This weekend, out of the blue, I found myself wanting to play Illuminati, a card game from 1987 (this edition, that is) published by Steve Jackson Games. I hadn’t played it in years, and it’s been decades since I played it regularly.
I first bought it back in the mid-80s, but it wasn’t until I was in college at LSU that it really got played. Kurt, Anna, Chris, Kyle, and I would regularly try to take over the world, usually involving Anna being certain I was winning on turn two and blasting me as much as she could. It was a fun time.
A brief gist of the game: Each player is an Illuminati, a secret group bent on controlling the world. Other groups, such as “Convenience Stores”, “The FBI”, “The Music Industry”, “Girlie Magazines”, and “Elvis Impersonators” are revealed, and you are trying to recruit or destroy these groups to further your sinister goals. Each Illuminati has its own agenda that gets it victory, or it can go the brute force method of simply controlling a specified number of groups.
It’s based on The Illuminatus! Trilogy, a sprawling, sloppy, near-unreadable hulk of a tome written in the 70s that satirizes much of the culture and counter-culture of the time, in which various folks are trying to stop a plan by the Illuminati, but get caught up in conspiratorial wheels within wheels.
I played Illuminati before I was really into hobby games, and it was coming off the 80s anyhow, which had a totally different angle on boardgames, so we saw nothing wrong with the game as it was. These days, though, it’s a dated relic of an earlier time. It’s clumsy, the different Illuminatis are not remotely balanced, and it has the usual Ameritrash polarizing elements: dice, randomness, player elimination, take-that, direct attacks, general goofiness. It plays exactly like a game from the 80s, down to the fact that it doesn’t recommend playing with three, assuming you have four people who are down for a game of Illuminati. The endgame consists of smacking down whoever’s currently about to win until someone does because everyone else has run out of money, and it can drag the game out.
I got some of the Sunday group to play it with me, and they weren’t too impressed. I completely understand. Yet, I still have affection for the damn thing. Part of the attraction for me is the theme. I was into the whole Illuminati conspiracy nonsense back before the Internet made everyone an expert on it. I’m the guy who was the only person who ever checked out Charles Fort’s The Book of the Damned from the LSU library. I read The Illuminatus! Trilogy not once but twice, and then later a third time! Hell, I read Cosmic Trigger, written by one of the Trilogy’s authors, Robert Anton Wilson, which was as big a load of nonsense as could be communicated on paper. So yeah, I’m down with the theme, and that probably explains 80% of my enthusiasm for the game. (Side note: It really, really bugs me that SJG acts like it invented and owns the whole Illuminati, Pyramid, Fnord, Discordian, etc stuff, but we have a post to get through so let’s not get me started on why SJG bugs me.) The game actually spurred my interest in the topic, rather than the other way around.
It’s pretty much ignored now. Though Steve Jackson Games released expansions for it between 1999 and 2010, the last expansion consisted only of 18 cards. (I, of course, bought all of these despite never much playing it.) Compare that with SJG’s Munchkin, which released fourteen expansions in the time it took me to type this sentence. There are only a handful of plays for it on BGG in any given month. It seems like its time is gone, and that may be for the best.
It had a brief moment in the early 90s, when the collectible card game surge caused everyone to try their hand at one. SJG retooled the game into Illuminati: New World Order which was an even sloppier, even more unbalanced, broken mess, despite having some good ideas for the game. Naturally I bought into that game, but gave up on it being something playable almost immediately. I still have the cards, though, unlike nearly every other CCG I tried. People have been trying to fix the game ever since, but the common solution seems to be “play the original version instead”.
The game is dated not only mechanically, but thematically, with cards like “The Phone Company” but I honestly think there’s something there. It might be as simple as paring down the massive number of cards to a more reasonable stack to get rid of some of the dated and wonky ones, as well as the boring ones that don’t add much. Some folks on BGG have suggested that sort of thing, but I just don’t know how well I could sell even an allegedly fixed Illuminati game to my group again. Maybe it’s just time to let it go.