A Glimpse Into The Vault: Gloom

Many stories (and games) define the winner by who has the best . . . well, everything, really. Who won the most glory and money, who found True Love, who lived to see a Happily Ever After. And that’s all well and good. But it can get a little boring after a while, can’t it? Maybe you’re interested in a game (and some stories) that go to some really dark, nasty places where Happily Ever After is replaced by Six Feet Under. If that’s the case, then you just might be interested in a game ‘of Inauspicious Incidents and Grave Consequences’: Gloom, a card game from Atlas Games!

Gloom, created by Keith Baker, is a 2-4 player game that sees every player take control of a family that probably never deserved a happy ending in the first place. From the quite unsettling (and pathetic) circus troupe to the family of nobles with a butler who definitely did it (whatever it may be), these are not nice people. And the good news is that you’re not supposed to reward them for that! That’s because the goal of Gloom is quite simple: make your family as miserable as possible, and then kill them horribly.

The way this works is that every card in the game is partially see-through, except for some art, writing, and modifiers. You place cards with modifiers on top of your family members, making it easy to see whom you are tormenting but making the current modifiers easy to see: there are three ‘slots’ for modifiers, so if you placed down three cards that each had a modifier in a different slot, all can be seen, and that’s your total score. Of course, the game is named Gloom, not Happiness, so you want your total score on a character to be as far below zero as possible. There are also cards with positive modifiers, which you can play on other players’ characters to make them happy, forcing the other player to find some way to make them miserable again.The way the game ends is via Untimely Death cards, which as you might imagine kill the characters they are placed on and prevent any more modifier cards from being added to them. When an entire family has suffered an Untimely Death, the game ends, and the points on everyone’s dead characters are counted up. The player with the most negative score wins.

The rather simple gameplay is made a bit more complex by event cards, which can shake things up by exchanging cards, removing modifier cards, or even bringing a character back to life to be tormented or blessed all over again! Some modifier cards also include conditions that carry forward: you might place a negative modifier on a character of yours and have the size of your hand reduced, while a positive modifier card might let the player who has unfortunately found themselves with a happier family take a card from another player. Modifier cards also carry symbols related to the what’s happening to a character; certain Untimely Death cards can provide bonuses (penalties?) if they are played on a character with a certain symbol. The final interesting complication is that you receive two actions per turn, which can include playing modifiers, event cards, discarding and drawing, or Untimely Death cards. However, outside of certain events Untimely Death cards can only be played using your first action, making figuring out the timing an important part of the game’s strategy. Do you kill a character now to preserve their current state, or try to make them more unhappy, hoping that nobody can cheer them up before your next turn?

All of the above can establish Gloom as a relatively easy-to-learn and play game with an interesting gimmick and some fun and surprisingly engaging strategy. But what can really set the game apart from other games is the ability to tell a little story that would make Edgar Allen Poe . . . not smile, perhaps, but you get the idea. Yes, you can simply slap down cards with an eye only for the modifiers, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But another layer of entertainment can be added to the game by explaining the narrative of the events happening to the characters. For example, perhaps just last turn one of my characters was Charmed at the Circus, by the very circus troupe across the table from me, and they are now quite happy. Well, I say, they may have been Charmed at the Circus, but they insulted the fortune teller! They have now been Jinxed by Gypsies! I then play Found Fame at a Feast on another player’s character; tragically for that player, come my next turn I play Choked on a Bone on the same still-happy character. Sure, he has now suffered an Untimely Death, but at least he died famous – and happy. Just the way I want him.

The only issue with this is that, in my experience, you need to have everyone roughly on the same page. If one player in the group is overwhelmingly verbose with their descriptions of the fates of the characters, it can make the game drag a bit, and get on the nerves of players who are just there for the gameplay and modifiers. On the other hand, if someone is only hungry for modifiers and everyone else wants to act a bit, it can take a little wind out of the sails. There’s no foolproof way to deal with this, because everyone’s tastes differ, but I’d advise trying to find a happy medium. Even if you’re hunting modifiers, maybe try reading the title and flavor text of a card instead of simply declaring the points. If you like telling the story, don’t drag it out too much.

Originally released on 2005, Gloom has had a number of expansions, and its Second Edition was released in 2014. In addition to those upgrades and updates to the original game, there have been spin-offs which include Cthulhu Gloom (‘Unspeakable Incidents and Squamous Consequences’) and Fairytale Gloom (‘Grim Incidents
and Unhappily-Ever-Afters’), each with its own quirks and distinctive flavor. The third spin-off is an interesting one: Munchkin Gloom (‘Deep Dungeons and Even Deeper Despair’), which sees the players visiting horrible calamity on the unlucky adventurers from Steve Jackson Games’ Munchkin card game series. If you can’t find them at your Friendly Local Gaming Store, you can find all of them on Atlas Games’ own site, along with some downloads. The core versions for the various games are roughly $25.00 while the expansions clock in at about $15.00.

Maybe you’re looking for a card game with some interesting strategy that’s still easy to get the hang off, with a unique win condition. Maybe you’re looking to tell stories about events gone horribly awry, where the one who’s worst off wins. Maybe both! If that’s the case, give Gloom in one of it’s many terrible forms a try. Just try to make sure it’s the characters who get Mauled by a Manatee or Devoured by Weasels, and not yourself!

Originally posted 9/23/16 on the Mad Adventurers Society!

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