Going to California

Making Magic — sidebar

There is a site called “Illuminati Game Revealed,” which details secret messages and imagery some people feel they’ve discovered in the Illuminati: New World Order card game. It’s hosting extensive archives of the game art, noting, “These cards, most likely, were made by Steve Jackson and staff, who had an extensive knowledge of Freemasonry, the occult, blasphemies to The Lord Jesus Christ, and occultic practices and groups. We hope to expose and correct them (Ephesians 5:11), in light of The Word of God, The Holy Bible.”

Also, here’s a two-month-old thread from Reddit of people talking about the game and its card art.

People have called the game ahead of its time. The truth is it was only a product of its age.

Going to California

Making Magic — 15

Soon, September passed by. It was no longer Summer though, situated as we were in the middle of Texas, still the heat would not relent. I was working 10-16 hours a day, six or seven days a week.

I spent a lot of my time with Steve.

“No,” he said one day. “I don’t want to see any more of this?”

“Any more of what?” I was really confused. We were looking at an abstract design for a computer-centric cards. One of the secret societies was called The Network, so naturally we had a lot of technology touch points in the game as well, and I’d painted it up in shades of green.

“No,” he said, turning away from the screen. “I don’t want to see any more green.”

I don’t think I said anything.

“If it’s not something like a tree,” he said, counting exceptions off one finger at a time, “or grass, or money, or an Army uniform — something that is supposed to be green — don’t use green. It’s a dull color. Stop it.”

“Why?” I asked, and when his shoulders tensed, I almost wished I hadn’t.

“When I was in school,” he said, “a long time ago, I had to read ‘The Red Badge of Courage’.”

“Sure — all American school kids have to.”

“And the author described rotting wounds on the battlefield as green.” He shuddered. “It’s stuck with me. So I don’t want us to use anything green here. Please.”

“That’s—” I started.

Steve caught me in a strong stare. “Please,” he said.

I sighed. “I’ll tell the guys: no green from here on out.” I turned back to the computer. “As long as we still have red and blue to work with.”

“Thank you.”

Life went on like that, more or less, for nearly two months, in a blur of dark air-conditioned rooms, take-out meals, and computer-colored artwork reviews with Steve, peppered by the occasional playtest.

Pushing a mouse to color artwork for more than 80 hours a week — week after week — will do something to your brain. When the artwork you’re coloring is an extended vision of the power structures of the world and icons of your age and paranoid delusions, it’s possible to create in your mind a perspective that never before existed and may never should have.

The eye in the pyramid goes back at least as far as Ancient Egypt. In America, it most famously appears on the back of the U.S. one-dollar bill, though because it’s also been used for hundreds of years by the Freemasons, and it’s commonly believed that many of the Founding Fathers were brother Masons, some see the Great Seal of the United States on the back of the buck as a wink to the conspiracy that was the true force behind the birth of that new democracy.

The strength of the symbol is its simplicity. It’s a triangle with a circle in it — that’s all. It makes a perfect seed for paranoia because it takes two of the most simple shapes and produces something that crosses the lowest threshold of what our brains consider to be an actual signal against the noise of randomness around us. It’s a trick, exploiting the limits of our lowest levels of cognition to find a way into our minds. It’s a hack, bringing along whatever you attach to the symbol and giving it a stronger cognitive presence than the payload might have otherwise.

Every piece of art in Illuminati: New World Order has an eye in the pyramid in it, somewhere. Sometimes it had been spec’ed for the art, often I had to add it. In reviewing the art, Steve and I sometimes found even better places for them. It was fun. I spent essentially countless hours running a virtual brush along inked lines, watching as the forms abstracted out into their fundamental geometries: adding a subtle eye to a triangle that seemed to be begging for one, or adding acute angles in the shading to create a slanted cone behind a circular form.

What little walking around I did outside the office only made it clear to me how far gone I was. The eye in the pyramid was everywhere, when you were looking for it. The only pleasures I allowed myself were music and driving and comic books. The local comic book stores had begun selling collectible card games, given that everyone was buying them, so taking a break to walk around Dragon’s Lair or Austin Books was like walking through a story of economy and commerce that I was at that time myself living. The feedback loop was focusing in some ways, but in other ways not.

I stopped showering every day. I shaved rarely. I hadn’t had a haircut in months. I used to let the TV news run in my apartment, all the time, but by that point in the production I had to keep it off or my mind’s noise amplification would create too much signal. I even found myself struggling to avoid reading tabloid headlines at convenience stores.

There were secrets in the world, and if someone wasn’t going to tell me what they were, I was going to figure them out myself. I saw conspiracy everywhere, and it wasn’t just me. A lot of us were becoming similarly afflicted, one way or another, which only seemed to make the game deeper. A few of the things that bounced out of our heads in that time strike some people as eerily prescient today, like the card that shows the New York World Trade Center’s twin towers, cropped closely, with one tower exploding from its middle.


All I can say is that everything we put in the game seemed very plain to us at the time. I don’t know if that’s a reasonable explanation given that I had become delusionally paranoid.

A Street Gang, controlled by the Mafia, attacked the Game Developer. The Local Police, controlled by the Servants of Cthulhu, attacked to destroy a Street Gang, causing it to lose its Safe House. The Archeologists, controlled by the Discordians, took over the Safe House, sharing its protection with the Game Developer. The Mafia attacked the Safe House, but George the Janitor, controlled by the Local Police, blocked the attack.

It all made sense, in a fragile sort of way. And while I was dropping card art into the layout, it struck me that the cyberspace I’d long anticipated, that I yearned for, had come true in the form of modern design tools. Those geometric abstractions of pictures and text and boxes that I’d spent days creating and flying over, and which I still struggled to control, described a virtual reality of locations and people and forces which had been designed for the sole purpose of fighting it out with one another.

I decided I’d been in cyberspace for years, and never even realized it.

All the fears that had welled up in my head for so long were wrung out into that production, and all the pieces that my paranoia put together culminated in an last, fevered round of color correction and art tweaking. The artists themselves, the illustrators, were beginning to feel exhausted, though we were close enough to the end that it didn’t seem to matter. We had what we needed to be successful. It didn’t take the whole two months for Rick to develop into a Photoshop powerhouse, and Jeff was turning in work that I not only didn’t have to touch up, but which I knew was better than the job I’d have done on the same thing. He was more than good enough, by then. He’d developed a genuine skill there, and in the darkness of my office it was impressive.

I wasn’t alone in those last weeks. Steve was there with me, and he looked close to as worn out as I felt. We spent an hour or two every day reviewing art, tweaking it there — between getting faster with the tools than I thought possible and lowering my standards slightly, I was often able to get Steve to sign off on a card at first glance by making quick changes right there in front of him. He’d rap on my war-surplus metal desktop that a piece of colored art was now good and we’d move on to the next.

One day, I don’t remember why, I stumbled out of my office. It was late, probably close to midnight if not past it — Steve regularly stayed in the office until at least two in the morning — and we were the only two people in the building.

“How did it happen?” I asked him.

He pushed himself back from his desk, squinted his eyes, and shook his head.

“How did what happen?” he asked.

Illuminati,” I said. “Ogre was your first baby, though — taking nothing away from how awesome it is — it’s kind of taking something that already existed to its logical conclusion. And GURPS is taking the point-balanced role-playing game and doing it right. You have this real knack for taking things that already exist and making them better — much, much better. But Illuminati is its own thing. I’ve never seen anything else like it. You’ve done some genius-level stuff, no doubt, but where did Illuminati come from?”

“It just came to me,” he said quietly. “I was driving down the road, back from a friend’s house, one of those long country roads out here, and—” He looked up with a widening smile, as if the heavens were opening before him. “I could see it laid out before me. I pulled off to the side of the road and I immediately began taking notes. And that was Illuminati.”

I don’t know if what he said was true, but it felt true.

The next night, not a week before I’d ship the game to the printer, Steve caught my eye walking past my office. I don’t know why I’d left my door open.

With no introduction, he said, “I’m color-blind.”

I’d like to think I made no response. “Not badly,” he quickly followed, “not in a terrible way. I can see color just fine, just a little less so than some people. So things look better when they’ve been pumped up a little.” He frowned. “I probably should have told you that earlier.”

“It would have made things easier,” I said.

The next morning I showered and shaved and I arrived early, where again Andy was kicking boards in half up in the rotting stable. Wordlessly I joined him, knocking down posts, busting open a knuckle on a too-thick board, working up a sweat.

“Good morning,” he said. It was the end of October.

I shook my head. “Not really,” I said. “But we’re almost done.”

“Are you okay?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I am.” Andy waited for me to say more. “You know the story about the caterpillar and the, I don’t know, some other bug?”

“I don’t think so.”

“The other bug asks the caterpillar, ‘Hey, you’ve got a lot of legs, how do you even coordinate them all? How you even walk at all?’ So the caterpillar thought about it, and after that he was never able to walk again.”

“That’s fucking depressing.”

I checked my mind. Somehow, it was quiet. It was mostly empty, in order, like it hadn’t been in a very long time.

“What I’m saying is that I’m not thinking any more about how I’m walking,” I said. “So I feel okay. I don’t know why, but I’m not going to question it.”

He laughed. “Well, keep on walking, man. We’re flying to Michigan for a press check in less than two weeks.”

“It’ll be fine,” I told him. “Don’t be afraid.”

Going to California

Making Magic — 14.75

“Yeah,” the cop said. “That’s your basic death threat. They do that once or twice, with the idea being that if you don’t stop whatever it is they don’t like, next time they’ll fire into the house.” He pulled a flashlight out of his belt to better examine the bullet. “Hollow-point bullet,” he said, “but it looks homemade.”

“Thought that, too. Hey: don’t mind me, but you looked a little serious when you came up to the house.” It was cinematic-moment serious, a blinding flashlight up high in one hand and the other hovering over his sidearm, ready to draw.

“Oh, we know this address. Seems like every couple of weeks, one of us had to head out here to pick up one of the boys who lived here — big family; can’t remember the name. Spanish.”

“Picked ’em up for what?”

“Stolen car, usually. One time, the vehicle was actually in the driveway as we drove up.” He laughed. “Your car been stolen?”


“Well, when the address went out on the radio, I hurried over, thinking, ‘Not again!’ You can imagine what I thought when I pulled up and saw a little red convertible with a hole cut out of the roof. Say: how long you been here?”

“About a month. I think it was empty for a month before that.”

“That’s about right.”

“My car got stolen this summer. They recovered it maybe a mile from here, behind a furniture store. Hispanic gang initiation, they said.”

“Huh,” said the cop. “Wouldn’t that be a coincidence?”

“Mmm-hmmm. So, what do I do about the death threats?”

“Oh, they’ll stop, once they see that the family who was here ain’t here anymore.”

My sense of politeness wrestled with my sense of self-preservation.

“Do you have any ideas,” I said, “about how best to let these people, whoever they are, know that this family no longer lives here?”

“Huh,” he said. “Okay, here’s what you do: put a sign on the backdoor: ‘To whom it may concern, the Whatever family no longer lives here.’ Can I use your phone?”

We went inside and he called a friend of his at the electric company. “Hey, I got a guy here, he’s getting death threats meant for the family used to live here. He’s gonna put up a sign warning them off. Any way of sharing with me the name of the family?” He rattled off the address. “You’re a peach. Thanks.” He hung up the phone. “Lopez,” he told me, and I finished the sign I’d started while he was making the call. I taped it up at waist height, where it’d be sure to be seen by someone crouching to place a second bullet on the porch.

I really hoped that I was finding the first bullet, and not the second one.

“Thank you, officer. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”

“Well, I can’t tell you how much I appreciate knowing that I don’t have to come out to this address anymore.” His foot slipped out from underneath him a tiny bit as he made his way across the living room to the front of the house. “Spill something over there?” he asked.

I walked over near the fireplace. Sure enough, the dampness was returning, and the wet-dog smell with it. Very loudly in my head, I said bad words.

He tipped a non-existent hat at me. “Everybody’s got a job to do,” he said. I thanked him again and he disappeared out into the night, then the next day I went back to work.

Going to California

Making Magic — 14.5

We sat down in my small office, our faces lit by monitor glow.

“Here are my notes,” Steve said. “How do you want to do this?”

“One at a time?” I asked. “I’ll bring each one up, then we can talk about it?”

“Sure,” he said, and so we did.

I’d been expecting the bulk of the comments to run along the lines of, “This looks terrible next to the others — make it not-terrible,” or “Can you make this not-great illustration look less sucky by doing the color differently?” And he had a good number of comments like that. He also had some good notes on easy ways to improve the artwork, which was cool.

But a good number of comments were just differences of opinion as to how something should be colored. It soon became clear that there was too much for me to correct live, with Steve there watching, so instead of piloting Photoshop while he commented I instead took notes on his notes.

“I think that should be red,” was the general class of comment, “and not all this muddiness there.”

“I don’t think it’s muddy,” I’d say, for example. “It’s got some subtlety to it, sure—”

“Red. Make it red — really red.”

“Okay. Um, you know you can’t just change all these shaded maroon-like pixels to red pixels.”

“Can’t you simply fill it with red and clean up the shading?”

“It doesn’t quite work that way. There are edges along the black lines of the art, soft gray edges—”

“Anti-aliasing,” said Steve. He generally knew the technical details of everything his business depended on, and what he didn’t know he always tried to learn.

“—yes, and we need to be careful about preserving all the soft grays along the way. It doesn’t take long to do the right thing, but I can’t just use the paint bucket tool to dump a bunch of red in here and presume I’ll have picked the right shade of red, and then apply shading with the couple of other shades of red that will give it depth.”

“No browns. It needs to pop. It can’t be muddy.”

“It’ll be fine. There’ll be highlights, too.”

Steve sighed. “No pink,” he said.

I blinked. “Why would I use pink?”

“Light red is pink. Dark red is brown. I can’t have any of those here.”

I’m not sure how long I left my mouth open before closing it.

“Here’s the next one,” I said, turning back to the display.

“Did Jeff do this one?”

“Yes,” I said. I had to do less clean-up on his art than I was doing on Rick’s though Rick was improving more quickly than Jeff.

“I thought so, because it’s not one of the worst ones.”

“Rick’s getting better,” I said.

“Here’s what I had on this one,” he said, and then he told me.

Clearly, I wasn’t going to be done with this first batch of images tonight, maybe not even tomorrow. Clearly, Steve would need a second review of all the updates before signing off on them. My sense of the time we’d need to do all the work zoomed away into the distance, well past our firm deadline. A printer had just committed to a window for production, and if we missed it we’d be out of luck. We had to do this more quickly.

Clearly, it was up to me to put in more hours.

After reviewing the art for about two hours — I figured we spent nearly ten minutes on each one — we decided we were hungry.

“Sushi?” Steve asked. “Doug Barnes was stopping by. We were planning to get something to eat.”

“Sure,” I said. “If Rick’s still here, I’ll bring him along.”

At the restaurant, we paired off in conversation, Steve with Doug and Rick with me. Rick looked a little wary of the whole thing.

“I’ve never had sushi before,” he said.

“Really?” I said, then realizing that Mentor was the one who had actually introduced me to sushi, a few years before. “You’ll like it.”

“So, you said you and Suzanne went out the other night?”

“Yeah,” I said, smoothing out the napkin in my lap. “Yeah, it was good to see her, grab some food. We don’t hang out enough.”

“But you used to.”

“Oh, yeah — like six years ago, we dated for a while.” When she was about Felicity’s age. “We stayed friends, which I feel really lucky about, and then two years ago we were housemates for a couple of months. That was cool.”

“And,” he said, “why don’t you….”

I nodded.

“I mean,” he said, “you’re single, and she’s—”

“You know,” I said, “when we broke up, it was because she was seeing somebody else, and while—”

“Say no more.”

“No, really — seriously, she’s one of the most trustworthy people know, I swear. I’d trust her with anything, absolutely. She’s one of my best friends. But I just don’t think I can trust myself to go there anymore, if you know what I mean.”

“With her,” Rick added.

I nodded, even though I wasn’t sure I meant specifically with her. I think I meant that I couldn’t actually go there at all anymore, with anyone. I didn’t want to.

The evening had been great. I’d picked her up, we’d driven down Barton Springs and grabbed a table for two at a decent Italian joint and talked and laughed and caught up. It’s funny how you can work with a person every day, even someone you really like, and not talk deeply with them.

She’d worn a dress. I thought that was unusual, but I didn’t say anything.

I didn’t try to hold her hand. I didn’t give her a hug. I was all smiles, and no kisses. She was smart and beautiful and she was sitting in my car — what else did I need?

“Mmm, I don’t think it’s in the cards. Besides, I have too much work to do at the moment.” I thought about it. “I think I need the seasons to change. I need it to be cold again, for a while.”

The waiter populated our table with the usual sushi accoutrements. Rick poked at a little wasabi ball.

“What’s this?” he asked.

“For the sushi,” I said.

“What do you do with it?”

“Oh, you eat it,” I said with the straight face that I’d always thought my friends understood meant I was joking. Then Rick popped the ball in his mouth.

“Motherfucking wait—,” I said, hands up in warning, but it was too late.

After a couple of minutes and a lot of water, Rick looked as though he felt a little bit better.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “I’m so, so sorry. I was totally being a jerk for no reason, and I’m really sorry.”

“No,” he said, waving me down. “No, no.” But I couldn’t imagine on what grounds he could possibly call me off from apologizing.

As Rick’s face had turned red, and he’d gobbled a couple of glasses of water, a brief montage played back in my head of friends saying, “No, I didn’t know you were kidding,” in response to some absurd thing I’d said or done. I thought I was just being clever, when I was only being an asshole.

I’d shown up as a jerk, when what Rick needed was a mentor.

“The tuna is really good,” I said, blowing past his obvious caution about every word that fell out of my mouth. “But they sometimes slip a bit wasabi underneath it, between the fish and the rice, so be careful.” He nodded. “The rolls are clearly marked spicy or not, so you can really easily judge how strong something’s likely to be.”

“Okay,” he said, scanning the menu.

“I am really sorry,” I said. It seemed like the wrong time to bring up the coloring, but I began scripting what I’d tell him in the morning that would accelerate his Photoshop improvement. I’d been assuming he’d improve because I knew he would. I forgot how much faster things go when people help point the way.

On the way back to the car, I got to catch up with Doug. “Things are going pretty well,” he said, sighing. “I still have Patch and Felicity on the floor of my living room.” He looked up at me and smiled. “So that’s interesting.”

“I can only imagine,” I said, working hard not to imagine. I had other things to think about, anyway.

Later that night, when I got home, the house was dark but silent. The industrial fans had been taken away and the dried-out carpet re-stapled. I walked out onto the concrete slab in the back yard to look up at the sky.

I really somehow thought I was being funny all these years, when I was just being a jerk. I was making sounds out of random license plates in my head, and the universe did not give a shit because I was literally making no sense.

I began to wonder if Cookie had been right. What if I really was crazy? Not just a little crazy, but seriously so.

Turning to go back inside, I saw the hollow-point bullet set neatly on the back porch, deliberately placed to point in toward the house. Living with archeologists and their friends around, at least these people in that time in our place, meant giving careful consideration to anything that in your own home you might ordinarily confuse for a random pile of stuff, because it might instead be a little shrine or an offering of some kind to any number of hopefully reasonable spirits. Two days before, when I’d first found the bullet, I’d left it where I found it. Maybe it was someone’s good luck charm. Then the day before, when it was still there — right where someone would step when coming into the back yard — I’d slapped a sticky note on the outside of the sliding glass door, which read “Is this somebody’s?” That night, I could tell that someone else had written a graceful curling question mark beside my note, meaning it wasn’t one of ours.

Minutes later, when the police arrived, they explained to me that it was a common death threat.

Going to California

Making Magic — 14

Production of a 400+ card game, when you’ve never done a card game but are desperate and driven and experienced enough to want to get things right, is a great misery. Andy felt it first, which was why — after I blazed my way up the gravel drive to slide gracefully into my parking space, only seven hours after I’d driven home the night before — I saw him on the low rise of the neighboring property, kicking out boards from what remained of walls of the the derelict stable.

He didn’t say anything for a while, just stood and raged at the remaining horizontal boards around him. He didn’t want to take out too many in the same place, he explained to me during a later session, since knocking out too many might cause what was left to collapse down around us. There was no ceiling left whatsoever, though the thought of the remaining wall frames falling was a serious one.

“Motherfucking printers?” I asked.

Andy shook his head.

“Ah,” I said, “Steve.”

Andy kicked another gray board, knocking one half off and leaving the other half to dangle a thousand fresh, pink splinters out over the open air. Steve could get very passionate about what he saw as the right thing to do. My ego was still numb from the bruising it took when he’d pulled my book, so I understood, and Andy knew I understood, and he was happy to kick out a bunch more boards while I stood there and watched, and I was happy to watch him.

Inside, behind my sliding door — I’d moved back upstairs and taken over the often-empty “business person” office, next to Andy’s print-buyer office — I spent my days in darkness, playing with color.

It was a meditation, really. As the first batches of art came in, I scanned them and distributed some to Jeff and some to Rick, keeping the ones I felt inspired to color myself. I thought I was doing well spending only about 20% of my time correcting the art that Jeff and Rick turned in, though I didn’t know how well.

After a good week and a couple of days worth of coloring, I sent what I had to Steve. While I waited for him to get back to me, I turned my attention to the thing I’d been dreading: the actual card layouts.

Here’s how you do it: You take a monstrous, thousand-dollar software package that you’ve learned inside and out, and you tell it to imagine a large sheet the size of the sheet you’ll be printing on. Then you take a bunch of geometrically shaped virtual objects meant to represent the precise placement of images, or text boxes, or rectangles of solid colors. Then you think very carefully about how you want everything to come together, and how large the cards need to be, and whether or not it was a good idea to use a repeating pattern as a background, given that you won’t be able to line them up edge-to-edge unless you get the repeating pattern absolutely just exactly right.

Then for more than 400 cards, you type in the card name, you type in the card text, you adjust the height of the image and the colored box based on how much descriptive text there ended up being, then you place however many arrows you are needed around the edge of the card and move on to the next one.

If you take 5 minutes with each one, it’ll take you 33 hours to lay out 400 cards. So you try not to take 5 minutes with each one, and you get it done in three days, just in time for the next playtest. There’s nearly no art in place, but at least you now have a way to print decent demo cards.

After the playtest, Steve said, “I have collected my notes on the coloring. Is this a good time?”

“Sure,” I said. Things did not go well.

Going to California

Making Magic — 13.5

The first playtests were rough. I didn’t watch them; I was coloring art that I’d repurposed from Pyramid for use in the card game. However, I heard about how they went as I was passing through the larger upstairs room later that evening, looking for coffee, as the games were winding down. Dustin was there.

“It was a little rough,” he said, smirking. He had a pleasantly deep voice that could make the worst news seem amiable. “Some cards are way overpowered, especially when you think that you could have a lot of them in a deck. It’s the same problem Magic is having.”


“Oh, yeah. Their first batch of rare cards were far too powerful. I think they never thought people would spend hundreds of dollars to build a deck stocked with rare cards. But it’s happening.” He shrugged. “I heard they’re going to ban some early cards from official play—”

I took a half-step back. “What do you mean, ‘official’ play?”

“They’re having tournaments, now, with real money involved. They’re talking about ultimately wanting to see Magic played on the sports cable networks — like ESPN and whatnot, I guess.”

Three years later, ESPN2 would begin broadcasting Magic: The Gathering tournaments, for a while.

“And anyway,” Dustin went on, “you don’t want people with, like, four Black Lotus cards in tournament play. It’d ruin the game.”

Nineteen years later, in November of 2013, a Black Lotus card in pristine condition went for $27,000 at auction. That was more than my annual salary at the point when I was working on our game.

Steve seemed bullish about the playtest.

“I learned a lot,” he said, nodding vigorously.

“Are you going to keep the action tokens working the same way?” asked Dustin.

Steve smiled. “I think it could be improved, but yes, more or less.”

Dustin nodded, leaning back over towards me. “You coming home soon?” he asked.

“Yeah,” I said. “Still got some things to do.” And I did. I worked late, pushing myself to pull a better quality of art out of Photoshop, which was then and now the professional’s choice for digital graphics work. It had really taken off in the previous couple of years, new filters being discovered and written about in order to produce various digital effects. Still, there weren’t any tutorials at the time for colorizing art. I had to figure it out as I went along, and pass what I’d learned along to Jeff and soon to Rick once I’d learned something new.

My roommate — ex-roommate, I reminded myself — was a Photoshop junkie. Like me, he had a monstrous computer for the age, which he used to produce contract work for one client or another. He stayed on top of the tech, which was cool. He didn’t actually do much work, which was not.

There were times I very distantly missed my old roommate. I’d taken him and his girlfriend at the time to a comedy club, Austin’s Laff Stop — where Lizard and I had gone six years before, as freshmen at the university — to see the angriest, most honest comedian I had ever known, Bill Hicks, perform. Everything — nearly everything — he said was so true and horrible. For the second show of his I saw that week I made sure we grabbed a table right by the stage, where I literally had to crawl back up from underneath it, mopping tears from my face. It was one of the greatest shows I’d ever seen. It turned out, sadly, there was a reason he was being so honest. Six months later, Bill Hicks would be dead from pancreatic cancer.

Good times with my roommate were great. Ultimately, though, I didn’t trust him, and it’s not entirely his fault. I didn’t trust most people — Andy and Mentor and Jeff, sure; Doug and Jim and Patch and Felicity, sure; Rick, of course; Suzanne and even Steve, in my own way. Beyond that, I’m drawing a blank. There were a couple of other people back then who I trusted, but who I’m not writing about now, though really that was probably it.

So moving in with archeologists was a real step for me.

“Whoa,” I said, walking into our house, squinting as if I’d been sprayed with crowd-clearing chemicals. Dustin had found a giant, three-bedroom place in south Austin, with a massive central living room sporting 1970s-era shag carpet. Radiating out from the brick fireplace, from one corner of the room, was a dampness in the carpet. We weren’t sure where it came from but it would not go away, that smell like a wet, dead dog. After a couple of weeks waiting for it to go away — we kept the doors and windows open; we stayed away from the third of the room that squished when stepped on — the landlord had promised to send some people by to take care of things.

Dustin and his girlfriend — fiancé, rather — were sitting on my couch on the far side of the room, fanning air away from their noses. The carpet had been pulled up and away for the fireplace, and an industrial blower was loudly shooting air underneath.



They couldn’t find where the dampness was coming from, though they figured that drying it up would stop the smell.


“TEN-DAY,” Dustin said. He and Melinda and the four or five of their friends who I’d met worked one of the few regular jobs still available for archeologists in mid-1990s Texas, processing survey certificates for strip-mining operations. Because there was a huge history of nomadic Native American life in and around Texas, and their seasonal paths took them back and forth across some of the richest deposits of lignite coal in the whole state, the mining company needed to have done a full survey of whatever land they planned to ruin by peeling up in order to extract the coal. And they needed a certificate to prove that they’d done the work, and the survey company only got paid after delivering the certificate, so there was pressure to turn the work around quickly. If an initial survey uncovered evidence that a plot of land seemed to host one of myriad perennial Native American campsites, a full survey needed to be done to verify that the site contained nothing of historical value — graves, especially. But the survey had to be done quickly, because that’s how the surveying company got paid. In order to do the work quickly, young archeologists were trucked out by the tent-load to spend ten days at a time scraping and digging, followed by four days off to decompress and to take a decent shower for a time. They called these “ten-days,” and that’s where our other roommate had gotten off to.

The whole thing was fascinating and stomach-turning and another real lesson in how the world worked. I retreated into my room, opening the window to keep away the dog smell, and settled into a deep brood.

I’d been angry for awhile, feeling betrayed by unnamable forces. It was not a conspiracy, it just was. Passing by a bait-and-tackle shop, I’d seen a t-shirt they had for sale: above a picture of a fishing lure were the words, “Bite me.”

What was I angry about? Hey, man — what do you got?

Earlier that day, I’d brought Rick in for a tour of the office before his first day at work. Coming in through the main entrance, we ran into Suzanne first. I introduced them.

“Um, hey,” Rick said, pointing at a small framed photo behind her. “Is that you?”

Suzanne smiled with a tightness that was her replacement for blushing. “Yes,” she said. “That’s me.” It was a photo of her dressed as Robin, from Batman — from The Dark Knight Returns, specifically, where Robin was a girl — sitting on a couch, petting a cat.

“Because that’s my cat,” Rick said. It turned out that the Halloween party that she and I had gone to — I’d dressed as the Joker — was at a large house where Rick had been one of many roommates. So, years later, a photo of his cat greeted him on his initial tour of his first post-school job.

“That’s wild,” I said. “You were there, Rick?”

“It was my house; I was there.”

“We were together at the time,” Suzanne explained, pointing back and forth between us.

“Ah,” said Rick. “Say no more.”

Later, Suzanne pulled me aside.

“He’s got a girlfriend,” I said.

“Do you want to get dinner?” she asked.

“Ah,” I said. “Sure. Not like I have plans.” I pressed my hand against my forehead. “The first playtest is tonight. Should probably be here for it.”

“So, tomorrow. When are you done?”

“I don’t know. Seven?”

“I’ll be gone by then,” she said. “Will you pick me up?”

“Sure,” I said. “Sure.”

“You remember where I live now, right? I’m just around the block.” She’d moved to live in one of the apartment complexes close to work.

I remembered.

Later that day, Jeff asked me, “When are you gonna start dating again?”

I scoffed. “That is the furthest thing from my mind,” I said.

“I dunno, man. I mean, I’m happy being married, but if I were single I would totally be out there.”

“Doesn’t feel right,” I said. “Feel like this summer’s been so oppressive. I wanna wait until things have cooled down, I think, to be able to think about that. I need to cool down, somehow.”

“That’s for sure,” he said.

I glanced at my shirt. “Bite me,” it said.

Going to California

Making Magic — 13

In the early days of a project, even a rush project like Illuminati: New World Order, it’s easy to feel like you have plenty of time and to avoid letting the stress drive you, that all you have to do is work patiently and deliberately, day after day, and everything will come together. As I began to show off the early card and box designs, it was clear that we would not have the luxury of a quiet period at the beginning of our efforts.

“Is that really going to work?” asked Steve, squinting at the design.

“I think it can,” I said. The group cards, for example, had a red, lightly textured background, the card name in gold along the top with drop-shadows and a few highlights throughout the design. “My only worry is that the drop-shadows may need too much manual tweaking.” With today’s tools, it would be easy to get the effect right. In 1994, it would take a lot of manual manipulation, with no guarantee that it was perfect before the first proofs arrived.

Still, I did like the effect. It gave the cards some depth. They even looked a little fleshy, in an enjoyable way. If I’d taken the time to experiment for a couple of hours, or even simply just thought about it a bit more, I probably could’ve made it work, but —

“Then drop it,” Steve said. “And this looks flat somehow. Can you make it pop more, like this one?” The new Illuminati would have a ton of special cards, which I’d given blue backgrounds to clearly separate them from the groups. The blue was richer and deeper than the red, that was for sure, as the groups would be laid out on the table most of the time while the special cards would  be played and discarded, so it made sense that the group cards should be less garish, allowing their card art to pop out more.

I began to explain this to Steve.

“There’s no time to get anything any more right,” he said. “Just make some of these changes, and let’s keep going. Have you looked over my list of card art ideas yet?”

I had not.

“Do so,” he said. “I’m sending them out to the artists tonight.”

Just like we had three colorists on our end, we had three artists ready to draw art for the cards. The idea was that their black-and-white line art would show up in the mail — FedEx, really — at least once a week, giving us more than enough to do for that week. They simply needed to be told what to draw and ink.

I looked over Steve’s list of card names and art ideas. Some of them were obvious and needed little description — the Bill Clinton card didn’t need a lot of text — and some of them were obvious but needed a lot of text — the art spec for the National Security Agency’s card described a guy with headphones and an old reel-to-reel recorder, crouched outside a bedroom window on which you could see a silhouette of lovers embracing. I only took a few hours working on the list; the art specs were mostly either great, or good enough, or so specific and idiosyncratic that Steve would not listen to any criticism.

For example, the George Bush card — this was Bush the elder — had to show the man with a piece of broccoli on a plate, because evidently he’d said at one time that he’d never liked the stuff and that as President he wasn’t going to eat it any more. As a total media junkie from that era, I was surprised that I’d never heard that quote, and not at all surprised when I couldn’t find anyone else who could recall having heard the joke. But Steve thought it was the line that best summed up our 41st President, so that’s why the card shows the man with a piece of steamed broccoli on a plate.

For all the weird, personal references that Steve insisted on hanging on to, we found many more cool bits of art to slip in. As it’d be at least a week before the first bundles of art began arriving, Jeff and I spent a couple of days going over our recent publications, books and magazines, and pulling out interesting art that either immediately jumped out at us as an embodiment of one or more concepts in the game, or could simply be colored really well, or hopefully both. With Rick and his girlfriend having just arrived in town, it was time get him up to speed, and fast, and this batch of fifteen or so pieces of existing art would be great practice.

The first playtest made a lot things very clear, though.

Going to California

Making Magic — 12.5

Rick was a friend from back in my college days, if a distant one. He was on the far side of a social circle that had swept across with my own so thoroughly that all the points of contact didn’t become clear for years. We’d only hung out maybe three or four times, though I’d seen him around and more than anybody else in that crowd I felt a palpable kinship with him, a sense that we were meant to work together at some point.

Of course, I did the only reasonable thing and felt extremely embarrassed by my feelings, cramming them down into the big nowhere inside my head. After having been kind enough to introduce me to some terrific music, Rick moved back to Houston for art school, but I’d seen some of his little black and white noodlings, and he was good, much better than I was. But because I liked him, I wasn’t at all envious, I was happy for him, so I kept him in mind for whatever reason.

Only a month before Steve asked me about the card game, I heard from a friend that Rick had graduated school and was killing time working at a book store, thinking about how he was going to repay his art school loans. So when I did the math and saw that there was no way I could get everything done, even if I broke down and taught Jeff how to color art, which I was grudgingly admitting was possible, I was already ready to consider unreasonable solutions. The thought of with Rick went from a random feeling, best suppressed, to the obvious solution to a good many problems. So I called him.

“I don’t know Photoshop,” he said.

“Sure,” I said. “But you know your way around a computer?”

“Mmm, no, not really. Sort of. But no.”

“Tell you what,” I said, “I’ll send you a piece of line art, and you try to color it in best you can.   I’ll show it to Steve and we’ll see if he thinks we can work with what you’re capable of putting out.”

“Are…you sure?”

When Rick emailed me his sample effort, it was clear he didn’t know his way around Photoshop. But I knew he had an artist’s mind, and it’s always been easier to bring an artist into the digital realm than to bring an engineer into becoming an artist.

“He did this?” Steve asked.

“I spent a tiny amount of time doing some touch-up,” I admitted. “Not ten minutes.” Not five, but I was hedging. Some touch-ups might take much longer.

“So,” he said, waving his hand at the monitor, “you’re going to ‘touch up’ the work, and get it where it needs to be?”

“Yes,” I said. “With 400 cards, the three of us can color maybe one every two hours. That’s twelve a day, sixty a week —”

“Seven weeks,” Steve said, “and then a week for layout.”

“We’ll have to do a lot of the layout up front.”

He pushed his glasses up his nose toward his eyes. “You won’t have time. You’ll be coloring art.” He gestured at the monitor again. “You’ll be coloring art.”

“Can you see at least that we need Rick if we’re going to do this at all?”

Steve nodded. “When can he get here?”

“A few days.”

“He’s in Houston? Tell him to start driving.” He puckered his lips. “Have you talked with Jeff?”

“Not yet,” I said. I’d been converting the existing Illuminati logos into scalable vector art that computers like to use, and working on the layout of the cards themselves. They’d have to be very different from the previous version of the game. Steve even had the name — Illuminati: New World Order. But I’d wanted to get my thoughts on that nailed down before involving anyone else. It’s not like I’d been doing anything in my spare time except packing and moving and half-heartedly unpacking.

“Jeff,” I said, later that day. He turned to me. “I am going to need your help.”

“What’s up?”

“Let’s look at how the brushes work in Photoshop, and how I use them to color art.” His eyes widened slightly, and I felt bad for not having been able to check my ego at the door in the past, and for not having been a good mentor.

I said, “It’s easy,” by which I meant, “You can do this,” by which I meant I was only there to support him. We were going to do this. And Rick. It was going to work.

Later that evening, Andy was flicking between sample cards from various sources while we watched, in the tiny confines of his office. The talks with printers were getting serious. He sighed.

Jeff flicked a few, some of which had a very satisfying snap. “Why can’t we do cards like these?”

“That’s how real cards are made,” Andy said. “They got a nice coat, they got a plastic center—”

“Plastic? Really?”

Steve stood in the door of Andy’s office.

“Yeah,” Andy said. “It’s just impossible to get time with those printers right now.”

“Really?” Jeff asked.

Steve said, “There isn’t time,” and he said it with enough of a punch that we got the picture.

This was serious.

Going to California

Making Magic — 12

In a couple of days, Steve returned with a very big set of prototype cards. “I have a call in for how many of these people cards we can use,” he said, and there were a lot, from Madonna to Dr. Dimento. Within days, the lawyers had verified that only public figures could be used without license, so most of those were trashed immediately. But Steve had made a pretty good effort at taking a small game, one you could carry in your back pocket, and turning it into a 400-card deck-building game.

Steve was on a roll the likes of which I’d never seen. As he pulled our the playtest cards to show them off to us, he happily edited as he went, crumbling up cards that in the cold light of day must have no longer made sense, and scribbling notes on cards where elaboration suddenly seemed obvious and necessary — he was a force of nature in motion, doing the work he was put here to do.

When I’d been working on my book, I’d had a chance to see him in action. “No, no,” he said, pawing over my translation of the original French game. “Something more like this.” Then he drew out in pencil a graph that made perfect sense of the likelihood that a player might roll one number or another, in relation to how skilled a character might be. The numbers were clear and inarguable. It was late in the evening, and I walked back to my office, cowed, as he’d just formed a shell of reason around something I’d been struggling with for months by that point. What I saw with him working on Illuminati was something even more different.

Two days later, I asked him, “How many cards?”

Steve looked up from his laptop. “We looked at the math,” he said, “and it seems we can get a certain number of cards per sheet, which ends up giving us about 400 cards, plus the Illuminati. I have a few changes still to make but that’s what it turns out to be.”

That’s about what I was expecting. “That’s a lot of cards,” I said.

Steve nodded, smiling, eyes closed.

I took a deep breath. “Four hundred is a lot,” I said. “But —“

“I have a couple of artists lined up.”

“But they’re black-and-white artists.” I took a deep breath again while Steve nodded. “I’ve had good luck color art in Pyramid.”

“I know.”

“But it does take time. Coloring one image per hour — and that’s very optimistic — is ten weeks, with one person.”

“Presuming no burn-out.”

“Sure. And that’s too much time, anyway. So I figure I’ll show Jeff how to color art. Still, very optimistic. So call it eight weeks for me and Jeff, if we’re lucky. And we only have nine weeks. I have to lay out the cards, and the point-of-purchase display boxes.”

Steve steepled his hands over his eyes. “Your point is?”

“We need a third person.” And I knew just the man.

Going to California

Making Magic — 11

In terms of how to build a collectible card game, we got a lot of details from the Wizards of the Coast guys, who had of course invented the idea. We would print four large sheets of card stock: two for the most-common cards, one for the uncommon cards, and one for the rare cards. Then you print a lot of the common cards, a dramatic percentage fewer of uncommon cards, and even less of the rare cards. After that, the trick is to get all the cards trimmed off their sheets and sorted so that you end up with the correct distribution of common, uncommon, and rare cards when they’re packed into boxes of starter decks and little plastic booster packs.

There are several things that make real playing cards different from pieces of cardboard of the same thickness. One of them is that instead of being some kind of card stock, what you actually have a very thin layer of plastic sandwiched between two layers of paper. The plastic in the middle is part of what makes a nice playing card snap so satisfyingly.

Magic cards had been printed like real cards, though we weren’t going to be able to go the real-card route ourselves. Very few printers did that sort of work, and they were booked months in advance. On top of that, they can then take as long as a month getting the product from the plant to us, because they’re probably located in Belgium.

Andy was busy calling all the large-scale pharmaceutical packaging printers in the northern-most states of America, since it made sense that someone like that could be the best match in terms of lots of custom die-cut boxes, and they probably give serious attention to detail in the finishing, and they’re probably used to receiving huge orders on short timeframes. Also, their proximity to the Canadian paper mills gave them a lot of flexibility in terms of access to different kinds of paper stock.

While waiting to be called back, we had a good long afternoon of brainstorming.

“What are events from the last ten years,” Steve asked, “that should be included in a new Illuminati?”

“Raid on Waco,” I said.

Steve frowned. “I don’t want to talk about Waco specifically,” he said. “But the rise of militia groups plays into this, yes.” He made a note. “Good.”

“The Internet,” said Jeff.

Steve nodded, scribbling with one hand while pointing at Jeff with the other.

“Communism is a problem,” I said.

“In what way?” asked Steve.

“End of the Cold War. International Communism is no longer the scary bad monster it had been ten years ago.”

“There are still plenty of Communists. China —”

“Sure, but in the media that’s not what the story’s about anymore.”

“Go on.”

Groups in the game, not the secret conspiracies themselves but controllable groups like California and Wall Street, can have alignments, like Straight or Violent. Some of the humor that people like the most in Illuminati comes from the alignments used to describe the various groups. Each alignment opposes some other alignment, like Straight is the opposite of Weird and Violent is the opposite of Peaceful. Not all groups have an alignment, and few groups have more than one or two, but it’s very important in play: when a group with one alignment tries to control a group with the same alignment, the attack is easier — imagine the Mafia wanting to control the Loan Sharks; you could see that being fairly low-risk. Opposing alignments make things harder — imagine the Pentagon trying to control the Hippies; that might take a lot of power or a lot of money, or both, to pull off.

One of the original alignment pairs had been Government versus Communist. Now, besides being a poor characterization of communism as being unable to govern — not that I think the 20th Century is full of sterling examples — it no longer seemed relevant.

“The whole ‘Red Scare’ thing was strong when I was growing up. And I know there are still communists in the world, but now, in what is basically the mid-1990s—” Deep sighs from all the people who suddenly felt old. “—I don’t see anyone talking about the communist threat at all.” I scanned the ten or so people hanging out in the editorial bullpen for contradiction, then I went on. “From the perspective of the ’90s, I think the opposite of Government is Corporate.” Everyone nodded. “Then you can show the banks and the media fighting against government conspiracies.”

“Hmm,” Steve said. “Let me think about that.”

“Wouldn’t it be cool,” Andy said, “if we had something like ‘George the Janitor,’ who you can send into another player’s power structure — you know, to get information out of the trash cans or something?”

Steve pointed and paused as though he was going to say something, then he looked up at the ceiling, finger still extended in a half-pointing gesture. Then his mouth opened slowly, and he said, “That sounds more like a Special card.” A few special cards were mixed in with the group cards, much like one-time tricks you can play to help yourself or to hurt your enemies. “But…people cards would be very different.” Slowly, he tapped his knee.

I was going to say, “You can’t control people,” when the absurdity of it hit me. Of course, you could. It happened all the time.

“People cards would be great,” Andy said.

“They couldn’t be very powerful, though,” Jeff added. “I mean, is any movie star as powerful as the Mafia?”

“No, no,” Steve said. “Very small, more powerful than the Boy Sprouts, but with interesting personalities.” He thought about it. “Special abilities,” he said.

“Rock stars,” said Andy. “Politicians.”

“Presidents,” said Jeff. “Former presidents?”

Steve kept scribbling.