In Reaping the Rewards, I take a look at the finished product from crowdfunding campaign. Today’s subject is Illimat, a card game designed by Keith Baker and the Decemberists. It successfully funded last winter, and was delivered to backers recently, and is now available for purchase. This review is a modified version of my Kickstarter Tabletop Alert, updated to reflect final rules and components.
What Is Illimat?
Illimat is a card game by Keith Baker and the Decemberists for 2 to 4 players, ages 12 and up, and takes about 15 minutes per round. (The game typically takes 2 to 3 rounds.) It is priced at $40 for the base game, and $16 for the Crane Wife expansion (not included in my review), and is available in stores or for order directly from Twogether Studios or on Amazon. The gameplay is inspired by classic card games and is not too complex to learn, and there isn’t anything inappropriate for younger players. There’s a little arithmetic involved, but I think kids as young as 8 or 10 should be able to learn it.
Normally I just jump right into components, then gameplay, and then my opinion of the game, but Illimat has an interesting story behind it that I think would make a good preamble, because it informs the way the game looks and how it plays. (The story is also reenacted in the Kickstarter video.) The Decemberists, in case you were unaware, are an indie band from Portland, Oregon. Lead singer Colin Meloy is also the author of the Wildwood trilogy, which was illustrated by his wife Carson Ellis, who also has done a lot of the band’s album artwork and promotional art. Oh, and the Decemberists love playing games and spend a lot of time gaming together when they’re on tour.
A few years ago, the band had an idea for a photo shoot: they wanted to get photos of themselves playing a mysterious board game in various locations, as if they were part of a secret society and this was some sort of obscure ritual. Ellis and photographer Autumn de Wilde made up a board with a little box on it and some cards, and (from what I was told) they only ended up using it for one photo shoot rather than all over Portland. The board sat there for a long time, though, and eventually they wondered if they could make an actual, playable game to go along with it.
Enter Keith Baker. Baker is the designer of the Eberron setting for Dungeons & Dragons as well as the card game Gloom, and it was the latter that eventually connected him to the Decemberists. Guitarist Chris Funk and his daughter were fans of the game, so they got in touch with Baker, a fellow Portlander. One thing led to another, and they asked Baker if he would be interested in developing a game with them.
Baker’s challenge was to create a game to be played on a board that had been designed without actual rules to work with, and there was a little box that sat on top of the board, which would need to be worked into the game somehow. (The photo showed the band using cards with single letters on them, but those did not make it into the final game.) The Decemberists wanted something that could exist in the world of their album “Hazards of Love,” without the game being about the album. They wanted it to feel like a game that you might have discovered in your grandparents’ attic, something with a timeless feel. In keeping with the secret society idea, Baker wanted the game to feel a little mystifying to somebody who was just casually watching, but at the same time not too complex to learn.
Illimat is the result of this collaboration. So cue up “Hazards of Love,” put on your best formal attire, and get your secret handshake ready … it’s time to play.
- 1 fabric board
- 1 Illimat box
- 65 cards (5 suits of 13 cards each)
- 8 Luminary cards
- 4 metal Okus tokens
- 4 scoring tokens
- cloth bag
- 4 Player Aid cards
The board itself is a black fabric with white paint: it has four “fields” surrounding the center, which has a square to fit the box. The four corners of the board are marked with symbols, though they actually don’t serve a particular game function. There are scoring tracks along the edges of the board—each player has their own scoring track on the edge facing them. (Note: my copy for some reason looks more off-white for some reason, but other copies seem to be more pure white. Also, you’ll have to obtain autographs yourself.)
The cards are similar to a poker deck, except that there are five suits total: the four seasons, plus stars, which are only used in a 4-player game. Like a regular poker deck, each has 13 cards total: numbered cards from 2 to 10; plus some Court cards—Knight, Queen, King, and a Fool, replacing the Ace, which counts as a 1 or a 14. The cards come in their own tuckbox.
Each of the Court cards has a custom illustration—the Knights all have similar poses, but slight differences between the suits. The illustrations are lovely and definitely look like they are from an earlier time. The card backs were also illustrated by Ellis.
The Luminary cards are tarot-sized cards, and each of these features another piece of Ellis’ artwork, with a name like “The River” or “The Rake” or “The Changeling” but no other text. There’s a summary card that explains what each of the Luminaries does, but the cards themselves do not have game text on them, partly to keep that element of mystery in the game. The cards do have some symbols worked into the illustrations that hint at what they do, so once you’ve learned the game you won’t always have to refer back to the rulebook. The Luminary cards can be stored in the plain black cloth bag.
The box that sits in the center of the board has the four seasons marked on the four edges, and an imaginary letter of some sort in the center. On the top of the box along the edges are printed phrases like “Do Not Sow,” corresponding to the seasons. One nice touch is that the game actually fits into this box, thanks to the fabric board, so it is both a game component and the storage itself—the Illimat box is the bottom of the game box. The box lid is the same thing but without any words, just the season icons on the sides, so that experienced players could play without the text showing, making the game seem even more mysterious. There’s a sleeve with the game title and a description about the game, but once you’ve purchased the game and have it on your shelf, you can toss the sleeve to have this enigmatic box that says very little about what it actually is.
The okus tokens are small metal objects: a sailboat, a small person, a tooth, a bathtub. They’re meant to look like found objects rather than game pieces, and it’s a nice effect. I think, at least in the “story” of the game, each person would typically bring their own okus to the game. The scoring tokens are small glass beads.
How to Play Illimat
The goal of the game is to score the most points by harvesting cards, okus tokens, and Luminaries. The goal is to be the first to score 17 points over the course of a few rounds.
To set up, place the board on the table so that each player is sitting along an edge of the board (not the corners). The Illimat is placed in the center of the board, with the arrow pointing toward the dealer, and place one okus token per player on the Illimat. Shuffle the cards (include the Star suit only in a 4-player game) and deal three cards into each of the four fields on the board, and then deal four cards to each player (except the starting player, who only receives three cards). Shuffle the Luminary cards and place one face-down in each of the four corners of the board.
(Note: for beginners, don’t use the Luminaries.)
On your turn, you must choose a field and play exactly one card from your hand. Your card must be played to Sow, Harvest, or Stockpile.
Sow: Discard your card face-up into the field.
Harvest: Collect any cards that match the value of your card, either individually or as sums. Cards you collect (and the card you played to Harvest) are set aside face-down in your own harvest pile. As an example, you could play an 8, and then pick up an 8, and a 5 and a 3 together, as long as they were all in the same field.
If you pick up the last card in the field, you take an okus token (if there are any left). If the Luminary for that field is face-down, you turn it face-up—it is now active. If the Luminary was already face-up, you claim the Luminary. If there are enough cards left in the deck after claiming an okus or turning a Luminary face-up (or both), then deal three more cards into the field. Some Luminaries trigger as soon as they are revealed, and some trigger only if they are claimed.
Stockpile: Combine your card with at least one other card in the field, creating a stack of cards that may only be harvested together rather than individually. It can be a stack of several of the same card (two 9s) or it can be cards added to form a new value (3 and 4 to make a 7). (Turn stacks or cards at right angles to indicate they are separate values rather than sums.) You must have a card in your hand that matches the value of the stack you are creating in order to Stockpile.
Once you’ve taken your action, draw back up to four cards.
The Illimat indicates which season is affecting each of the four fields, and affects certain actions:
- Winter: you may not Harvest.
- Spring: You may not Stockpile.
- Autumn: You may not Sow.
- Summer has no restrictions.
Whenever a Court card is played, resolve the action, and then rotate the Illimat so that the season of the field affected matches the season of the card that was played. When a Star suit Court card is played, the player may choose which season to turn it to.
The hand ends when everyone has played all of their cards and there are no more to be drawn from the deck. Any cards on the board that were not harvested (including Luminaries) are discarded, and score points as follows:
- Each Fool, Luminary, and okus is worth 1 point.
- Cornucopia: The player with the most cards gets 4 points.
- Sunkissed: The player with the most Summer cards gets 2 points.
- Frostbit: The player with the most Winter cards loses 2 points.
If there are ties for most cards, the tie goes in favor of the player with the most Luminaries (so for Frostbit, the player with fewer Luminaries will lose the points). In a beginner game without Luminaries, ties go to the player with the most okus tokens. If there’s still a tie, nobody gets the points.
There’s one special rule that used to be an optional rule when I wrote about the Kickstarter, but seems to be an official rule now: if there are ever four revealed Luminaries on the board, it’s a harmonic convergence. Everyone gets up and moves one seat clockwise, leaving behind their hand—and the score they’ve already earned in previous rounds.
If anyone has reached 17 points, the end of the scoring track, they win the game. Otherwise, reshuffle all of the cards, pass dealer to the left, and start a new round.
Why You Should Play Illimat
Baker has definitely succeeded in his goal of making a game that has a timeless feel to it. The core of the game is based on a traditional card game called Casino—I grew up playing a variant of it with my grandmother, so the rules have a familiar feel to them. But the four fields and the seasons are new: the restrictions on actions in particular seasons adds an interesting wrinkle, and yet it still feels like the type of game that somebody could have designed a century ago and just discovered recently. And, of course, it’s also a beautiful game and wouldn’t look out of place in a speakeasy concealed behind a bookshelf, or maybe in one of Miss Peregrine’s peculiar loops. There are initiate pins available, too, pulling you a little further into this “secret society.”
I really love the way that Baker and the Decemberists went all in with the theme. They even made a record (on vinyl!) of Colin Meloy reading the instructions, and Kickstarter backers had access to additional initiate pins at higher reward tiers. It’s definitely a game that has a timeless feel to it, and is a fitting match with the world the Decemberist’s created in “Hazards of Love.”
Normally I want a game to be as self-explanatory as possible: cards should say what they do (or have icons that are easily interpreted), the board should be legible and intuitive, and so on. However, Illimat is intended to look like something from a secret society, with rituals and traditions that are hidden from the uninitiated. As such, it makes sense thematically for the Luminary cards to have no game text other than a title, and for there to be random letters and numbers on the board that have no actual game function. I also really like the idea of the box-lid Illimat without text on it, just the season symbols, so that once you get used to the game, you can make it even more mysterious. That said, I do hope that those who play Illimat are quick to invite people in on the secrets, because I like the idea of tabletop games as accessible rather than arcane, even the ones that are thematically arcane.
With all the fancy new games that are being released these days, I actually don’t spend much time playing traditional card games anymore, which means that my kids, although they get to experience really amazing games that weren’t around when I was a kid, don’t know how to play many of the card games that I grew up with. I have to admit, though, that my kids have seemed less interested in trying Illimat than my more modern games.
The gameplay isn’t too hard to learn, though. Because it’s based on Casino, it’s the sort of thing I think I could easily teach my parents (who don’t play a lot of modern games) or folks who are more used to traditional card games. The Illimat box and the separate field add some interesting twists to it, but nothing too crazy. (Except for that Harmonic Convergence—that’s totally crazy.)
The game also has a slightly different feel depending on how many players you have. Two-player games are more strategic, because you only have one opponent and the various scoring mechanisms are a zero-sum game. You can easily calculate, for example, whether it’s worth taking the last Winter card—will it give you the Cornucopia bonus? Will it make you Frostbit? Bump it up to four players, though, and the state of the board can change significantly by the time it’s your turn. If you Stockpile some cards in a field, there are three opportunities for another player to Harvest them before you get a chance. It’s not total chaos, but it does become a little more random. If you prefer more strategy, the 2-player game may be more your speed, but if you prefer a bit of unpredictability, play a 4-player game. The 3-player game is a good balance of the two.
Overall, Illimat turned out pretty much as I’d hoped it would, and I think Twogether Studios should be proud of what they’ve created. Whether you’re a fan of the Decemberists or you just like pretty card games, Illimat is a mystery worth investigating.
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Disclosure: GeekDad received a copy of this game for review purposes.