Everything Is Illuminated

I was expecting an illuminated box. Come on, Eagle-Grypon Games. Break out the silver leafing.

There’s something remarkable about holding an illuminated manuscript. It isn’t just the work itself, the artistry, the history leafed onto the pages. It’s the additional histories that crowd around the first. The scribbled notes. The stain of a fingerprint. The places where the paint has worn thin from dozens of fingers brushing the image of Jesus, or where a self-righteous fingernail has censored Eve’s privates.

Or the killer rabbits warring in the margins.

In true dedication to the apostils of history, Alf Seegert’s Illumination is about the latter. Two monks, one upstanding and the other irreverent, passing the days via the mortal contest of ensuring that their illustrations will endure for an age. How do they conduct this contest? By pitting rabbits against monks, squirrels against hounds, demons against angels. Naturally. How else?

Although sometimes with extra pornography, which is always a fun thing to discover in the middle of a rare books session.

This is exactly how illuminated manuscripts look up close.

For all their individuality, Seegert’s designs leave familiar impressions. Nowhere is that clearer than in Illumination’s overall structure. Everything is built around a single mechanism, one that soon branches outward until it’s easy to miss the trunk for the foliage. Yet that basic structure remains essential, drawing everything back to the same root.

Here the root is tile-laying. Both of the game’s monks, reverent and irreverent, begin with a stack of tiles depicting their half of a few contrasting suits: angels vs. demons, knights vs. dragons, monks vs. rabbits, hounds vs. squirrels, plus some bonus tiles for earning coins. Over time, these illustrations will be inked onto the parchment of three shared pages. There’s an immediate reward for their placement. When a tile matches the color of the quill on the page, its monk earns a sole coin, precious but not lucre enough to prevent anyone from passing through the eye of a needle. When a tile matches the color of an adjacent tile, the reward is a ritual token. Candles, wine, bells, that sort of thing.

You lose points for failing to use a tile. It goes to the sheep pen you can see at the bottom left. Except the sheep are so adorable that you should earn points. That would break the game. But look at those sheep. I'd rather hang out with them than ring the bells every hour.

Select your illustrations carefully.

Far trickier is what happens across many placements. I’d call this the most complicated aspect of Illumination, but in practice it never truly becomes all that knotty. In essence, both monks’ illustrations are liable to battle one another, but only against rivals from the same suit. If a dragon butts up against a hound, nothing happens. But angels and demons? Monks and rabbits? Hounds and squirrels? Such rivalries are fated to result in spilled ink. Once bound together by margins, text, and other tiles, these natural rivalries enter into divine battle. Both sides are counted. The victor remains penned into the book. The loser’s tiles are flipped face-down, consigned to obscurity. Also they won’t score any points. That’s probably the more important detail.

These clashes take some getting used to. For a play or two, it’s the simple act of seeing them coming. Initially this is because the pages of your manuscript are soon swimming with so many colors and suits that it’s easy to overlook an impending assault. Later it’s because Illumination isn’t only about tile-laying, but also about picking the right tiles, occasionally bending fate to your will, and going about your duties around the monastery.

Not pictured: the "invent ravioli to hide the forbidden meat from God's eye" action.

Remember to do your daily chores.

For one thing, a monk cannot simply draw whatever strikes his fancy. Tiles are randomized onto a personal grid, with rows and columns corresponding to the manuscript’s three pages. Picking the tiles in the first column sends them to the first page of the manuscript, selecting the second row goes to page two, and so forth. This isn’t to say there’s no room to wiggle. A monk can pay a coin to nudge an illustration to the next page, or perhaps use a scriptorium card to make some delicate rearrangements to his tile options. Don’t mistake these for obvious moves. Coins are also useful for moving the monastery’s (apparently very corrupt) abbot and purchasing additional cards. Anyway, you’re only permitted to hoard a handful of tokens between turns, and the items used in the monastery’s rituals are counted alongside your worldly wealth. Before you’re tempted to dump all these bells you’ve been carrying around in your sleeves, remember that at some point you need to actually haul them up to the belfry.

The consequence of all these duties is a tactful pile-on. What begins as a tile-laying game soon becomes a game about juggling work and play. Spending coins to move the abbot over to another wing of the monastery so you can unload these candles isn’t as exciting as drawing extra scriptorium cards, but it also means you’ll score a heap of points and clear some space in your frock. Or is this a better time to cinch your belt-rope tight, spend the cash on cards, and hope you draw something that will let you paint over a block of text and potentially wage holy war against your rival’s squirrels? Never mind the text itself. That was Colossians. Nobody cares that much for Colossians.

+1 for Latin

Scriptorium cards can spring unexpected surprises on your rival.

Speaking of scriptorium cards, these are the much-needed interruptions to Illumination’s usual routine. As I mentioned before, it’s possible to place an illustration over text, which can wrinkle the lay of the parchment in unexpected ways. Similar are the cards that let you shift a tile elsewhere, banish your rival’s tile to another page, or find a ritual token in the pocket of your other habit. Woe unto the monk who believes his trio of angels shall never be unseated from their thrones, for their fall is the fruit of his pride.

It helps that the turns themselves are pleasantly freewheeling. Each turn opens when you select a row or column of tiles and concludes when you refill those blank spots with new options. Everything in between is up to you. This allows for surprising openness. It isn’t uncommon to place a tile for a coin and some wine, use that coin to buy a card, use a different card to dislodge a rival’s tile, place your second tile in its now-vacant spot, conclude a holy war on the page, bribe the abbot into letting you clang some bells, and place your final illustration somewhere that blocks easy retribution. It’s as mesmerizing as a Gregorian chant, as jaunty as a day away from the monastery, and brimming with moments of anticipation and reversal.

When it's done, the stars will not wink out one by one. The monks will start more pages. And then more. And more, until their eyes and backs are ruined from the work.

Nearly complete.

Seegert’s games have always adhered to their own ethos: whimsy, intricacy, and an unwillingness to inflict the slightest harm. Illumination is no different. Its feud between fellow monks is an intimate one, both friendly and serious, as matters of minutiae between peers often are. The effect is affectionate, even warm. Where many games depict grand occurrences, Seegert continues to examine diminutive aspects that might otherwise slip through the cracks. This isn’t to say they’re inconsequential. To their actors, they’re no less important for their smallness. If anything, that’s what makes them worthy of examination. These are life’s intimacies, written in the margins, rich with good humor and the spice of benign wickedness.

Illumination captures that. Not only because it’s about the silly things bored monks immortalized in medieval manuscripts. But also because it too is a small, intimate, sometimes odd, and lovingly crafted thing, and the fondness of its craftsmanship is evident in every detail.

 

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A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on January 12, 2021, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. OOoohh! As a big fan of the ‘Ars Magica’ RPG (https://www.atlas-games.com/arsmagica) this game’s theme really sings to me. Creating the details of our covenant’s library was one of the most fun aspects of our (alas, short-lived) campaign!

    I don’t have many tile-laying games in my collection, so far, so this should be a nice addition. The only negative: It’s a 2-player game 😦
    Those tend to see little to no play, unfortunately. At least ‘Illumination’ comes with a solo mode…
    I’m definitely very tempted to get this game and you also managed to make me curious about the other games designed by Alf Seegert. So, mission accomplished, I guess 😉

    • There’s also a reprint of Seegert’s The Road to Canterbury in the works. That one goes up to three players! I still haven’t opened my copy, though, so I have no idea whether it’s any good.

      Come to think of it, low player counts also seem to be a hallmark of Seegert’s designs.

  2. Thank you so much, Dan! For those interested (and I hope this is OK), Illumination is on Kickstarter now: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eaglegryphon/illumination-and-the-road-to-canterbury-by-alf-seegert

  3. I’m not familiar with Seegert, but I may have to check out some of his other games. This one sounds like a blast! Curious about the play time on this one — it seems like there’s a lot going on, but two-player tile-laying games don’t seem to usually run too long. This is definitely a contender for our two-player collection.

    Also, I laughed out loud at “That was Colossians. Nobody cares that much for Colossians.” 🙂

  1. Pingback: The Road. No, Not That One. | SPACE-BIFF!

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