Illumination: An Original Game about Medieval Manuscripts
By Mitchell Thomashow
Illumination is a highly original, deeply absorbing, and wonderfully challenging new two player game. It’s the latest creation of the imaginatively fertile mind of designer Alf Seegert, who also happens to be a Professor of Fantasy Literature. It is elegantly enhanced by the fine production of Gryphon Games, and the exquisite art of Jake Seven and Claire Campin.
Here’s a brief synopsis. You are either a reverent or irreverent monk competing to illustrate three manuscripts, while also gathering ritual tokens to display at the local monastery. The theme is a charming and often whimsical dressing for what is a highly competitive abstract game. How does it work?
Each player possesses a three by three board, divided both vertically and horizontally into sections I, II, and III. You start the game with twelve randomly distributed stacks of “Illumination” tiles, consisting of four types (eight each) of “Faction” tiles and four coin tiles. The faction tiles come in four colors (red, yellow, gray and white). The faction tiles are different for the reverent and irreverent player, and there are four competing factions. On your turn you place three tiles from either column I, II, or III onto one of three manuscript boards, each of which is a four by six grid of colored feathers, and blocks of script. Each player perceives the I, II, or III, from left to right, so one player’s I column is another player’s III column. The heart of the game is a series of “bounded” battles that take place between specific competing factions. When you win a skirmish, you turn the opponents losing factions over. This results in an intense territorial battle taking place on three different boards. You’re goal is to have more face-up tiles at the end of the game as each of your tiles will score a point.
However, there is also another very important dimension to this territorial battle. When you place a tile, you gain a coin if it matches the same colored feather on the manuscript board,
and you gain a “Ritual tile” if it’s adjacent to another tile of the same color. By gathering 3, 4, or 5 ritual tiles, you will score considerable points, by delivering the tiles to the right place on a separate Monastery board. By gathering coins you will be able to purchase cards from your deck. Each player has a deck of 12 ”Scriptorium” cards. These allow you to manipulate the tiles on your personal board, on the manuscript boards, and provide a variety of rule changing possibilities.
There are three ways to score points, by tallying your face up tiles on the manuscript boards, by gathering the ritual tiles, and by having won a majority of skirmishes for each faction. For more details as to how this all works, please read the detailed rulebook (which is excellent), or have a look at the descriptive video. These can be found at the Kickstarter site.
Cindy (my wife) and I have been playing the game daily for the last two weeks. Although it is an elegant and relatively seamless design, it took us a few games to wrap our heads around the many interconnected dynamics. So often when we talk about games we refer to an iconic game that is highly familiar (“oh, it reminds me of….”). That is not the case with Illumination. There are familiar mechanics—the “bounded battles” are reminiscent of a highly simplified Go, the tile matching for both ritual tiles and coins is certainly a game mechanic that we are all
accustomed to, set collecting is familiar, and acquiring cards that provide stunning combos is a feature of many of our favorite games. However, Illumination puts it all together in original ways that I’ve not ever seen, and the interconnectedness of the dynamics, while eventually becoming second nature, provides for a uniquely challenging experience.
Perhaps my favorite game genre is an elegant, abstract design that includes enough randomness that you must constantly adapt and improvise. Games that do this well blend savvy tactical ingenuity with a strategic component. In my view, these are the hardest games to design as they often are overly tactical, or the luck factor becomes unnecessarily prominent. Also, it’s very challenging to dress these games with an original and enjoyable theme. Illumination succeeds on all of these counts. The tile placement challenges change from game to game, and even from round to round. Yet the incomplete information becomes more complete as the game proceeds. Once you are midway through a game you have a pretty good idea as to the probabilities of certain tiles emerging, which of the manuscript boards most require your attention, and whether you have the cards in hand to make the necessary manipulations and power plays. The strategic element is considerably enhanced by a variety of choices—Which faction shall I concentrate on? On which board shall I play? Should I focus on gathering and scoring ritual tiles? Should I acquire as many cards as I can early on to use as a staple for later maneuvers? These are just a handful of the questions you’ll consider as you play.
After two weeks of play, we are finding that we are continually learning more about the game. All good games reward skill development and this is no exception. And you are challenged on many levels, most specifically spatial perception, the ability to assess random processes, and your capacity for brinkmanship. The faction battles are tense and even exciting and it is possible to tempt your opponent into moves that she would rather not make. Thus far I have not successfully balanced these questions as my wife is consistently thrashing me!
Finally, you can do all of this in 45 minutes or so—alot of gaming challenges in a short period of time. Make no mistake, despite the elegant rule set, and the charming art (who can resist the dogs facing off agains the squirrels?), this is an intense, competitive, brain-burning game, lightened for sure by the excellent production.
I love my heavy Euros as much as the next gamer, but nothing thrills me more than a shorter, spiffier, semi-abstract game with outstanding variety, evocative art, and original conception. Illumination is exemplary in that regard.
If you are interested in learning more – here is the KS link – https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eaglegryphon/illumination-and-the-road-to-canterbury-by-alf-seegert