Published by Crafty Games, with art by Dann May, Abstract Academy is a deceptively simple pattern building card game designed by the Flatout Games collective of Molly Johnson, Robert Melvin and Shawn Stankewich.
The ‘abstract’ in the title is a pun, in that this is an abstract game themed around abstract art. The game is played with a deck of ‘Canvas’ cards, each of which is divided into four quadrants coloured in red, blue or yellow. Players start with a hand of three cards and, on your turn, you play one of the cards in your hand to a collective tableau that, in a two-player game, will build into a 4x4 grid. Cards have to be played orthogonally adjacent to a card already in the tableau. You then draw another card to your hand.
You’ll each have your own ‘Inspiration card’ (secret objective, showing a pattern that you’ll score for if it features in the tableau) but you’ll be directly competing to score the ‘Assignment cards’ (public objectives). In the first round, there’ll be one of these for each colour, and in the second round there’ll be ‘Professor cards’ (public objectives that use any one or a mix of colours). The third and final round uses a combination of Assignment and Professor cards. If you don’t achieve your Inspiration card objective in a round, you carry the card forward, so you could potentially score multiple Inspiration cards in the same round: a simple but effective ‘catch up’ mechanic.
Within its straightforward set up and intuitive rules, Abstract Academy delivers surprising scope for tactical play. Scoring for the colour Assignment and Professor cards involve comparisons between the two halves of the tableau (ie: the 2 x 4 cards closest to each player in a two-player game). However, it isn’t certain where that 2 x 4 boundary will be set until sufficient cards are played that define the play area: the grid is only set when a card is played in the fourth column or row… Once the grid is defined, the row nearest each player is designated their ‘home row’, and players can’t play cards in an opponent’s ‘home row’ unless they have no other spaces to go. This reduces the opportunity for ‘take that’ play.
It’s not uncommon for players to tie for the Assignment cards. A card might, for example, score for ‘the largest blue area’ and both players might have in their half of the grid blue areas that are exactly the same size (number of quadrants). Here Abstract Academy provides a neat solution. A tie-breaker ‘Teacher’s Pet’ card decides ties in that player’s favour but the card is passed on to the opponent whenever it is used.
The game incorporates the option to play with four players. That follows similar rules except that you’re collectively building a 5 x 5 grid with players sitting around four sitting around the four sides of the grid and scoring for the two rows or columns closest to them. It means that, for scoring, players share corner cards with neighbouring players. It works but it feels more cumbersome and less tactical than the two-player head-to-head game, and the ‘Teacher’s Pet’ mechanic feels less satisfying with four.
However you play, Abstract Academy plays quickly because this isn’t a game where you’re likely to encounter Analysis Paralysis (AP). Our Board’s Eye View plays mostly took a filler-length 20 minutes. We liked the relative simplicity of the scoring; including the fact that players just took the scoring cards to keep track of the scores for each round. Our one gripe was our perennial disappointment when games come in a tuckbox. Tho’ this makes for an otherwise commendably compact package, there’s always a risk of cards getting nicked or otherwise marked when put back into a tuckbox with its flap, and that risk is compounded where, as in this case, you are having to fit two decks into the tuckbox side by side, or rather one on top of the other. We’d have much preferred a lidded box with two compartments; so much so that we’ll probably ‘rehouse’ our copy into another box. Abstract Academy is a game we’ve already found we’ve been returning to for multiple plays, so we certainly don’t want to risk damaging the cards!