If you want a lesson on perspective and how your day-to-day problems could always be worse, then enter the world of the Gloom card game, where you’re not trying to get ahead in the rat race so much as keep from falling too far behind with the rats chasing you down, except these rats are not rats, but mice – carnivorous mice with a taste for human flesh. With Gloom, the outlook is bleak or you’re not playing it right.
Gloom is a strategy game where you play one of four different families, who are not necessarily vying for power, but merely trying to make it through a troubled life. Your job is to stop them, to make matters worse, and visit all manner of poxes upon your own house.
Do not misunderstand me. This is not a game strictly for sadists (although it’s true they would probably get a kick out of it). These families deserve their misery. And if you’re feeling merciful, you can pour your blessings upon the other players’ families. The object of the game is for your family to have the most cataclysmic life before they all die horribly.
With these families, it’s not a hard sell to want disasters to fall upon them. Castle Slogar, for instance, is the home of a mad scientist/necromancer, her husband, a brain in a box, her only child, and that child’s “teddy bear,” animated from so many dead parts. An itinerant grave digger who finds regular work from the Slogars rounds out this family.
Another family features diabolic twin children, a devoted and amoral nanny, a less than savory butler, and a grief-stricken widower patriarch, who was cuckolded by a demon, the game suggests. A “wild-child” daughter who only wants to escape her family, for better reasons than most, completes the infernal clan at Hemlock Hall.
Darius Dark’s Den of Deformity is not a family in the most traditional sense of the word, but as a carnival of freaks, they only have each other, which is the quintessential definition of family. However, even as a freak show, they leave something to be desired. Rather than a bearded lady, this carnival has a bearded man, whose only true deformity is he’s not deformed enough for this line of work. The tattooed lady is consumed by modesty, so she keeps herself forever covered up, and the animated marionette is a wannabe fat lady opera singer in miniature. Mister Giggles, the creepy clown, makes certain the children that actually do get away, remember him ever after in their nightmares.
The Old Dam rules over her family at Blackwater Watch, with the help of a handyman for whom no job is too dirty. Her brood includes a young, up and coming serial killer, a redheaded stepchild, who is somehow also the result of inbreeding somewhere down the line. The ubiquitous dog, Bathalzar knows where all the bones of the family’s victims are buried.
This is the best part of Gloom, the suggestive nature of the cards. To call this game morbid is an understatement, and to call this a game of strategy is an oversimplification. The game takes strategy to win this game, but this isn’t even the game’s most attractive feature. Whenever a player plays a clear overlay card on one of their family to visit more calamities upon them, or a card upon their opponents’ cards to cheer that family along its way, each player accompanies this with a story based on the cues on the card.
For example, one player regaled us with the story of Elias E. Gorr, the travelling gravedigger who always can find work with the Slogar family. Gorr was experiencing a bout of dysentery from consuming too much embalming fluid. The card this player played indicated the dysentery issues, but drinking embalming fluid came entirely from this player’s imagination, and it led into his next play, another horrible card for Gorr, who, smelling of corpses, was shunned by society.
The game play is simple, leaving players time for intricate stories. This aspect of the game can make it go for a long time, so keep this in mind when planning an evening. The game ends when one player has successfully killed off each member of her or his family. At this point, whoever has the highest negative point total wins.
Each player takes turns playing two cards, which will have various results listed on them, telling the stories behind these cards, and ending the turn by drawing a card. Cards are transparent with symbols designed to overlap in places, so that the point total of one card placed on top of a character can change quickly when another card with different point totals covers up the first card’s points. As a result, the game can feature huge reversals requiring you to change your tactics on a dime.
One aspect of Gloom that emerges from the storytelling aspect of the game is that it becomes immensely entertaining and engaging regardless of whether you are winning or losing. Frequently, I found my own approach to the game changing in the middle of games. I may begin fully intending to win quickly, only to be stopped and nearly eliminated from winning at all. I may at this point change my focus to either stopping another player, or weaving a more fantastic story.
With Gloom, everyone gets to experience that ancient human social behavior of swapping stories, but in this case, the stories are not merely sad, but melancholy and macabre, and often hilarious. The game is perfect for Literature majors, story tellers, or anyone who enjoys being creative with horror movie tropes. Of course you may find out how twisted and dark your friends’ minds really are, so have an escape plan in mind.