It Also Gazes Into You
Look into his eyes, and tell me what you see. For me, he looks like the trailer-folk of the sea, majestic and graceful, but probably smokes too much for his own good — which, granted, fire probably doesn’t work down there, so maybe he just snacks on too many mollusks or something. He tried the gum a while back, but it didn’t kick the cravings like it advertized. His pod-mother always said—
Wait, what were we talking about? Oh, right: Abyss. Yeah, let’s talk about that.
The first thing you’ll notice about Abyss is the art, of course. You’re meant to notice it. If that weren’t the case, they wouldn’t have made the game with five different collectible (if you’re bonkers) covers.
And it’s totally fair to notice the art, because it’s gorgeous. Lots of glowing colors spilling into each other and doing a fantastic job of evoking life at the bottom of the sea, provided that life at the bottom of the sea is about a bunch of sea-lords conniving for control of their watery realm, and really, I don’t think Big Science has much to say on the issue one way or the other, so let’s roll with it. You open the box, unfold the board, pluck at the wrappers that surround the cards until they comes loose, and then there they are. Aquatic sea-lords that say, “We’re gonna get some intrigue done in here.” Monsters that hiss, “Sssslaaay ussss.” Octopoda that… burble? “Splish splosh.” Something like that.
And the game’s currency, these little pearls that you’ll briefly consider stringing onto a necklace for your significant other (that’s how convincing they are, if you’re like me and don’t know what pearls feel like), how nicely they clink in their clam-shell cups, and how pleasantly they roll across the board. Mmmm.
Then you realize it’s just a set collection game.
Well, not just a set collection game. It’s true that set collection is your goal, to put together matching groups of locations, sea-lords, and jellyfishes, and it’s also true that some people have expressed disappointment that all this buildup, all the collectible box covers and gorgeous art teasers, amounted to a set collection game.
Let’s leave that aside for a minute, because the way you go about collecting those sets is pretty clever. See, nearly every single action in the game is about pushing your luck, and often inadvertently benefiting your opponents when you do.
For instance, let’s say you want to explore the depths, because that’s usually the best way to get the right sort of card you need to purchase that sea-lord you’re after. So you flip over exploration cards, one after the other, and after each one is revealed, your opponents go around the table and have the option to buy it, paying you pearls in exchange. This means you’re often providing your opponents with the cards they need when all you wanted was to find a nice seahorse, but since they can only buy one card each round, and since each other player who buys a card increases the cost of the next one, they’re constantly fretting over whether they should buy a size-three crab right now or wait for something else to come around. Everyone is pushing their luck at the same time, even when it isn’t their turn.
What’s more, you might run into monsters there in the depths, letting you choose to fight them for an immediate bonus or hold off for a better one. Thing is, fighting a monster resets the bonus back down to the baseline, but if you don’t fight it and another monster doesn’t appear, the monster track will stay where you left it, providing better monster-slaying options in future turns.
One more example. Let’s say you want to hire another sea-lord. These guys give you bonuses, victory points (because pretty much everything gives you victory points), and usually keys, which you use to buy locations. Locations also give you points and bonuses, like making all your yellow-themed sea-lords worth more points. However, at the start of the game, there’s only one of these locations face-up. When you buy a location, you can either take it or dig a few off the top of the deck and choose one — which is great because you have more options, but the ones you don’t keep are placed face-up for everyone else to choose from, so you’ve increased your opponents’ agency as well.
It’s clever stuff, and it succeeds at getting everyone engaged all the time.
Abyss has a few other things going for it, like the fact that each game is different because of the random appearance of sea-lords and locations, which means that a set that was valuable last game might not make for a winning combination this time around. It’s also so incredibly simple, from its clear and compact set of possible actions to the way each of those actions impacts the others, that pretty much anyone can pick it up and play competently within a few rounds. It definitely isn’t a filler game either, with just enough going on that you can spend an hour with it and have a tense competition, buying cards out from under each other, blocking sea-lordly acquisitions, and combining your assets with the best possible locations.
Then again… you really are just playing a set collection game. It may be clever, but it’s the sort of clever that’s going to appeal to a very particular sort of board game player. Probably someone who enjoys math. Anyone who reads Space-Biff! can tell you that I’m a theme-and-potatoes kind of guy, so it isn’t really up my alley, but even so, I can appreciate it for what it is: a simple, tight experience that a lot of people are going to like quite a bit for its marriage of above-average components and engaging play.