The makers of Abyss made a bold decision with their packaging design. The box front has no text, no icons and no company logo. It only has a monster face. And there are five different box covers, each with a different intimidating face. If you want to collect all, you need to buy five copies of the game. How's that for different? The main game mechanism is set collection. You collect ally cards in order to buy lord cards, and sometimes combinations of lord cards let you claim location cards. Lords and locations are worth victory points, and there are a few other smaller ways to score points. The game ends after one player recruits his 7th lord.
On your turn, you have only 3 options. First, you may auction off ally cards. To do this you draw ally cards from the draw deck one by one. See the top section of the game board. Every time you draw a new ally, everyone else gets a chance to buy it. The proceeds to go you. Each player only gets to buy one ally, and the cost increases each time an ally is bought. If nobody else wants to buy the ally, you get to decide whether you want to take it for free and end your turn. If you don't want this ally, draw the next one, and repeat the process. When the fifth ally comes up, i.e. there are already four others which nobody wants, you must take it and end your turn. Unwanted allies are all moved to the Council, which is the middle part of the game board. They are grouped according to colour, and they are flipped face-down.
The second option on your turn is to simply claim one group of ally cards from the Council area. Usually you want to do this only when the group has more than one card.
The third option is to spend ally cards to buy a lord from that line-up of lords at the bottom section of the board.
The bottom left corner tells you the cost of recruiting a lord. Let's take the leftmost lord as an example. Two circles mean you need ally cards of two different colours. The big circle is red, which means one of the colours must be red. The number 7 means the ally cards must add up to at least 7. The text on the lord card describes his special ability. Some are single-use upon recruitment, some last longer. The number in the top left corner is the victory point value. Some lords show one or more keys in the top right corner. Keys are used to capture location cards. For every third key you gain, you must immediately capture a location.
These are the allies. The values range from 1 to 5.
These are the location cards. Each location specifies how you can score additional points. When you qualify to claim a location, you may pick one of the face-up locations, or you may reveal some more before deciding. Revealing more is good for you because you get more choices, but it also means anyone else who comes after you will also get more choices.
When you auction off ally cards, sometimes you will draw a monster card instead of an ally. You may decide to fight the monster and end your turn. You claim a reward for killing the monster, according to this table above. The red marker is the monster level. Each time anyone declines to fight the monster, it levels up, making the reward more and more attractive. The reward can be pearls (i.e. money), victory point chips or keys.
When you claim a location, you must tuck the lords who help you claim it underneath the location card this way, hiding the text on the lords. This means the lords have now lost their special abilities. Whenever you reach 3 keys, it is mandatory to claim a location card immediately. So you have to time your 3rd key carefully, especially when you have an active lord whom you do not want to retire yet.
Each time you pay ally cards to recruit a lord, all these ally cards go to the discard pile, except for one. You get to keep one of the lowest cards, and these ally cards that you collect will be worth points at game end. Only one ally card per colour will score. This is another aspect you have to plan for.
From reading a summary of the rules, this game may sound rather bland - you're collecting stuff to exchange for better stuff which are worth victory points. I hadn't expected much when I played, although the game has a decent reputation. It turned out to be more fun than I had thought. The available lords set the stage for competition between the players. Everyone is racing to get the right allies to recruit the lords they want. The auctioning off of allies and the claiming of ally groups are the tactical aspects. They inject surprise and anticipation into the game. When you have a choice to buy or to claim a decent ally, do you do it? Or do you pass and hope for an even better one? The game presents many small interesting choices, not only on your turns but on others' turns too. You hardly notice it, because the game flow is smooth.
The game mechanisms are mostly abstract, but the excellent artwork creates a convincing setting. The five factions do have their own unique character.
Lords come in five different colours. The green lords are the wealthy merchants. The red ones are militaristic and aggressive. The yellow ones have high VP value but no special ability.
The currency in the game is pearls. They certainly look classy, but I find them not very practical. They easily roll off the table. Although you get these beautiful containers, which do help, they are rather deep so it's not easy to quickly see how many pearls your opponent across the table has.
Although there is little direct aggression in Abyss, player interaction is high. You need to pay attention all the time because the most common action is the auction. You are involved in other players' turns most of the time. You need to take note of which coloured allies your opponents are collecting, how many they have collected, and which lords they are likely targeting.
Some of the lords are quite powerful, and you want to maximise such powers. These powers add much colour to the game. Although you only have 3 basic options every turn, there are some additional decisions and actions leading out from them. This is actually a medium-weight game, but the design leads you to think it's a light-weight game. I think this is ingenious. The game will work with newcomers to the hobby and also with families.