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Illuminati: Deluxe Edition» Forums » Reviews

Subject: A fun game of backstabbing and betrayal rss

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Robin Munn

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To understand the game of Illuminati, nothing is better than an anecdote. Alas, I don't know the names of the players involved in this incident, but perhaps a later reader of this review can supply them.

First, some background. One of the rules of Illuminati is that deals that involve future turns may be broken if the player chooses, but deals that involve the current turn are binding and may not be broken.

There was also an "I Lied" card in the game at some point, which allowed a player to break a deal that was binding on that turn. (Its text has since been changed).

Now, the anecdote: there was an Illuminati tournament going on, back when the game was still a CCG, with a cash prize (about $500 or so, I believe). The final round was down to two players, each of whom had a pretty good shot at winning the game and the tournament. One of the players said to the other, "Tell you what. If you throw the game to me, I'll give you the cash prize. I just want the credit for winning the tournament." The other player thought about it and agreed to the deal. Then, after having received enough cards to win the game, the first player played the "I Lied" card.

The loser asked for a ruling. The judges thought it over and said, "That's in perfect keeping with the spirit of the game. The move is legal." After calming down, the loser agreed. The winner walked away with the win and the money.


Gameplay

Illuminati is based on the concept that secret societies really do control the world, pulling the strings behind the scenes. Each player takes on the role of one of these secret societies -- the Church of Discordia, the Gnomes of Zurich, the Servants of Cthulu, and the UFOs are just some of them -- and tries to achieve their victory conditions by taking control of other groups. There is a public victory condition shared by everybody -- take control of enough groups -- and a private victory condition. The Church of Discordia wants to control Weird groups, the Gnomes of Zurich just want to make money, the Servants of Cthulu want to destroy the world, and nobody knows what the UFOs want.

The review of the basic Illuminati game -- http://www.boardgamegeek.com/thread/72858 -- has laid out the rules pretty succinctly, so I won't repeat them here. Instead, I'll focus on how the game feels to play.

The main draw of Illuminati is the humor. It's hard not to crack a smile when you announce that "the Secret Masters of Fandom, aided by the Congressional Wives, are trying to control Hollywood". Or when you hear that "the Boy Sprouts, assisted by the International Cocaine Smugglers and the Gnomes of Zurich, are attempting to destroy the IRS". To add to the fun, each card is beautifully illustrated in full color.

But a game needs more than just humor to survive; it also needs decent gameplay. Illuminati has that too, in spades. The main game mechanic is that players may help or hinder each other's moves by spending money. This translates into frantic deals going around the table constantly. (When our gaming group plays Illuminati, the most commonly-heard phrase is "Will anyone object if I try to take _______?"). And, of course, this mechanic also leads to a "bucket of crabs" effect, as anyone who seems to be getting ahead is immediately pulled down by all the other players. Well-played games of Illuminati tend to last anywhere from four to ten hours, in my experience -- the four-hour games are the ones where someone pulls out a totally unexpected victory, using Privilege cards to make a final move that can't be blocked.


Strategy

In Illuminati, politics reigns supreme. It's easy to look at the board and figure out what your optimum move is. But then, so can everyone else: what's tricky is persuading all the other players to let you make that move. "Because if I don't pick up this 5-Income group, then he will (pointing to the player to your left), and he's the Gnomes of Zurich. We can't afford to let him have this group -- I'm just doing this for the good of the group as a whole." Most of the classic "political" maneuvers, like "I'm not the threat, HE's the threat!" or "Look, I'm in next-to-last place, why are you picking on poor little old me?" are pulled out time and time again, and are also dismissed by the other equally-savvy players.

Make deals whenever you can. Then worry about the player you just made a deal with: why did he agree to that? It should be obvious that this deal benefits me more than him. Is he planning to betray me? No, scratch that -- the answer's obvious. When is he going to betray me, and can I betray him first?

Special cards rule the game, and can turn victory into defeat, or vice-versa. Keep careful track of who is holding one, and never forget to take that into account in your play.

There's an optional rule that allows for cheating, with the only penalty for cheating being that you have to restore the old board position if you're caught doing it. Personally, I don't like ten-hour games where you don't dare go to the bathroom, but some people find that rule very thematic. If you're playing with that rule, write down your entire board position, including amount of money, before leaving the table for any reason. It won't stop all your opponents agreeing to sneak 10 MegaBucks each from the bank while you're gone, but at least you won't find your own treasury depleted on your return. Or rather, you will find it depleted, but you'll be able to force your opponents to return your money.

Finally, remember that whatever happens in the game stays in the game. If you can't shake the hand of the friend who just backstabbed you for the win, and smile, and still be friends, nobody's going to want to play with you. (Making plans to backstab him in the next game, however, is perfectly in the spirit of the game).


Conclusion

If you like political games like Diplomacy or Werewolf, you'll love Illuminati.
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tim Tim TIm TIM TIMMY!!
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Are you fricking kidding, 4-10 hours, I know I can't get that long of a game in! I wonder if you could half the goals to win in half fairly for all and get it done in half the time?

Make a Speed version of it? if it averages even 5 or 6 hours that is a really long game, IMO.
 
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blair lafferty

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after all these years, still a flat-out classic.
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Moritz Schubert
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I played this game a couple of times back in school.
I really like its humor, but I have the feeling that the interactivity doesn't come up naturally. At least, most of the time I've played it every player did pretty much his own thing and seldomly attacked another player.
 
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Danny Stevens
Australia
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I think that's more of a school kid problem. My games are constantly full of planning, deal making, deal breaking and various forms of "who me?" and "trust me, he's going to back stab you".
On the other hand we use a timer, or the game really does go too long. Our 4 player games take about 2 to 3 hours.
 
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