The irony is not lost on me that I first posted a few for a variant of this game, Cthulhu Gloom, before getting around to talking about the main set. To be fair, we didn't get our own copy of Gloom until some time after we got the variant expansion, and so the sequence of events ended up being what it is. And while both games are fun in their own right, there's still a lot of value behind the game that started this particular franchise.
And there's a lot to love about this game - just look at the art style and the rather creative use of materials. And the potential for clever storytelling that the game provides does result in a game experience with rather rich flavor.
We don't play this game as much as some others for various reasons. But it's still a fair amount of fun.
Gloom is a card game created by Keith Baker and published by Atlas Games. The base set supports 2-4 players and the game already has 4 expansions outside of the Cthlhu Gloom sub-line. It won the Origins Award for Best Traditional Card Game in 2005.
In Gloom, you control the fate of one of four quirky families included in the game. The goal of the game is simple enough - to end the game with the most miserable and depressed family with most if not all of your family members dead. And this may sound strange, but it all comes into the flavor of the game, really. Players take turns playing cards that can either make a family member (whether yours or others) have more or less self-worth points based on the cards played. The cards are made of a translucent plastic that allows a player to stack multiple cards on a character with only the visible point markers being valid. So a character can start with a negative self-worth rating only to have an opponent cheer up the character and cover the negative value with a positive one.
But the self-worth rating of a character does not matter until they die. And we have to accept the game logic that happy people don't die either. So once a character has a negative self-worth rating, it is possible to "kill" the character using an untimely death card, thus locking in the self-worth rating and scoring those points. This is the only way to score points in the game and it all comes to an end once a player has successfully killed off all of his family members, whether or not other players have managed to reach a similar number of deaths.
There's an additional storytelling layer to things that is optional to the game but it certainly adds a lot of flavor to the experience. One can try to narrate the series of events in the lives of these characters as the cards are played and the results can be quite humorous. A character could get poisoned one day and attacked by dogs the next and all these events have to come together to paint a particular picture. And that can provide quite the narrative challenge for players trying to use the cards as a storytelling guide - something that can be a lot of fun for players who enjoy games like Once Upon A Time.
The strategy of the game really comes into play once you have a better understanding of what the cards are capable of. There are clever ways to change one's self-worth to a drastically positive score, sometimes even after they have been declared as dead. There are ways to switch cards around and special trigger effects that are based on text and symbols on the cards themselves. And again this all interconnects with the rule on following what is visible based on the transparent nature of the cards.
I kind of wish the game supported more players - something that only happens as you get expansions. But at the same time the game can run a little long when you hit a full 4 players and that can be a bit frustrating. And since not everyone is a storyteller, at times the game can end up being somewhat silent with minor interaction between players beyond declaring cards, and that sort of kills the experience.
Gloom is still a fun game and one that is also quite beautiful as well. I really wish we played it more, but I also wish that I felt more compelled to play it as well given its rather niche fun factor. Thus the game gets a decent 3.5 unfortunate events that befall these families out of a possible 5.