I guess I must just be edgy, because I’ve actually come to Cthulhu Gloom before having played the original Gloom. Research tells me the two are essentially the same, mechanics-wise, with different themes, so I have not yet lost sleep over doing things out of order, the way I might if, say, I began to read a series of mystery novels out of order. (That would make me twitch. Neurotic, much?)
As many of you already know, the goal of Cthulhu Gloom is to kill your family before your opponent kills his. You use modifying cards to decrease a family member’s sense of self-worth – for example, a family member might go Crawling Through Catacombs, or get Rattled by Rats, and develop negative self-worth. Once someone is safely plagued by angst and ennui, you can play an Untimely Death card, the one caveat being that you want to get that self-worth as low as you dare before killing the family member off.
Now, I say “as low as you dare,” which seems silly. If you get self-worth low enough, they’ll jump off the roof and save you a card play, right? Well, that would be an interesting idea for the next expansion pack, and I hope I get credit if they include it, but I actually refer to the fact that your opponent has the means and motivation to provide succor to your suffering family. Perhaps your family member’s self-worth will be bolstered when he Matriculates at Miskatonic*. Apparently Cavorting with a Cultist makes a person feel rather chuffy, though one can’t imagine why. So you have to take a bit of a gamble that the family member you have been carefully driving mad doesn’t suddenly receive a new lease on life just as you’re about to end his suffering.
The Cthulhu theme is obviously added on to an existing game to make a new game, in this case, but I don’t think it feels forced. One of the families you can choose is a group of professors and students from Miskatonic University. The Innsmouth villagers family group nearly all seem to have certain aquatic mutations. There are many Modifiers and Events referring to cult activity, and tentacles, and various arcane objects. It’s not so heavy-handed that every card has to be Cthulhu-themed, though. One can “Entertain an Heiress” to improve one’s self-worth, for example. (And after all, who wouldn’t want that? Wouldn’t hanging out with Paris Hilton improve your self-worth?) I think Keith Baker did a really good job in adapting the design to the theme.
I fully admit to being utterly charmed by the stacking clear card mechanic. I think it’s dead brilliant, and I want more of it. Last night in a game I played with my husband, we had about eight cards stacked on a character at once, taking him back and forth between positive and negative self-worth in darkly hilarious ways. It was fantastic! I have not yet played this game 100 times, but I have no complaints whatsoever about the mechanics. I’m also impressed with the quality of the cards. I’d have thought that there would be a risk of designs on clear cards scraping off, but I don’t see any sign of that being a danger on these cards.
I have been an Edward Gorey fan since I was a kid. (Yeah, I know. Weird kid.) Of course, the theme of the Gloom family of games is very much an homage to Gorey, so it is expected, and fitting, that his spirit be present in the art. What impresses me, is that it is present, without there being any danger of the game coming off as a simple copycat hack job. An elegant balance is struck, and the player is left with enjoyable art that does credit to the game.
So far, I have only played Cthulhu Gloom with two players, and I have felt it does very well with that number. I suppose it is possible that it would do less well with more, but, in my experience, the real test of a game’s player number recommendation is whether or not it can live up to the low end of the “2-5 players.” It’s true that every positive self-worth card we have to play is going to get played on the same player, and that kind of thing is often a problem for us with take-that mechanics in 2-player games, but I don’t have the sense that it impoverishes our experience of this one.
Finally, the all-important replayability question. In my opinion, the deck is big enough that there are enough different Events, Modifiers, and modes of Untimely Death to keep this game fresh as a bouquet of graveside posies for a good while. (Though of course, there is the expansion, Unpleasant Dreams, if one finds oneself in need of it.) At least in our 2-player games, we have yet to make it all the way through the deck in a game, so I still haven’t even seen every card. Add to that the fact that the heart of the game involves combining Modifiers to pull a family member back and forth between self-loathing and mere self-dislike, so the many permutations of cards are greatly many. Most important, there is the variable role-playing aspect. People can choose to play this game with very straightforward usage of the text on the cards, or can use those cards to weave stories about the tragedies befalling their characters. It depends on preference and comfort, and I suppose also time constraints.
It seems poor form to have no criticism to offer against this game, but I fear I just haven’t one. I think this is a fantastic game, fantastically executed. It’s pretty, it’s original, and it plays well. I highly recommend it.