Five Flavors of Merpeople - An Abyss Review
Designed by Bruno Cathala & Charles Chevallier
Artwork by Xavier Collette
Published by Bombyx
2-4 players ~ 60 minutes
Review written by Jack Eddy
I was recently talking with friend and reddit user u/meeshpod about Abyss. It really got me thinking about the core tenants of a designer; little mechanical flourishes that one can often see like signatures imprinted upon a game.
When it comes to Bruno Cathala, one of his greatest strengths is that he is so willing (and often seeks) to work collaboratively with other designers which keeps his output fresh, and Abyss attributes its success as much to co-designer Chevallier as anything else. That being said, it’s those bits of Cathalian familiarity and occasional subversion that make his games so interesting to me.
We’re no strangers to talking about Cathala and his collabo projects around here, so get your gilly suit on; it’s time to dive into the Abyss.
“Under the sea you fall up. I know, I know” - Patchface
Abyss is a game of political intrigue in a sunken kingdom of merpeople. You’ll attract supporters, court leaders, and hopefully hold the most political clout by the end of the game. The basic structure is simple; on your turn you can perform one of three actions:
Initiate an auction that will give you a supporter (your main currency for buying leaders)
Freely pickup a pile of supporters who were unclaimed during previous auctions
Buy one lord.
Right off the bat, the framework of the game is classic Cathala; there are a handful of basic and understandable choices of what you can do, and each of them propel you in some way to victory. The meat of the game is the internal decision process between what you gain, what you miss out on, and what you present your opponents with while taking any turn.
By far, the most risk, player interaction, and the overall heart of Abyss comes from the auction system. When you “plunge the depths” in search of followers, you reveal the top card of the deck. These cards, aside from their amazing artwork, have one of five colors (corresponding to different flavors of merpeople) and a value. This value is both for purchasing lords and a possible source of points in the game.
Once you kick off the auction, each opponent is given the opportunity to buy the newly revealed card by giving you one pearl (which is the game’s secondary currency, largely used for trade purposes). If no one takes it, you can add the card to your hand at no cost, which will also end the auction. But if you choose not to take it or someone else purchased your card, you flip the next card and, again, everyone who has not purchased a card can buy this from you, though the purchase price goes up with each player who’s already snatched a card from your grasps.
This goes on until you choose to keep the most recent revealed card, or the auction slots have filled up, forcing you to take the final card and a consolation pearl. Then, the magic of Abyss begins, as all other cards get divided up into their respective colors (think suits) and put into their respective council piles. On a future turn, an opponent can freely bypass the whole auction-thing and just pick up one of these piles. With each sequential auction, the piles of formerly unworthy 1 and 2 strength followers become more and more tempting to grab, so you have to be thinking not just about what you want, but what you might by freely presenting to everyone else.
The rest of Abyss is about resource management, namely the effective use of your single action turns; choosing when to give up a good deal like a pile of council members for grabbing something that you need, like purchasing lords.
These lords are not only what creates the timer in the game, with 7 leaders triggering the “final round”, but they are also the key to the majority of your points. Every leader falls into one of the merpeople types, which is one of the aspects of the theme that feels most intriguing; each “species” of merpeople also belongs to a societal caste, like the crab people who are exclusively warriors, the mollusk merchants, etc...
In addition to having a cost and point value, most leaders have one-time or ongoing effects, and some of them have keys. The most opaque element of the game happens when purchasing these lords; not only must you pay for them using followers of the matching caste (color), but in some cases you must use followers of their faction plus one or two other colors. If the total of your followers falls short of the leader’s cost, the difference can be made up in pearls. Furthermore, the lowest value follower you use gets “affiliated” with the leader, like their own personal psychophant, and the highest value affiliated follower of each of the five colors adds to your points at the end of the game. Got it?
There are a couple other systems in Abyss; a moree based, push-your-luck infrastructure that feels relatively inconsequential due to the “trigger” only occasionally happening during an auction (though it occasionally presents some meaningful choices), and a system for securing locations. Locations are like point amplifiers, but unlike the lords, their sole purpose is to get you points.
Remember those keys I mentioned? When you get three of them, they unlock one of these locations, which then must cover up the abilities on the lords who gave you those keys, forever locking away their sweet, sweet, mechanical benefit. Just pretend you’re sending your politician out on a diplomatic mission; they still contribute to your strength of influence, but their skills are no longer readily at your disposal. What this means is that you’re again faced with an interesting decision; do you buy the lord you can afford who has a key, locking away your other benefits, or do you wait to buy one without a key, sacrificing the points on the location?
Again, this game showcases some of the design philosophies that has made Cathala such a rockstar in the industry, bridging the gap between casual and core players alike. Every turn presents only a handful of easily understood options that will in some way affect the state of the board for each other player, but at the same time you constantly feel propelled forward; every turn gives you more tools to play with. Furthermore, by limiting your turn to one action, opportunity cost becomes every bit as important as resource cost. Rarely is there a turn in Abyss where you aren’t desperately wishing you could take two actions back to back.
But on the other hand, it’s the ebb and flow of your very capabilities that feels completely new and fresh, which is the magic of a collaborative design. I’m not saying that each designer’s contribution to the game is easily distinguishable, and in fact, I’m betting that the authors work was much more organic, but it’s like listening to Clapton. Whether it’s guesting on the White Album, listening to Derek and the Dominoes, or maybe picking up a John Mayall the Bluesbreakers Album, there are little identifiers and signature that showcase the artist’s contribution, let alone their taste for collaborators, woven into the whole.
“I’ve got whosits and whatsits galore” - Ariel
Abyss is by far one of the best produced games in my collection, and the publishers Bombyx made a big deal of that when it came out. This is best seen through the box-art, which, like a 90’s X-Men comic book, comes in several different variants, one for each of the different factions in the game. Already, the publishers are establishing that even the retail edition of this game has a degree of collectability, that it’s artwork is so good that it should come in five different versions; encouraging players to hunt down their favorite, and it at minimum worked on me (I picked the one with the mysterious squishy mages)! This is further emphasized by the fact that the face of the box has no text, just the beautiful yet alien portrait gazing back at you from the… well... the Abyss.
And this production carries through the rest of the game. The cards are large, vibrant, and high quality. The locations are on super chunky cardboard that feel like they are less locking away the powers of your leaders and more casting them to the depths of the ocean for eternity. The pearls though… the publisher had the audacity to include a spherical currency. These pearls are no doubt a frustration for many people, due to their penchant for hitting a table and scattering like marbles, but the little cups supplied by the game do just fine. It’s worth mentioning that there are few things sweeter than the sound of another player dropping a pearl into your cup at the auction, rattling around as it settles into the depths of your purse.
For all of the rich theme, gorgeous illustration, and high quality components, there is little resonance between the setting and mechanics of the game. The only real connective tissue is that each caste of lord has a general type of ability, such as squidly politicians manipulating the lords in play, the clammy merchants getting you pearls, and the aquatic equestrian farmers just getting you PHAT POINTS. This is a prime example of a “pasted on” theme, which caused a bit of a stir when the game first came out.
Somewhere in the minds of gamers, they thought Abyss was going to be more. Something more than a handful of actions that you can take on your turn. Most of the time, big production values are reserved for robust games with numerous interweaving systems, and all kinds of mechanics designed to connect the theme to the game. The amazing production set up expectations that were impossible to be met, all for daring to put such a premium look on a relatively lightweight game; but I love it.
For me, the production in Abyss is so strong that even with a very abstract connection to the theme, it feels extremely immersive. Something about the game’s visuals and physical presence is so enchanting that you suspend disbelief and begin to postulate reasons why things are the way they are, even if the design seldom helps your reasoning. And for that, I’d say that the presentation of Abyss is an absolute accomplishment.
“We would be warm below the storm, In our little hideaway beneath the waves” - Ringo
Abyss is no doubt a game that’s going to stick in my collection for a long time. It’s fast, intelligent, and beautiful. Furthermore, I think this is a shining example of the designer’s best traits, utilizing competing player desires and opportunity costs as the main fulcrum in which all decisions in the game rest on while presenting some advanced strategy and trickery that is not typically seen in Cathala’s solo designs.
That said, not everything is pure elegance. The push your luck seems under utilized, and the way that affiliated followers attach and then score feels counter intuitive every time that you play; but the areas in which the game succeeds far outweigh any shortcomings, and have helped it remain one of the most interesting, and thought provoking, specimens in the sea.