A Lemony Snicket-esque Game
Designed by Keith Baker for Atlas Games, Gloom is a hilarious little mix of Lemony Snicket and Happy Families - or rather, Unhappy Families. Happy Families is a century-old British card game for children, played much like the American game of Fish. This game, however, is designed for teens and adults, and you can forget the happiness part. Misery is your primary goal. Correction: Hilarious, self-inflicted misery.
Gloom is a fast-paced little game, played with a deck of transparent cards. It takes 30 to 60 minutes to play a round, depending upon whether you delve into the storytelling side or simply play the cards, bestowing happiness upon your opponents while inflicting torture upon your own "family," who will be menaced by mice, chased by mobs or (shudder!) forced to sip cold tea.
The connection to Happy Families is in name only. Here, players start out with families, such as the denizens of Castle Slogar or the residents of Hemlock Hall, who include the Dumbfounded Duke, a Nefarious Nanny, a Lurking Butler ("Whatever it is, he did it," the card tells you), and a pair of distinctly evil toddler twins. Cards are drawn and played with the goal to amass pathos points by making your own characters miserable - "jinxed by gypsies" nets you -30 points while being "terrified by a topiary" gets you a mere -20, for example. Meanwhile, players attempt to inflict happiness on their foes, who will find that being "delighted by ducklings" adds 10 points. The lowest score wins and you don't get your points until your characters die, so it's best to wait until they are deeply unhappy before killing them off by having them "eaten by bears," perhaps, or "baked into a pie." (Count Olaf, the Snicket villain, would LOVE this game.) The game is over when an entire family has been wiped out.
It's the transparency of the cards that adds to the strategic element. The cards, which are adorned with Edward Gorey-style illustrations and witty descriptions, carry points and attributes in four different spots. Each time you play a card on a character, you place it on top of the cards already played, a maneuver that can wipe out that magnificent -30 pointer, if you're not strategic about placement.
Like many games, the first round is spent figuring out how to play and what the strategic possibilities are - although the cards themselves yield enough sardonic humor to amuse even from the first hand. After that, it's all about strategy, wit - and storytelling, an option that amps up the entertainment value as you try to explain how the "wondrously well wed" Balthazar, who is a dog, ended up "chastised by the church."
It's lighthearted, icebreaking fun with the kind of dark humor that's sure to appeal to anyone who was a childhood fan of Lemony Snicket's "Series of Unfortunate Events" - i.e., most of the teen and 20something population. The size of the game - it comes in a box that measures 5 1/2 by 3 1/2 by 1/2 inch - makes it a great stocking stuffer or fun little gift to tuck in a college care package too.
One caveat: The cards are difficult to shuffle, especially the first few times, so make sure you do it thoroughly. It's tough to kill off your family when all the untimely death cards were in the first two hands.
Not enough gloom and doom? Atlas makes expansion packs too, including Unhappy Homes, a 55-card pack that adds new events, untimely deaths, a residence twist and a family of disastrously creative artists. That additional family means you can add a fifth player too. Unwelcome Guests adds more twists, plus the entourage of Boils Malone, capo of a "malodorous mob" family. Unfortunate Expeditions sends players off on expeditions - miserable, ill-fated ones, of course - with Colonel Bumpersnoot and his family.
Mix them all together and a game well-suited to two roommates can be played by up to seven, madly spreading unhappiness and delight.