Abyss board game review

SaltCon 2016 Abyss board game

Let’s dive into the Abyss!

It’s time to go underwater for our latest game review – we’re heading into the Abyss!

Abyss was published in 2014 by Bombyx and immediately got a lot a buzz in the board game realms. Some of the buzz was about the game play. But most of the buzz was about the evocative artwork.

After taking a closer look, I added it to my ‘want to play’ list and anxiously awaited a chance to play it.

That chance first came for me at SaltCon 2016 – and I loved it!

Near the end of last year I wrote about my Top 11 Game Experiences of 2016 and that first play of Abyss made the list.

Now that we’ve had this fun family board game on our shelf for over a year and a half, it’s about time we reviewed it!

So what’s Abyss all about?

In Abyss players are vying for control in an underwater city. They do this by collecting allies and using them to recruit Lords of the Abyss, who will then grant access to control different city locations. Players acquire ally cards through a draft of sorts to in turn gain Lords of the Abyss who grant special powers to the cardholder.

Abyss board game

Don’t worry, the water’s perfectly fine…


How to play Abyss

The objective in Abyss is to be crowned the King of the Abyss by gaining the most influence points. Influence points are gained by affiliating Allies, recruiting Lords, and controlling Locations.

During the game, players will collect colored Ally cards of different values which they’ll then use to buy valuable Lord cards (for points and special abilities). As Lord cards are gained, players will also be able to gain special Location boards which deliver even more points at the end of the game.

Abyss is a card-driven game with a game board of 3 sections – each corresponding to an action players can take on their turns. The top of the board is the Exploration track. The middle section is the Council area. The bottom section is the Court where the Lord cards are placed.

SaltCon 2016 Abyss board game

The board has an area for Exploration, Council Support, and Recruiting Lords.


Set up

For game set up, players shuffle and stack the small Ally cards into a deck to the left of the Exploration track. They also shuffle the Lord cards and stack them face down to the left of the Court row.

The Location boards are also mixed and stacked face down next to the board. Then one is placed face up. All the Monster tokens are mixed and placed face down near the board. And the Threat token is placed on the Threat track.

Each player gets one Pearl and they’re ready to begin.

Abyss board game

Pearls as currency is a sweet touch.


Game play

On a player’s turn, they first choose if they’d like to pay to bring new Lords to Court. If there are open Court spaces, the player can pay 1 Pearl to add a new Lord card. They can continue to do so as long as there are empty spaces and they can pay.

Then the player can take 1 of 3 possible actions (Explore, Support, Recruit).

Abyss board game

Exploring the depths brings out Allies.

1. Explore the Depths:

The active player reveals and places Ally cards one at a time to the Exploration track spaces. If the card is an Ally, the player must first offer it to the other players in turn order. If a player wants it, they must pay the active player 1 Pearl before taking it. Once the other players have had a chance to buy it and all passed, the active player can claim that Ally card for themselves. If the active player doesn’t want it, they reveal another card and go through the same process again.

If one player chooses to buy a card, the process repeats as well. However, for subsequent cards claimed by other players the cost is increased by 1.

If all the spaces on the Exploration track fill up and the other players don’t want the last card revealed, the active player must take it (plus they get 1 Pearl).

Abyss board game

While exploring, players can also encounter monsters.

If a card is revealed showing a Monster instead of an Ally, the active player can choose to fight it or keep exploring. If they choose to fight, the victory is automatic and the player gets the reward that’s indicated on the Threat track and return the Threat marker back to the beginning of the track. If they choose to keep exploring, they move the Threat token one space further on the Threat track and continue revealing cards.

At the end of the Exploration phase, any card still on the track is then moved into the Council area of the board in the corresponding colored space.

2. Council Support:

If a player chooses to go to the Council for Support for their one action, they take one stack of Ally cards in the Council area.

Abyss board game

Ally cards stack up in the Council area.

3. Recruit a Lord:

The third action option lets players trade in their Ally cards for a Lord card.

Each large Lord card shows its cost in the bottom left corner as well as the number of different race cards that must be used. The main, big bubble shows the required race type. Each additional bubble means a card of another race must also be used.

So if a card shows a big green colored bubble plus two small bubbles, then 3 total different races must be used – one of which must be green.

The total of all cards turned in must equal or exceed the value shown on the Lord card. Players can also spend their Pearls to make up the difference if they want to recruit a Lord but the cards they can turn in don’t total the whole value.

Abyss board game

Use Allies you’ve collected to Recruit Lords.

Players put all but one of the Ally cards they used to recruit into the Exploration card discard pile. The card they keep is the one with the lowest value. The Ally then becomes “affiliated” to that player’s cause. Affiliated allies are kept until the end of the game for scoring.

Once recruited, the Lord card is placed face up in front of the player. The number in the upper left corner indicates the Influence points of that Lord for end-game scoring.

Also after recruiting a Lord, all other Lord cards are slid to fill empty spaces on their right. If there are only 2 Lords left, the player also gets 2 Pearls and the rest of the Lord spaces are refilled from the deck.

Abyss board game

Players can use the powers of Lords they’ve recruited.

After the active player has taken their action, they check to see if they can control a Location. As soon as a player gathers 3 Keys, they get a Location.

Keys can be gained by fighting Monsters or by getting Lords that have Key icons on them.

When choosing a Location, the player can either take one of the already face up Location boards or draw up to 4 face down Location boards and choose one of them. If they take the second route, the ones they don’t choose are then placed face up for others players to choose from later.

Once controlled, the player puts the Location board in front of them. If The Keys on Lord cards were used to get a Location, those Lord cards slide under the Location board – covering up their Lord power from being used for the rest of the game.

Then play passes to the next player on to the left.

Abyss board game

Controlled Locations will cover the special Lord powers.


Game end

The game continues until either a player recruits their 7th Lord or any player recruits a Lord and the Court needs to be refilled but their aren’t enough cards to completely refill it.

The active player completes their turn and the other players all get one more turn.

Abyss board game

An easy to follow score pad helps total the Influence points.

Then players total their Influence points.

The handy score pad in the game helps players total up their points from the following elements:

  • Locations they control
  • Lords they have recruited
  • The strongest Ally from their affiliated races
  • The Monster tokens they hold

The player with the most Influence Points wins the game.


Can the whole family enjoy playing Abyss?

The recommended age on the Abyss game box is 14+. However, we’ve got another way of telling if kids are too young to play that can also be found by looking at the game box: If they’re scared or intimidated by the mere cover of the game, hold off on letting them play.

How’s that for a gauge?

As you can see though by the quick rundown of how the game plays, it really isn’t a complicated game and can easily be picked up by players younger than 14.

Most importantly, the game is a lot of fun and we totally recommend it for family play.

Abyss board game

Abyss game boxes have variable cover art.


What we love about Abyss

There’s not doubt the first noticeable element of Abyss is the amazing artwork. And it’s not limited to the cover art.

We love the artwork on every element of the game. From the game board and Location boards to both the small Ally cards and the large Lord cards, the artwork totally transports us to underwater depths.

Abyss board game

The Threat track grants bonuses when fighting Monsters.

The next thing we love that totally ties the theme to the game play is the Pearl currency in the game.

Each player has a seashell cup to hold their Pearls throughout the game. And while players can gain Pearls in a few different ways, a lot of the economy is driven by players paying each other.

Next, we really love the way Ally cards are claimed.

At first, we thought the way cards are revealed on the Exploration track and other players in turn have the chance to buy the revealed card before the active player can claim it sounded very tedious. But after playing, in actuality that process doesn’t take very long. In most cases, players quickly say ‘no’ or ‘pass’ on the chance and the next card is quickly revealed.

Not only that, but it’s a great way for limiting down-time in the game. A lot of exploring happens in the game so it’s a great way to keep all players attentive to the game even when its not their turn. Everyone has an interest in every card revealed because they may want it.

Most other players however won’t buy a card this way from the active player unless it’s a high value card (4 or 5). And even the active player is exploring to get those great cards. Which means a lot of 1’s and 2’s get passed over. Since any cards passed over are then placed in the Council area, those race cards can stack up – making the option to take one of the stacks of lower valued Ally cards from the Council very enticing.

Abyss board game

Choose your Locations wisely.

Then there are the awesome Lord cards themselves.

This is the area we’re all focused on throughout the game. Choosing which Lords to go after is the crux of the game. Not only are players continually assessing the potential Influence Point value of each Lord at the end of the game. They’re also considering the special powers the Lords provide.

And Lords of different races tend to deliver powers tailored to those races. Soliders offer little points but can help hold other players back. Farmers have no powers but are worth a lot of points. Politicians let players manipulate the other Lords. Mages work well with affiliated allies. Merchants grant Pearls in different ways. And Ambassadors offer benefits in controlling Locations.

But of course, that all comes at a cost. Players must use their Ally cards to recruit a Lord. Collecting the right sets and values of Ally cards is crucial, but players also have to weigh that with when to pounce. Because they know their opponents could be planning for the same Lord card they are.

It creates a fun tension to the game we really love.

But that’s not all.

SaltCon 2016 Abyss board game

A couple of the Lords of the Abyss that are helping me out.

There’s another great balance that players must weigh when both recruiting Lords and controlling Locations. And that comes into play when players make way for other Lords or Locations to be revealed for other players to claim.

Players can pay Pearls to bring new Lords to Court. But another way they come out is when there are only 2 Lord cards left in Court. Then the whole row refills without costing any players. So that third to last Lord may look great now, but it will mean a bunch of new Lords will be revealed for free to the next player.

Also, players may want to grab 4 face down Location boards when choosing 1 to gain. However, this also means that potentially 3 other beneficial locations will now be turned face-up for other players to snag.

And if that’s not enough, players also have to balance when the powers on their Lords may be covered up by taking a Location board.

Lastly, an element that often gets overlooked is the Threat track bonuses that can be gained when fighting Monsters on the Exploration track. As Monsters are passed over, the benefits increase. However, passing over fighting too many monsters just to get better benefits on the Threat track can backfire since it may be during an opponents turn that they get claimed.

We love all these different elements that need to be thoughtfully balanced along the way.

SaltCon 2016 Abyss board game

There’s plenty to balance in recruiting Lords and controlling Locations.

We should also mention that we like the game best with a full player count of 4. Playing with this many means there’s a bit more tension as there are more players vying for the same things. And it’s a fun tension to have.

That being said, it’s also great with 3 players. But not so much with just 2.

All in all, Abyss is a fantastic board game!


How does Abyss score on our “Let’s Play Again” game meter?

Abyss board gameIf you haven’t guessed already, Abyss scores very high on our “let’s play again” game meter for all the reasons we’ve just mentioned.

And if those aren’t enough reasons to convince you of its high score in our collection, we also got the Abyss: Kraken expansion a few months ago to add even more fun.

Watch for that review coming in a few days…

So if you’d love to have an awesome, underwater themed game for your family, Abyss is it!

Or if you’re just looking for a menacing looking game box on your game shelf, then Abyss is also a must-buy.


Comments: 3

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Love the game. Purchased it when it first came out and am still playing it. Never gets old! Thanks for hopefully bringing this great game to the attention of some newer folks! Loved your review.




Love the game. Purchased it when it first came out and am still playing it. Never gets old! Thanks for hopefully bringing this great game to the attention of some newer folks! Loved your review.




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