I have preferences for the types of board games I like to enjoy but I can enjoy any type of game as long as it’s good at what it sets out to do. Abyss is a very thematic and highly random game putting it into the category of games often derided as “Ameritrash”. However, it’s incredibly immersive and exciting to play. It might not be every group’s favorite game, but for people who are looking for that sort of experience Abyss delivers in spades.
The first thing people will notice is the gorgeous presentation of the game. All the art is phenomenally detailed and crafted with mesmerizing colors. The components are of high quality and the pearl currency is fun to handle and pass around. There will be few people who see Abyss laid out and aren’t intrigued enough by its beauty to want to give it a chance.
The core premise of Abyss is simple, you get allies from one of 5 types of creatures that you use to buy lords which give you abilities and can also get you locations high in victory points. The main way to start this chain of building up your little underwater empire begins with exploring the depths of the oceans and is the action you’ll spend about 80% of your time doing. You reveal cards from the top of the deck one at a time and offer them to your opponents to purchase for the game’s currency of pearls. If no one decides to purchase the ally you can chose to take it yourself for free ending the round, otherwise the process is repeated. Players can only purchase one ally per round and the cost goes up each time an ally is purchased. Occasionally a monster card might appear which gives you the opportunity to take resources determined by a very boring track if you’re using the base game, or fight a Leviathan if you’re using the Leviathan expansion.
The combat in the base game is incredibly bland, and for that reason I never see myself playing the game without the Leviathan expansion. In the base game, you consult the monster track and can either take the benefit currently listed or pass fighting the monster, which moves the track further down to benefits that are more lucrative. Since players will not want to give their opponents better loot, 90% of the time the first spot on the track will always be taken. It’s a very boring way of representing something that should be interesting.
In Leviathan though the monsters all get their own gorgeous art cards and must actually be fought manually. Players need to discard an ally card matching the types listed on the monster and roll a D6. If the ally’s power + the dice roll equals or exceeds the number the monster’s wound token is currently on you score a hit and gain benefit tokens. These can be either victory points or resources. You can repeat this process for the same monster until you slay it or run out of ally cards to discard. Some ally cards even give benefits like augmenting your rolls with pearls or rolling two dice and picking the highest results. It adds so much to the decision making of fighting monster that it significantly changes the gameplay. Certain ally cards are now more valuable, hand space needs to be considered for both lord purchasing and monster fighting. When exploring the depths players might be much more concerned about whether a monster card comes up and this has caused my groups to shout out with joy or dismay upon each flip of the card.
Once enough allies are collected players can buy lords from a list of available cards. They require a minimum value to reach and a precise number of different allies that must be used in the purchase. The process is straightforward but getting the right value across the number of ally types proves just tricky enough to be engaging. Some lords give an immediate benefit while some provide ongoing benefits along with a “Key”. Get 3 keys and the ongoing benefits stop but you get to acquire a location for a large number of victory points. One thing that disappointed me though was that locations are incredibly rare to acquire. The game ends if any player has 7 lords and about half of them contain keys, meaning most players will only have one location if any. Even with the uncommonness of location acquisitions, I did enjoy the pyramid like dynamic of getting allies, to purchase powerful lords and then possibly interesting locations.
There is some randomness mitigation built in. The ability to avoid monster fights and continue exploring guards against punishing players who really need resources, though the Leviathan expansion sometimes makes avoiding monster fights dangerous. Unused cards go into ally specific discard piles and players can chose take an entire discard pile instead of exploring. Even with that though the game will be VERY swingy. Monster fights might happen at the worst time for a player while another player who’s full of great allies to fight the current array of monsters might never get the opportunity. Refilling the lord deck might see a player get the perfect lords they need right before their turn, and players could continuously be first in line to buy the best allies when they are flipped. This isn’t necessarily a negative, but just a fact. Some board games are just more random, we don’t live in a world of only Euro games. People who hate randomness in their game will dislike Abyss but those who are open for a wild ride of swings and roundabouts that can be finished in under an hour will have a lot of fun with this game.
That is somewhat of an anti climactic way to sum up Abyss. If you’re a heavy Euro enthusiast that dislikes anything outside of that wheelhouse, this game isn’t for you. There is no beating around that bush. However, for everyone else Abyss provide a gorgeous and immersive game full of ups and downs and exciting dice rolls and card flips. It’s a great way to spend an hour if you’re in the mood for something that doesn’t require too much brain burning but still offers a moderately interesting puzzle to unpack.
Gorgeous art and presentation
Clear and interesting puzzle of gradually building up larger pieces of your underwater empire
Doesn’t outstay its welcome
LOTS of randomness that can cause huge swings in fortune
Combat without the Leviathan expansion is very bland