Gaming Unplugged: Gloom

October 8, 2010

Keith Baker’s quirky card game Gloom, published by Atlas Games, is “a game of inauspicious incidents and grave consequences,” filled with dark humor and storytelling much in the same vein as The Addams Family.

The theory behind it, taken straight from the rules sheet, is that one’s reward in the afterlife is based on the misery endured in life; so your object in the game is to make the members of your quirky family suffer as much as humanly possible before sending them to an Untimely Death. The base game supports from two to four players, but each expansion adds enough cards for one additional player, to a current maximum of seven.

Each player selects a family of five members (plus a residence if using the Unhappy Homes expansion) and draws a hand of five cards. The cards in Gloom are transparent plastic, allowing certain symbols to appear through cards laid on top of them, although this can be difficult if too many layers are applied. On your turn, you can play or discard two cards, then draw back up to whatever your current maximum hand size is (default five);  the only restriction is that Untimely Death cards can only be played as your first action. Untimely Death cards send the suffering of a family member — and you can play all cards on anyone’s family, not just yours — and take that character out of play. Only dead family members count for the final scoring, but unless they’ve really suffered you won’t score (many) points. 

That’s where Modifier cards come in. Modifiers affect a living character’s self-worth (point value) by making them experience all manner of inconveniences. These include ailments such as “Plagued by Poodles” and “Mauled by Manatees” (actual flavor text on the card: “They’re fierce, if you rile ’em”), but some can increase a character’s self worth, such as “Starred on the Stage”. Most modifiers also affect the game in some way, such as affecting the hand size of the player who controls the character that was modified as long as that modifier remains on top of the character’s stack, and there’s often a correlation between the point value of the modifiers and how they affect their controller, so strategic decisions have to be made as to where Modifiers get played. It’s also worth mentioning that Untimely Deaths cannot be played on a character with a positive self-worth (including zero), as those characters currently have too much to live for.

The final card type in the base game is Event, which are wild cards that do different things. Some may swap modifiers, others draw cards, and a few can be played outside of your turn to counter other cards. The Unhappy Homes expansion also includes Mystery cards, which can only be played on residences. The card types are color-coded and for easy reference; Modifiers are black with gray text, Untimely Deaths are gray with black text, Mysteries are blue with gray text, and Events are red with gray text in the base set — although this is incredibly difficult to read and was changed to gray with red text for the expansions. The other two expansions, Unwelcome Guests and Unfortunate Expeditions also introduce new mechanics: Guests, which are pesky nuisance characters that move from family to family, and Expeditions, which affect the rules for everyone but change constantly as certain cards are played; all of the expansions’ mechanics are optional. 

Gloom is at its best when everyone gets into the storytelling aspect of the wacky Modifiers and Untimely Deaths; if you play it as a heavy strategy game you’re going to come away from the experience disappointed. It’s best when contained to three to five players, as going beyond that introduces a lot of down time; game length can be shortened by reducing the number of characters in each family, as the game only ends once one player’s family has all met an Untimely Death — with the lowest (i.e., most negative) score winning. Play time can therefore vary wildly, with the base game taking around an hour. Also, despite its name and theme it is best to play Gloom in a well-lit area due to the difficulty in reading some of the cards thanks to the transparency. The base set can be found for around $25 and expansions for about $13 each, although you’ll also want to invest in some sort of card carrier if you’re going to venture beyond the base game.