Games for the Cold Hours: Gloom by Keith Baker

While the weather ping-pongs from sixty degrees and sunny to freezing rain and negative wind-chill over the course of a single day, or while blizzards bury cars, sometimes staying in is preferable to going out. And, if you’re going to stay in, fending off cabin fever is a necessity—winter, to me, is the time for games. One recent acquisition that’s captured my interest is a card game designed by Keith Baker and published by Atlas Games: Gloom, the game where you “make your characters suffer the greatest tragedies possible before helping them pass on to the well-deserved respite of death.” In 2005, it was given an Origins Award for Best Traditional Card Game of the Year—but I hadn’t heard of it until a few months ago.

The game is designed for two to four players, and revolves around creating the most crushing, bizarre, appalling series of grotesqueries and accidents possible for your characters—while your opponents try to play cards like “Was Delighted by Ducklings” to remove some of your negative points. (Which are actually good, in this context.)

If you like card games, story-telling, and puns, Gloom will delight. Because, you see, it’s not just about playing misfortunes and pleasant circumstances strategically before offing your characters at the height of their misery: it’s also about narratives. The game suggests (though doesn’t require—still, it makes things much more fun) that the players must make up stories to justify how a character could go from “Was Married Magnificently” to “Was Shunned by Society” in one fell swoop. The rounds can go quite long when the stories come in, but it’s tons of fun; for writers, especially, I suspect this game is extra-enjoyable. (In this household, we implement a rule of “the more absurd, the better,” while still requiring a modicum of narrative logic.)

The structure of the game is relatively simple; while it’s suggested for players 13 and up, I can see playing with a younger audience that has a morbid sense of humor and an appreciation for stories. However, rule-structure aside, the stacking mechanisms of the cards are both innovative and kind of maddening. The cards themselves are translucent grey plastic with text and effects printed on them; they’re designed to be layered without covering up anything important, and also so that certain effects visually cover up others, etc. However, the plastic cards are also extremely slippery. I’ve been known to drop the decks in a fluttery mass when trying to shuffle, and it’s easy to knock a whole small stack willy-nilly by breathing on them wrong.

Still, despite the minor design flaw, a game that revolves around Edward Gorey-esque art and language puns, the narrative ruin of strange high-Gothic families, and getting to tell over-the-top, campy, silly stories as the plays go by—that’s quite a lot of fun. It’s a good change-up from the usual rounds of Risk or Munchkin, and offers the chance for some hilarious stories. With the right group of players, Gloom is a great way to spend a snow day, and I’m glad I got my hands on it.

In the end: sometimes you’re delighted by ducklings, and sometimes you get the pox. These things happen.

Brit Mandelo is a writer, critic, and editor whose primary fields of interest are speculative fiction and queer literature, especially when the two coincide. She can be found on Twitter or her website.


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