How to REALLY Win at Gloom: an Interview with Keith Baker
In a recent session, members of the Games Research Network met up to play Gloom, a card game designed and created by Keith Baker and distributed by Atlas Games. Following the game, we put some questions to Keith, which he very kindly agreed to answer, and which we share here for your reading pleasure. We began by asking Keith to describe the game.
Imagine a few people sitting around a table debating whose family has had things worse:
"I had to walk to school barefoot in the snow."
"That's nothing. I was cursed by the Queen and shunned by society."
"You think THAT'S bad? My mother was trapped on a train and devoured by weasels!"
This is the underlying principle of Gloom. You have a family of characters, and you want to construct the most tragic tale possible about your family - a tale that will eventually end in their demise. This is accomplished using a deck of transparent plastic cards. Each player places a family in front of them, and over the course of the game, you layer cards on top of a character to create an evolving story. Each card is something that could happen to a character; they might Break Many Bones or be Pestered by Poltergeists... or on the positive side, they could be Married Magnificently or Delighted by Ducklings. Each card modifies a character's score; because the cards are transparent, this creates a cumulative score.
Mechanically, the game is about playing cards onto characters. However, when you play a card, you're encouraged to tell the story of how it comes to happen. HOW was Melissa trapped on the train? WHY was she cursed by the Queen? This collaborative storytelling isn't a requirement - your story isn't judged - but it is a compelling part of the game experience.
Keith’s answer chimed with the discussions we’d been having about what winning actually means in Gloom – achieving the lowest happiness and winning (by the rules) or telling a good story. So we interrupted him to ask about this…
That depends if your goal is winning the game or having fun! Storytelling is optional, and I've seen people play Gloom without doing it. However, my personal favourite aspect of the game is the foundation it provides for collaborative storytelling. So strictly mechanically score is more important, but the story is often the most compelling piece of the experience.
Like many role-playing games you could make the case that if you have fun creating the story you have "won", even if technically you lost. To be clear: I think that the story is the most important piece when it comes to enjoying the game... while the score is most important when it comes to winning it. Players are never judged on their stories. They don't have to tell stories, and they can win a game of Gloom without ever telling a tale. But in my opinion, if you play without story you're missing out on the best part of the experience that Gloom provides.
Back to the origins of the game - where did the inspiration for Gloom come from?
I love telling stories, both on my own and in collaboration with others, and this has drawn me towards roleplaying games and games like Gloom. But I also appreciate unravelling the puzzle of a pure strategy game or matching wits with a challenging opponent. Each aspect of Gloom came from a different direction. I saw a deck of transparent playing cards - a traditional poker deck. The transparency was visually interesting but had no actual effect. I was fascinated by the potential of transparency and wanted to make a game that used it in a meaningful way. This led to the development of the stacking mechanic used in the game.
A second element is the fact that you want to inflict tragedies on your own family while cheering up your opponents. There's a lot of games where you want to be the last player standing; I liked the idea of turning that around and making a game where you do NICE things to your opponents while working to kill your own characters, instead of the other way around.
As for the Victorian theme…
[For those who haven’t seen Gloom, it’s a beautifully rendered game with a distinct look that draws on a Victorian-gothic aesthetic in both its illustrations and text. It’s a look that certainly helps the game move beyond its mechanics into a storytelling mode.]
I'm a long-time fan of the work of Edward Gorey, Charles Addams, and Gahan Wilson. While I loved The Gashleycrumb Tinies, my earliest exposure to Gorey was through his brilliant title sequence for Mystery! which aired on PBS when I was young. Mourners standing in the rain, an elegant party, a pair of feet disappearing into the pond. With both Addams and Gorey you have a morbid sense of humour, an archaic style, and worlds where the supernatural and inexplicable are always possible. It's a place where the itinerant gravedigger might be Pursued by Poodles, or where a creepy clown could be Terrified by Topiary. I see Gloom more as an homage to Gibbons, Gorey and Addams than as a parody of the things they parodied, though it's a fine line to draw. The stories of Gloom are dramatic but intentionally somewhat ridiculous; I don't believe Jane Austin ever has a protagonist Mauled by a Manatee.
I was also developing the game while Lemony Snicket's Series of Unfortunate Events books were at their height, which gave me some confidence that there was a modern audience for this style of humour. Setting it in the past also gives it an element of archaic whimsy - creating a world where you could be Menaced by Mice or Perturbed by Pudding.
Regarding the characters themselves, are any of them based on real-life characters? For example, was Mr Giggles inspired by John Wayne Gacy?
Not as such. They're more broad themes: City Folk, Country Folk, Mad Scientists, Circus Freaks, Tortured Artists, Explorers, Ugly Americans. The Slogars draw a bit on Frankenstein, and I was thinking of Cold Comfort Farm when I made the Blackwater family, but the individual characters aren't tied to real people. The one exception would be Rosseau, the Patchwork Painter from Unhappy Homes; he's certainly an exaggerated version of van Gogh. Mechanically, all the families are identical, but you want to pick a family you'll feel inspired to tell tales about. The Slogars - a family of mad scientists including a brain in a box and an animated teddy bear - are my personal favourite, though I also have a soft spot for Blackwater Watch.
Finally, have you got any games in development that you could tell us about?
I have a few. In 2016, I released an RPG called Phoenix: Dawn Command - a story-focused fantasy RPG in which death is how your character grows stronger (hence, Phoenix). As this is a collaborative storytelling game in which you ultimately want your character to die, it certainly shares some DNA with Gloom, though it's very much a campaign-driven RPG.
Most recently, I've completed a Kickstarter campaign for Illimat, a card game I'm making with the band The Decemberists. Illimat is a traditional card game that has some roots in Scopa and Cassino, but it is shaped by a story; the goal was to make a game that felt like it might be played in the world of the Decemberists' Hazards of Love album.
Hopefully, this short interview has provided some insight into the development of Gloom’s gameplay mechanics and aesthetics. From the experiences of playing this game with different members of the Network, there is certainly an ongoing balancing act between wanting to ‘win’ the game and wanting to tell the best story. However, despite what Keith says about players not being judged for the stories that they create, I know that every time I play Gloom I do judge others on the quality of their narrative creations. I am also certain that my own, at times rather feeble, efforts come under a similar level of scrutiny.
However, winning at Gloom isn’t simply about telling the best individual story, rather it is about making the most memorable contribution to a series of stories. This collaborative yet ultimately-competitive narrative construction is reminiscent of the old parlour game Consequences, which as noted by Jureidini and Taylor (2002, pp. 127) Consequences is a “codified pretending that resembles children’s spontaneous co-operative and competitive elaboration of joint narratives.” In Consequences players take it in turns to choose a word or a phrase for a series of questions, writing the words on paper and folding the paper to hide the previous words when passing it to the next player. Everyone participates and enjoys the story when it is read out at the end, but what people really remember is the one or two killer lines that draw the greatest number of laughs or gasps.
Whilst Gloom does not employ a narrative scoring system (like for example, Cards Against Humanities), the belly laughs, guffaws and gasps that each player elicits with the placement of their narratives are carefully weighed against the blank looks and polite chuckles. This alternative scoring is evidence of the game that is taking place behind the game; as noted by (Andersen, Kristensen, Nielsen, & Grønbæk, 2004, pp. 137), “during a classical board game a player might be able to read the reactions of the opponent while playing.” In Gloom it is those reactions (conscious or not) which make up the underlying scoring mechanic for the competitive construction of the co-operative narrative.
Alongside the competitive storytelling, that Gloom encourages there is a more empathetic side to the game. In Gloom, the player who's had the worst day goes first, this is decided by everyone discussing their days and then collectively voting who has suffered from the most misfortune. According to Keith this approach was intended as a mechanism through which to get the players warmed up and ready to start the construction of their narratives. However, whenever I play Gloom I find that this discussion tends to become a cathartic exercise and one which provokes genuine feelings of empathy between the players. When I asked Keith the possibility of Gloom engendering empathy he made the following observation:
When something annoying happens during my day, I always say to myself ‘Well, at least I'll get to go first in Gloom. I hadn't specifically thought of it as a bridge for empathy, but I'm happy if that's the result!
This contrast of judging (and being competitive) with others whilst also being empathetic towards them is behaviour that many people might recognise as typical behaviour in the workplace. Board games are often cited as potentially useful tools through which to teach the emotional skills that are needed to cope with many of the demands that are placed on our personal and professional lives, with Hromek and Roffey (2009, pp 626) stating that:
The social and emotional skills needed to play successfully with others are those needed to succeed at work and in adult life.
The next time you sit down to play Gloom bear in mind that you might be playing an entirely different game to the one that you think you are playing. You are probably being judged for the quality of the narrative that is being created, whilst also eliciting feelings of empathy for the difficulties that you have been suffering away from the gaming table. Gloom can help us to experience these feelings of ambivalence, and in doing so can arguably help us to deal with such contrasting emotions when they occur in the workplace, or in other facets of our daily lives. A comforting thought to bear in mind, especially if one of your characters has just Died of Despair after being Pierced by Porcupines…
Andersen, T. L., Kristensen, S., Nielsen, B. W., & Grønbæk, K. (2004). Designing an augmented reality board game with children: the battleboard 3D experience. Paper presented at the Proceedings of the 2004 conference on Interaction design and children: building a community.
Hromek, R., & Roffey, S. (2009). Promoting social and emotional learning with games:" It's fun and we learn things". Simulation & Gaming, 626-644.
Jureidini, J., & Taylor, D. (2002). Hysteria. European child & adolescent psychiatry, 11(3), 123-128.