Aside from the bizarre underwater theme of Abyss (a kind of Sharky and George by way of Dark Souls), you can’t help but notice the game’s currency: Pearls. These little spherical, silvery beads roll around oh-so-satisfyingly in little black plastic trays that each player uses to store his stash. Given the importance of this currency in the game, it’s only right that the look and feel of it should make the player want to covet it, hoard it and reluctantly hand it over when necessary. Of course the physicality of the pearls also perfectly evokes the underwater realm in which you compete over the tribal factions of starfish, crabs, and jelly fish, making them a great board game component.
Yes, you heard me right. Banish all thoughts of James Cameron’s enigmatic sci-fi classic from your mind, in this Abyss you’re a kind of deep sea power broker, playing the power politics of a fishy kingdom and its parliament of crustaceans. Creating sets of cards depicting the various factions and using them to lure powerful lords to your cause. There are a handful of things you can do during your turn, but the core mechanic around which the game revolves is ‘plumbing the depths’; a simple, yet ingenious push your luck mechanism that sees you drawing faction cards numbering one through five from a deck. The twist here is that you never get first choice over the cards you draw. It’s a kind of skewed auction in which the player immediately to your left has first dibs to buy a card you draw for one pearl. The price increases by one for each subsequent card bought. After everyone has had the option to buy, you can gain the card for free or carry on drawing, hoping for something better, but the last card you draw you must take, and the remainder are sent to their respective places in the council of fish people. You really want people to buy cards off you (as it gives you pearls, essential for so many things) but, no, just not that specific crab card you just drew, god dammit!
Another thing you can do on your turn is draw the entire pile of cards from a single council chamber. The benefit of this is that you might get a whole fistful of jellyfish (there’s a lesser known parody of the Clint Eastwood classic for you), but the downside is you won’t get any pearls and they’ll all be crappy low numbers that no one wanted to take in the first place. The clever thing about the game is there are benefits and drawbacks to taking lots of low value cards versus a single high value card, and, like all good auction games, the values of certain suites will change for the various players over the course of the game. One man’s crab is another man’s pearl, as the famous proverb goes – or it probably does here, anyway.
You’ll finally use these cards to purchase a roster of lords, hopefully before your opponents do, which give you points and special powers that are themed based on their faction; crabs, for instance, are a proud warrior race and generally mess with your opponents, whilst jelly fish are mystical sorcerers that will let you manipulate the deck in interesting ways. The ultimate aim is to acquire lords with key symbols on them, because when you get three of them you can gain control of a location, which basically gives you potent end game scoring bonuses, but doing so locks away your lord’s power.
As you’ve probably guessed this game is all about making lots of engaging small decisions, each with its own trade-offs and variables (but none of which should hurt your head too much). In spite of the game itself being incredibly simple and quick to play, the range of strategies on offer is surprisingly deep (sorry!). Abyss has a quirky theme, which is projected with great panache by the atmospheric artwork (just look at the statement that box makes!), clever but simple mechanics and loads of player interaction. It’s quite a catch!