Last night I had a wonderful board game night tonight with dinner, libations, and of course, the basement of someone’s mother. We broke out the old Steve Jackson classic Illuminati, which is just as weird as it sounds. The basic premise is that every player is controlling a secret society ranging from UFOs to The Bavarian Illuminati to The Discordian Society and many more. Each organization attempts to assemble a powerful network of influence in order to be the first to either control twelve total groups or be the first to complete their secret goal (for example, the Servants of Cthulhu must destroy eight groups). The game is chock full of rules and exceptions to these rules, but the basic gist is that everyone gets two actions a turn and does their best to further their own goals while subverting others. It’s messy, bizarre, aggressive diplomacy at it’s finest (like Munchkin, but better).
The game is also full of references that provide commentaries on cultural touchstones and conspiracies from the 1990’s and early 2000’s (at least in the version and expansion we played). Secret societies can control things like Nanotech Companies, FEMA, The Yakuza, and Libertarians. Each card can then have attack, defense, income, and alignments that lend themselves to victory conditions or being able to make more attacks. For example, New York is labeled as criminal, government, and violent, but it is very powerful and influential. Voice Mail (which is an actual, playable card) is very weak in comparison, but it does help add to your Weird total (which is an actual, legitimate win condition for one organization). And as I describe this game and the joy I feel every time I play, I realize that it reminds me a lot of a quote from Firefly:
“The parts are crap, but when you put ’em together… [that] thing will run forever.”
Individually speaking, the cards, the references, the jokes, even the concept of Illuminati doesn’t really hold up. People don’t quite understand when explaining the game (“Wait, is there any type of currency other than MegaBucks? Why even call it MegaBucks?”) that Illuminati is truly worth their time. But when it all the pieces come together they become a living narrative woven by the players, which I believe is the hallmark of a truly great game.
For example, in our game last night:
- There were several serious discussions about how to keep the Society of Assassins from growing too powerful, so we had to make sure they didn’t control New York AND Homeland Security.
- Hitler’s Brain was used to resurrect an open source software platform that The Servants of Cthulhu were trying to destroy for world domination. This happened more than once.
- The Bermuda Triangle threatened a player and offered them a deal to buy the NRA. We later learned this is known as a “throffer.”
We created stories, we created alliances, dissolved them, yelled at each other, and in the end, The Servants of Cthulhu won because they were able to change the outcome of another player’s winning die roll. We had a blast. And for me, that really checks all of the boxes of what I want to do with a game. I want to directly interact with people, have a good time, and see something I’ve never seen before. If you are into collecting board games, I highly recommend picking up Illuminati. It might be very convoluted and esoteric, but I have yet to play another game like it.
“Oh no, I won’t be mad if you take my Loan Sharks. Children get mad. Adults get even.”