Conspiracy: Abyss Universe – A Splash of Inspiration

  • Designers: Bruno Cathala and Charles Chevallier
  • Artist: Pascal Quidault
  • Publisher: Bombyx
  • Release Date: January 2020

Luke: Abyss was one of those games I loved for a long time. The aesthetic is fantastic, the game loop fairly compelling, and there a variety of ways to tackle the puzzle at hand.

Phil: It’s a game that you’ve introduced me to, and I’ve certainly dug what I’ve played of it.

Luke: Yet it’s a title that, over time, I realized I enjoyed for the social interactions and in-jokes I had with friends regarding the game than for the actual game itself. In many ways, Abyss has some hurdles that I couldn’t overcome in the long term, leading to its exodus from my collection.

Phil: Enter Conspiracy, a smaller, svelter, more streamlined iteration of the original released, what, 6 years after the original?

Luke: It caught my eye, especially with the variable covers and metal ton, so I knew we had to give it a go.

For those unfamiliar, Abyss games feature players fighting to be the best fish noble by gathering fish politicians to make fish laws. It sounds a bit goofy, but the dark aesthetic and devious tone sells a cutthroat vibe that makes for a fun and unique theme for the game.

Phil: What divides the original from Conspiracy is that the original had lots of extra stuff dolloped on top, some that worked and others that definitely didn’t. Here, a lot of the chaff has been removed to try and provide a purer experience.

Luke: Rather than a bidding game, Conspiracy focuses on the press-your-luck elements of its predecessor. On your turn, you may draw 1, 2, or 3 cards from the noble deck. Selecting one, you’ll place it in an inverse pyramid, shaping it in just the right way to earn points.

Phil: The catch? The nobles you don’t choose to keep are discarded to public pools organized by color. A player can choose, instead of drawing blindly, to just take all of the nobles from 1 of these public pools.

Luke: It’s a system that works well enough while reducing the amount of time the game takes to play, considering how long the bidding rounds could run at times.

Phil: Nobles are much more generic this time around, with each faction composed of a set number of 0’s, 1’s, 2’s, 3’s, 4’s, and 6’s in the deck. Every 1, regardless of its faction color, shares the same power, meaning you’ll become quickly acquainted with what nobles do what.

Luke: Some of these nobles carry keys; collecting a set of 2 of the same will provide a location, which works nearly identically as drafting nobles. Each location provides points or a 1-use power.

Phil: Ultimately, players will score based on their highest-valued noble of each color, their biggest grouping of the same colored nobles, their locations, and whoever gathered the most pearls on their noble cards by the end of the game.

Luke: At first glance, this seemed like a great replacement for the original to me. Taking away the swinginess of some of the noble powers in Abyss and a lot of the fluff the expansions tried to add shows how strong a system this game can be.

Phil: The problem, however, is how easy it is for someone to get a runaway lead.

Luke: The game ends when someone completes their 15 card inverse pyramid, which suggests that everyone would finish at the same time since everyone gets 1 card for turn on average. But you forget that, if people end up discarding a lot of nobles, someone’s going to have the opportunity to draw 3 or 4 cards of the same color in a single turn.

Phil: Couple that with how valuable it is to have a large area of the same color in your pyramid and you have a recipe for disaster. Most of the games I’ve played have ended with pretty lopsided scores and a player who has maybe half of their structure built.

Luke: And honestly, luck can play a much bigger factor in this game than in Abyss. Where before you had blueprints you were building towards and trying to fulfill, giving you the chance to play and play around your opponents, here you just have to hope you draw into cards that will help what you’re vaguely working towards.

Phil: The last game I played, my opponent had a bunch of yellow cards in their structure and, when drawing 3 cards to try to get something of value into my own, I drew into 2 yellows and a green. The green is what I needed for my structure and was actually worth points to me, but leaving those 2 yellows for my enemy would make them all the stronger. Essentially, my choices were to gain some points and give my opponent a ton of points or gain almost no points and break my color chain to try and slow down the opponent’s rapid ascent to victory.

Luke: And it’s not uncommon to feels as if you’re a part of an uphill battle here. It’s unfortunate, and a factor that makes this a game we can’t really recommend, but it’s just an overpowering element of how games play out that there’s no getting around it.

Verdict: Conspiracy shares a lot of the great qualities of the original, with a fun game loop, great art, and interesting choices. Yet the frequency in which luck of the draw dictates a victory well in advance of the game’s end makes this a hard game to recommend to anyone but die-hard fans of the original.

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