They're out there. Powerful, clandestine organizations with vast resources using their insidious influence to control special-interest groups throughout the world. Their ultimate goal? Nothing short of complete global domination. That's the concept behind Illuminati, Steve Jackson Games' cult classic which has long reigned as the king of the beer and pretzels game.
Illuminati was originally published as a microgame. Like Ogre, G.E.V. and other games of the time, it was packaged in a hard, black plastic case about the size of a thin paperback. Opening the case revealed a deck of smaller-than-average cards, sheets of "megabucks" which needed to be cut apart, and the amusing rule booklet. The game proved popular enough for three expansion sets to be issued. The first two expansions merely added new groups and illuminati. The third added more unusual elements such as brainwashing and met with less wide-spread acceptance than the first two.
The original edition eventually went out of print, replaced by the "deluxe" boxed edition. This set included all the illuminati and groups from the first two expansions, but none of the controversial additions from the third expansion set. It also replaced the paper megabucks with sturdier cardboard or, in later copies, plastic chips. Recently this edition also went out of print to make way for the upcoming Illuminati: New World Order, a collectable trading card game seeking a slice of the Magic: The Gathering pie. Steve has been actively seeking feedback from fans during the design phase of the game, and advance word looks promising (see accompanying article). But some people adamantly refuse to participate in any trading card scheme, and to many gamers nothing will replace the original Illuminati in their hearts.
The essence of Illuminati is a contest for power over special interest groups. Each player assumes the role of a different group of "Illuminati"-- secret societies vying for world domination. Each Illuminati has a different special ability which only their owner can use. And while all players can win the game by gaining control of enough groups, each Illuminati can also win by satisfying a different, unique condition. The Gnomes of Zurich, for example, win if they accumulate enough money, while the Servants of Cthulhu seek to destroy a certain number of groups during the game.
Groups are drawn from the deck at the start of each player's turn and are played face-up in the center of the table. These groups often have amusing names which are puns of actual organization, like the Boy Sprouts or the Society for Creative Anarchism. Each group has a certain amount of power, defense, and income. Each has one or more "alignments" such as violent, criminal, government, fanatic, weird, or conservative. And some have special abilities which allow the player controlling them to do something nasty.
Groups start out neutral. A player's turn consists mainly of an attack on a group to try to control it. In its simplest form, this means that a player subtracts the group's defensive value from his Illuminati's power value, and tries to roll the difference or less on two dice. Anybody can spend money to increase or decrease the value needed for success, and this is where the real fun of the game lies.
The heart of Illuminati is the haggling, wheeling, dealing, conniving, and backstabbing that occurs during such power struggles. Players can promise the world to each other in exchange for support, but aren't obligated to follow through on any of those promises. It's a politician's wet dream. When all players are done interfering, the attacker rolls the dice. If he's successful, the target group gets added to his power structure.
Every Illuminati has four arrows-- one on each of the four sides of the card-- pointing outward. All groups have one arrow pointing inward, and some have arrows pointing outward. When a group is taken over it is placed next to the group that attacked it, with its inward arrow next to an outward arrow of the attacking group. Only groups with outward arrows can attack, and each group can only participate in one attack per turn. As the game progresses, players acquire more groups and build tree-like power structures. The arrangement of cards can be important, as a card must be able to physically fit within the power structure in order for a player to control it.
You don't have to attack neutral groups-- you can attack other player's groups too. The closer such a group is in its power structure to its controlling Illuminati, the harder it is to steal it away. Group alignments also affect an attack's chances for success. A liberal group gains a bonus when attacking another liberal group, but is at a disadvantage when trying to control a conservative group.
Sometimes you may wish to destroy a group outright rather than take it over. Perhaps you want to make sure it doesn't fall into enemy hands. Perhaps you need to remove it from an opponent's control and believe that other players will be more inclined to help you if you attack to destroy it rather than control it. Such attacks work a little differently-- instead of subtracting the defender's resistance value, you subtract its power value. And since opposite groups are more effective against each other, a liberal group would gain a bonus when trying to destroy a conservative group.
Not all cards in the deck are groups. A precious few are special events which may be kept secret until needed. Used judiciously, these can dramatically change the tide of the game. A Slush Fund or Swiss Bank Account can provide an instant financial windfall (and in this game, money is power), or a Senate Investigation Committee can cause another player to lose a turn completely.
Illuminati is really a gamer's game. Although the theme is firmly tongue-in-cheek, it takes a while to complete a game and the mechanics are too complex for most novice game players to grasp easily. Which is a real shame, since it's such outlandish fun. Illuminati: New World Order will reportedly be both faster and easier to learn. Although I'm eagerly looking forward to its newest incarnation, I still cherish my original and deluxe sets. And if anyone has any of the original three expansions they'd like to get rid of, send them to me. Fnord.