Illuminati House Party
One of the best things about this hobby is the possibility of stumbling across something entirely unfamiliar. Illimat, which was designed by the creator of Gloom and has something to do with a band I’ve never listened to, never fully crosses the line into alien territory. Instead, it steps up to the barrier and then moves sideways, somehow feeling familiar and forgotten both at once. Otherworldly, you could call it, as though it fits within some alternate dimension or half-recalled dream, only penetrating into our world at oblique angles.
That or it’s a card game that knows how to put on a good show. It’s tough to tell.
At the very least, Illimat knows how to make a good first impression. Between its monochromatic aesthetic, the bottom of the box standing above the cloth mat like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, and sharp-as-buttons brass tokens, it draws the eye much the same way a black hole draws everything. Even the game’s lore gives it an edge of coolness, a secret society’s plaything of which you, the privileged few, have been granted a glimpse. The first time I showed it to my Dad, he noted that it looked like we were about to summon a demon. Perfect.
Even the rules have a mystical tint to them, as though they’re common sense in a dimension where every game features a rotating illimat. In general, your task is so simple that it’s downright earthy. Harvest as many cards as you can, in particular summer cards and less in particular winter cards, while maybe grabbing some brass tokens or luminaries along the way. There are only three actions, letting you sow cards into one of the mat’s four fields, stockpile to pile cards together into higher-value cards, or harvest everything from a single field that can sum to the value of whichever card you played — as in, playing a 10 can grab a 7 and a 3 and a 10. As long as you can count to fourteen with no significant degree of error, the basics of Illimat are within your grasp.
Of course, that’s like saying digging a few inches into the soil puts a subterranean fairy kingdom within your grasp, because Illimat is the sort of game that seems straightforward right until the moment it doesn’t. And it has to do with two of the game’s most peculiar digressions from the workaday process of sowing, stockpiling, and harvesting.
The first is the illimat itself, that raised platform where the brass tokens are stored. Whenever a face card is played onto a field, the illimat must be wheeled around to align its season with that of the card. Three of these seasons block an action — it’s impossible to sow in autumn or harvest in winter, and spring provides one more reason to avoid stockpiling — and this dictates much of what passes for strategy in this game. Preparing a massive harvest in a field blocked by winter or being forced to first rotate the illimat before sowing elsewhere are both persistent considerations, and it’s a rare first-timer’s match that won’t see somebody erroneously trying to harvest from a frosted-over field.
Even more disruptive are the luminaries. Originally played face-down in each field, a luminary will only appear once its field has first been cleared of cards. Then the game starts to take on a different shape entirely. Sometimes these disruptions are minor, like how the Maiden cancels winter, the Forest Queen locks the illimat into a single configuration, or the Newborn reveals its opposite luminary.
Others have more dramatic effects that might derail any plans you were fostering. The Changeling, for instance, transforms its entire field into a grab-bag of selections that may be freely swapped with cards in your hand. The Rake requires you to sow a card into his field every turn without fail — in addition to another action, otherwise the game would be shattered — but in the unlikely event that his field is cleared a second time, he lets his captor steal a valuable summer card from everybody’s harvest pile. And my personal favorite, the expansion’s Perfect Crime, lets you steal those little brass figurines from those who worked so hard to acquire them in the first place.
Other eccentricities also leave their mark, like optional rules for dumping a bunch of low-value cards to claim something worthwhile (I strongly recommend this) and the possibility of forcing everyone to swap seats, hands, and scores by having all four luminaries face-up at the same time (I’ve never seen it happen).
That said, there’s a certain fragility to Illimat, one that lurks behind the velvet curtains and cultish rooster masks. While the game certainly allows moments of insight, where a clever play might net you a bunch of cards, a brass token, and maybe even a luminary, these are rarer than they ought to be, especially when playing with three or four people. Actions like stockpiling and even sowing feel less like steps toward a grand play and more like paving the way for an opponent to roll over you. It’s possible to do very clever things and watch all those careful preparations be undone — or worse, be ensnared by a rival’s plan — by the time your turn comes around again, and for no reason other than that your opponents happened to draw high cards.
At one level, the presence of the game’s zanier luminaries seems to encourage a notion that you’re rolling with your punches and repurposing any tattered plans to suit the flexible realities of a changeable and chaotic universe. The in-game metagame, where you’re competing for points over multiple rounds, as well as the otherwise tight card play, seem to indicate the opposite. It imbues the whole thing with a vague schizophrenia, as though a rock-solid card game took a step into a river and got swept away.
The easy answer is to focus on the two-player game, which indulges both its strategic and wild sides with a better sense of proportion. But that misses out on some of what makes Illimat so special, as rising to the top of an eight-fisted brawl is far more thrilling.
Then again, the most interesting games are rarely the ones without imperfections. Illimat isn’t without its faults, including the occasional veer into the confounding. Most of the time, however, it manages something almost impossible, being at once familiar and foreign, disciplined and untamed, elegant and bed-haired. Only rarely are we presented with something so strange. Even rarer that it should prove so enjoyable.