I explain to any new players unfamiliar with Abyss that it is a game in which you try to make fishy friends, and the person with the best friends at the end wins. Though that description hardly matches the dark yet stunning aesthetic tone of the game, it describes play and game objectives succinctly enough that the term “fishy friends” has stuck.
In actuality, Abyss is an abstract game of political intrigue in which each player seeks to gain control of a selectorate through which they are able to place nobles from various castes into the gears of bureaucracy in an effort to exert control over the government. You must carefully recruit important persons from all walks of society to ensure that you will be Lord of the Deep!
Gameplay, while easy to learn, is varied and nuanced to where I can say there’s really no other game I’ve played remotely like it. You have two different but linked economies within the game, in the form of pearls and allies. Pearls can aid in the acquisition of allies, and allies are required for the acquisition of nobles.
Players can take one of three actions during their turn.
Exploration – Both pearls and allies can be gained through exploration; numbered allied cards are flipped from the exploration deck, and going around the table each player has an opportunity to buy the flipped card from the explorer for 1 pearl + 1 additional pearl for each card previously bought. Sometimes monster cards appear instead; if a monster shows up, the exploring player can fight it for the reward (a combination of monster tokens (bonus points), pearls, and/or keys – more on those later), or keep going.
Petition the Council – Unbought allies go to the “council” where they’re sorted by suit and left face-down. Rather than explore, a player can take any single suited stack.
Recruit Nobility – Noble cards from the noble deck are placed at the bottom of the board and are available for purchase. These are bought with the allies cards acquired from exploration or petitioning the council. These cards all have a point value, but some have additional abilities and may have keys (getting to those soon, I promise!)
The game features five distinct castes: Crabs (Red/Military Class), Squids (Blue/Political Class), Clams (Green/Mercantile Class), Jellyfish (Purple/Mystic Class) and Seahorses (Yellow/Pastoral Class). Each suit has some sort of one-time or continuous ability that reflects their class. Crabs tend to have the lowest point value, but often have some ability that is detrimental to opponents. Squids and Jellyfish have average point values but have potent abilities that usually allow one to muck with cards on the board in some way or another. My favorite factions are the Clams and Seahorses. Though they have minor (some Clams get you pearls) or no abilities, they are usually cheaper and have higher point values than the other suits. Finally, there are a handful of 5-suited nobles, whose primary value is administering a domain on their own without locking down your other nobles.
Keys! Whenever you have any combination of three key tokens or nobles with keys on them, you get a “domain”. In the abstract game of politics, this means that your nobles have been sent to the provinces to oversee a new administrative district; though they’re increasing the power and influence of your faction, they’re no longer interfering with business at court. In gameplay terms, you draw a domain tile that will grant you a certain bonus to your victory points at the cost of losing the continuous abilities of all nobles who had key icons not already assigned to a domain.
Abyss has rapidly become a favorite in my gaming group. Like many newer games, player conflict is mostly indirect. Unlike some of the newer games I’ve played, however, there does seem to be some solid strategies one can use to do consistently well. Sometimes these strategies can be mucked up by other players, or a bad flop on the nobles at the start can force one to rethink, but I may have this one figured out!
Don’t put your eggs in one basket, unless that basket is Seahorses. The games I’ve done best in were the times I was able to corner the Seahorses with some Clams to supplement my pearl economy. Sometimes it’s good to get some guys or gals from the other classes, particularly if they have an ability that you really want or really don’t want another player to have (the nobles that can zap stacks from the council, that allow taking an extra stack from the council, and that prevent anyone from having more than six allies in hand spring to mind), but unless you have a domain that will give you points for those specific nobles and allies, the difference in points between the blue-collar civilian castes and political or military castes may be insurmountable if the player going for farmers and merchants really is getting what he needs.
Anyway, this is one I strongly suggest you check out. There’s an expansion – Kraken – that was released just recently. I don’t personally own the game, but if it’s not too expensive, I might see if anyone in our group would be interested in throwing in a couple bucks each to pick it up. Not that we’ve even come close to exhausting or growing bored with this one yet.