An excellent game that stays deep beneath the current popularity scale.
When many gamers of a certain age (i.e. mine) hear or read the word "Abyss" in the context of a game, the first image that comes to mind is the map of planes of existence from the old AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide. Down in the lower right corner was The Abyss, 666 planes chock full of demons. It was the only stack of blocks on the perimeter of the rectangular Astral plane that wound itself into a spiral, since there were so many of them. This is where the concept of planes of existence having some "borders" that people could even understand kind of lost its way. If it was too much to even comprehend the size of the nine Hells, why would we need 666 planes of Abyss, other than to cash in on verses from Christian mythology and the fact that a lot of people at the time thought playing D&D was the equivalent of devil worship, anyway? ("Moooommmm! Devils don't live in the Abyss! Demons do! They're chaotic evil, not lawful! Jeez!") /tangent
A lot more people will think about James Cameron's late 80s film which, while not groundbreaking in terms of cinema or adventure stories, was at least the most prominent example of a deep sea setting since that HG Wells stuff from way back in the day (something about a giant squid.) That setting, of course, is also the essential element of Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier's game from several years ago known, unsurprisingly, as Abyss. While it didn't make a tremendous (ahem) splash then, it has remained lurking around the, uh, lower reaches (Fair warning: I'm probably going to keep doing this through this entire review) of the BGG top 500 since its release and has never seen a critical appraisal here at TWBG. The game is old enough that it's almost thematically perfect for one of my "From the Depths" pieces... except that it's not something that's sat on my shelf, untouched, for a long period because we actually play it fairly often. Despite presenting a relatively unusual and experience-demanding combination of mechanics, the game seems simple enough that most people are willing to try. It's kind of like being willing to jump in the water before you discover just how deep it really is...
At the most basic (deepest?) level, Abyss is a set collection game. You're either drafting (Explore the Depths) Ally cards or taking multiples of them from the Council (Request Support from the Council) or using sets of them to recruit Lords (Recruit a Lord. Duh.), which often give you abilities and points, but sometimes just points and, in turn, using said Lords to take Locations, which also give you piles of points. There's a push-your-luck element inherent to all of it. The most obvious is in the drafting action, where you have to question how far you're willing to go in looking for a better Ally card before you're forced to take one you might not want or need or, for that matter, before revealing one to an opponent that they might really need and can lift off you for the price of one pearl. But that push-your-luck element is also present in the timing of actions, in terms of how much you're willing to sacrifice immediately to gain that Lord that you really want before someone else takes it, but which might leave you with not much to do for a couple turns while you rebuild your hand of Allies.
The game is rife with opportunity cost. One of the most interesting mechanics is rooted in the Keys that the Lords provide. You can have a couple of great special powers that Lords are providing you, but have to remain aware that Locations can often give you the largest share of points at the end of the game. Recruiting a third Lord showing a Key means that you have to take a Location, which is usually a positive thing, points-wise, but it also means that any special abilities that you've been using are now gone, subsumed in the deep. How long is too long to hold out and keep using your Commander to limit your opponents' hand size, when you're eyeing that Barracks that will give you points for every Soldier Lord you have? Similarly, drawing more Allies when Exploring opens up opportunity for your opponents to steal a good card from you in the process by paying you a pearl for it. That's a boon, since pearls are a universal currency that can be used to fill in the gaps in the price of Lords, but it also could've been a card you really wanted that they can now use to their benefit. Drawing new Locations from the deck means you have more of a choice, but it also means your opponents also have more of a choice in how to complete their own sets. How deep are you willing to go?
Washing over all of that is some really excellent visual design. All of the symbology is very clear and understandable and the artwork is attractive and worth more than one look. Furthermore, there's a color code attached to both Allies and Lords; the former by race (Seahorses are yellow, Squids are blue, etc.) and the latter by guild (Merchants are green, Soldiers are red, etc.), so it's easy to remember which sets will work with the greater sets that they're purchasing. It also provides an easy reminder of how the Council, made up of Allies not taken in Exploration, can be a solid option if there are multiple purple Allies (Jellyfish) and, likewise, a number of Mage Lords waiting to be recruited. The level of complication is presented by the choices to be made and not by the rules themselves, which is why I think the game is so approachable by both gamerz and the norms. Even more importantly, it's a set collection game that actively encourages interaction between players. This isn't just a tableau-builder where you spend the whole evening staring at the six inches directly in front of you. You have to pay attention to what others are doing before they spoil your plans and the drafting action, of course, is one of the crucial moments in that whole approach.
As noted, pearls are the universal currency for picking up new Lords, since they can fill the gaps of the types of Allies needed in order to make the recruitment. Of the three ways to acquire them, you most often gain pearls when Exploring, as opponents hand them over to gain cards they want or you end up taking the last card of that round. But you can also gain them when there aren't enough Lords to choose from and you refill the board. The final way is in fighting a Monster, which is perhaps the one weak part of the base game, as the concept of battling a horrendous creature from the depths is pro forma. If you decide to fight, you win. Yay? It's often not a bad choice as the smallest possible reward on the Threat track is a pearl or a Monster token, all of which are worth between 2 and 4 VPs. Those rewards advance to Key tokens and multiples of pearls and Monster tokens, so there is benefit to it. But it also means that your hand remains static and the whole event is kind of mundane for the circumstances surrounding it (Fightin' monsters, man!) It does stay in line with the question of opportunity cost presented by the whole game, so it's not an aberrant mechanic. It's just kind of ironically mundane.
And this is where the expansions come in! Seriously, how good would a game about the bottom of the ocean be without discovering even MORE stuff in the depths? The one that directly concerns the Monsters is Leviathan. With that add-on, you remove the mundane Threat track that shows the Monster rewards and instead put out the Leviathan zones. One massive creature starts there and another gets added every time a Monster card turns up when Exploring and you decide not to fight. But the risk of doing so increases for you because, if the new (actual) monster ends up in a zone that's already occupied, you get attacked. The penalty can range from losing points at the end of the game to losing pearls or Allies or even a Lord right now. OTOH, you can choose to fight, in which case you discard the appropriate Allies (which always include the soulja boy Crabs) and roll the dice. You gain Monster tokens for every wound you inflict, which can be the base game tokens for VPs, or the Leviathan tokens for pearls/Keys/Council stacks or a mix of both. Plus, if you kill the monstrosity, you get the cool and otherwise useless miniature (the Scourge of the Abyss(!); a serpentine-tailed warrior, complete with badass polearm) that's also worth points if you're the toughest, monster-killingest dude on the seafloor when the game ends. Leviathan also lets you add a fifth player, which is a workable proposition, with or without the new stuff.
Is it more chrome? Yes. But does it enliven a section of the game that's a step below the rest? Absolutely. There are new Lords that come with Leviathan, as well, all of which interact directly with the new game condition. All 5 guilds are represented, including the Farmers, who are normally powerless but worth far more points than the other guilds, but have abilities here. Meanwhile, the other expansion, Kraken, may be guilty of adding more chrome just for the sake of doing so. Kraken introduces a new race of allies, the namesake Kraken, who can be used as any kind of Ally to recruit a Lord. They're the (literal) wild cards of the undersea Council. The problem is, their flexible loyalty brings with it some risk: the Nebulis or black pearls. Nebulis tend to stick to you like a... curse... of a... black pearl. At the end of the game, they each cost you 1 VP and whoever has the most loses another 5 VP. During the game, that player receives the stigma of another otherwise-useless miniature (Yay!), a stylized Kraken figurine, which does nothing other than identify who's carrying the most dark cash. You can get rid of your Nebulis by spending all of your pearls first or using a Nebulis if you have no pearls. That latter method means that, yes, you can hand the dirty, dirty money (Finster!) off to your opponents during an Explore to swipe a card. It's a two-fer!
Kraken also introduces a new guild of Lords, the Smugglers, whose abilities are largely focused around Nebulis (letting you use more of them, use them even with pearls, etc.) except for three, the Sentinels, who allow you to place their respective tokens on Lords or Locations that reserve them for you. No one else can take them as long as that token is present, allowing you to do a bit more planning and take a bit more risk without fear that something you really desire will be swiped by an opponent. The expansion also includes a half-dozen new Locations, four of which add the chromiest of new features, the Loot deck. The latter is connected to four of the new Locations and it allows you to draw from said deck, each of which gives you 3-7 VPs, plus other rewards like Key tokens and Ally cards. You can draw just one card and be done or you can keep drawing, as long as you draw different cards. If you ever draw one that matches one you already have, you have to discard both of them and keep only the others that you've drawn, if any. So, the push-your-luck aspect of the game is reinforced with this addition, but it's something of a deviation from the core systems, since you're basing your Location selection on a random draw, rather than on an overall strategy developed from the Lords you've acquired.
I am, of course, a fan of both expansions, as I'm a fan of chrome, but also because I think they, like the least favorable Loot deck, remain within the essential design of the base set and provide other options to enhance what is already a very solid (albeit liquid) game. Plus, useless and cool-looking minis! Who doesn't want those?
Abyss is a game that I was completely oblivious to upon its release. Strangely, despite its obvious critical popularity on BGG, so are a lot of other people. When I introduced it to one of our local groups, my friend, Will, a former publisher in the industry, didn't recognize it, but kept looking at it and thinking it tickled something in the back of his brain. Finally, he sent a picture to his son, who does English translation for European games like this one and his son confirmed that he had, in fact, done the translation for it. Will's immediate response: "Why didn't you tell me about this cool game?!" Very easy to learn but with (ahem) significant depth and equally significant interaction between players, I think I'm going to be delving the deep end for many years to come.