Wednesday, October 08, 2014

The Best Games I Brought Back From GenCon: Abyss

Last week, I talked about Cyclades: Titans. This week, I'm going to talk about Abyss.  And then, next week, I'm going to discuss Hyperborea.

As you may recall, I've always been a big defender of so-called "Gateway Games" - that is, games that can be easily used to hook new players into hobby gaming. Either because they look non-threatening, because the rules are fairly simple, or, ideally, both.  At the same time, a good gateway game has enough meat to keep the rest of us entertained and engaged.

I think Abyss has potential to be the next great gateway.

Unlike the last few posts, I don't have gorgeous photos of Abyss to share. Not because they don't exist - they very much do - but because I've been focusing on using my Lytro more, and card games don't tend to photograph well via that particular device.

This game, by the way, is very well illustrated.  It's beautiful. One could even say it's "lavishly illustrated." So it's worth photographing.

Abyss is surprisingly simple. On your turn, you'll take one of three different actions.  You can go fishing for an ally, you can grab a bunch of face-down allies from the board, or you can spend your allies to hire a lord.

The rulebook, of course, has different terms for all three actions.

The first available action involves flipping small cards face-up one at a time until you see one you want.  But there are two small wrinkles: Your opponents always have the first shot at luring an ally away from you by spending pearls. The good news is that pearls spent in this manner go to you. The bad news is that it can be frustrating to turn up that Rank 5 Starfish card only to have one of your opponents snatch it away from you.

The allies are broken into five different factions, and are valued from one to five.  There's only one five-ranked ally per faction. So the active player will almost never get the first five to turn up. After that, it depends on opponents' finances - the first opponent to snag an ally on your turn pays one pearl. The second pays two, and the third pays three. Since you only start with one pearl, you're more likely to be able to keep that powerful ally early in the game than you are later in the game.

Also in this same deck are a bunch of "monster" cards.  When you pull a monster, you can either fight it and claim your reward (victory over monsters is automatic), or you can let the threat grow a bit so that the next time a monster is turned up, it's worth a larger reward. The low-level rewards are pearls and victory points.  As the menace grows, however, you can also get keys to unlock locations (more on these later).

And, lastly, there are a limited number of slots for these cards across the top.  Whenever you fill the last slot, you must either claim it (if it's an ally) or fight it (if it's a monster). As a consolation prize, you then get a bonus pearl from the supply.

Any allies you didn't claim are then sorted by faction, turned face-down, and placed with the rest of their faction.

This is how players can grab that second option I mentioned above - you choose a faction and grab all of the face-down allies from that faction.  In theory, you can get a ton of cards like this.  In practice ... well, you can get a ton of cards, but they aren't especially powerful.

The final action you can take is hiring the Lords. But you can't just spend any ally to hire a Lord. Each Lord can only be hired by a specific faction (or factions in some cases). You can also spend pearls to make up the difference if you're a bit short. When you recruit a Lord, choose the lowest-valued ally that you are spending for the recruitment and place them face-up on the board.  Discard the other allies you are spending.

Lords are how you'll score the bulk of your victory points in this game. Most of them have additional special abilities, to boot.  And some of them have keys pre-printed on them.

Once you have three keys (it's possible but rare to have more), you get to add a location to your play area.  Locations are essentially bonus points that help focus your Lord and Ally purchases. One location might give you bonus points based on the number of Starfish Allies you have recruited to your cause. Another might give you bonuses based on one of the factions of Lords.

Play continues until someone has recruited their seventh Lord. When that happens, everyone else gets one last turn. Then everyone can add the lowest-valued ally of each faction from their hand to their play area.

And then you count your score. Lords + Locations + the highest-value Ally from each faction + monster tokens.  Highest total wins.

It's really that simple. One of the least complicated games I've played in a very long time. But do not confuse "least complicated" with "worst" or even "least interesting."  Early in the game, fishing for allies is hugely important. But later in the game, you will find the decision-making process a bit less easy. Because what's more important - pulling enough allies to buy that Lord you want, or taking a crack at getting a more powerful Ally that you can use for that same Lord (but which will let you keep a more powerful Ally face-up)? Or maybe you need to grab a Lord right away to keep him out of your opponents' hands?

As I said: One of the best games I brought back from GenCon.  This one will hit the table regularly on Wednesdays almost without a doubt.

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