Sometimes we become so enamored with the flashy themes and intricate mechanics of the latest games that we forget smaller, simpler past times. For every Dinosaur Island or Imperial Assault, there’s a Sushi Go! or Fluxx that’s equally enjoyable.
While recently perusing the shelf of my FLGS, I passed over the colorful boxes and multi-piece displays to a strange play mat with antiqued cards. Thus, I began my love affair with an unassuming game called Illimat.
Let’s be clear – Illimat is a card game, nothing more. It’s dressed up nicely, with a mystical, “fauxthentic” quality, but it’s still basically an evolution of classics like Rummy and Spades.
That doesn’t mean the game is easy, though, or there’s no strategy. Classic card games have remained staples for so long because they’re well designed and replayable.
In a game of Illimat, each round you try to collect cards from four different fields, each with their own rules based on their current “season.” You can play one card, and one card only, but you can use it in three different ways.
“Sowing” a card means you put it down in that field, where it can be affected (by anyone) later. This action is often the go-to when you don’t have anything else you can do.
“Harvesting” cards means you play a card to take one (or more) from a field. You gain the played card plus those that equal its value and put them in your pile.
“Stockpiling” is a varied and challenging technique, where you play a card to either create a stack of a new value or multiples of the same value. This action allows you to set up future stacks for harvesting.
In addition to the actions, Illimat has other rules that can affect the board. The primary mechanic is the seasons that oversee each of the four fields and limit your actions there.
You can’t “sow” in Autumn, “harvest” from Winter, or “stockpile” in Spring; Summer allows any actions. These seasons aren’t static, though, because playing face cards or revealing certain Luminaries can cause them to change.
Luminaries are tarot-like cards placed in each season, revealed when you clear that field. Each one has its own rules, from allowing you to harvest in Winter to forcing people to sow cards on their turn (in addition to their action).
Clearing fields also grant you the ability to take revealed Luminaries (which may cause additional effects) and okus tokens (small figures that just sit in the middle and look cool). Both are worth points in the end, not to mention they determine whether that field is reseeded with new cards or not.
Each round of Illimat continues until there are no more cards to draw and everyone has played their hands. Once done, the cards left on the board are discarded, and everyone’s harvest is scored.
The biggest score goes to those who acquired the most cards, but lesser goals involve specific suits of cards or particular items. Harvesting more Summer cards, having too many Winter cards, and acquiring Luminaries, okus tokens, and Fools (a face card akin to an Ace) are all critical.
Play continues until one player acquires 17 points at the end of a round; this usually means most games take 2-3 rounds to complete. Given a round can take anywhere from 15-30 minutes, most games run under an hour.
There are two things I love about this game: its efficiency and its style.
First, Illimat is easy to learn, simple to play, and quickly set up and stowed away. The originators of the game, The Decemberists, stated they were used to games they could play on the road, often between shows or sets.
This need is why everything is stored in a small box, including the cloth play mat, and everything is used in the game. Even the box forms the centerpiece of the mat, indicating the seasons of each field and providing a stand for the okus tokens.
Second, Illimat is beautiful in its pretension as an “ancient game played by a secret society.” From the arcane Luminaries to the “replicantique” okus tokens, the experience is supposed to have an ancient, mystical feeling.
Of course, this style is on purpose, as the entire thing arose from the band’s 2009 photo shoot, and Carson Ellis created the pieces long before the game. Years later, at the request of The Decemberists, Keith Baker (Gloom and Scott Pilgrim’s PLCG) retro-designed a game around the set props.
The result is a game that feels classic and old yet provides something fresh and new for players of all levels.
If there is anything to complain about Illimat, it’s that there are some rules questions that required FAQs. Of course, that seems to be a standard issue facing new games, and Twogether Studios promptly provided clarifications on both forums and their website.
Beyond that, Illimat is steadily becoming a favorite of ours, especially when we’re traveling and visiting others. Not only has it been replayable, but they already have an expansion which adds more Luminaries, okus tokens, and rules variants.
Sometimes, you don’t need multi-hour games, periodicals full of rules, or hundreds of pieces. Classic card games work just as well, and it’s rare you find a new game that stands alongside the tried-and-true.
Whether playing with the family, at a Renaissance Festival, or with your local secret society, Illimat does precisely that… and it does so with style.
Illimat is on shelves now. 2-4 players, 15-60 minutes, Ages 12+.
I give Illimat a sunkissed 4 bumper crops out of 5.