Illuminati Designer Article

by Steve Jackson
(This article originally appeared in DRAGON Magazine.)

Sometimes, when asked where I got an idea, I can't answer. Ogre, for instance, must have been in the back of my head for years before I ever seriously thought about designing a game. But I know exactly where the idea for Illuminati came from.

One night in September of '81, I was over at Dave Martin's house. Dave is the most "regular" of our free-lance cover artists; we use him a lot because he's talented, cooperative, and lives right here in Austin. He's also a good friend (he's just as crazy as any of us). And on this particular night, we weren't talking business at all. We were drinking wine and discussing science fiction. We had just found out that we were both admirers of the Shea and Wilson Illuminatus! trilogy . . . when Dave said IT.

"Hey, Steve, these books are really crazy. You ought to make a game out of them."

I laughed, and the moment passed. But, over the next few days, the idea kept coming back. It was impossible, of course. Even aside from the question of buying game rights to a novel (always an involved and expensive process) there was the subject matter. Giant golden dope-smuggling submarines, talking dolphins, anarchistic midgets, the holy man underneath Dealy Plaza (the Dealy Lama, of course), dozens of secret organizations with obscene acronyms, and a final deus ex machina in the form of a real live (and horny) goddess . . . even if you could figure out who was on whose side, which I didn't think I could, how could you make a game out of it? But it was such a fascinating thought!

And then it hit me. I was driving at the time, and did not (quite) go off the road – but there was a real physical twitch when the thought took hold. It might not be possible to do an Illuminatus! game . . . but it would be possible to do a game about the secret-conspiracy idea *behind* Illuminatus! Thus was born the game of Illuminati. (An "illuminatus" is an enlightened one. If you have an illuminatus and you get another one, you have illuminati. Also a conspiracy . . . )

Having decided to accept the Illuminatus! books as spiritual guides, but not as actual source material, I was free to foist my own vision of the Illuminati upon a helpless world. So I started researching.

"You want to read about WHAT? . . . "

Researching something like the Illuminati is not the easiest thing to do. After all, if there is such a thing as a secret conspiracy to overthrow the world, it's not going to advertise itself. On the other hand, hordes of people are going to write about it – each one adding more speculations and misconceptions. I soon found that there was no shortage of historical information and conjecture about the dread Illuminati. Most of it was utterly contradictory. Well, so much the better; I could believe whatever I liked. All the other writers certainly had! I've distilled a bit of Illuminated history for the interested reader; you'll find it (wherever you put it, Tim). If you want more, there's a bibliography in the Illuminati rulebook. Suffice it to say that I found plenty of sources, ranging from the Encyclopedia Britannica to a collection of underground comics.

Now that I had enough data about the "real" Illuminati, and about the interesting modern paranoia that has grown up around them, what sort of game did I want to put together? I decided that:

(a) It should be a multi-player game. I'm a great admirer of Eon's Cosmic Encounter. I decided to go for the same free-wheeling, back-stabbing play style. Another similarity to CE was the idea that each player would have his own special power. Illuminati takes this even farther than CE, though: each player has his own victory condition, too! Thus, each player has slightly different aims in any given transaction.

(b) The tone should be tongue-in-cheek rather than serious. It's possible to get deadly serious about the idea of conspiracies and assassinations. I didn't want that. Among all the material I'd read, the articles with the really wacky theories – even if they were presented totally seriously – were the most fun to read. Logically, then, a wacky game should be more fun to play. Which is why there are names like the Semiconscious Liberation Army and the Fiendish Fluoridators disguising genuine groups. That's also why an account of the game will include things like "And then the South American Nazis, acting on orders from The UFOs, took over the Boy Scouts with the help of the Phone Company!"

(c) The game should also be complicated enough to reward skill and deviousness. My one criticism of Cosmic Encounter is that it's a little too simple for me. It's a lot of fun, but it's not suitable for a head-to-head confrontation with a really skilled and sneaky opponent. I wanted Illuminati to allow for detailed, long-term alliances and double-crosses . . . for sophisticated study of other players' actions in an attempt to find out what they were really trying to do . . . for sudden, telling strokes that could win the game (or at least eliminate another player entirely).

(d) As much as possible, I wanted to retain the "flavor" of the conspiracy material I'd been reading. That's why groups like the South American Nazis, the Cattle Mutilators, the fluoridators, the Communists, the oil companies, and The United Nations, are in there. You can't have a good conspiracy theory without stringing together all these elements and a dozen more – so here they are. A few (for instance, the Trilateral Commission) got left out; no matter how dear to the heart of some writers the Trilateralists are, they're just not funny. They may make it into the expansion sets, as the "Triliberal Commission."

(e) I wanted the game system to be new. I was tired of hexagons and squares. It would have been entirely too easy to do a Monopoly board and let you take over groups as you landed on them, getting more power every time you passed GO. Bleccch. This was going to be a game about a brand-new subject; it deserved a brand-new system.

The Case of the Demented Playtesters

So I sat down and made up a batch of cards with different group names on them (pulling the numerical values from thin air) and typed up some brief rules. A few of us tried to play it, and two things became clear. The game was definitely fun. But it was slo-o-o-o-w. A single game could last five or six hours – a lot of that being taken up by a single player trying to decide what to do. All the later development – well, almost all – went into speeding and streamlining the basic system. Which is what happens when you try to design a whole new game system, but it was frustrating all the same. That's why, even though Illuminati got extensive and enthusiastic playtesting, it took from September 1981 to July 1982 to get it on the market.

The game went through so many changes that some of our playtesters became rather frustrated. They'd get a copy of the game, play it, send in some comments – and then, two months later when they dropped in to play again, they'd have to unlearn half of what they knew. They got their revenge, though. Sometimes a playtest group would decide, on its own, to change one (or several) of the rules. Then they'd play all night, report the results, and add, as an afterthought, "By the way, we did thus-and-so instead of what you wrote . . ." But at least one of these random innovations made it into the final rules.

At various times, the Illuminati rules allowed:

  • Six control arrows per card instead of four.
  • Attempts to "influence" a group instead of controlling it outright. An influenced group was added to a player's power structure, but had an "influence" marker on it, and did not contribute its income to his treasury. However, it was harder for other players to take over.
  • "Rounds" – when each player had had one turn, that was called a "round," and a different player moved first in every round. You had to have your victory conditions at the end of a round, not just a turn, in order to win. This meant that, unless you were careful, the other players would have at least one turn to try to topple you. We threw it out, not because it wasn't interesting (it was), but because it made the game too long. The staggered-round system may show up in another game someday.
  • Immortal Illuminati. The original draft made it impossible to eliminate a player – you could always collect your income and get back in the game. It proved to be more fun to allow players to take each other out permanently.
  • Fees for transfer, reorganization, etc. This turned out to be pointless bookkeeping.
  • Super-long turns. Originally, each group in a player's power structure could take one action per turn; his Illuminati could take two. Thus, a player with six groups in his control could take a total of eight actions! Not only did this lengthen the game, it led to a positive-feedback effect; the more you had, the more you could do even against the other players' opposition.

And a host of other things. The game as it stands is similar in flavor to my first draft, but practically every detail is different. Even the number of cards changed; the game was designed with 72, but I soon found out that card manufacturers print in multiples of 52 or 54. Anything else costs huge sums. So, reluctantly, we pared eighteen cards from the game. Naturally, we took out the least interesting 18 – so the net result was a better game. At the time, though, it was agony.

Attack of the Non-Gamers

As the game continued to develop, we noticed an interesting phenomenon. Our non-wargaming staff loved it. Example: Elisabeth Zakes is the head of our typesetting department. She plays D&D, and not much else. Her husband Chris is in charge of shipping. He plays Nuclear Warand nothing else. But they both got heavily into Illuminati – enough so that Elisabeth is in charge of development for the expansion sets. That was typical. This turned out to be a game that non-wargamers liked!

But, as we found out when we released it at Origins '82, most mainstream wargamers like Illuminati too. The cover of the game (painted, of course, by Dave Martin – he earned the right!) drew a great deal of attention, so we handed out a number' of complimentary copies to our friends in the other company booths. Immediately, we began to get feedback . . . positive feedback! Apparently everyone went back to their rooms that night and played Illuminati . . . and liked it!

And, as usual, the approval of the game designers was a very good sign. All the response to Illuminati so far has been good – it even got a favorable mention in the December '82 OMNI! The game distributors were a little leery at first, just because the subject matter was so unusual . . . but when they sell out, they come back for more. In fact, we're working on two expansion sets. Soon, Illuminati fans will be able to add Texas, California, New York, the Orbital Mind Control Lasers, the Robot Sea Monsters, and a horde of other new groups – as well as a couple of new Illuminati groups – to their games. And, by popular demand, we're including some blank cards. Your own favorite paranoia belongs in Illuminati; write it up and put it in. The expansion sets will both be out in early '83; Dave Martin is doing the covers. By special arrangement with Dave, Adventure Gaming got a copy of the Supplement #1 cover . . . and there it is on the front of the magazine, looking back at you. I doubt we'll do any more supplements after the first two; we don't want to run the game into the ground. We may very well sponsor a yearly tournament . . . give out Illuminati membership cards . . . make up some little eye-in-triangle lapel pins . . . who knows? This is fun!

Sidebar – The Real Illuminati

The history of the Illuminati – the "illuminated ones" is as tangled as any body in history. The designation has been applied – by themselves or by others – to a wide variety of religious, social, and political reformers and conspirators.

Most accounts of the Illuminati will give prominent mention to Adam Weishaupt, who in 1776, in Ingolstadt, Germany, formed a short-lived but influential group of intellectuals. To the outside world, they presented the face of a rarefied debating society and social club. Their detractors accused them of plotting to take over Freemasonry and/or various governments, and the Society was suppressed in 1786-87. Offshoot groups had certainly spread to France; probably to the Netherlands; possibly to the United States. Many modern "conspiracy theorists" will point to the interesting symbolism on the back of the dollar bill as proof that the Illuminati have controlled the U.S. government from its beginning.

However, Weishaupt's Illuminati were not the first. An Afghanistani group in the sixteenth century used the same name and campaigned for many years – through four generations of leaders – against the Indian and Persian governments. The Afghan Illuminati founded cities of great beauty and made many great claims, but were eventually driven underground. Interestingly, the German Illuminati appeared less than fifty years after the death of the last known leader of the Afghan group. Though Weishaupt's Illuminati claimed no connection with the earlier society, the coincidence of alleged motive (political power), means (recruitment or seduction of those in power), organization (eight ranks), and "secret knowledge" (improved powers of the mind and of understanding) are too great to dismiss entirely.

The group known today as the Rosicrucians is stated by some authorities to be connected with a Spanish group of Illuminati, and, through them, to Sufiism. The Spanish Illuminati, the "Alumbrados," were broken up in 1623, victims of the Grand Inquisition. Modern Rosicrucianism is divided into a number of groups, ranging from students of medievalism and literature to advertisers in Sunday supplements.

Modern interest in the Illuminati can be divided into three categories. The first is that of the "conspiracy theorists," who take it as a matter of political fact that most of today's important decisions are made entirely behind the scenes, by people other than the "public" leaders of nations. It is a commonly-held tenet of the conspiracy theorists that the Illuminati (specifically, Weishaupt's Bavarian Illuminati) exist today, and were, for their own reasons, responsible for the assassinations of the Kennedys, the oil shortage, the two World Wars, and probably the cancellation of Star Trek.

The second category is that of the Illuminati as black humor – a metaphor for conspiracy and collusion. Popularized by the authors of Principia Discordia and by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson in their Illuminatus! trilogy, members of this category also argue that the Illuminati were responsible for every major decision or disaster of the last few centuries. The difference is, they don't believe it. Writers in this genre have a tendency to combine elements of H. P. Lovecraft's "Cthulhu mythos" with their theorizing.

The third category, of course, is that of the real Illuminati, who have, through * * * fnord

– Steve Jackson

Sidebar – Running an ILLUMINATI Tournament

Here are two Illuminati tournament systems that we've used. I prefer the first, but it takes more time; thus, it's most suitable for a club tournament. The second system is much faster, so it's probably better for a convention tourney – however, it allows a good player to be knocked out by bad luck in his first game, whereas the first system does not.

I. Each player plays the same number of games, preferably with a different set of opponents each time. It's all right if some of the games in each round are (for instance) four-player while others are five-player, but there should be no gross inequities – i.e., don't have one six-player game and two three-player games. The winner of each round gets points equal to the number of players in the game. If two or more players shared a victory, each gets a number of points equal to the number of players divided by the number of winners – i.e., if two players share victory in a 5-player game, they each get 2 ½ points. After the set number of games (either 3 or 4) the player with the most points is the victor. If there is a tie, you can either play another round, or put the high-scoring players (plus enough of the next-highest to bring the number of players to at least 4) in one final tiebreaker game.

II. As above, but all losers in the first-round game are eliminated from the tourney and do not play in further rounds. If two or more players share a victory, both advance. Surviving players are grouped randomly by the referee for the next round. Play continues until only three (or fewer) players are left – since four is the smallest number that can play a good game. At this time, the player(s) with the highest score are the tourney winners. It is possible that the winner will be a person eliminated before the final round, too; since a lone victory is worth more than a shared one and points are not lost when a player is eliminated. Only the final point score matters.

(Sidebar comments by the editor of Dragon . . . )

It's very strange. Illuminati, Steve Jackson's card game of conspiracy, subversion, and world conquest, has grown immensely popular since its publication in 1982. Sales are strong, nearly every gaming convention has its Illuminati tournament, and the game has become firmly ensconced in the annual Games magazine "Games 100" list – the editors' 100 favorite games.

Even stranger, the success of the original promptly spawned two expansion sets, adding more groups that these scheming secret conspiracies could control Now there's even a highly-acclaimed play-by-mail version, Adventure Systems, Illuminati PBM (reviewed on page 27).

Unbelievably, Illuminati Expansion Set 3 is being published in January 1985. Unlike its predecessors, it has no cards: instead it adds a board to the original game, a "Propaganda track" representing the world that the Illuminati so deviously manipulate. And there's brainwashing, which changes a group's alignment; and building up power and income; and new Illuminati; and more.

Probably strangest of all, people keep sending us articles about Illuminati – so many we finally had to do this special section.

What's strange, of course, is that a game can become so popular and yet have such an outlandish premise. Secret conspiracies? Stealthy subversion? Hidden alliances out to dominate the world? Balderdash!

Incidentally, the swordfish is green and little Eunice cannot paint the small overstuffed chair. The word is "albatross." Paint the chair red. Immediately.

– The Editors

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