Jeffro's Space Gaming Blog

Microgames, Monster Games, and Role Playing Games

Playing Illuminati with my Son

My son is ten. His absolute favorite game is Illuminati, so that was the first game we played this weekend. We could start at 5PM sharp on Friday– I was working from home. That’s one of the benefits of living with your opponent– you can fit a game in at times that would otherwise be frittered away noodling around and you don’t have to travel or coordinate. I not only saved some gas money, but I also converted my commute into time spent playing a classic microgame!

The thing about two-player Illuminati is that a whole lot comes down to which Illuminati people end up with at the beginning and who goes first. My son got Gnomes of Zurich and I got the Bermuda Triangle. We thought he was going to get an easy win, but I got the first move and picked up Hollywood on the first round. That evened up the cash differential somewhat, but not enough to help me relax. My next turn, I ended up drawing and taking the Multinational Oil Companies with an income of eight! My son was really concerned about that and he didn’t feel much better a couple of turns later when he picked up the Video Gamers which have an income of seven.

I maneuvered most of my income to protect the big money groups that I had next to my Illuminati card. This meant that it was nearly suicidal for my son to try to take my cash cows, but at the same time… I could not threaten him. I got one more lucky break with a special action card that caused my son to lose a turn. I picked up group after group and tried to do so with a minimal expenditure of money. (You can get a lot of stuff on the cheap if you leverage alignment bonuses and lending from the various groups.) At the critical moment of the game, I was three groups away from winning. But my son was going to win on cash if he could make it through two more turns.

I chose to pick up the cheap card that had come from the deck and then I attacked my son’s Chinese Campaign Donors. I would win if I nabbed it, so he had to protect it. (It had another card connected to it that would bring me up to thirteen.) My goal was just to spend him down, but he looked at my stack of cash and… he folded. He had over a hundred in megabucks on his Illuminati… and he folded. He had learned how to leverage his cash advantage in the previous game, so I wasn’t expecting this!

Looking back, I actually had a minor dilemma here. Should I let him take back the move? It actually never crossed my mind. I would much rather play several short and decisive games than play a fewer number of games in which ever last thing is over-analyzed and fussed over. I’ve never really thought about it, but I guess the “fail fast” principle applies as much to game playing as it does to game design. Sure, my son will throw a game with a blunder every now and then… but his losses etch things into his subconscious that will stay there even if we set a particular game aside for a month or two.

But, sure… it’s not about winning or losing. For me it’s more about pushing piles of cash through my nefarious tentacles of conspiratorial power. Still, at the rate that he is learning, I’m beginning to think that I’ll have to take every single win I can scrounge up before long!

This game is not recommended for two players– it says so right on the reference page. There’s very little you can do if you fall too far behind or if you get seriously outmaneuvered. You can’t really compete beyond trying to not throw the game. While this would be tedious for more experienced gamers, it turns out to be a great sort of “gaming lab” within which a young gamer can begin to work on a combination of patience, competence, and mastery. There’s just something about two player Illuminati that makes it a good fit for gaming with my son.

One thing that surprises me is how much he’s taken to the complexity, the crunch, and the all-around “fiddliness” of this game. I’ve seen adults recoil in horror as I start to explain the rules, but my son is completely comfortable with the overall weight of the game.

This game has pretty well stayed in print since it debuted in the early eighties. Steve Jackson games calls it an “evergreen” because of that. There is a whole lot of things about this game that violate core preference of the typical boardgamer of today… and goes against the grain of what Lewis Pulsipher would recommend game designers try to do today in general. This makes me wonder how my son can really take to it.

Well, for one thing… it is a great game. It is as quintessential as Dune or Cosmic Encounter. A game can’t stay in print for over thirty years and be a stinker. But another thing is… my son has the time to immerse himself in this beast of a game and savor every last nuance. He also does not have to deal with the game geek game– he doesn’t have to find players and play what they want to play and try to convince them to play what he wants. Social factors are by far the greatest barrier I faced in trying to get the games I’ve wanted to play on the table, but that hardly impacts my son’s game playing at all.

I guess I may never completely understand why it is that my son has latched on to the greatness of Illuminati. It doesn’t really matter, I guess. After all, I don’t have to understand it in order to enjoy playing it with my son several times a month…!

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6 responses to “Playing Illuminati with my Son

  1. Jason Packer March 17, 2014 at 10:16 am

    It definitely makes one wonder why there’s no online version of the game. It seems like a logical step – the system is simple enough, I would think, to make into a multiplayer computer game, even if the strategies are complex.

    • jeffro March 17, 2014 at 11:10 am

      If tabletop gamer developers knew how to turn a dollar leveraging their stuff in the computer gaming arena, then I think you’d see a lot more of it. In reality, people that can get programming projects done and feed the markets are probably going to make more money doing something else.

  2. dgarsys March 17, 2014 at 7:24 pm

    I’ve never played the “base” game – but did gather up a bunch of the “NWO” version, and absolutely loved it.

    • jeffro March 17, 2014 at 7:27 pm

      The edition I play has artwork ported over from that edition. The original was as cheap as it was subversive!

      • dgarsys March 18, 2014 at 8:09 am

        Ahhh – the days of Bjørne the viking dinosaur, becoming the socialist dictator of California and nationalizing all of the entertainment industry, while using the orbital mind control lasers to better control the TV industry….

        [Jeffro: Cue Ed McMahon… “hruah hah haahh… YES!”]

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