Tabletop Review – Gloom
Gloom, a 2004 card game designed by Keith Baker and published by Atlas Games, is one of my favorite games to introduce to new players. “Each player controls a family,” I begin, as my friends nod along thoughtfully, “and the goal of the game is to make your family as miserable as you possibly can. And then kill them.”
If lightning strikes at just the right moment, I add a maniacal laugh, but I’m sad to report that it doesn’t happen very often.
Gloom is a competitive story-telling card game for two to four players, set in a world of demented characters, horrible decisions, and dangerous creatures. It’s what I imagine a game of Mafia with the Addams Family would look like if played at midnight in a haunted forest. In other words, it’s the perfect game for the Halloween season.
Each player chooses one of four families: the aristocratic and demon-possessed Wellington-Smythes, the necromantic Slogars, the murderous Blackwater Clan, or the fun-loving, easy-going circus folk of Dark’s Den of Deformity (I’m kidding of course, they’re terribly troubled people). Once you’ve made your decision, you gather the 5 members of your family, draw a hand of 5 cards from the main deck, and you’re ready to play.
On your turn, you’ll make two plays. Mostly, you’ll be playing modifier cards, which you can play on any living character, your own or your opponents’. A modifier affects the Self-Worth score — the game’s point system — of whatever character it is played on. Your goal is misery and despair, so you want to keep your family’s Self-Worth abysmally low, while showering good fortune on your opponents. The Self-Worth value (plus or minus) shows up along the left side of the card, and the icons on the right will be referenced by certain conditions as you play.
You may have noticed that the cards are transparent, which gives this an interesting wrinkle: all visible points and icons remain active, so playing a new card won’t necessarily remove the points underneath it. It also just looks really cool.
Negative Self-Worth cards will be lovingly dedicated to your own family. The more unfortunate the event, the better.
Once any character is suitably unhappy, you can kill them with an Untimely Death card, ending their misery right when it’s at its most delicious.
You’ll also play Event cards, which create instant or persistent effects for you and other players but don’t contribute directly to Self-Worth.
Once one player’s whole family is deceased — for good — the game is over, and everyone tallies the Self-Worth scores from their dead family members. The player with the lowest Self-Worth wins the game!
Turn by turn, Gloom is a pretty straightforward card game. It really shines, however, in its absurdly macabre theme and its encouragement that players tell a story with each card that they play.
If Elissandre DeVille was Wondrously Well Wed in one turn, the player is encouraged to tell the table how that transpired, where she met this beau, his name, and what drew these two lovers together. Then, when we later learn that Elissandre Was Widowed At The Wedding and then perished because she Didn’t Think Things Through, (a true Shakespearean tragedy), we’re not just playing cards and gaining points, we’re the co-creators of tragic stories filled with pathos, morbidity, and irony. And death.
Like many light, social, card games, Gloom has a tendency to overstay its welcome. The core mechanic of drawing and playing cards isn’t exciting enough, and doesn’t present enough interesting choices, to justify the hour+ playing time.
This game is all about the stories that come out of it. If you have a group that would enjoy a simple, strongly themed card game that encourages and inspires group storytelling, pick up Gloom and all its expansions. It’s great for an autumn dinner party, a warm-up to game night, a Halloween diversion for your D&D group, and more. If that’s not you, give this one a pass. If you don’t like the theme and the storytelling, gameplay is nothing you wouldn’t find in other card games.
Atlas Games has also published several variants/expansions, so if you love the concept but want a different theme, check out Cthulhu Gloom, Fairytale Gloom, or Gloom in Space, all of which are compatible with the base game as well.
Come October 31st, I hope you’ll join me in a candlelit clearing, telling macabre stories about lives saved, love found, fortunes won, and the sudden catastrophic loss of them all. Happy Gloom season, everyone. Happy Halloween.