Cthulhu Gloom: The Clue is in the Name

By Bob and Briony

Brutus Rating: 8 out of 10 gruesome daggers in the back
Pairs well with: Port, red wine, some Edgar Allan Poetry.

Cast your minds back to bygone days of yore. Days when still had a deputy Prime Minister to rein in our cartoon-villain overlord, and the horseless carriage was just coming into vogue (wait, no, too far back). The year is 2012, and your misery farming friends have been invited to a wedding. Well, to the reception anyway. Some of us (Bob) arrive way, way too early and have to find creative ways to pass the time while the proper grown-ups do things like ‘say their vows’ and ‘give speeches’. Luckily the wedding is at one of those fancy hotel/castle/stately home affairs with lots of turrets and nooks for exploring. Bob also finds a similarly left-out comrade in the form of former Call of Cthulhu RPG buddy Joss. Joss has a copy of Gloom, and Bob has a bottle of port and a plan.

Image via Atlas Games

You see, here at the Misery Farm we are all about three things:

  1. Misery
  2. Blanket forts.
  3. Board games (obviously).
Just as nature intended.
Just as nature intended.

Therefore, it should be obvious that miserable board games in a pillow fort are the best things ever. And hotels, for those of you who don’t know, are prime pillow-fort territory. You simply call up reception and ask for extra pillows and blankets, and before you know it you have yourself a fabulous and comfy little nest – the ideal set-up for a two-player card game. With port.309431_10152381350750317_856648447_n

Gloom is simple, cheap, and portable. Cthulhu Gloom is slightly less simple, but just as cheap and portable.*

The card art is appropriately Gorey-esque.

Both games are based on the premise of winning at misery. Each player gets a uniquely melancholic and gloomy card family and the aim of the game is to make them as sad as possible before killing them off. More sad means more points.

Here’s where it gets interesting. To make your family members miserable (or make other players’ families happy) you play modifier cards on them (see-through plastic, so you can see the modifiers below!), but you must tell a story to explain what happens to make them sad. Luckily there are prompts on the modifier cards so you don’t have to come up with a complete story on your own:

6D-34-97Alas!** Poor Lavinia Whateley, she was travelling a dark forest path, driven in search of she-knew-not-what by dark, insane dreams beyond her comprehension. Suddenly there came before her a clearing, hideously illuminated by the moon, in which she saw mounds and mounds of misshapen mushrooms. And that is how she ‘found some funghi’.’

6D-34-102Then you play the miserable modifier card on poor mad Lavinia and she gets however many negative points it indicates. Once you have deemed a family member to be sad (and therefore point-rich) enough, you kill them off with a ‘sudden death’ card. As soon as a whole family is completely dead the game ends, and you tally your scores. Only dead family members count, so it’s a payoff system between killing them quickly and scoring high. Of course, you can also sabotage other players with some happy points:

Happy little tentacles.

‘Joy be!*** Lavinia, after her squamous encounters in the dark forest walks through the night and, coming to the edge of the forest, finds before her the incredibly cheerful and fortifying sight of a family campsite. Yes indeed, it was in fact a completely harmless forest in Wales, and a whole host of achingly friendly North-English families are keen to welcome to her to their holiday party. There are breakfast bacon sandwiches and healthy nips of gin all round. And that is how Lavinia came to ‘forget the funghi’.’

Also pictured: Cthulhu leggings

In Cthulhu Gloom all the family members are based on Lovecraft characters, and modifiers and deaths based on narratives from the stories. Your Whateley family might be minced by Mi-Go or discover a strange new colour. Asenath Waite might finally get revenge on her father, or maybe just show up on your doorstep in the dead of night, dead. Charles Dexter Ward’s infamous cat even makes an appearance, though thankfully with a new name.

When we finally get round to playing it as a blogging cohort it is completely the wrong atmosphere. Late morning on a Sunday and we’re still not quite sure whether what we’re feeling is hangover or just some sleepiness and stress-residue from a busy week of being adults in the competitive world of post-graduate research.****

This mug is inappropriately cheerful for Gloom.
This mug is inappropriately cheerful for Gloom.

We decide to skip some of the more awkward bits of the rules, mainly because Bob accidentally threw away the rule book and can’t be bothered to find them online. This is not recommended, as the Cthulhu version does have some extensions and changes which means that even seasoned Gloom-players would do well to re-read the rules. There are, for example, full game objectives which will, if fulfilled, add a big pile of misery to your final score. This adds a stealthy strategy element distinctly lacking in the original. Otherwise the expansion mostly just clears up some fuzziness in the original rules like when to play one-off event cards, and how long effects like increased hand-limits last.

Don’t play Gloom, Cthulhu or otherwise, with people who have no imagination. It’s a dire experience as they take so, so long to play the damn card and stop rambling on, and without the stories it can be kind of boring in its simplicity. Do play this game with people who are new to board (card?) games as it’s straightforward and fun but definitely falls into this whole quirky ‘modern age of board games’ era.  Despite the port, this actually doesn’t make a very good two-player game, so we recommend three to four players.

‘And then they died.’

Bob appropriately wins this game, as she has the darkest lipstick and most morbid outlook. Death to some and misery to all the rest!

* OK it’s not actually that portable. It just looks portable because the cards are clear plastic so you think ‘wow, those are some durable cards, unlikely to suffer any water damage and therefore perfect for pub trips and long car journeys.’ But then you take them to a festival and try to play a game of Gloom in a leaky tent during a sudden rainstorm, but you’re a bit drunk and the tent is full of people and suddenly the cards are sliding around everywhere and you eventually give up on playing but by then you’ve lost a few in amongst the inebriated bodies and sleeping bags. Not that we’re speaking from experience or anything.

** We like shouting ‘alas’ when there’s some fresh woe. Makes the whole thing more dramatic.

*** See ‘alas!’ footnote, previous.

**** Ironically, Bob is actually the furthest-along in her PhD and has spent at least 15 hours this week playing Hearthstone. This was, obviously, a mistake.

Photos by Dr Photographer

Catan: Has anybody got any wood?

Brutus scale: 7/10
Pairs well with: cola and vodka. you know, the stuff you drink when you first start drinking and haven’t acquired much of a refined taste yet. 


So we’ve just been informed that Settlers of Catan has now actually been renamed to just ‘Catan.’ This is presumably a move to make it ‘catchier’, ‘edgier’, more ‘down with the kids’. It’s also a move that could be described as ‘dumb’ and ‘unnecessary’. All of the expansions are already called ‘Catan: Slightly More Convoluted’ or ‘Catan: Now with Pirates AND Robbers’ or whatever, it just seems a bit redundant.

‘Wanna play some Backgammon?
‘Oh we just call it Gammon, now’,
‘But that’s already a thi-’

Nice game of Catan in the garden! What could go wrong?
Nice game of Catan in the garden! What could go wrong?

Anyway. Let’s have a show of hands, who hasn’t played Settlers of Catan yet? It’s OK, this is a safe space. There’s no judgement here (except probably from our German readers. Over there I believe it’s as ubiquitous a part of family game shelves as Scrabble or Monopoly in the UK). Until recently, Bob was one of you. In fact she still sort of is. Despite the fact that Catan is THE gateway board game for future board game addicts it just somehow passed her by. There were always newer, flashier games to play, or no one around with a copy handy and a willingness to explain the rules.

Ehehe. Wood, anyone?
Ehehe. Wood, anyone?

By 2015 this state of affairs had become something of an embarrassment. What kind of board game reviewer hasn’t played Catan? A piss-poor one, that’s what kind. Luckily salvation was on the horizon in the form of a local mini-convention. Lots of friendly local nerds gathered at a hotel to share their (collectively enormous) stash of games, make friends, and carouse until the early hours. When the incredibly friendly and helpful in-house vendor heard of her plight he cheerfully not only conjured a show copy of Star Trek Catan to learn on, but a couple of experienced players at a loose end and willing to teach a newbie. Despite Bob’s ordeal, Briony’s first Catan experience was simply to be told to play it. She then won. Like, by a lot. And since those friends were the only people she knew with a copy, has never been asked back to play it again.


Catan was one of the first European-style agricultural resource management board games to gain mainstream success. In case you have also lived your life under a rock until now, it’s comprised of a randomised modular board made of cardboard hexagons, so no two games are ever identical. The aim of the game is to build towns and cities which generate resources from nearby hexes, depending on dice rolls. Mo towns and cities = mo victory points. Longest road between settlements also = mo victory points. Instead of making your settlements bigger and more numerous you can instead choose to earn points through development cards, which grant favours like extra roads, resources, or knights. Get the most knights in the game, earn some victory points. Get 10 victory points and you win the game.

The little grey douchecanoe
The little grey douchecanoe

There is also a nasty mechanical implement in the Robber. He’s a dick who shows up every time a seven is rolled. Because every player rolls two dice on their turn, he is statistically likely to show up pretty damn often to annoy the crap out of you. His job is to sit on a hex so that it denies you resources, and steal from you.

Star Trek Catan! Credit to  Richard Harris-Abbott for this one
Star Trek Catan! Credit to Richard Harris-Abbott for this one

Star Trek Catan is pretty much regular Catan with a Star Trek: TOS makeover. The robber is a Klingon battle cruiser. The resources are things like dilithium, tritanium, and oxygen. Roads are itty-bitty starships and towns and cities become outposts and starbases respectively. It’s pretty damn adorable. The only real difference is that the ‘Helpers of Catan’ expansion is integrated into the game in the form of Kirk, Spock, etc. showing up to give you a hand.

It is not an easy game to get the hang of right away. While it doesn’t immediately punish you for every mistake, and strategic errors made in the early game can be overcome, this very much depends on the savviness of the other players. There is no open conflict mechanic, but there are definitely ways to stab your fellow settlers right in their puny, exposed backs, enough for a 7/10 on our ‘Brutus Scale’. This game is war. Gentle, cerebral, agricultural, sly road-blocking war. Any fault made in another player’s turn should be harshly punished, while any obvious strategy should be blocked or made unfeasible. Sun Tzu’s wise advice to ‘know your enemy, especially if it’s Lizzy’ is to be heeded here.

Misery Settling
Misery Settling

Success means being able to tally this awareness with an overall strategy based on early settlement placement, as well as being flexible when the fucking dice keep rolling nines and you’ve banked heavily on an ‘eight’ hex. A new player is at a distinct disadvantage. Bob’s first game is marked by banter, desperation, and a pair of dice that refuse to roll anything but a seven. You may think this is an exaggeration, and that in any case sevens are the most likely outcome so it’s not a surprise anyway, but really this was ridiculous.

Argh! A terrible gust of wind devastated the island!
Argh! A terrible gust of wind devastated the island!

After eight turns which included six sevens someone brought out their freshly bought, unrolled Firefly-licenced dice, reasoning that the stacked dice was probably the reason for this being a show copy. Luckily Momus, the god of irony and mockery, was grinning down and sent another two sevens in a row before letting the players get on with the damn game.

Bob managed to earn four whole victory points, and the winner was a Settlers savant who sat down with no prior knowledge of the game just as the rules were finished being explained and asked to join.

More scenes of destruction
More scenes of destruction

This is not the end of the review, gentle readers. Oh no, Bob had only just whet her appetite for sheep and wheat. Despite a miserable score the potential for fun in Catan was unmistakeable. By sheer coincidence Catan: Creators Edition (the latest Catan ‘videogame’) showed up in the following week’s Humble Bundle along with Ticket to Ride, Smallworld 2, and some other crap that no one cares about. Pennies later, the download was quick and running the game only made Bob’s elderly and increasingly senile laptop fall over and die twice. It includes the original vanilla game, Catan: Seafarers, and Catan: Cities and Knights.

Rebuilding efforts
Rebuilding efforts

In general it’s a faithful but cheap and somewhat nasty port. The rulebook, for example, is dreadful. It has no easily-searchable index, bundles all three versions together in its explanations (confusing as fuck, yo), and is remarkably brief on the details. This is fine if you already know the rules, but not great if you’re trying to find the expanded rules which apply only to Cities and Knights, for example (it looks like there’s a dragon involved? Is that right?).

It does, however, come with some pretty great little game ‘scenarios’, which alter the gameplay to make certain strategies more viable or difficult, and reward you in different ways. There is also a whole gang of computer-generated characters to play against, including knights, mothers superior, craftsmen and nobles. They curse you in different ways when you screw them over by plonking a settlement in front of their longest road, and have a rotation of phrases during their turns. The game also makes a variety of noises to let you know when somethings happening (gained some sheep? Have a sheepy ‘baaa’ noise. Gained some wheat? Have the sound of… uh… some grains? Being scattered? Whatever, they tried.)

Very helpful, Lizzy
Very helpful, Lizzy

Of course the best thing about having a digital version of a board game is that play is much faster, meaning you can play several games in a day instead of doing your PhD research, which all of the misery farmers approve of. Although computers don’t make the same mistakes that humans do, you can definitely begin to identify winning strategies and refine them to work in different situations. ‘Desperate resource-grabbing Bob’ is long gone, having been replaced by ‘longest-road-builder of Catan’ Bob, ‘successful sheep-farmer’ Bob and ‘fuck you and your army I’ve got a monopoly on the supply of wheat so good luck building a city’ Bob. Lizzy better watch her back, harbourmaster Bob’s a-coming.


Lizzy is tempted to counter that the game is actually a lot better as an app, after you’ve played it your first few times and have been gently welcomed into the gaming world. But that may be because there’s just too much opportunity to ruin each other’s game. If, for example, you’ve earned a reputation as someone who’s ruthless and always wins games, then nobody will ever trade with you. Ever. Even if you’re desperate. Even if they’re desperate. At least the AI on Lizzy’s phone won’t bully her quite that badly.

Hold onto the island! The gentle breeze is back!
Hold onto the island! The gentle breeze is back!

Bob is very enthusiastic about Catan. It’s a bit like watching a grown adult who’s never eaten peanut butter before try it, go mad, and refuse to eat anything else for three weeks straight. Suddenly a whole new world has opened up to her, and she tries to tell all of her friends about it, but all of her friends already know about peanut butter. It’s actually quite surprising that she’s eaten five jars of it in a row and neither thrown up yet (metaphorically) nor gotten bored of it.

Soon she’ll realise that peanut butter involves far too much dice-rolling, luck and reliance on other players. Until then, we’ll have to cope with playing more Catan than is healthy. (Are you sure you wouldn’t like a nice game of Caylus? Bob?)

Even this bearded dragon has played the game too much
Even this bearded dragon has played the game too much

Briony has only played Catan several times, and unlike Bob has not gotten hooked. Any board game that has memes about sheep trading are way too cool for her, and she prefers to instead to engage with these types of games by turning up, ignoring the rules, being mysteriously silent and then thrashing anyone else without batting an eye. The good thing about this strategy is that you can get away with doing it once, and claiming that it happens as consecutive times. But, she supposes, at least Catan is a good way for normal people to be swayed to the way of the board game nerd.

Credit for the incredibly sunshiney photographs go to Dr Photographer-Friend. Credit for the photographs, that is, not for the sunshine. He hates the sunshine. And happiness.

Le Havre: Misery Shipping

Written by Briony, Bob and Lizzy.

Brutus scale: 4/10 slippery fish-gutting daggers in the back.

Pairs well with: Salty tears. Port.


Le Havre is a game that has been languishing on Briony’s game shelf for far, far too long. It was bought more or less because it was made by Uwe Rosenburg, the same chap who made Agricola and Glass Road (you may know him from our other posts as the King of European gaming and farming misery). Le Havre, named after the French port city, demands that players generate and sell goods from the docks over a shipping line. Although similar to Agricola in many ways, for example in needing you to generate enough food per round, it also brings in other mechanics from trade-based board games. The trading and shipping of goods is extremely similar to Puerto Rico, whereas the buying of transportation for your goods is similar to Gluck Auf.

As it’s taken us so long to play this game, and as we haven’t found anyone else who has actually played it before, Briony, Pat and Pete (generic gaming buddies 1 and 2) have decided to dedicate an entire evening to the misery of learning complex rules for the selfless benefit of humanity. DSC_0092They strongly suspect some of the emotional traits of Agricola will have crossed over to this game, but are willing to lay down their lives, or at least good mood, to break some new ground and report back on their findings. Unfortunately, reading the entire rules has taken Pete so long that he’s had to tag out and get a beer while Pat takes over. Briony suggested simply watching a YouTube video on setup and gameplay, but they got less than three minutes in and the YouTubers’ immaculate setup and condescending encouragement to buy extra plastic trays and inserts in the name of personal organisation became too irritating to bear. Today’s misery team were going to have to do it the hard way.

3,000 pieces counts as simple, right?
3,000 pieces counts as simple, right?

Fortunately the set-up of the game is relatively simple, including the docks, resources, the town building firms, and the range of buildings on offer. Resources are generated by sailing through the port, meaning that there is a timing critical element to selecting and claiming resources you need. Your ship (the HMS Cardboard Puck) sails to the next available space which restocks the particular item you land on. You may then perform an action: this can be taking all of an available resource, using a building, or constructing a building. And so off we sail down the port, excitement in our hearts at beginning our new journey as a shipping company. (Note: If you really want to feel the joy first hand watch the opening 20 minutes of Muppet Treasure Island before beginning for full effect).


Early game: the excitement is short-lived. What a surprise. As we generate resources by sailing through the port, it has quickly become apparent that there is not enough food in the early stages. At the end of most rounds there is a harvest, (Much confusion, are your ships farmers? Can you harvest the actual sea?) and then you must pay the amount of food on the round card to sustain your workers. This is only assumed, as there is no explanation as to where this food actually goes. We might just be throwing it in the sea as tribute to Poseidon, who knows. The first few rounds seem to mainly be about generating enough food to last you a few more rounds, so that later on you can invest in building or luxury resources that you may use to build or ship later. This is Briony’s method so far as she believes a massive stockpile of fish and cattle will be worth it later on, and may even look intimidating to the other players forcing them to make errors in awe. Pat and Pete have gone for the opposite: wildly claiming resources and constructing buildings straight off of the bat, cranking up their early game points and constructing some sort of giant building that incorporates all buildings. Who knows what goes on behind those closed doors.

Mid game: The demand for food is ramping up each round, making snack-generation a pressing concern almost constantly. Poseidon is a demanding deity indeed, and doesn’t seem to take the suggestion of going for a sneaky kebab very well. No sir, this man is hangry, and no grease-laden snack shall suffice. This leads to the diversification of strategies, which is a great part of this game, as there are many methods and possibilities to get the resources that you might need. The simplest is to just take them from the offers at the docks, and the more complex using of specialist buildings that allow conversion, purchase, or generation of resources.

As the game is progressing each of us has constructed a wide range of buildings (primarily for victory points as we had little idea about which would be the most beneficial) so almost by accident we opened up a bounty of opportunities for ourselves. Pat has set his heart on buying a fleet of wooden ships more or less because they were there and they were new and pretty. Briony has generated enough meat to last a lifetime and has now begun investing in any buildings she can get her hands on. Literally.

Who wouldn't want a clay mound?
Who wouldn’t want a clay mound?
Expressing sad fisherman feelings.
Expressing sad fisherman feelings.

Late game: Shit is going down. Prices, food costs, victory points, everything is now higher than Snoop Dogg at an alpine resort party. Pat and Pete’s wooden armadas provide a set amount of food per round, meaning that they need fewer resources. Briony’s sprawling industrial metropolis continues to grow, which serves to both help generate victory points and convert basic resources into luxury ones. As a result she’s now the first to use the shipping line to sell these goods and make a ton of cash. Unfortunately she spent an awful lot of planning and effort into collecting coal, a resource which was listed on the card as being worth 5 francs, when in fact it turns out there is a printing error. It turns out coal is listed twice, once at 3 francs, and second at 5 francs, which should actually list coke (converted coal) as 5 francs. Briony is a very sad, sooty fisherman. ‘Have mercy, great Poseidon!’ is what should have been called, but by this stage it was more like ‘fuck you, Poseidon. I don’t need to prove shit to you. Get off my back already.’

Endgame: A noticeable effect of constructing literally all of the building cards available is that the port is now brimming with massive piles of resources, including money. Pete has opted to claim huge stockpiles of free wood (feel free to insert* all generic ‘got wood’ jokes here) and clay and is rapidly transforming them into brick to ship, and selling wood in the joinery building. Both are racking him in some big hits of money. Unfortunately there is only one building card that can be used to ship goods (‘the shipping line’), so this is easily the most contended-for card throughout the latter stages of the game. Pat is muscling in on it, and has been shipping cow and coke (that classic combination). As the number of rounds left is ticking down we’re all beginning to hawk everything we can in order to scrape in as many victory points as possible.

If you’ve played Agricola before, you’ll now that scoring can potentially be the most depressing part of the ordeal, with dizzying heights of 11 or 12 winning the game. Now, take that and throw it out of the window. Le Havre has been designed to work in the exact opposite way, with all players scoring well over 100 points. This is probably because resources can be sold for money, as well as receiving money for shipping goods, and counting the cost of your buildings contributing to your final score. Make it rain. Briony has wiped the floor with the others with a closing, and first time playing, score of 271. Fuck you, Poseidon.

The 'Shnaps Distillery' is a card that Briony fully endorses.
The ‘Shnaps Distillery’ is a card that Briony fully endorses.

In conclusion, our brave reporter and Uwe Rosenberg connoisseur Briony enjoyed this game far more than Agricola for a number of reasons. Firstly, it demonstrates that designers listen to their target audience and feedback, as Uwe has addressed the issue of misery-scoring apparent in Agricola. Despite this, scoring in Le Havre is a little extreme, as it patronisingly cheers you on like an overly-competitive mum at a school football match. ‘LOOK HOW GOOD YOU ARE AT FISHING. GO YOU. SHIP THAT FISH. WOO!’ But you know, that’s okay. It feels quite supportive. Secondly, there is a really wide variety of strategies available that allow you to be very flexible. This consequently means it’s a lot harder to drastically fuck up your turn by miscalculating or not paying enough attention, because chances are there is another free card or action that could have roughly the same benefits. Thirdly, the designs and iconography of the cards, resources and board are really well thought out and themed. And finally, the game is very well balanced and offers more mechanisms, such as selling resources, converting resources to money, and breeding cattle or grain that aren’t available in similar shipping games like Puerto Rico. Definitely check this game out, but be prepared for some intense rule reading and playing a couples of rounds to get the feel of it before diving in to the full version (a shortened one is available too). Or just have a better set of friends who have already played the game before.


*Feel free to insert all generic ‘insertion’ jokes here.

Top image courtesy of Z-Man Games