Back in 2004, Atlas Games published a card game of a singularly ingenious, yet depressingly design. It told the story of how the members of four families were driven each to a mournful end after a life time of ill omens, distressing events, and ennui to end it all. The cleverness of the design lay in the nature of the cards, for they were not cards at all, but each was a slice of thin, transparent plastic marked with various icons, images, and pieces of text. Game revolved laying cards upon the top of various family members, the transparency of the cards enabling various elements of the cards underneath the uppermost one to remain visible and in play until such times as they were covered up, their effects negated and replaced with the uppermost icons. In addition, the design of the game and its theme, inspired by the art and stories of the artist, Edward Gorey, enabled the game to work as a story telling game too, letting the players narrate how each member of his family was driven first to despair, and then to his or her death… The game in question was Gloom – The Game of Inauspicious Incidents & Grave Consequences, and it would win its publisher, and its designer, Keith Baker, the 2005 Origins Award for Traditional Card Game of the Year.
In 2011, Keith Baker returned to Gloom. Not though to provide us with another expansion, but rather to explore a new theme using the same basic format and mechanics. That new theme draws from a source as uncaring as that of the original Gloom before going on to exacerbate it with elements that are in turn batrachian, inhuman, and tentacular, if not to say, wholly unwholesome. The theme in question is the works of H.P. Lovecraft, and the new game is Cthulhu Gloom -- The Game of Unspeakable Incidents and Squamous Consequences.
As with the original Gloom, the aim in Cthulhu Gloom is to drive your “family” down a path of horror and madness to an untimely death, suffering the most horrifying stories possible, all the whilst attempting to keep the members of your opponents' family happy, healthy, and annoyingly alive. This done by playing Modifier cards and Event cards on top of the Character cards, the aim being to drive each character’s Pathos as deeply into the negative so as to give the lowest Self-Worth score possible before doing them in by having them suffer an Untimely Death. A game comes to an end when an entire family has been eliminated, all of its members having fallen prey to the same inevitable inter-dimensional doom that will befall us all – though the fate of the family members in Cthulhu Gloom will at least be more entertaining. In a non-Euclidean sense, that is... At which point the Pathos inflicted upon the dead members in each family is totalled, along with any points gained from Story Cards played. The player whose family has the lowest Family Value – or the highest negative Family Value – derived from the Self-Worth scores of those Family members who met an Untimely Death wins the game.
More recently, the original Gloom has been the subject of an episode of Wil Wheaton’s Tabletop. It is worth watching to get an idea of how the original Gloom is played and thus an idea of how Cthulhu Gloom is also played.
One difference between Gloom and Cthulhu Gloom is the nature of its families. In Gloom, the members are for the most part, related by blood. In Cthulhu Gloom, this is not necessarily the case. So whereas the Whateleys are all related as members of the old Dunwich family, and the Marshes are all related as members of the old Innsmouth family, the members of the other two families in Cthulhu Gloom are not. They are instead members of the faculty or students at Miskatonic University or staff and patients at Arkham Sanatorium. Thus, they are a family by association.
Designed for two to five players, aged thirteen years and up, Cthulhu Gloom is intended to play in an hour. The game comes with twenty Character cards, fifty-four Modifier cards, eleven Event cards, twenty Untimely Death cards, and five Story cards, along with the double-sided rules-sheet. Of all the cards, the Character cards, each of which has the name of the character, an illustration of the Character, and a piece of flavour text on it, do not have any game effect icons or text on them. The Modifier cards all also illustrated, but have one, two, or three icons on the left-hand and right-hand side of the illustration, place a game effect described in the text below. The icons on the left are always Pathos Points, the values ranging from +25 down to -30; whilst the icons on the right are either Effect icons, which indicate how and when the game effect takes place, or Story Telling icons – Blank, Goblet, Horror, Investigation, Madness, Magic, or Romance – which have two uses in the game. When a Character has certain icons visible on him, it allows other cards that require those icons to be visible to be played on him. The other use is if the game is being played as a Storytelling Game, in which case the icons are used to help tell the story of how the Character came to his Untimely Death.
For example, the “Gibbered with Ghouls” Modifier card has an illustration of a Ghoul on it, and to the illustration’s left is a single “-10” Pathos Points icon, whilst to the illustration’s right, is a Persistent effects icon (meaning that the card’s effect continues until covered with that of another card), plus a Madness and a Horror icon. The game text below tells the player that whilst his draw limit is decreased by 1 card, he can now draw from the top of the discard pile as well as the draw pile!
Event cards lack the illustrations and icons of the other card types, and once played from your hand, are discarded. For example, “The Thing on the Doorstep” allows a player to move one Untimely Death card from a dead Character to another along as the soon-to-be dead Character has negative Pathos Points, or “The Voorish Sign” which can be used to cancel another Event card when it is played.
Story cards also lack icons, but they do have dramatic and powerful effects when played and can benefit a player’s Family Value at the end of the game. For example, “The Call of Cthulhu” requires a player to have two Madness icons visible, but at the end of the game, all of the Pathos Points for a player’s Characters count towards his total Family Value, whether they are alive or dead! This is a very powerful card!
Lastly, the Untimely Death cards, one for each of the Family members in Cthulhu Gloom, are all illustrated with a skull. Some also have Pathos Point icons or blank icons that cover up Storytelling icons, but all have a small piece of game text that can be positive or negative. For example, the “Wasted Away” Untimely Death card adds an extra -10 Pathos Points if the Character it is played on has a Madness icon visible. Once an Untimely Death card is played on a Character, he and his cards are set aside. He is out of the game until the end, although he can be affected by certain Event cards.
At the start of the game, each player receives his Family, or four of them in a four-player game to prevent the game from going on too long, the discarded Family members combining to form a fifth Family if there is a fifth player; and a hand of five cards. Two random Story cards are placed in the middle of the table.
On his turn, a player can take two actions. He can play a Modifier card on any Character still alive – this will alter the Character’s Pathos Points and Storytelling icons, and give an effect too; play an Event card for a one-time effect; play an Untimely Death card on any character with negative Self-Worth score; claim a Story card and its benefits, though it is only possible to have one of these; discard his hand, or pass. These actions can be done in any order except that an Untimely Death card can only be played as a first action. A player cannot place a really good Modifier card on one of his Characters to make his Self-Worth score even worse and then protect the newly depressed Character by playing an Untimely Death card. He must wait until his next go to play the Untimely Death card as his first action, giving every other player the opportunity to improve that Character’s Self-Worth score and so make the playing of the Untimely Death card less attractive.
Strategy in Cthulhu Gloom is simple. Decrease your Self-Worth of the characters in your Family whilst attempting to improve that of characters in rival Families. In other words, make them have a less miserable time than yourself! A player should not refrain from having a rival Character suffer an Untimely Death, especially if his Self-Worth is not very low. This effectively takes that Character out of the game and prevents his Self-Worth from being lowered even further.
In addition to keeping a careful watch of the Self-Worth of each of the Characters in his rival Families, a player should keep an eye on the icons and the text visible on their cards. By covering these up with the icons and text on other Modifier cards, a player can stop negate the effect of a good card or reduce the number of Storytelling icons in play and so prevent an effect from a Story card, for example.
As clever a design as Cthulhu Gloom is, and Cthulhu Gloom is a clever design, it suffers from the same issues as Gloom did. The cards are too small. Not too small for a player to read them when they are in his hand or in front of him on the table, but too small to be read by other players sat round the table. Which leads to a lot of peering at other players’ Families and the cards played on them, and this has a disruptive effect as from a distance the cards appear to be a little too busy. In some ways, this fussiness seems strangely appropriate, but it is almost as if the game would have been better if the cards had been double the size… Of course, the cost would have been as proportionately large as well.
Physically, the cards in Cthulhu Gloom are well done, and pleasingly illustrated by Todd Remick. If there is a physical issue with the cards it is that in places it appears that the Storytelling icons do not match. This had me looking for a “quarter Moon” icon until I realised that it was actually a simplified Madness icon. The rulebook requires a care read through though, as the game actually looks more complex than it is.
Although not mechanically any different from the original Gloom, this is a well done reiteration. Where it improves on the original game is its theme, as thematically, Cthulhu Gloom is highly entertaining, especially if you know your Lovecraftian fiction. The game takes a slightly “tentacle in cheek” approach to its source, one that is just humorous enough to entertain, but not so as to detract from awfulness that will be inflicted upon the Families. Cthulhu Gloom is a fiendishly luminescent design with a fussiness that complements the theme and the source. Mannered and maddening, Cthulhu Gloom -- The Game of Unspeakable Incidents and Squamous Consequences is satisfyingly sanity sapping.