudice) every game. I appreciate that there are specializations that tend to have related effects, to that end. It also makes the game feel like it could be expanded, to some degree, though I know there are already expansions and I just don’t know what they do.
- On Locations, I like that you can reveal more Locations if you want and that you need to balance the utility of seeing more against helping your opponents by revealing more for them. It makes sense, to some degree, that you’re weighing the marginal utility of each subsequent location against the overall utility of your opponents being able to choose from the Locations you didn’t end up selecting. It’s a nice way to give you the chance of options at the cost of your opponent getting those same options, and I like that. It feels cohesive.
- Also plays pretty quickly! With one mechanical exception, I always felt like the game was moving pretty quickly. This could probably slow down a bit if you’re playing asynchronously with four players, but, again, that’s just how Ally Recruitment has to work.
- Given the multiple moving parts of the game, it’s surprisingly intuitive, as well. My friend, bless her, doesn’t really have the patience for BGA’s tutorials (fair enough, I suppose), but she picked up the game pretty quickly and ended up winning a few of our plays, so I appreciate that she could pick the game up quickly. Plus, the various options on your turn aren’t so complex that they’re beyond players. There’s strategy, but not at the cost of additional complexity, which makes the game feel practiced and elegant.
- I do wish every game would just yeet Slavers and other such ilk out, but, alas. I just don’t really want to think about slavery while I’m having my entertainment in pretty much any context. Sure, it might exist in this … fish-themed fantasy world, but why? What does that accomplish? I could just … do without.
- Oh, I do have a Least Favorite Card. It’s the Oracle. This is more of a gripe than an actual problem with the game, but as someone who loves taking cards from the Council Stack, the Oracle is my least favorite Lord (their ability allows you, once per turn, to discard a Council Stack). It just feels so … wasteful.
- Honestly, I think one of the game’s biggest flaws is that the face on the box gives you, the player, literally no context for what the game is about. I feel like it originally didn’t even say “Abyss” on it, so having that helps a lot, but I remember seeing it on a shelf a long time ago and having no idea what it was about. Even now, the face is imposing and all, but it doesn’t really tell you … anything about the game, as a game. An odd choice.
- It would be nice if Board Game Arena’s “select cards you want to ignore” existed in real life, as well. They let you mark certain cards as auto-ignore, which speeds up asynchronous play by a pretty considerable amount, and I appreciate that. Real-life doesn’t work quite as fluidly, and I slightly wish that it did.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I’ve been really pleased and impressed with Abyss! Almost a bit frustrated that I hadn’t tried it sooner, to be honest. This is one of the few games in a while that we just kept coming back to because we thought it was so fun, and it never disappointed! Part of it is that I just like every system in the game, and they feel like they all operate pretty fluidly with each other despite being pretty different. The push-your-luck aspect of flipping Allies one at a time (but your opponents get first dibs) is simple, but it really works! Disinterested players might tune out, but any Allies that don’t get taken end up in their respective Council stacks. Rather than pushing your luck, you can take an entire stack as an action, so this keeps players engaged between turns in a pretty solidly clever way. Balancing high-scoring Lords against Lords that can get you Locations is a nice decision to have to weigh each turn, and the various powers the Lords and Locations give you are fun and varied, as well. Cover all these seamless systems with a particularly-striking art scheme and you’ve got yourself a game! I’ve been really enjoying Abyss, even if I do wish that the front of the box told me more about how the game worked. Thankfully, the back of the box is much more informative. If you’re looking for a nice, solidly strategic game with a lot going on, or you just like the occasional fish guy, you’ll probably enjoy Abyss! I’ve had a really great time with it, and I’m looking forward to playing it again.
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