Illimat is in the Wild!

In 2015 Colin Meloy and Chris Funk presented me with a mysterious board with a small box in the center. Could you make this into a game? Something that feels like it could be a hundred years old and just forgotten — something you might find in the back of your grandfather’s attic? It was a crazy challenge, and the board sat in my basement for a few months while I thought about what sort of game it wanted to be. I playtested my first prototype with my father almost exactly two years ago today. And now that game is a reality. You can get Illimat at Illimat.com or at The Decemberists website, and you can check to see if it’s available at your FLGS; if you’re in the Pacific Northwest, I know it’s currently available at Mox Boarding House and Guardian Games. 

Illimat is built on the foundation of classic card games, such as Gin, Cassino, and Scopa. It’s about creating and collecting sets of cards, and if you’ve played any traditional card game you’ll pick up the basics quickly. But there’s a twist! The box is placed in the center of the board, and it sets the season for each of the four fields… and that in turn limits the actions you can take in a field. So you can do anything in summer, but you cannot harvest (collect) cards in Winter; you cannot stockpile (combine) cards in Spring; and you can’t sow (discard) in Autumn. When you play a face card you change the season to match that card, so when I harvest with the King of Summer, it becomes Summer in that field. This adds a dynamic element, as every turn of the Illimat changes what’s possible… and it’s extremely satisfying when you can block an opponent’s play by turning the Illimat to Winter. 

A second twist comes in the form of the Luminaries, Tarot-sized cards that are dealt into the corners of the board. When a field is cleared, the Luminary in that corner is revealed… and every Luminary has a unique ability that affects the rules of the game. Like the Illimat, this is a dynamic element that keeps each game fresh.

I’m proud of Illimat, and I hope you’ll check it out! A special thanks to all the Kickstarter backers who made it possible for us to create it. If you have any questions or comments, share them below.

The Luminaries are cards in Illimat that depict iconic characters and things — The Changeling, The Forest Queen, The River — and generally have the flavor of tarot cards. Are the tales of the Luminaries contained in the Decemberists’ songs? Or will they be? 

Yes. The Luminaries included in the core Illimat set represent characters and themes from the Decemberists album The Hazards of Love. The expansion includes Luminaries inspired by The Crane Wife.

If you were to bring Illimat into Eberron, as a game played like Conqueror or Three Dragon Ante, what would you alter? Would Luminaries be kept as they are as tales passed from Thelanis, or would you change them to signifiers like Galifar monarchs or legendary figures from the past?

For anyone who doesn’t understand the question, Eberron is a fantasy world I created for Dungeons & Dragons. 

Personally, I think it’s easy to ground the existing Luminaries in the setting. I’d establish the basic story of The Hazards of Love as a tale tied to Thelanis, and as such, something that could play into a campaign. The Forest Queen is an archfey who rules an endless taiga in Thelanis. She took The Changeling as a child, but The Maiden wandered through a manifest zone into Thelanis and she and the Changeling fell in love. The Forest Queen called on The Rake to deal with the Maiden, but with a little help from The River and the Rake’s murdered Children the Changeling manages to rescue the Maiden, and they all drown happily leaving only The Newborn behind.

Once I’ve established the tale in the campaign and people have played some Illimat, I’d introduce the Forest Queen as an archfey who could be a patron, enemy or both… and the Rake as a potential foe. Depending on the power level of the players and the role I want him to play, the Rake could be a powerful fey; a full archfey in his own right; or perhaps a human warlock/rogue who’s made bargains with a range of dark powers in order to satiate his desires. Given the whole idea of the powers of Thelanis as figures known from story, it would be a fun way to have players learn the story and then encounter these spirits in the world.

 Any more questions about Illimat? Ask below!

The Luminaries

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For the last year I’ve been developing a card game called Illimat with the band The Decemberists. As I write this, there’s less than twelve hours left in the Kickstarter for Illimat… but I still want to take a moment to write about one of my favorite elements of the game.

One of the design goals with Illimat was to create a card game that felt like it could have been around a hundred years ago and simply been forgotten… or that it might be a classic card game from another world, a game that the characters of The Hazards of Love might play. As one of my favorite books is the Codex Seraphinianus, I loved the idea of creating a deck of cards that felt familiar and yet fantastic… and fortunately for me, Carson Ellis has always wanted to make a deck of cards as well. We started with a base deck of five suits – the four familiar seasons, and a fifth suit of Stars that is added in when you play with four players. These are the primary tools of play. But we also came up with a second set of cards… the major arcana of our fictional deck, and its strongest connection to The Decemberists. We called these Luminaries. Within the context of the game, Luminaries are dealt face-down in each corner of the board. Each Luminary has a special ability that comes into effect when the card is revealed. Some of these are simple: while The Maiden is on the board, Winter has no effect. Others are more complicated; The Changeling allows you to exchange a card from your hand for a card in The Changeling’s field, which opens up a host of possibilities.

The interaction between the Luminaries helps to make each session of Illimat unique. But my favorite thing is how Carson Ellis has blended the artistic goal – creating a set of iconic, tarot-like images – with the mechanical effects of the cards. We don’t write the rules for the Luminary on the card, but once you know what they do, the image serves to remind you. For example…

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The Changeling is inspired by the character of William from Hazards of Love. Stolen by the Forest Queen as a child, he takes the form of a faun by day while reverting to human form at night. The Changeling card presents this basic concept in an interesting and iconic way, but it also shows the exchange of cards, which is what The Changeling does in the game itself; one card is changed into another.

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In The Hazards of Love, William must find a way to cross the deadly river. In Illimat, the field that contains The River is filled with six cards, making it more difficult to clear than other fields. This is reflected by the six cards floating in the River. At the same time, the image of the cards in the reveal feels iconic to me, not unlike the classic Five of Cups – the cards being swept away. The card also has a secondary effect. Normally the player who harvests the most Winter cards LOSES 2 points; but if they have The River, it freezes over and they can cross… so instead they GAIN two points.

Developing the Luminaries was a threefold process of coming up with a set of core concepts that felt strong and iconic while still feeling grounded in The Hazards of Love; coming up with game effects that were interesting but felt like they reflected the concept; and then developing art that combined both the effect and the concept. I’m happy with their mechanical element – but I’m especially thrilled with how Carson brought them to life.

You can read Carson’s thoughts on developing Illimat here, and if you read the before 8 PM Pacific Time on October 3rd you can back Illimat here!

Any questions?

The Story of ILLIMAT

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Two days ago, I launched the Kickstarter for a game I’m making with The Decemberists: ILLIMAT. It’s a card game for 2-4 players, and you can play it in 15 minutes or an hour. I could describe it in more detail, but you can go to the page and see it right now or if you’d like to see it played, you can watch this gameplay video from One Shot Game Night… or this detailed overview of the game from GeekDad

But what IS Illimat? Where did it come from? And what, exactly, do The Decemberists have to do with it?

In 2009, The Decemberists were preparing to release the album The Hazards of Love. As Colin Meloy says, they “were doing what most bands do in preparation for such an event: trying out new hairstyles, inviting people to be in their band, and participating in photoshoots.” They had an idea for a shoot in which they’d pretend to be a secret society that met in strange places to play a mysterious board game. Artist Carson Ellis and photographer Autumn DeWilde made an inscrutable two-part board. The shoot happened, the board was tucked away somewhere, and that was that. But over the course of the next six years, the Decemberists began playing more and more games while on the road. At some point someone said “Remember that mysterious board? Could we make that into an actual game?”

I got to know guitarist Chris Funk through Gloom, and he came to me with the idea of making this game. He and Colin Meloy dropped by my house and presented me with the following enigmatic artifact.

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They also had a few specific requests. They want a game that…

  • … Felt like it could be an old game, something that might have been played a hundred years ago and just forgotten.
  • … Didn’t actually depict the events of Hazards of Love, but somehow felt like a game that would be played in the world of HoL. 
  • … Tying to the secret society vibe, something that felt mysterious and even “humorously obtuse” – while still being easy to learn and play.

The board sat in my basement for a few months while I pondered this challenge. From a design perspective, there’s a bunch of basic challenges. The board is divided into four quadrants. Does each player use a different quadrant? Does each quadrant had a different effect? What’s the relevance of the numbers and symbols in the corners? Most of all: What about that second box that sits in the center? Why do you put a box in the middle of the board – and what can you do with it?

One of the first things that struck me was that we wanted to make the box in the center the actual box for the game. The board was beautiful but also somewhat unwieldy – over time we came up with the idea of putting the design onto a cloth board that could fold up and fit into the central box. I’m very happy with the end result of this: the final game is very compact and transportable, but keeps the basic beauty of the design.

Next, I started thinking about making something that felt as though it could have been “played a hundred years ago and then forgotten.” I picked up my 1875 copy of Hoyle and started looking at games I’d heard of but never played, like Whist and Bazique. I was intrigued by the core mechanic used in Cassino and Scopa, and started experimenting with that. I decided to have each of the four quadrants of the board hold a different set of cards, but not to limit access to those fields to a specific player. This led to the next big jump: The idea that the box in the center would determine the rules that applied to each field… and that when the box turned, the rules would change.

Meanwhile, we wanted something that wasn’t about Hazards of Love, but felt like it could be played in that world. I wanted to make what essentially felt like a Tarot deck from another world. We set the suits of the cars to the seasons – Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter – and created a set of eight Luminaries – the Major Arcana of this deck – inspired by the iconic elements of Hazards of Love. Thus we have The Forest Queen, The Changeling and The River. The central box – which had been named “the Illimat” in the original photoshoot – would set the season, and the season would restrict the actions. Anything is possible in Summer, but you can’t stockpile in Spring, sow in Autumn, or harvest in Winter.

There’s many more details I’d like to delve into, especially the design of the Luminaries themselves, and I’ll get to those in future posts. But that’s how the story begins… and here’s the current image of the game as we envision it, in contrast to that original board in the picture above.

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Check out the Kickstarter if you have a moment! We’re off to a great start, but the journey is just beginning. If you have any questions, post them below!