Illuminati was one of Steve Jackson’s early games. I think it first came out in 1982. He’d put out board games with tanks shooting each other, successfully leapt into the early post-apocalypse zeitgeist with a great little Mad Max-influenced board game called Car Wars, and before that had re-imagined Dungeons & Dragons with practical, board-game styled combat rules. Illuminati would be his first card game, and it was unlike any other.
Each player controls a secret conspiracy bent on taking over the world. Every conspiracy shows up in the game as a card, on which are numbers for how much basic power and income your Illuminati group can leverage. When it’s your turn in the game, your conspiracy gets however much money it’s due, after which you may choose to use your power performing some kind of action, such as attacking the competing conspiracies, with dice rolls to determine your success. Money spent by your conspiracy, and by your competition, can influence the outcome of the roll, for you or against you.
The basic game offered six different conspiracies, each with a unique victory condition. For example, the Bavarian Illuminati have the most raw power, and they win by further building their power up to a terrific height. The Gnomes of Zurich are like the Bavarians, but in terms of money versus raw power. Then there are the Servants of Cthulhu, who win by completely destroying some number of other groups. Rounding out the list are the UFOs, the Discordians, and the Network, each with their own terrible power and purpose.
But of course the Illuminati are not the only groups in the game. They’re manipulators, our secret societies, so there’s a stack of cards from which each player draws with every turn, representing the various uncontrolled groups which are prey for the conspiracies. Newly drawn cards are set out in the middle of the table, face up. Uncontrolled groups are generally easy for one of the Illuminati to attack to control. If the attack succeeds, then the newly controlled group gets added to your conspiracy’s power structure. Your main card has four outward pointing arrows, one on each edge of the card, so simply take the inbound arrow from a new group and lay it down next to one of your Illuminati’s outbound arrows, describing the relationship: power flows from the controlling card down to the sub- and sub-sub-groups, for as far out as is reasonable to build the branching limbs of your power structure. For example: Big Media controls the Republicans, who control the Boy Sprouts as well as the American Autoduel Association, and all the money made at the leaf nodes trickles back up into the heart of your secret conspiracy. More powerful groups — like the Pentagon, and the Mafia — have a lot of outbound arrows, so they can control several other groups, making it easier to build a network of power from the central card. It’s more difficult to attack into someone else’s power structure, but when you seize a group that controls other groups, you get that entire branch of the power structure, too. You end up with something that looks like a paranoid’s illustration of how different groups conspire to control the world.
It was fun — my favorite game in high school, I think, not the least of which because it led me believe that I had some inkling into why the world worked the way that it does. When — in the game — the Mafia helps the Pentagon to attack to destroy the International Communists, I couldn’t help but think it sounded a lot like the newspaper headlines I used to read over my dad’s shoulder every morning at breakfast. Quickly, I developed a reading list that too few sophomores made themselves push through, initially cribbed from the credits of the original Illuminati game, which gave appropriate credit to everyone who’d walked that route before them. The big one, The Illuminatus Trilogy, was hard to lay my hands on and even more difficult to consume, though I found my high-school copy recently and the degree to which it had been bookmarked was nearly embarrassing. I remember it having a pretty awkward finish, though it spurred me on to figure out how much of that mass of insanity had some germ of truth in it. Because on the face of it, any curious mind’s next reasonable thought has to be: How much of this was true? And how much of this truth was sitting out in plain sight?
I’d not be the first or the last person to tumble down this rabbit hole. Years later, deep in the winter of my senior year in high school, I found myself in a dark cubicle on the campus library of the University of Texas at Arlington, pouring over a photographic projection, via old-school microfiche, a 200-year-old book purporting to be one of the only remaining documents of the historical organization known as the Bavarian Illuminati, who stories from that time report them having moved to infiltrate and then to control local governments to such an extent that the power structure at the time responded quickly and ruthlessly. The book purported to be something of an internal training manual, with the documentation of which specific rituals were to be used for one thing or another, or bullshit titles to give people when you want them to feel important. My feeling was that it was either a fake, or that secret conspiracies are way, way more banal than anything I was capable of suspecting.
As people, we want to look at situations, especially terrible situations, and find some meaning, discover some agency behind what has happened. We want our stories to make sense not only to us, but to the people to whom we’re giving our stories. Because you can blame pretty much anything on a secret conspiracy, the thought will always hold some attraction for some people.
Even better, what all the marketing around Illuminati played up was your role in this, as a player: you are now part of the conspiracy. It was a savvy angle, I thought, selling membership into an enlightened society which as gaming geeks they already belonged to. Steve actually went so far as to sell Illuminati Membership Kits with membership cards and IDs and even things like branded rulers (“Who rules: the ruler, or the one who controls the ruler?”). It was pandering, and people liked it, and the game was really good — slow sometimes, but more than just good. It was great. The eye-in-the-pyramid logo first used in Illuminati was adopted as the primary logo for the company itself. That’s why the bulletin board was called Illuminati BBS, and the Internet Service Provider was Illuminati Online. (Plus, io.com was just sitting there not ever having been registered before, back then.)
So if we were going to do it, we’d have to do it well. It would have to work, and it would have to be on time, or most of us would likely lose our jobs, and Steve would scale back production to a couple of products a year until such time as there was more money in it.
“How many cards will there be?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Steve said, pointing at some strange carriers that he’d hung on the backs of the two doors leading into his office. Each one was about as wide as the door, carrying row after row of little pockets for small stacks of card-sized colored paper. “I have a bunch of cards right now. I’m not sure if we can use them all — for legal reasons, and because they might suck — but there will only be so many cards we will be able to print.”
“And how is that even happening?”
Steve smiled, his eyes closing with the peace of a happy child. “Peter Adkison, to prove that there is not simply a Magic market but a collectible card game market, is willing to loan us the $300,000 we will probably need to print a card game like this. I think Illuminati could make that back and then some.”
“I think you’re right,” I said.
“And what do you actually think?” he asked me, by which he meant did I think we could do it.
“How many cards, about?”
“About 400, plus the Illuminati cards. Maybe a few extra — we don’t know how large the sheets will be, though unless we do something odd with the size of the cards, there will not be much room for anything more than a little bit.” Steve pointed out his office door and toward Andy’s. “He is getting us the answers to those questions.” Andy’s strength as our print buyer would be tested.
“Can we do it?” he asked.
“How long do we have?”
Steve considered the question long enough that I figured he wasn’t going to tell me.
“I can do it in less than three months,” I said. “Ten weeks, maybe another week just for card layout. But less than three months. I can do it.”
He lightly pounded the top of the table in front of him. “Done,” he said.
“We’re going to need a couple of things.”