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Reviews - Cthulhu Gloom
 
by Demian Katz


Cthulhu Gloom

Cthulhu Gloom

Published by Atlas Games (2011)
Designed by Keith Baker
Illustrated by Todd Remick
Contents: 20 character cards, 54 modifier cards, 11 event cards, 20 untimely death cards, 5 story cards, plus instructions
2-5 players
$24.95

The Gloom franchise, in which players compete to visit the greatest possible disasters and tragedies upon their unfortunate characters, has been around for several years now, and I have somewhat mixed feelings about it. The game has the right sense of dark humor to amuse me – the Edward Gorey influence is very apparent – and many of the cards are quite funny. The transparent plastic cards (which allow effects from earlier cards to stay in play as long as they are visible through the cards played on top of them) are an interesting novelty. The fundamental problem, though, is that I find the actual gameplay rather mechanical – the game consists mostly of playing bad modifiers (worth negative points, which are good) on your own characters while playing good modifiers (worth positive points, which are bad) on opponents' characters. There are event cards and other special effects to add a little variety, but it's largely an exercise in arithmetic and pushing one's luck. It's a good enough framework to hang the jokes from, and you can stretch it further if your gaming group is of a storytelling bent, but the game doesn't have much staying power once its humorous potential has played out.

Given that I enjoyed the process of playing out the humorous potential of the original Gloom (and a couple of its expansions) a few years ago, I was pleased to hear that a Lovecraftian variation of the game had been released. Sure, the market for Cthulhu-themed humor is nearly as oversaturated as that for lighthearted zombie romps these days, but the subject matter is a perfect fit for the Gloom system, and Gloom at least has a good enough track record for humor to guarantee some chuckles. As I had rather suspected, all of my expectations were met, but none were exceeded.

What's New
The first question in looking at Cthulhu Gloom is "what does it bring to the franchise?" The answer is "Cthulhu, and not much else." The basic Gloom gameplay is unchanged from the original, and apart from the relatively trivial addition of travelling "story cards" (which resemble similar mechanics from some of the original game's expansions), there's really nothing new here. You probably couldn't get away with using this as an expansion to the base game since some of the icons are different, but the changes are really only cosmetic. This isn't necessarily a bad thing – it is not the job of a themed game variant to reinvent the game – but don't expect any thrilling new mechanics to spice up the system.

Of course, far more important than the mechanics are the story elements, and these show loving attention to detail. There are four new "families" (Miskatonic University, The Whateleys, Village of Innsmouth and Arkham Sanitarium), and plenty of theme-appropriate modifiers, events and (of course) untimely deaths. Jokes range from the obvious ("...Had Too Many Tentacles") to the rather obscure ("...Worried About Whippoorwills," which makes more sense if you've read The Dunwich Horror). In many cases, witty flavor text beautifully complements the card headings. I laughed out loud several times during my first game, and I'll refrain from spoiling any of the fun for you. The usual style of cartoony artwork helps to set the proper tone, and it is consistently well-executed throughout the deck.

Conclusions
So is it all worth it? We've got a so-so game with well-executed jokes in a somewhat tired market segment. That's not the highest of recommendations, but it is undeniably funny, especially if you're a Lovecraft enthusiast. If you've already tried Gloom and didn't like it, this won't change your mind... but if you've been wanting to explore the franchise, this is as good a place to start as any. For my part, I don't expect to play this very often, but if I manage to space out my plays far enough that I forget the jokes, I'll probably manage to get laughs out of this for many years to come.

 

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