Gloom is a card game about family. Miserable families.
For their own (fictional) family, each player tries to heap tragedy upon each family member, making them as miserable as possible, whilst granting blessings and good fortune on the families of their opponents. The player with the gloomiest family wins.
As you can probably tell, it's a game with a relatively dark sense of humour, and the card design reflects this. The artwork is done in a distinctly Edward Gorey-esque style, and all the misfortunes involved are Victorianesque. The cards themselves are printed on transparent plastic, such that as you stack cards on top of each other, the points each family member accrues show through to provide a sum total.
It's a very creative design, and it is, either directly or indirectly, reminiscent of Dark Cults at least in the sense that the gameplay more or less constructs a story, and the players take on the competing roles of, essentially, Life and Death.
I have played this game as a two-player game and a four-player game. In theory you can even play with more, as long as you are OK with a smaller family size. By default, each family contains five members.
With two players, the "plot" of the game does get a little repetitive after several play-throughs; with just one opponent to choose from, it's not hard to guess who's going to get the full brunt of the oncoming wrathful vengeance of an Event card. That's not really something that can be avoided except by adding more players, and it's not a dealbreaker. A potential mod to make the two-player game less predictable might be to declare Event cards as auto-playable, with the player who draws the card as the subject of the card's fortune or misfortune.
The gameplay is pretty simple. Each player chooses a family to torment and places the family cards on the table in front of them. Each family is basically the same; stylistically, they each have a unique name and different individual characters, but in terms of the game, they all start out equal. You could just as easily use blank index cards. That, admittedly, is probably a missed opportunity for increasing the variety of gameplay.
Each player maintains a 5 card hand, and plays 2.
A card can be Negative Self Worth (something bad happens to a family member, such as being pestered by poltergeist"), Positive Self Worth (something good happens to a family member, such as getting happily married), an Event (you get to do something to your fellow players, like steal cards), or an Untimely Death.
Your job is to put negative effects on your family members until they feel utterly worthless, at which point, ideally, you'll want to grant them an Untimely Death. A Death card takes a family member
out of play, securing their self worth score as-is. As long as a character is in play, though, you opponent can combat the misery you are subjecting them to with happy things that raise their self
worth. Your opponent attempts to kill you character at a relatively high self worth, robbing you of negative self worth points.
Event cards are the spanners that get thrown into the works of the otherwise routine gameplay. Some event cards let you swap modifier cards (that is, move a positive self worth card from your family to your opponent's family), or draw extra cards, or steal a card from your opponent's hand, and so on.
Additionally, some Self Worth modifiers carry with them conditions for use. Yes, you can apply a -30 self worth card to a character in your family, but as part of this negative event, you may be instructed to discard your hand and skip the draw phase (effectively losing a turn), or as part of giving your opponent's family a positive modifier, you also grant your opponent the right to draw an extra card. Those are just examples, but very little in Gloom comes
without some kind of cost.
The game's instructions, as well as its [intentional or unintentional] Dark Cults heritage, encourages players to spin a yarn as they play cards. In practise, I have found this difficult to do, because there's no ingame context for the situations these families find themselves in.
There's only so much backstory you can invent for a card that reads, for example, "ravaged by a pack of rabid rats"; um, let's see..."Bernard was down in the basement looking for mothballs when he was Ravaged By A Pack of Rabid Rats"..."Bernard was walking to church on Christmas and was Ravaged By A Pack Of Rabid Rats"... and so on. It's less a backstory and more of a little extra padding; why was Bernard looking for moth balls in the basement? I don't know. I have no idea who Bernard is, aside from a character on a card in front of me. Is this family wealthy? poor? middle-class? what kind of world do they live in? what are the rules in this universe?
Without a larger context, it's all just extra padding. I feel like some "story starter" cards would probably help with this. I realise that this isn't an RPG and nobody's going to read a 500 page rulebook on the game universe just so they can elaborate on how their family members die, but maybe a 3-page picture would be nice, along with a one-sentence "story starter" selected randomly from a 100 page selection of story starters.
In an older rule booklet I found online, some history to each family is provided, but it's a brief and whimsical sketch, not really enough to kick off a coherent story.
And even if you do try to spin a coherent storyline, it's tough to keep track of your five family members PLUS the five family members of your opponent(s). I tried following my butler through his trials and triumphs, but I kept forgetting where he left off in the previous turn or since the last time anything happened to him, so eventually any sense of a story fell away and it was back to random positive and negative events happening to any random character.
Suffice it to say that as a storytelling game, I don't believe this game quite qualifies, in spite of the rulebook's momentary encouragement to spin a yarn around the game.
The idea of "characters" within each family falls apart pretty quickly, too. There's no weight to any of the family members, so killing off a dog or a teddy bear has the same significance of killing off the man or lady of the house. After the first game or two, you forget that you are preying upon a family, and really it's a game of numbers.
That said, this isn't a complaint, as such. I only mention it because the rulebook suggests that a story be constructed as you play. I'm proposing that this is easier said than done, and that the victorian family tragedy theme is a skin or a theme rather than an actual part of the game mechanic.
I have no problems with the game, aside from its theme being not an actual part of the game mechanic. The mechanics that do exist, however, work pretty well.
These are mod ideas. Some or all of them have not been tested.
* It seems that family members could have "skill levels" or "strengths" (to put it into RPG terminology); that is to say, maybe certain people are more vulnerable to disease, while others (maybe the children, for instance) are more vulnerable to animal attacks, and others are more vulnerable to drinking and personal issues (like adults). As it is, a child or even a dog can have a marriage card, or a drinking problem, played upon them. That's OK as long as you have a twisted-enough sense of humour, but it does feel weird.
* Play with fewer Death cards. If you're finding that characters are getting killed off too early in the game, try leaving some death cards out of the deck. This leaves characters in play longer, and can lead to some interestng battles for their mortal soul.
* Might be interesting to give importance, or dependencies upon, certain members. For instance, if the matron dies then all family members become immune to Positive modifiers for one round, or maybe pets can't die until their owner dies; that sort of thing.
* And certainly maybe encourage debate over what cards can be played upon what character. Especially in a 2-player game, some friendly arguing over whether or not a child can suffer from being "abandoned at the altar", or whether a dog can actually be taken out by rats, and so, can add to the fun of the game.
Gloom is a fun game, and a solid game for 2 players as long as you're willing to work a little at keeping it fresh. It remains competitive no matter what, and back-stabbing your opponent is a built-in mechanic, so the evil grins and exasperated sighs will be frequent. Since the game starts out with a healthy dose of dark humour, it all feels very appropriate.