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©2019 by To the Death! Games & Pastimes. 

  • Dakota Winslow

Game Breakdown: Illimat

Updated: Jan 18, 2019

This is the latest post in our bi-weekly Game Breakdown segment, where I highlight a single game from any genre, and try to apply the techniques it uses to our own games. Click here to see more posts like this one.

This week, I want to highlight a game that means a lot to us at To The Death!. Illimat, by Twogether Studios in conjunction with The Decemberists, is a game that was imagined, designed, and released right in our backyard of Portland, OR. Not only that, but it is a wealth of insight and excellent example of how to incorporate ideas from older games in new, enticing ways.

Visually, Illimat is striking; a small box on a large playing cloth, divided into four sections (fields) and surrounded with number tracks, all with various pseudo-occult symbology and a deep thread of mysticism. The components add to the feeling, with strange tokens including a small brass tooth, a five-suited deck with the four seasons and the stars, and a second tarot-sized deck with images inspired by the Decemberists' The Hazards of Love folk rock opera. All together, the feel of the game is that of one that is very old and mysterious, and likely has been played for hundreds of years, with minor rules in flux as time goes by and other popular games leave their mark.

Perhaps, however, that feeling only comes after playing Illimat - the game feels slighlty like cribbage to learn, with many odd rules and quirks that seem to have been tacked on over the years. It is this quality of the game that is most interesting to us as developers, because it is the application of elements from previous games that inspired this very series.

Illimat begins by laying down 3 face up cards in each of the four fields on the board, as well as four cards to each player. Players then attempt to collect cards from the fields (reaping), or set up future plays via discarding into fields (sowing) or making stacks of cards (stockpiling). The game is affected by the box in the center of the table (the Illimat), which declares each field to be in a different season. Seasons restrict actions; for example, a player may not harvest in winter. Playing face cards turns the illimat, giving players some degree of control over the board and setting up interesting denial and assist plays. At the end of a round, points are awarded for the most cards collected, as well as additional points and penalties based on specific criteria like "Most Summer Cards Collected" (Sun Kissed, 2 extra points).

The final complication is the addition of the tarot deck (The Luminaries). Clearing a field of all the cards in it nets the clearer a point and resupplies the field, but also reveals a Luminary. Each luminary is different, and will modify the game in some way by adding or removing rules on cards in the field they were revealed in. For instance, the Forest Queen locks the illimat in place, so that her field is always in summer. The game is won by whomever makes it to 17 points first.

In Illimat, we see many echos of traditional games. The final scoring, with players counting how many cards they captured, is very reminiscent of classic trick-taking games like bridge, while the additional points for taking certain cards and not others is more akin to hearts. Single points are dolled out for captured Fools (the 14, or Ace, of the deck), in a manner reminiscent of the point for on-suit jacks in cribbage.

The Luminaries are stylistically inspired by tarot cards, though tarot cards were originally just a suit of trumps before the decks became sucked into the art of divination and became a general object of the occult. Mechanically, however, they play like a controlled house rule; a way to try out many different twists and odd rules within a single game. It is the Luminaries that contribute most to the "played" feeling of the game. One can almost imagine a group of people meeting each week to play this old, classic game, except no one can agree on the rules, so each player claims a card as their own from the deck and associates their rule with it - as long as their card is on the table, their rule is in play. It lends itself well to forward development, as the clear answer to game stagnation is to introduce new Luminaries (or rework the ones already provided.)

From Illimat, we can take these lessons:

  1. Find new ways to incorporate classic mechanics. Old games can be an excellent resource for ideas that feel different, but are still familiar. Even though Illimat is fairly complex, thanks to the use of classic game mechanics and a familiar deck of cards, it feels comfortable to learn. This makes it an excellent crossover game for introducing traditional card game players to the more modern world of gaming. If you want you game to reach out to these oft-neglected gamers, be sure to do the same.

  2. Find simple, easy-to-remember ways to track points. Some games utilize a simple pad and paper to keep a running tally of points. This is effective, but inelegant. If asthetic is important to you (and it should be), try to think of intuitive ways to track points, both during rounds and between them. Illimat score points based on a capture system; points are awarded for objectives based on the cards and tokens taken during the game. This makes it easy for a player to calculate their score at the end of a round, simply by adding all the objectives they took. After scoring, points are tracked on a simple, elegant slider sitting in front of the player. (Where this game does suffer, however, is in the reliability of the sliders. The flat marbles used by Illimat can easily be knowed off by a clumsy player or errant cat; to prevent this, be sure to use point tracking devices that are more resilient.) The slider, and other tool-based point trackers, make it easy to see everyone's score without disturbing the aesthetic of the game.

In all, Illimat is a great inspiration for any independent game developer. The classic style, elegant gameplay, and unusual format make it an instant classic, and a fantastic game to study if looking for success as a small developer.

--Dakota W Winslow

Got a game that you would like to see broken down? Disagree with my conclusions? Want to know more about To The Death! Games & Pastimes? Feel free to comment below, or talk to us at info@tothedeathgames.com. We love to hear from you!