’80s Gaming Flashback — Illuminati

Evergreen Geek Culture Tabletop Games

In 1982, I happened to be walking through the “gaming store” in downtown Pensacola, FL — Koby’s Hallmark Shop. Mr. Koby made it a point to have a decent sized area of the store devoted to RPGs and various other popular games of the time. (To be honest, there were two places to buy games and supplies — one in Cordova Mall and one in downtown Pensacola, but I cannot recall the name of the store in the mall — anyone?) Tucked into one of the shelves like a paperback book was a small, thin plastic box with a very unusual looking image on the front and an even crazier description of the game on the back. This was my first introduction to Steve Jackson Games, and the game was Illuminati.

Illuminati is a card game for two to six players where each player assumes the role of a powerful (and often humorous) organization such as the Illuminati, or the Gnomes of Zurich or even The Bermuda Triangle. These are the Illuminatus groups who pull strings and manipulate organizations and countries. During the game players attempt to either take control of other minor groups (such as the Gun Lobby, Boy Sprouts, or even the Joggers) or destroy them. Every group, including the Illuminatus group, have different game values for Power, Resistance, and Income. Minor groups also have alignments… and some have special modifier powers. The most typical goals of the game were to amass the greatest amount of wealth or power while attempting to destroy the other players’ group structures, but each Illuminatus had its own victory condition (the Servants of Cthulhu, for example, had to destroy eight groups). Stacking powers provided by other groups, moving funds between groups, and even sacrificing controlled groups for one-time bonuses are all part of the game. So are backstabbing, extortion, alliances, and even cheating (in some circumstances).

Cards 1

I bought the game (I think it was all of $5.95) and shared it with my gaming buddies. A few of them got it…. a few of them didn’t. Those of us who did enjoy it, however, would come to master the game with levels of cutthroat deviousness that I’ve never experienced since. I think we were all around age 13 at the time if that tells you anything. We loved the game so much that I went and purchased Expansion Sets 1 and 2 that provided even more cards — 89 in all with all three sets not counting the Special Ability cards or the blanks that could be used to create your own special groups (or even one Illuminatus with the one unique card with four outward arrows for maximum control).

Cards 2

In addition to the cards were small slips of money — you actually had to cut the money up yourself from a folded sheet included in the box. I’ll return to this in a moment, as the yellow slips of paper were small and easy to lose.

The rules book (and the Expansions’ fold-out documents) had plenty of suggestions for devious gameplay, but after a few dozen games we would rank those suggestions as amateur. We only played the Cheat Version of the game a few times — cheating was allowed but if you were caught you had to undo all actions/profits from the point of the cheat. In the cheating game, for example, I had photocopied some of the small chits of money on yellow paper and tucked them in my sleeve before we started the game — before you condemn me, realize another player had used double-sided tape to hide the Mafia card (a very powerful and popular group to control) on the back of his Illuminatus until he needed it and no one was looking. We quickly figured out that the game was more fun when we obeyed the simple rules and stuck to just threats and bad behavior.


We would double or triple-team someone, usually the person who arrived last for the game. We would intentionally destroy the most powerful groups just to increase the length of the game. For a while we had an unwritten agreement that the first person to attack another player MUST be destroyed first, no exceptions. Alliances would be broken after one round of actions, after Ally 1 had shared his funds to bolster the defense of Ally 2’s most valued group — the next turn would find Ally 2 attacking Ally 1 with the saved group, frequently with additional funds from other players. A new player? No mercy, just backstabbing and empty promises to help out until it was no longer beneficial. Fun times.

We had some great fun with Illuminati, and it was this simple card game that allowed me to find Car Wars and OGRE and a few other Steve Jackson Games during the ’80s. But as with many games from my youth, it was packed away at some point –followed by college, career, family.

Cards 3

A few weeks back I was digging through a few of the remaining boxes in storage and I found all three Illuminati boxes (plus a few other surprises that I’ll be blogging about over the next few weeks or so). It was like Christmas, opening these boxes and rediscovering all the cards and rules and memories of so many fun games with my friends. The boxes were in great shape, and Expansion Set 2 came with a fold-out rules expansion sheet and on the back was a list of all the cards that came with the game — amazingly ALL 89 of the cards plus the 15 Special Ability cards were still in the baggies.

Also tucked into one of the boxes were some really great extra items that made me smile. Two little packing slips with the initials of SJG employees who had inspected the boxes PLUS a double-sided order sheet for other SJG games. It’s these little items that you just don’t see anymore, and it was a nice flashback to a time when ordering certain game items through the mail was the only way to get them.

Extras 1

Illuminati was a fun game, and very inexpensive (at the time) for young game players with limited funds. Without Illuminati, I might never have given Car Wars a chance… or OGRE. And now that SJG is re-releasing OGRE and Car Wars (via one very successful Kickstarter for OGRE and an upcoming KS for CW), a new wave of gamers will have a chance to play the games I (we) grew up playing.

Extras 2

I’ve added these three little boxes to my Nostalgia Shelf… and when my sons are a bit older (and can handle the backstabbing required to play it properly) I definitely hope to get a few games of Illuminati in with them. If I’ve taught them well, they’ll know enough to partner up and eliminate the Dad danger early in the game.

Otherwise … no mercy.

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7 thoughts on “’80s Gaming Flashback — Illuminati

  1. We used to have epic games of Illuminati, but our favorite trick was to try and make the other players suddenly laugh so we could quickly estimate their cash reserves when the little chits of paper scattered.

  2. Ha… yeah, I think that was one of the strategies mentioned in an Expansion Set fold-out sheet. We ended up putting the money in the center of the table so no one could double-dip or sneak it away. Everyone watched with eagle eyes when payouts occurred.

  3. I’m still playing this beautiful and devious game. Steve Jackson reedited the game with all the expansion in a boxed set that can be bought now and actually created 3 additional expansions – Y2K, The Bavarian Drill and Genius with new illuminatis.
    the megabuck was and still is the greateast fake currency in the world.

    1. But didn’t the new version of the game have some hefty rule changes? I just seem to recall someone telling me that the new version wasn’t like the 80s version.

      I also forgot to mention in the post that I did end up purchasing the GURPS Illuminati book as well… fun read.

      1. they did a collectible card game version (completely different) and the new deluxe edition of the standard game.

        never followed the collectible game (I always hated the idea that the more money you spend the better game you have).

  4. I have two of the gurps illuminati source books, which are a hoot to read. Never saw this game. Sweet. Now I have to go on a scavenger hunt. Lets see, flash light, rope, duct tape, ebay…………

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