A Handcrafted Conspiracy, Part I

by Glen Barnett

Art by Marc Sherman and Keith Johnson

A Handcrafted Conspiracy, Part I

Players of card games have always had great ideas for cards. Quite a few have gone the next step and made them. Ever since the original Illuminati card game came out way back in 1982, people have been snorting the paper megabucks all over the table and making up their own cards. Then Deluxe Illuminati came to the party with three blank group cards and a blank Illuminati (and megabucks that wouldn't snort everywhere -- some people have no sense of tradition). INWO makes it much easier by having packs of blank cards (plot and group backs) available. Thousands of homemade cards can be found on the Internet. Almost everyone has at least one good card they have thought about and perhaps made, and some people have come up with several cards on a single theme -- their own mini-expansion.

This article describes how to design INWO cards you and your friends will want to play with, how to make INWO and Deluxe Illuminati cards look reasonably attractive, and finally, suggests ways to introduce your own cards into INWO games.

What Makes a Good Card, Anyway?

The perfect homemade card would have a funny spin on a real-world concept, and a special ability that simultaneously plays well, is balanced compared to other cards in the game, yet relates thematically to the card's concept.

A card ought to have an interesting subject -- and for INWO, that's something strange, topical or funny. Coming up with the subject is often the starting point for a card. One great source for ideas is the Daily Illuminator's Illuminated Site of the Week. On February 26, 1999, it featured the Institute of Noetic Sciences. They say of themselves: "We are a nonprofit membership organization that both conducts and sponsors research into the workings and powers of the mind, including perceptions, beliefs, attention, intention, and intuition. We are bold enough to inquire about phenomena that don't fit into the conventional scientific model."

They sound like great fodder for a bit of Illuminated conspiracy. If you made a card out of them, you'd make them a Group, right? Let's look at it more closely.

INWO cards come in several varieties: Groups can be Personalities, Organizations, Places or Illuminati; Plots can have one-time or continuing effects. In a way Resources span the gap between the Groups and Plots. Groups represent individual people, places and organizations -- they "do things," Plots are generally "stuff that happens," and Resources are often objects, creatures or special places -- things you use. Something that seems like a Resource may be better as a Plot, or a Plot could be reworked into a Group . . . O.J.'s gloves, for example, could become a Resource ("O.J.'s Gloves"), or they could be turned into a Plot; that gives you a lot more flexibility with how much they cost to play. Similarly a card based on the Institute of Noetic Sciences could be a Group, but it could also lead to a Plot -- perhaps one called "Ultimate Human Potential," or it could be a Resource -- a book, for example, or perhaps a device of some kind.

A Handcrafted Conspiracy, Part I

"Bigger than Ben Hur's Mom's Underpants"

Choosing a card's name and what category it fits into are only the start. Writing the card's text can be trickier than it looks. A card needs to be short and clear. A long, rambling description of five different things the card does would need a card bigger than Ben Hur's Mom's underpants. If you want everyone to appreciate your brilliant card and remember what it does while they play with it, make sure they can read it in a few seconds, not minutes. Pick one essential thing about what your card represents and do that.

Make sure your card text makes sense. You might know what you want a card to do but other people can't read your mind, so it's important to spell it out. Use short sentences where possible. Good grammar and spelling help avoid confusion. It's good to have a friend who plays INWO look over your card and see if it makes sense to them. If you have to explain it, it needs rewriting.

Try to anticipate what can happen in play. For example, if you have a Resource that makes a linked Group immune to attacks to destroy, does that include Assassinations and Disasters? What about other Instant attacks? Consider the implications for the rest of the game when you design your card.

Make your card balanced relative to other cards in the game, and make sure its cost is reasonable. Super-powerful cards are not actually fun. Any decent system for getting homemade cards into play will cull game-wreckers at the outset, but there's always a temptation to try to beat the system. There are a few milestone cards you can compare with your card for balance. If you give a group Power above three, ask yourself if your group is really more powerful than France. You can use Meteor Strike for Disasters, and Sniper for Assassinations. Remember that INWO is a game of subtlety and trickery, and that brute force is a less satisfying way to win. Your friends will appreciate a clever trick more than a fast stomping.

On the other hand, balanced doesn't mean weak. More powerful abilities are less of a problem if they affect everyone or are easily removed. Imagine "The Magic Goes Away" (a red New World Order card which disables Magic Resources, reduces the power of Magic Groups, and removes Automatic Takeovers) as a Plot that only affected one person! It would need to have a very large cost, but as a New World Order it is free. By comparison, "Fickle Finger of Fate" removes Automatic Takeovers from one victim, but it costs a valuable Illuminati action, gives its victim +10 for an attack in compensation, and is restricted -- it can't be used in a two-player game. If you do make something nasty into a New World Order that you'll be playing yourself, you just have to design your deck around not being too badly hurt by it, just as people who play "The Magic Goes Away" avoid having Magic Groups and Resources, and find ways to make up for the loss of their Automatic Takeover.

As much as possible, there should be a thematic connection between the card concept and the ability. The Recycling Centres card from the Assassins expansion, with its ability to "recycle" discards is a case in point. Some years ago I designed a card called "Jesuits," concentrating on one thing associated with the Jesuits -- casuistry. Attempting to implement that lead to an ability to temporarily reverse up to two alignments on a Personality. See Sam Kington's "Evil Jesuits for a Better Tomorrow" on the homebrew cards site (http://www.illuminated.co.uk/inwo) for an even better version of this kind of ability.

Notice how the various basic mechanics in INWO -- alignment and attribute changes, card draws, exposure, fiddling with rivals' hands or decks, spying, and so on -- relate to the corresponding real life concepts. For example, making others forget things is variously implemented as removal of tokens ('Frop Farm), loss of an alignment (Drug Companies), and hiding of exposed plots (Fast Food Chains).

When there's a good connection between the thing the card represents and the way the card works in terms of game mechanics, the card becomes much more interesting. It is not so easy to explain how to do this well, but you know it when you see it. I would heartily recommend many cards from the homebrew site on this score. Here's a few you might like to take a look at:
Scott McNair's "Dyslexia Cannot Remove the Terror of the Dogs!" has a neat game mechanic representing dyslexia; David Schwartz' "James Cameron", an epic which tells us just what can happen when a film is too big for its plot; Robert Dubisch's "April Fools Day" is a time when hoaxes abound; and lastly there's Carter Cliff's "Shibboleth" which shows how tricky things can become if you're not "one of us".

Your card ability should be novel. The "Gives +4 on any attack to control Violent groups"-style ability has been done to death. Do something different! Card abilities that depend on die rolls are a temptation best avoided. It works okay on Bill Clinton, but generally random abilities make for dull cards. In any case, with the limited size of INWO decks, putting cards in your deck that only work part of the time can hurt you more than it helps.

The official cards implement a great variety of card abilities, and yet there are hundreds of different possible game mechanics they don't cover. Sometimes finding an ability that is both new and balanced is hard. If you can't come up with an entirely new mechanic, try a twist on an old one. For example, while there are cards that increase the maximum size of your plot hand, I don't think I've seen a card that reduced it! If it reduced the maximum size of a rival's plot hand by one, that would be a relatively weakish plot, depending on how easy it was to remove. If it reduced the hand size to one, that would be nasty enough to work as a Zap. How would it be as a New World Order? I think it would work very nicely for an endgame coup-de-grace!

If you're going to make a card of a specific type, make it fit the pattern for that kind of card -- it helps to have a couple handy. Zaps have continuous single-player effects with fixed ways to remove them, New World Orders have no cost to play, Disasters give a roll to devastate and a margin of victory for destruction, and so on.

New World Order Cards

New World Order cards must also have a color. There's no trick to choosing the color of a New World Order -- find a card that does something similar to, or opposite to your card, and make yours the same color -- there are really no other requirements. If two New World Order cards shouldn't both be in effect at the same time, they should be the same color.

There are some relationships between those themes as well.

A NWO card that gave two automatic takeovers per turn would be Red, because The Magic Goes Away is Red, and affects automatic takeovers. If you make a batch of New World Order cards, the other thing you should do is try to balance the numbers of each color.


How do I decide if something should be a gadget? I ask myself "Can Deasil Engine make it run backwards and thus destroy it?" If the Resource is a clock, say, then clearly the answer is "yes." If it is a cauldron, you'd have to say it was highly unlikely at best, unless it was an electronic cauldron! It is a pretty simple criterion to apply. Things which are vaguely sort of gadgety, but which fail this test (possibly a cauldron fits here) should usually be artifacts. In fact an artifact is pretty much anything which is a product of artifice -- something that's "made," though the INWO meaning seems a little more restricted than this. The Magic and Unique Resource attributes are easier -- you can probably figure those out for yourself.

Consider how your card would work in a One Big Deck (OBD) or SubGenius game. OBD games are one of the best ways to introduce homemade cards into play, especially a set of cards with a theme. If everyone has a chance to use a card, not only will it be fairer, but your friends can more readily help you work the bugs out of the card text.

Lastly, take a look at the Card of the Week Contest Guidelines ( http://www.pharmacy.umab.edu/~terram/staff/cohen/contest.html). These are the guidelines for cards posted to the inwo-cards mailing list (a mailing list for discussing homemade card ideas -- see the Steve Jackson Games INWO web pages for information on subscribing). Cards posted to the list that follow the guidelines are considered for the Card of the Week award. You may find the guidelines helpful in writing your own cards.

A Handcrafted Conspiracy, Part I

A Little of This, A Little of That . . .

Let's see some of these ideas in action. I recently designed a Plot card based on Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI). MRI gives an idea of "spying" on people -- perhaps looking at a rival's group deck. But that can be done already with X-Ray Specs and The Prescriptures -- both Resource cards. What if MRI also scrambled as it examined you? Now we have a more interesting possibility. So the MRI card lets you rearrange the cards you examine. MRI is a Plot, so it should generally be weaker than a similar Resource. X-Ray Specs lets you examine the top three cards from any deck, either Plot or Group (more if it is linked to a Weird Science group), at the cost of the action of the linked group. So MRI only lets you examine the top two cards, and only of a rival's Group deck; but it lets you reorder the two cards before you replace them, at the cost of a Science Action. This seems perhaps a little weak, so that ability needs to be improved just a little more -- if it finds a Resource, MRI makes it public knowledge, by turning it face up. So, with the addition of a picture and a funny bit of color text, we have:

 Type: Plot  
 Name: MRI  
 Graphic: A swirly multicolored picture of a person's body.  
  Various Eye-in-the-Pyramids, alien visages, bits of suspect  
  technology, barcodes and so forth can be discerned.  
 Quote: It used to be called NMR but they changed it.  
  Try saying "I'm supposed to have an NMR" next time you're  
  in hospital, and you'll see why . . . 
 Card Text: Choose one rival. You may look at the top two  
  cards of their Group deck, and replace them in any order.   
  If the top returned card is a Resource, you may replace it  
  face up. You must spend an action from a Science group.  
 Requirements: Requires Science Action  

Here's a great card by Marc Sherman -- Power Behind The Throne. This is the best implementation of the "build a new Illuminati" type of card I've seen, and illustrates well the point about having a good thematic connection between the card concept and the actual ability.

The Daily Illuminator recently had the website of the Voluntary Human Extinction Movement as its Illuminated Site of the Week. I just can't resist doing a complete card on them, so here's my take on them. Their alignments and attributes are reasonably straightforward, but the ability is the tricky part. I took their central philosophy (nobody should have more children) as my starting point. In the game, the nearest thing I could think of to children were puppets . . . and "bing!" I saw the light. I'll let the card speak for itself.

 Type: Group (Organization)   
 Name: Voluntary Human Extinction Movement   
 Graphic: The VHEMT logo -- an "upside-down" earth over the top of 
  a huge V, with "VHEMT" in a curved banner across it. However,   
  the tip of the V (the part below the North Pole) has an eye  
  in it ... looking "up" at the earth. 
 Quote: "May we live long and die out" 
 Card Text: While individual membership doesn't tend to run in families,   
 enough people join the Movement to keep it viable.   
  The VHEMT may attack to permanently remove an outgoing control arrow  
 from any non-Illuminati group. Roll exactly as for an Attack to Destroy   
 or Control (your choice), with a bonus of +7 to the roll. If it succeeds, 
 the only result is the loss of whichever unoccupied arrow the attacker 
 chooses. Place something (such as a sticky note or small object) over  
 the lost arrow.  
 Power: 1     Resistance:  3  
 Alignments: Fanatic, Liberal, Peaceful   
 Attributes: Green   
 Control Arrows: In: B   Out: none   

Thanks to Seth Cohen, Marc Sherman, and Sam Kington for their advice and assistance.

Article publication date: June 11, 1999

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