Sunday, July 27, 2014

Gloom, by Keith Baker

“And while the tiny opera singer strolled through the swamp lands in an attempt to shake the sorrow of her recent divorce, she strayed too close to the water, and got Mauled by Manatees!”

While a sentence like that may not seem out of the ordinary to a player of games like Munchkin, Gloom diverges in that you are inflicting such cards upon your own characters!

Perchance, good sir, what is Gloom?

Gloom is a tabletop 2-4 player card game published by Atlas games in which players try to inflict the most woe upon their chosen gothic Victorian family before ending their misery with the sweet release of death.   It lasts between 45 and 75 minutes depending on your group, and can weave elements of storytelling into the competitive card game components.  It is immediately recognizable due to it’s transparent plastic cards, allowing modifiers to interact in a novel way by ‘blocking’ what can be seen from cards played earlier.

How does one play this “Gloom”?

At the start of the game, each player gets a set of 5 family cards.  These represent the various individuals in a family and are the ‘bases’ onto which you play cards.  The object of the game is to have most negative visible point score (which Gloom refers to as "Pathos" points) among your dead family members at the end of the game.  As soon as one set of family members has been killed off, the game immediately ends.

Each player will have a hand of 5 cards, which can include Modifiers, Events and Untimely Death cards. Modifiers are your bread and butter.  They are played on living characters (including characters belonging to your opponents) and have 3 areas to potentially show positive or negative points: top, middle, and bottom.  Some also show a special effect on the bottom, which can be beneficial or harmful.  When played on a character, if the points or text box covers the modifier beneath it, the effect is replaced.  However, if the space is clear (since the cards are transparent) all of the visible modifiers remain in play.

A Modifier with -10 on both the
 top and middle 'spot', worth
a combined -20 points.
Want to ruin a player's day by
making their family happy?
That 0 and +15 could cover
precious negative points!
A Family card.  Make his life
miserable, then kill him! 

Modifiers include the likes of “Starved in a Storm”,  “found Love on the Lake”, and “found Maggots in the Meat”.  The scoring areas have varying rarities.  The top spot is common, the middle average, and the bottom spot is relatively rare.  This adds another layer into deciding the worth of a Modifier card.

Event cards allow you to do one time effects, such as removing modifiers, drawing cards, or bringing characters back from the dead!

Untimely Death cards kill off characters, which is vital as only dead characters score points at the end of the game. Also, while they may only be played on characters with a negative Pathos score (at least something awful must befall them before they are allowed to die) you can play them on opponents characters to deny them a scoring zone early on.

During your turn, you get 2 phases, and in each you may play or discard a card, though Untimely Death cards may only be played in the first phase.  You then draw back up to a hand of 5 cards and end your turn. Many cards also have a Story Icon (such as the Goblet, Marriage or Duck) which modify certain cards, and are necessary to allow certain cards to be played at all.

Play typically has each player frantically trying to heap negative points on their own characters while putting the dreaded positive points on opponents cards, then killing off their characters when they feel the time is right.  To kill off your family members too soon dooms you to an unimpressive score, while waiting too long gives your opponents more opportunities to throw a wrench in the works.

Pardon, sir, but wasn’t there mention of a Storytelling element?

Indeed!  While not enforced by any kind of game mechanic, the game encourages a bit of narration when you play your cards, a snippet of context that ties the characters together.  A surprising amount of fun is generated from not only describing why Cousin Mordecai was Wounded by Wasps, but also by an opponent using that misfortune to explain how their character got into trouble. 

“It was only natural that after poor little Mordecai returned covered in wasp stings that Samson O’Toole, the bearded man, would want to help.  However, the ointments he found seemingly discarded actually belonged to the local homeless population, and his unintentional theft ended with him being Beaten by Beggars!”
-Hypothetical Joe, a local Gloom player

Each card is designed to lend itself to a narrative flow, with each card acting as a reminder of what has happened to the various characters so far.  Each of the families is unique, as are the individual members.  Castle Slogar are the result of necromantic science, with various levels of success.  Hemlock Hall are a family of potential murder suspects in waiting.  Blackwater Watch are a group of related misfits bound by the scheming matriarch’s iron fist.  Dark’s Den of Deformity is a failing troupe of circus freaks.
Each family lends itself to a different flavor of storytelling, and different players will easily bring new ways for the characters to interact despite the confines of the card based element.

Now, while shaping a narrative is easily my favorite part of playing the game, it is worth mentioning that Gloom works without the storytelling component.  While playing, a friend (who has a fantastic mind for game analysis) mentioned that his group never includes any narration, that they prefer Gloom as a card game.  At the time I gave him a look I reserve for people who say they prefer Oreo’s after scraping the cream into the trash, but after more thought, I can understand their point of view.  The mechanics of the system are very good, and rather than the narration being a crutch to support a weak game design, it is instead an enhancement on a fantastic game for those who enjoy a bit of gothic drama.  I'll always prefer to tell the tales as we play, but it is good to know I would still enjoy Gloom without it.

And what would a gentleman make of such a game?

First of all:  The good and the great.
As mentioned before, the core game mechanics are very solid.  It feels like a game that has been playtested to death (hehe) and then playtested some more.  It is a very simple game to learn, even for someone new to tabletop games.  No, really, I was able to teach my mother in law and she was good to go after a couple of turns.  This is important to me, as being easy to learn can be an indication of a well designed game.  I cannot think of any game which I enjoy, and yet struggle to teach to new people.

For gameplay itself, players can find themselves presented with delightfully tough choices.  When is the best time to kill off a family member?  Is it worth getting a massive score modifier, missing the next turn… or should you use it on an opponent to skip their turn but risk them scoring those points?  Is a modifier with low points in the rare bottom slot better than high points in the common top slot?
These are the decisions you have to make each game, and each game the “right” answer might be different as dictated by the current circumstances.

Aesthetically, Gloom is simple and quirky.  The character portraits do a great job of lending personality to the characters, the borders maintain the gothic feel very well and the clear cards work as intended, allowing you to see the underlying cards even after many have been added.  The palette is primarily black or empty space, with splashes of red to denote the valuable Pathos points and event cards.

Untimely Death Cards, the only
way to kill off family members.
In terms of longevity, it seems like a bit of a mix.  If you discard the narration element, there is not the strategic depth to entertain a competitive gamer indefinitely.  However, when crafting a story there is a literally infinite scope for replay value, as each misfortune can lead people down a different creative path. If you commonly play with a wide assortment of different people, the game remains fresh for even longer, as every person will bring a new creative perspective to the table.

Even then, when you have exhausted every possible angle and told every possible story, there are currently 4 expansions available.  Sadly I have not yet acquired the expansions, so have nothing to contribute on their virtues. I’ll add as an aside, Gloom is pleasantly portable, about the size of two packets of standard playing cards.  Not a worry for many, but handy if you want to keep a game in your car, pocket or purse.

As for Gloom’s weaknesses, there are very few, and even those tread the line of being needlessly picky.  As mentioned before, this game is well designed but lacks sufficient strategic elements to make it truly competitive.   The main issue for me is the relative rarity of Untimely Death cards, and how it robs the player of the choice of when to bank their scores on a character.  Players must always be thinking of whether it is worth holding out for a better score, but when you could go 5 to 10 rounds or more without getting the opportunity, such tactical thinking is redundant.  Bear in mind however, that this is a storytelling game played primarily for fun, so losing the winning edge to random chance isn’t as damning as it would be in a more competitive game.  

Earlier I mentioned the portability of the game.  The natural drawback of that is the difficulty in seeing the state of opponent’s family members.  Your decisions hinge on your opponent’s actions, but to keep an eye on the running scores a group must either play on an unusually small table or be prepared to stretch and loom over the cards in play.  A group may encounter the same problem with poor lighting.  Given the chance I would have bought a set with bigger cards, or would even settle for a larger font.

Finally, you have to know your group.  If someone loathes storytelling games but everyone else is narrating away, they won’t have a great time without possessing a great deal of patience.  At the same time, someone used to weaving a story will be left wanting if playing with those who wish to play in silence.

*Ahem* The final verdict, if you will.

Gloom is a fun and innovative game with a delightful storytelling element backed up by great game design.  It is not a “must own” for every group, but will delight anyone who wants to wax narrative over a group of doomed families with their friends.  If it sounds like your cup of tea, it is well worth the $25 price tag, and I heartily encourage you to pick up a copy at your earliest convenience!

Scott originally hails from Northern Ireland, but in 2013 made Texas his home.  Previously a tabletop wargamer, he has only recently plunged head first into the tabletop board games.  Much of his new found meeple-fueled passion is thanks to the welcoming nature of the DFW Nerd Night community!

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