Abyss: A Review & Dissection

Game Profile

Age: 14+

Play time: 30-60 minutes

Players: 2-4 players

Type: Strategy

Category: Card/Board Game & Euro-Game

Theme:Underwater Fantasy

Publishers: Bombyx, Asmodee, Asterion Press, Galápagos Jogos, REBEL.pl

Price: $80$90 AU

“For centuries, creatures without peer have ruled the depths of the ocean. Their kingdom, called Abyss, is respected by all their allied races, who are glad to receive protection from the fearsome monsters of the deep. But soon the throne of Abyss will be vacant…why not claim it for yourself?”

This is the text we are greeted to on the back of the box of Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier’s Abyss. An underwater election where you have to gain influence by collecting resources, to gain allies, recruit Lords and gain control of locations, to win the hearts of the underwater creatures and ultimately win the game. Sounds good, right?

Contents of the Box

  • an instruction book
  • a board, folded into quarters
  • a cardboard monster track
  • a cardboard threat token, to accompany the monster track
  • 20 location cards/tiles
  • 10 cardboard keys
  • 20 cardboard monster tokens
  • 71 small cards, including 5 different colours of Allies, and 6 monsters
  • 30 large Lord cards, with Lords of 7 different colours
  • 5 black, plastic clamshells
  • 50 plastic pearls
  • 1 score pad

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How to Play (A [hopefully] brief overview)

 

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This is how the board is set up for starting the game. Source: Emily Gegg

Set up the board, like shown above, with each player receiving one pearl each at the start of the game.

On their turn:

Players choose ONE of these actions:

A. ‘Explore’ , which is where the small ‘ally’ cards are laid out one by one along the exploration track. Inactive players can buy Allies off the active player. The active player can take whichever Ally they want for free.

The Allies are used to purchase Lords, which are the centrepiece of the game.

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This is how a typical exploration goes, with the cards being laid out one at a time, with players making decisions about what they want to claim. Source: Emily Gegg
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The rectangle with the pearl is the final spot in the exploration track. If the active player reaches this, they have to take the Ally that was on this spot, but they get a pearl too. Source:Emily Gegg
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This is a monster card. If this card is turned over, the active player can choose to fight the monster, win the prize listed on the monster track and end their turn, or continue on and advance the token on the monster track. If the monster is turned over on the FINAL spot on the exploration track, the player has to fight the monster and wins the prizes, then re-set the monster track. Source:Emily Gegg

 

B. Players can choose to ‘Request Support from the Council’, which involves the player taking a pile of Allies of the same type from the middle of the board and ending their turn.

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The middle part of board; ‘the Council’. If players choose to ‘request support from the Council’, they take one pile from here, and end their turn.Source: Emily Gegg

C. Players can utilise their Ally cards to purchase Lords when they have the correct amount of Allies of the correct colours, as shown on the Lord cards.

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The Allies are used to buy Lords, with the bubbles on the bottom on the Lord card determining how many points are neded and what types of Allies are needed. Source: Emily Gegg
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For example:This Lord needs 6 points to be ‘purchased’ , which need to come from red Allies and only two other colours of Allies, as shown by the bubbles on the bottom left of the Lord card. Source: Emily Gegg

 

Players are only allowed to do ONE of these actions per turn.

Notes:

When players have 3 keys (either through Lords with keys or winning them from the Monster Track), they have to cash them in to take control of a location. Lord abilities are no longer active, so the Lords that the keys belonged to are placed underneath the location.

The end of the game

This method of play continues until a player purchases their 7th Lord. Then, players count how many monster tokens, location points, Lord points and ally points they have to determine who has the most influence points and who is crowned the winner.

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You’ll need to break this out to add up everyone’s points. The instruction book has a page that helps with adding points up.Source: Emily Gegg

My Impressions

The set-up/layout of the game

This game comes with a board, but the classification of this game is a little murky. Games HQ classify the game as a BOARD game, but Board Game Geek classifies it as a CARD game. I feel that I would agree with Board Game Geek, because while this game includes a board, I feel that this game does not really need a board for the sake of the mechanics. All the board really does is help you categorise the allies you send to the Court, or to know how many cards are played during an exploration. The game could be played without it, with players placing the cards on the table in front of them. The board is a needless, but beautiful addition to the game because of its gorgeous art by Xavier Collette.  It doesn’t NEED the board, but it is so much nicer that it is here and that it is so beautiful.

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Board or card game? Source: Emily Gegg

Game Style

I initially found it a bit strange that players begin with basically no resources, instead building up cards through gameplay. Typically, popular Western card games have a hand of cards being dealt to players at the start of the game, like Go Fish or Skip-Bo. However, this game is classified as a Euro-Game. European board and card games are typically about gaining influence points, which add up to allow the player with the most points to win (Silverman, 2013). Stewart Woods (2015, p.8) says in Game Play, regarding Euro-Games “[they] de-emphasize the role of chance, offer predictable playing times, and is of a high standard in terms of component quality and presentation”. This is very similar to Smash Up, a card game where players have minion and action cards and build up a hand to increase the amount of points they have on a base (bases are the centre point of the game) while thwarting other player’s progress. These are the elements that Abyss integrates into the game mechanics. The creators refer to the game as a development game, where players build up multiple resources, which then go towards the primary resource which helps the player win. I don’t think I have ever played a development game before this one.

Number of Players

I have played this as a two player and as a four player game, and felt that 3 or 4 players are needed to make this game more competitive and interesting. It operates fine as a two player game but it becomes a bit predictable and also very easy to gather resources and buy the Lords you want; it makes the game shorter and perhaps not as interesting. 4 players adds more hurdles to your resource and Lord collecting, so makes the game more interesting. There are mixed opinions of number of players on the forum section of Board Game Geek, with some people saying that 4 players make the game too long.

I wonder if the game could be played with 5 or 6 players as well and operate fine. Also, there have been people on Board Game Geek who have been trying to figure out ways in which the game can be played solo, which I will discuss in more detail later.

Un-Necessary Elements

Locations

The locations are a feature that complicates the learning of the rules if you are new to the game. Locations are earned when a player has three keys, through fighting monsters, buying Lords that have keys or through the ability of a Lord. As a beginner, you think you have learned all the rules, and then someone gets three keys, purchases a location and adds even more rules for you to get a hold of! I guess I would say that they make the scoring of Influence Points (IP) when the game is complete. This is because they add points to your Lords, or give you extra points depending on what sort of Lords or Allies you have. Some of the explanations of the points on the Locations is a little unclear at first too. These locations kind of remind me of the Bases cards in Smash Up, where players place down cards to gain influence and win the points of the base, but in Smash Up they have a bigger purpose than in this game.

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A location tile. I found the wording of these a bit hard to understand at first. For example, for this one, the player gets 2 Influence Points (IP) for each Politician Lord they have, then they take that total and add 6 to it. I found this a bit hard to decipher from the tile at first. You also need to check the instruction book to see what types of Lords are the Politicians (the blue ones). Source: Emily Gegg

Having said that, the locations do have the important function of ‘wiping’ Lord abilities when keys are cashed in to buy a location. This is especially helpful to players who are playing against Lords with debilitating abilities. For example, the Commander Lord’s ability only allows opponents to have six allies at a time. This also adds a degree of strategy regarding when to buy Lords. If you had two keys already and you are about to buy a Lord with a useful ability, but it also has a key, you wouldn’t buy it because you wouldn’t be able to use its ability. You would consider buying another Lord first! So, perhaps the locations are not all bad but they do prove a little confusing at first. Perhaps the locations could be taken out and players just use the keys (and not the locations) to wipe abilities.

The Monster Track

One mechanic that I DO feel is unnecessary is the monster track, and all associated elements of it. It just seems to make the rules more complicated for beginners to learn, without really introducing new strategic opportunities, or anything really interesting at all. The game could (and probably should) function without it, because it seems to drag the game down, especially when people forget to move the threat counter to where it should be (which happens ALL THE TIME). It’s just not that exciting, especially when you always win the encounter with the monster. If the monster track were to be maintained, perhaps there should be an element of strategy or luck that dictates if you win an encounter with a monster, like a dice roll, or the power of your allies determining whether you win.

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The monster track, with an orange/red threat marker, to keep track of where players are up to on the monster track. I feel that this is needless and doesn’t add any real strategy or interest to the game. Source: Emily Gegg

 

The Art (judging a book by its cover)

This is probably the most beautiful game I have ever seen! The aquatic theme of this game is beautiful and is wonderfully supported by the use of pearls as currency, clams as ‘wallets’ to hold the pearls and the art of five different fishy factions on the board, ally cards and Lord cards. The designers of the game went all-out with the production of this game. The pearls are what draw many to this game. They are very pretty and they fit the underwater, mythical theme of the game superbly, but they are just asking to be lost! People dropping them, or swishing them around in their clam cups, they just seem to bounce on the ground and half the game is spent retrieving them. I have nothing else to say about them except: play this game with less childish and/or clumsy friends if you like your pearls. Also, I feel that the instruction book should list how many pearls are in the game, so you can figure out if you have actually lost some, because I have probably lost at least a couple!

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These little devils tend to jump out of people’s clam cups and bounce on the floor…Source:Emily Gegg

The game mechanics are not really related to aquatics or underwater creatures, but I can see where these mechanics got their influence. The idea of the game is that you are trying to gain allies so that you can recruit Lords and gain influence over the sea. Kind of like a sea election, especially with mechanics like ‘requesting support from the council’. It is a game with a lot of decoration that does not really add anything game-play wise or world building wise to the game, but is beautiful nonetheless, so I give it a pass.

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The Board, the beautiful board. Source: Emily Gegg

 

The Packaging and Instructions

Packaging and Brand Identity

One of the things that is mentioned the most when people talk about this game is “what cover is best?”. What does this mean? There are actually FIVE different covers you can buy, one for each faction in the game. Some see this as a hinderance to Abyss and Asmodee who market the game, because it could create confusion and weaken the brand identity and associations consumers make with the name.

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The five different covers of the game. I happen to own the purple one. The fact that I feel I have to mention that seems to highlight the importance of the covers of the game. It seems that the blue one on the end was intended to be the ‘official’ cover because it is the cover used for the instruction booklet, regardless of the cover of your game. The Kraken expansion for the game also uses the same shade of blue.Source: Abyss The Game.com
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The Kraken expansion. The first and only (thus far) expansion for Abyss. Notice the similar blue used in this packaging and the blue monster on the far right in the image above. Source: MinatureMarket

For instance, Cards Against Humanity has a very strong brand identity because they use black packing with white, simple lettering and maintain this trend throughout all of their cards, packaging, expansions and promotional materials. It has worked too. People immediately recognise this game.

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A black box with white sans-serif font. Simple, but instantly recognisable! Source: CardsAgainstHumanity.com
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The colouring and font used on the promotional art and the packaging for CardsAgainstHumanity are also used on the cards in the game. Source:Polygon

So, is having 5 different covers confusing to the consumer and makes it harder to market Abyss? Perhaps, but one could say that it is a talking point and is free publicity for the game because it is one of the aspects that people talk about the most with this game. There are polls online of people talking about and voting for their favourite cover. Also, it appeals to the collector’s mentality, so big fans of the game may even buy 5 copies of the game, so that they have the whole collection. Kind of like comic book collectors and variant covers of the same comic. Some people have quested the financial side of the collecting of 5 covers of Abyss though. One person has said:

“It would have been cool if the front was sort of like a picture frame, and the game would come with all 5 covers and you could just slide your favourite cover in it and change it whenever you want.”- Connor Cranston on BoardGameGeek

So, is having five covers a help or hindrance to this game? I can’t really answer that one, although I would say that it seems to be a unique concept in the board game world (as far as I know) so it provides a talking point for the game as well as more opportunity for more money to be made from this game.

 

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DC’s 1986 Man of Steel miniseries. The first comic book with variant covers that were intended to sell more copies. Abyss is a similar story; same content, different covers for the diehard collectors.Source

The Instruction Book

I do like the instruction book of Abyss and how clear the explanations are, and how they use lots of images and examples to help explain the unusual mechanics of the game. I found this game quite easy to learn and quite easy to teach someone else how to play, except perhaps the locations. The main mechanics were very player friendly and interesting. A ‘good’ instruction book is very important when making a game, especially if someone is buying the game who has never played it before and does not know anyone who has played it. There are games that I have refrained from buying because I have heard that the instructions books are awful and do not explain the mechanics of the game very well. I refrain because I do not want to buy a game I am going to be frustrated by because I don’t know how to play. I am sure many other people feel the same way. King of Toyko for instance, has some of the worst instructions I have ever read, but the game mechanics are relatively simple.  So, Abyss’ instruction book wins in my book.

 

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The instruction book. The page size is quite large, which means more images can be added, which helps so much with the explanations of the game. This is one of the best instruction books I have seen for a game. Something so crucial to a game, but something that is so hard to get right (apparently)! Source: Emily Gegg

When the game is done (packing away)

I find when packing this game away after a thrilling gaming session that this isn’t a game that takes 10 seconds to pack away. There are holes in the packaging for keys and monster tokens to ‘live’, but it is very fiddly to place them in properly, so that they all fit. One large hole where all the fiddly bits can be thrown in would be better for impatient people like me. It does look great presentation-wise with its special sections, but for the sake of my sanity, it would have been better to make bigger, less specialized holes for fiddly things like keys and monster tokens. Game packing is something that I tend to obsess over. If I can pack the game up in 10 picoseconds, I am instantly in love.

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Look at this. Especially the holes for the keys. How fiddly and tedious! Also, when you open this game the next time you go to play, quite often the keys and tokens have come out of their holes anyway. Source: Emily Gegg

 

The game has several steps for packing it away. It is almost as complicated as the game itself…

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The order of packing the box up. Everything has a specific order as to how to go into the box, and it you screw it up, you’ll have to backtrack. I like games where I can throw (lovingly of course) the stuff in the box, close it and put it on the shelf until next time. Again, how tedious. I find the packing of this game well presented, but tedious. Source:Emily Gegg

Expansions and Re-Mixing

This game is broad and in-depth enough to provide opportunities for expansion (official) and for re-mixing and re-purposing by the fans.

The Kraken Expansion

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The Kraken Expansion. The first and only (thus far) official expansion for Abyss. Source: MinatureMarket

Firstly, the creators of the game have created an expansion called The Kraken Expansion. This expansion does not change the core rules, but adds new Lords, Allies, Locations and some new elements such as Nebulises, which are pearls that provide more power, but negative consequences if you are ‘caught’ with them. I have not played with this expansion yet, but find expansions to be an exciting concept, because they are a way to add new flavours and mechanics to your favourite games. I do find expansions that add TOO many new rules to be not so good though, so the balance of new, interesting ideas and simplicity (keeping the core rules, the ones player like, intact) is a difficult, but important one. For instance, Smash Up expansions are my favourite thus far, because they add new factions of cards to play with, for new strategic opportunities, but the core rules are exactly the same. On BoardGameGeek, The Kraken Expansion has been rated 7.8 by the fans, with many positive comments. User BenjaminHester says of the expansion:

From the reading about The Kraken, it seems that this expansion would be worth the investment, to add new elements to the game, without complicating it. It is encouraging to see well-designed games that leave room for expanding on the part of the creators and on the part of the fans.

On the Abyss website, the designers do have a PDF game strategy guide for a free download, but only if you happen to know French (as the game was designed and originally released in French). They also offer a free download of Abyss art, I guess for the purposes of desktop backgrounds for your laptop or for using when reviewing the game. It is interesting to see the engagement with the fan community that is occurring through their site with these offerings, allowing people to tailor their playing experiences to their needs and wants.

Fan Versions

Fan made versions and re-mixes of games of all types (‘digital’ and ‘analogue’) are extremely important because they illustrate how fans are participating in a culture, instead of merely consuming the game. Raessens (2005 p. 1) writes about this phenomena, categorising participation into three types: interpretation, reconfiguration and construction. He discusses these domains in terms of video games, but these of course can and should be discussed in relation to board games too, including Abyss. This type of participation can be anything from re-writing the rules so that you can play the game alone, creating your own Lord cards for your game, cosplaying as characters from the game and discussing the game on message boards and forums. Linda Hucheon in Barwell and Moore (2013, p. 215) says of adaptation and re-mixing in gaming:

“storytellers and artists have always used [the same techniques] to retell stories in their own way….they actualize or concrete ideas through critique, expanding and remixing”.

So through altering the game and talking about it on message boards, fans of the game are participating in a larger media culture, whether they are aware of it or not.

2 Player Variation

As I have mentioned, playing this game with only 2 players seems to be doing the game a disservice because it becomes quite easy to collect the resources you want and buy the Lords quickly, because there are less people to ‘buy’ the Ally cards you want and impede your progress.

One thread on BoardGameGeek is trying to solve this problem, with one commenter (LunaSoundDesign) suggesting:

“The spots from left to right from the exploration deck are 1-5. Roll a d6 (six-sided die) before the player reveals cards and if a 1-4 is rolled the card in that numbered spot is discarded and the player gets 1 pearl as if someone else had purchased it and continues per normal. If a 5 or 6 is rolled nothing happens. The other player could still buy cards as normal as the player reveals cards but has to choose after the card is discarded by the die roll or pick one beforehand in a different slot”.

There has been no definitive solution for this ‘problem’ but it is encouraging to see that fans and players are engaging with the game and taking elements they like and adding to them to create their own gaming experience,as well as broadening the experiences of others by sharing online.

Flying Solo

On BoardGameGeek, one fan asks if anyone has figured out how to play the game solo.Two commenters took a stab at this question, saying various things like using the monster track as a life meter, with monsters taking away from your life, and having resources running out whenever you uncover a monster. You lose if you run out of resources.

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Playing board games solo is often impossible! If only there were a way…Source: Aaron Zimmerman

Another commenter says that the game is so accessible that they have never been in a situation where people haven’t wanted to play Abyss. While I agree that the game is fairly accessible, I think that they are missing the point of the question. I know that board games are generally thought of a group activity and allow for social interactions but there are some instances where you are busting to play a game, but no one is around. As an only child, I had this quite often, as my parents do not like board games at all. As a child I would have loved having a way to engage with a board game when alone (I would still love it, honestly). It would also fit the model of board games and gaming generally, where there is an inclusive media environment with limitless ways to engage with your favourite games (through cosplay, online message boards).

BoardGameGeek does have a One-Player Guild, which is a group that people who play board games solo can join to bond with others like them and exchange tips on customising games to be played solo, or discuss games that are designed to be played solo.

Component Upgrading

Another user of BoardGameGeek posts images of steampunk style buttons in the shape of a key that they found to upgrade the cardboard keys that are included in Abyss. This raises the question of the production values of board games. Would the creators of the game have been able to include more sophisticated keys (like plastic ones) in the set to increase aesthetic value, while still keeping costs low? Euro Games are typically known for having high production and component values, so are the cardboard keys really not sufficient? It’s about the balance of what gamers want and what producers can afford to include in their game.

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The steampunk buttons vs. the standard cardboard keys from the game. Source: BoardGameGeek user Marc S

My Thoughts/Variations

I wondered earlier in this review if the game could be played with 5 or 6 players while still functioning fine and still being fun. Could this be done with the base rules, or would the rules have to be altered for more players?

I also wonder if the game could be played where players have to continue buying Lords until they run out, instead of just purchasing 7 Lords. This could be helpful for two player games, because they tend to end too quickly. Would this make the game take too long though?

Awards, Ratings and Final Thoughts

So I have discussed elements that I found to be enjoyable with this game, as well as the ones that irritated me or just those I found to be a bit needless.I have also discussed issues such as instruction booklets, packaging and brand identity, as well as mentioning designer AND fan made expansions and variations.

Now it is time to rank the game, or pin a number to it to determine how ‘good’ it is.

The Community

BoardGameGeek has this game rated at 7.3 out of 10 by the site’s users. This is actually surprisingly low, considering how highly it is ranked on their site.

The game is ranked at 300 out of all the games on their site. The games on the site are ranked based on fan ratings and on the experts who run the site. This site is the go-to source for all things board and card games due to its wealth of reliable information and the large fan community on forums and in comment sections.

300 is quite a high ranking, especially considering that the lowest game is 12,152 (Tic-Tac-Toe, for those of you who are wondering). The full list can be found here.

BoardGameGeek have listed the awards that Abyss has been nominated for by BoardGameGeek and by other important websites and organisations in the board game world, like Tric Trac (A French gaming community site) and the American Academy of Adventure Gaming Arts and Design’s Origin Awards.

The list includes:

It is interesting to note that it was nominated for awards regarding to quality of game play and presentation which indicates that the community generally perceives the game to be of overall high quality.

My Rating

I would give this game an 8 out of 10, considering that it is a very good game with some flaws.

8 out of 10 stars
Source: Alli Ramsay on Blogger

 

Pros:

  • Beautiful artwork
  • Interesting development style of gameplay
  • Unique use of cards of two different sizes (Allies and Lords)
  • Game play is strategy based instead of luck based (my luck isn’t the best)
  • 5 different covers, providing an extra layer of fan interaction and choice
  • Amazingly easy to understand instruction booklet
  • High production values and attention to thematic detail
  • Very easy to learn and very accessible even to more casual players

Cons:

  • Play is not very challenging when there are only two players
  • Would be nice to be able to play with 5 or 6 players too
  • Packing the game away is fiddly and time-consuming
  • Monster Track is boring and does not add anything new or strategic
  • Locations are perhaps a bit needless
  • A little expensive ($80-$90 AU)

 

So, this game is a beautiful game that is very easy to learn, very accessible and interesting enough to have high replay value. The game provides unique mechanics that are simple to learn but provide enough challenge to be interesting. I would recommend that everyone should at least give this game a try.

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PS. The purple cover is totally the best (because it’s the own I happen to own!) Source:Emily Gegg

 

References

Barwell, G. and Moore C. 2013, ‘World of Chaucer: Machinima and Adaptation’, in Understanding Machinima: Essays on Filmmaking in Virtual Worlds, edited by Jenna Ng, Continuum: London.

Booth, B 2015, Game Play: Paratexuality in Contemporary Board Games, Bloomsbury Academic, New York & London

Raessens, J 2005 ‘Computer games as participatory media culture’. In J. Raessens & J. Goldstein (Eds.), Handbook of computer game studies, pp. 373-388. Cambridge, MA: MIT

Silverman, D 2013, How to Learn Board Game Design and Development, viewed 29 April 2016,<http://gamedevelopment.tutsplus.com/articles/how-to-learn-board-game-design-and-development–gamedev-11607>

One thought on “Abyss: A Review & Dissection

  1. Hey Emily!

    I have to say you have done quite an in-depth and thorough analysis of Abyss. I haven’t played the game, but I feel as if I have just reading this awesome blog post. I think you have covered all bases in regards to the game, it’s appearance, mechanics, play style, fan opinion, etc. I absolutely love what you have done here. I remember watching a few people playing it in class and thought, “Oh my god, that game looks tough.” But if it is as easy as you say, then it sounds like it would be really enjoyable. I totally get the appeal of the underwater setting, Bioshock has left a lasting impression. I agree though when you say you like a game that is easy to put away, my experiences with 1313 Dead End Drive… https://boardgamegeek.com/boardgame/4953/1313-dead-end-drive

    Good job!

    Like

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