This is the start of my new series into the wild world of board game reviews is with Abyss, designed by Bruno Cathala, with gorgeous artwork by Xavier Collette. I’ll start off by saying I love this game. Abyss’s unique theme, the beautiful pearls they include (that I often drop and play with), and the niche it fits in my play group (time commitment / mechanic) means this game sees a good amount of time on the table. To see my full thoughts in detail read my full review below!
Abyss Review Summary
Overall Score: 7.33 of 10!
Game Play Score: 7.5 of 10 (weighted 35%)
Component Score: 9 of 10 (weighted 20%)
Theme Score: 6 of 10 (weighted 10%)
Longevity Score: 6 of 10 (weighted 25%)
Scalability: 8 of 10 (weighted 10%)
Player # Recommendations: Best at 3-4, but solid fun at 2 players
Player Experience Recommendation: 2 of 5: Minimal experience needed, this could be used as a gateway, but those who have played Splendor or another set collection game will pick this up quickly.
Initial Play Time: 60-75 minutes
Experienced Play Time: 30-45 minutes
Initial Setup Time: 10 minutes
Experienced Setup Time: 5 minutes
Abyss Game Overview
Abyss is a light set collection and hand management game in which you take the role of an aspiring crustacean, cephalopod, sponge, or other “under the sea” creatures whose desire is nothing more than to rule the depths of the ocean! The back-story is minimal, the prior ruler is no more and the council is in disarray, now lords of all types are jockeying for favor and attempting to gain influence to become the new leader, or at least stay on their good side. Now’s your chance!
Throughout the game, players will be collecting cards, recruiting lords to support them in their campaign, and controlling locations in order to earn influence points which serve as this games victory condition. The game plays primarily as a Euro game, but includes a fair amount of player interaction compared to other games of this style.
Abyss Game Play Review
The setup for this game is simple and straightforward, something I appreciate in shorter games such as this one. The ability to get the game out and to the table in less than 5 minutes is great. The below bullets provide a basic understanding of how the game is setup.
- Players shuffle and place two separate decks on the board—the Ally/Exploration Deck (mini-euro cards FFG yellow), and the Lord Deck (tarot size FFG orange).
- The lord deck is dealt face up along the bottom of the board covering each of the open spaces and creating the pool of lords available for recruitment.
- Each player receives a container and 1 pearl to start the game (the remaining pearls will create the bank).
- The monster track is placed to the right of the board and the monster token placed on the top reward space.
- Locations (cardboard pieces with a 3-key design on the back) are shuffled and placed face down at the top of the board.
- A single location is turned face up and placed beside the other locations (this location is available and known to all players).
- Monster tokens are shuffled and placed face down in a pile on the table (tokens show a monster and a number of influence points from 2-4).
- Keys are placed in a pile on the table.
Once everyone has their scuba gear on it’s time to dive right into the game. Yes, I went there. On each player’s turn there are 3 actions to choose from:
Exploring the Depths
This action involves drawing ally cards, one by one, from the Ally/Exploration deck and placing them face up along the top of the board.
There are 5 different ally types within this deck, each color coded and corresponding to a designated creature type which is also pictured on the face of the card.
The cards also have a face value ranging from 1-5 and act as a second currency and your primary form of obtaining lords. They may also be utilized to increase your influence directly during the purchase of a lord which will be covered in the scoring portion.
After each ally is revealed and placed on the board you will offer them to each of the other players in clockwise order. At this time each player has the opportunity to purchase the ally by paying pearls. The first ally purchased each turn only costs 1 pearl and the cost for each purchase will increase by 1 for each ally bought in this manner. In addition, once a player purchases an ally they are unable to purchase a second ally during that turn.
For me this is where one of the first and most interesting aspects of the game comes in. Exploring is a common action performed often in the beginning of a game, but there is always a risk and reward aspect to taking this action. Since each ally must be offered to your opponents first it allows players to potentially obtain more than 1 ally per round and can drastically accelerate the rate in which they can purchase lords. It also introduces the possibility of directly blocking a player if you know which ally type they need. But exploring isn’t all bad because you benefit when your opponents purchase allies. Each pearl spent goes directly to the exploring player instead of the bank. This enables the exploring player to pay more in future auctions and reduces the pearls of their opponents. Pearls can also be used to increase the value of the allies acquired when exploring.
The exploration phase continues until all players decline purchase AND the exploring player takes an ally OR the exploring player fills all of the slots available for exploration. If a player fills all exploration slots they must immediately take the last ally dealt; however, if they are forced to take the last ally they also receive a pearl for taking the risk of an unknown card. At the end of the exploration phase each ally is grouped facedown with others of its type and placed in their respective areas of the council.
While exploring the depths, players can encounter monster cards. There are 6 of these cards in the deck, each represented by the picture of a large eel. Players can chose to fight the monster or pass as they wish and suffer no ill benefits aside from advancing the monster track which improves future rewards. If a player does fight the monster they receive the current reward level and the track resets to the initial space. Rewards start small and improve (1 monster token or 1 pearl -> 2 pearls or 1 monster 1 pearl OR 2 monster tokens -> 1 key -> etc). This is also the only way to receive monster tokens which are worth influence points ranging from 2-4.
The monster token and reward system is one of my least favorite portions of the game as I really feel the aspect of encountering a monster and just saying “I pass” lacks engagement and theme.
Request Support from the Council
This action allows you to take all the cards of a specific ally type from the council. They are generated from the unclaimed portion of the Explore phase and therefore is unavailable on the first turn.
There are various advantages to taking this action in the game and it encourages remembering the face value of cards sent to the council instead of gauging value purely by size of the stack. Monitoring the amount of cards here is also crucial as when the ally deck is reshuffled it can be used to gage the average value of cards remaining in the deck.
Recruit a Lord
This action allows you to spend the allies you’ve acquired through the previous actions to obtain one of the available lords. Each lord will have a cost, power, potential key, and influence point value printed on their card which varies by type. In addition the game balances the power and effects of each lord by scaling the cost and influence points awarded, the stronger the lord the greater their cost (in allies) and the lower their reward (influence points). When lords are purchased the lowest value ally used to do so becomes affiliated with this lord and at the end of the game the player will be allowed to add the value of the highest numbered ally in each color to their score. Lords with keys also cost more and are worth less influence; however, keys are very valuable in their own right. Any time a player has 3 keys they will acquire a location which will be described later and is used to multiply previously garnered points. The powers attributed to the lords feel varied and powerful while managing to maintain balance in the way they combine each of their rewards. Overall the lords provide multiple viable strategies although the starting locations and lords can dictate the game you will likely see two-thirds of all the lords available each game. A game’s end condition is triggered at any point the lord deck is completely exhausted or a player acquires 7 lords which is much more common. At this time players complete the round and move to scoring.
Merchant Lords (green): These lords have powers focused on economy often netting the player bonus pearls for specific actions, at the start of their turn, or as a onetime bonus on acquisition. Early in the game these lords can be very powerful and often enable a player to spend less time exploring the deeps throughout the course of the game and can be leveraged to acquiring lords in emergencies. Their cost us low and their influence is mid-level.
Soldier Lords (red): These lords are the most interactive and often place limitations on the other players. Their powers range from imposing a hard hand limit to your opponents or forcing a player to lose the benefit of one of their previously acquired lords. These lords are not typically game breaking, but can cause issues depending on their timing. I suggest looking out for the “Commander” in particular as a forced hand size limit can be very devastating to some plans. Their cost is mid-level and their influence is low-level.
Mage Lords (pink): These lords focus on the efficiency and ease of acquiring and using allies. Most notably the “Minister of Magic” allows a player to associate any ally they wish when acquiring a lord. Other lords allow the council to be used twice in a single turn, or allies to ignore type requirements when purchasing a lord. Their cost is high and their influence is mid-level.
Politicians (blue): These crafty individuals focus on the acquisition of future lords. They can increase the cost of lords for other players or decrease the cost for you. Their cost is the full range and their influence is low.
Ambassadors (colorless): These lords are distinct in that they provide instant access to a location with 3 keys printed on a single card. In addition they will cost at least 1 of each ally type. These lords are worth the least influence points on their own but the ability to hold down a location without losing the power of other lords is invaluable. Their cost is high, but their influence is very low
Plotting at Court (Optional)
This action allows any player to spend 1 pearl in order to reveal a new lord for purchase. This can be performed multiple times during a turn and does not preclude any other actions. The only limit is the amount of available spaces on the board and does not allow cards to be removed or overfilled.
Acquiring a Location (Automatic)
At the end of each player’s turn they check the amount of keys they currently possess. Any player ending their turn with three or more keys will acquire a location This is mandatory. At this point the player may choose from the visible/face up locations or draw and select from the hidden locations. If choosing a hidden location
the game introduces a push your luck element by allowing the player to draw 1-4 locations and choose. All un-chosen locations are placed face up for others to see and draw. This portion of the game falls a little short as almost all players will chose to draw 3-4 locations, the benefit of having more choices almost always outweighs the cost of giving information to other players.
Locations also serve to limit the abuse of a lord’s power. Any lords that contribute a key to the location are then “locked” within it. This covers the power of the lords no longer allowing the player access to them while still leaving their influence points active.
Pacing in this game is one of its strengths. The action that takes the longest is the “Exploring the Deeps” action in which the game manages to involve all players in a significant way. The remaining actions typically are short assuming nobody suffers from severe analysis paralysis and players with strategic minds will find the other players’ decisions of interest for their own long term plans. In short I’ve recorded ~15 plays of this game and never felt that I was sitting with nothing to do as the other players took their respective turns.
Average scores in this game for newer players tend to fall in the 50s and 60s with experienced players able to score in the 80s depending on the board state. Scoring is fairly quick and easy. Points come from the following sources:
- Lords (# in upper right corner)
- Affiliated allies (highest value of each color)
- Monster tokens
Pearls are useless at the end of the game and reward no points so make sure to use them.
Abyss Longevity/Scaling Review
This game needs an expansion that introduces new cards, mechanics or strategies due to limited amount of lords available and quick play time. The game scales well delivering a solid 2 player game that retains the majority of the feel at the 3-4 player count.
- 80% of your points will likely come from the combination of lords and locations so ensure that you are keeping pace with the table regarding the number of lords. If at any time another player is at 5+ lords saving or waiting for a specific lord will not benefit you. Don’t ever hold back purchases unless you are confident you will have time to catch up in total lords.
- Get a location early and let it guide your later purchases. Often I see players lose by buying a little of this and that without ever letting a true strategy form. Getting a location early, ideally with an ambassador lord, helps this problem if only psychologically.
- Overpay for lords or use your pearls in purchase. If possible purchase that all jellyfish lord costing 8 with an ally valued at 5 and 3 pearls. This may seem like a negligible amount of points, but in an experienced game you will often see all attached allies at a minimum of 3.
- Take monster tokens! While this isn’t a hard and fast tip it is something you should consider. When encountering a monster if you take a monster token you immediately score 2-4 points and reduce the risk of feeding a high value ally to an opponent. As the game moves on monsters and tokens will become more and more viable as a decision as pearl value decreases.
- Remember pearls are nothing at the end of the game. In other games you score points based on the money or cards in your hand, but Abyss is not that kind of game. Never be afraid to spend your pearls especially when returning them to the bank.
Abyss Component Review
So, let’s start by getting this out of the way. The artwork in this game is beautiful; it has won awards and is commonly the main reason new players hear of this game. Xavier Collette outdid himself on this game especially on the lord cards which have a really creative and unique flair while also being immediately identifiable by color and theme. The only complaints I have about the artwork is the box art. The box art for this game I bet has hurt the sales of the game. This game has 5 different box art covers 3 of which I would say look drastically different, and the face of the box does not have the name of the game printed on it at all. My friends found some of the faces creepy or violent instead of beautiful. I prefer the Jellyfish and Seahorse but those are rare in my area.
The graphic design of the identifying symbols and areas on the board for the council could have looked better. The banners are small and indistinct even with their colors. This isn’t a real problem as the symbols are printed below, but it would have been better if the symbols were also colored and vibrant for ease.
The second stand out portion of the game’s components are the pearls. The currency in the game isn’t just represented by a token with a number on it or anything so common, this game includes “real” pearls to trade and play with as the game progresses. The pearls are also stored in a sturdy plastic container that mimics the shape of a clamshell. My particular copy of the game has dark black banks which prevent you from easily identifying how many pearls another player has; however, other versions do have clear plastic banks. I prefer the black.
Overall the remaining components are of a high quality. Locations are printed on a very heavy cardboard and additional monster/threat tracking tokens are included. The card quality is nothing special and I recommend at least the thinner Mayday sleeves so the sleeved cards still fit in the initial box insert. The board is standard game fair in production value.
Abyss Theme Review
I’ll start by saying theme doesn’t often make or break a game for me; it can push a game from good to great or decent to poor. This game’s theme is set under the sea and the artwork, board, and components really capture that, but do I really think about being “under the sea” or look for mermaids as I play? The answer here is a resounding no. The theme of this game could just as easily be an intergalactic council, a medieval court, or a western posse and the game would feel and work the same. But am I unhappy the publisher went with the underwater theme? The answer is also no. The setting and location to this theme is much more unique than your general game. I can barely count the times I’ve been a feudal lord or space captain, but I remember every time I’ve been a starfish or jellyfish lord.