It’s no secret around these parts that I’m a big fan of Alf Seegert’s games. Very few have failed to thoroughly entertain and surprise me. One of my biggest gaming regrets is that I missed one of his early games, The Road to Canterbury (RTC). It was going out of production just as I got heavily into gaming and I’ve never tracked down a copy. The idea of selling counterfeit pardons to pilgrims after you’ve deliberately led them into temptation always tickled me.
So when Alf contacted me and said, “Hey, I’ve got a new game coming out from Eagle-Gryphon Games that’s the ‘spiritual successor’ to RTC, would you like to review it?” I nearly fell off my chair. Yes, please! Illumination is a battle between the Reverent and the Irreverent for control of illuminated manuscripts. Bonus that it is a two-player only game (with a solo option), since that’s the only gaming going on around here (no)thanks to Covid.
How It Plays
Illumination is a game of set collection and area influence in which you are trying to control the three illuminated “books” on the table. Placement of your tiles can earn you coins or tokens, which in turn can be spent for points or special actions. Your tile placement can also involve you in battles of good vs. evil in which the winner earns even more points.
You’ll also have your own crusade, secretly assigned at the beginning of the game. You’ll earn points for defeating tiles that match your assigned crusade (more on battles below). The more matching tiles you defeat, the larger your bonus. The player who manages all of these challenges successfully becomes the new master of the scriptorium.
The game is played over a series of turns, until either both players pass or all three books are completed and closed. You can choose to pass before beginning your turn but if you do so, you can no longer play in the game. The other player may continue taking turns as long as they are able. Passing is a strategic choice and should only be invoked if you think you’ll end up losing more points via penalties than you’ll gain.
As long as you continue playing, here’s what a turn looks like: First, you will choose which tiles to place into an open book. There are three books on the table and you can place tiles into any book that is “open.” (An open book still has open quill spaces for tiles. “Closed” books have no more open spaces for tiles. Once a book is closed, it cannot be reopened.)
To place tiles, you must choose an entire row or column of tiles from your player mat and then move those three tiles to the margin of the matching book. (Your mat is filled at the beginning of the game from a randomly shuffled set of nine, three-tile stacks that you place in your player area.) The columns/rows on your mat are labeled I, II, and III and the books match that scheme from your left to right. The book on your left is I, the middle is II, and the book to your right is III. If, for example, you select tiles from Row I on your mat, they must go into Book I. Note you cannot select just one or two tiles from the row/column. It’s all or nothing.
Next, you move your tiles from the margin into the book in any order you choose. Coin tiles are not placed into the book. These tiles simply grant you two coins and are then returned to the box. Remaining tiles must be placed on the quill spaces in the book; they cannot be placed on text spaces. If you cannot place a tile on a quill space, place that tile facedown on the sheep pen on your player board. This tile will deduct one point from your score at the end of the game.
So what’s the point of placing these tiles onto quill spaces in the books? Tiles give you coins and tokens that you can spend for additional benefits. This is the crux of a turn.
- If you place a tile on a quill of the same color, collect one coin.
- If you place a tile orthogonally adjacent to a tile of the same color, collect one ritual token in that color.
- If you connect to multiple adjacent tiles of matching color, collect one ritual token for each connection.
- Purple drollery tiles are wild and if you place a tile next to one, collect one ritual token of the same color as the tile played.
The coins and tokens you collect via tile placement give you additional benefits and scoring opportunities. Coins can be spent to move a tile from a book’s margin to another open book, draw a scriptorium card (cards allow you to break the tile placement rules in various ways), or to move the abbot one space on the monastery mat.
Moving the abbot is important because his placement controls whether or not you can score your ritual tokens. Ritual tokens are spent in sets of 3, 5, or 7 of a kind. When you have a set of ritual tokens, you can claim bonus points for them (the more you have, the more you gain), but only if the abbot is on the matching space on the monastery mat. If he is there, you can cash out your tokens and place a marker on the appropriate scoring space. If the abbot isn’t on the matching space, you can’t cash in your tokens. Anytime you cash in tokens, the other player gets a consolation bonus of one scriptorium card.
Note that you can spend as many coins and tokens as you like on your turn, and you can spend them whenever you wish during your turn. You can only carry over seven total coins/tokens to your next turn, so make sure to spend down any excess or else you’ll have to discard them. You can also play as many scriptorium cards as you want, including cards you’ve just purchased.
The final part of a turn is to reserve any bounded battles. A bounded battle occurs when two factions that oppose each other end up “fenced in” by other tiles, the border of the book, and/or text spaces. (Conflicts are: angels v. demons, knights v. dragons, monks v. rabbits, and dogs v. squirrels.) If a battle happens, it is resolved by simply counting the number of each faction’s tiles within the battle. The player with the most tiles wins and flips all the losing tiles facedown. Those tiles will not score at the end of the game. The winner also places one of their markers on the appropriate side of the matching battle card. The loser gets a consolation bonus of coins equal to the number of tiles they lost.
Your turn ends once all battles are resolved. Discard any excess tokens/coins over seven that you could not spend. As long as the game has not ended, choose another stack of three tiles from your supply and refill your mat from I – III, starting with the top token of the stack. (No picking and choosing what goes where!) If the game has not ended, the next player takes their turn.
The game ends when either both players have passed their turns, or all three books have been completed. Books are complete when when there are no more open quill spaces on which to place tiles. The person who completes a book claims one ritual token of their choice, and the other player draws a scriptorium card as a consolation bonus.
Each player then tallies their score. You earn points as indicated by your marker(s) on the monastery mat for accumulated ritual sets. The player with the most markers on each battle card earns five points for that card. (Tied cards award no points to either player.) One point is awarded for each face up tile that belongs to you in each book. You also earn points for your secret crusade. Tally up how many defeated tiles in the books match your crusade card and score according to the value shown on the card. Finally, subtract one point for each tile in your sheep pen. The player with the most points wins.
(Note that there is also a solo mode, but for the sake of brevity, I won’t go into the rules details here.)
A Game to Illuminate Dark Times, or a Dim Bulb?
Upon reading the rules, I was fairly certain I would like this game based on the main tile selection mechanism. You have a grid of nine tiles and you must take and use all three tiles from a row or column on your turn. There’s no cherry-picking. If you can’t use a tile that you take, it’s going to count against you at the end of the game. I enjoyed this mechanism in Cat Lady and, later, The Trapper Keeper Game (although those use cards, not tiles), so I was excited to see it here.
I was correct in my assessment. This mechanism works well in Illumination and I still enjoy it! It presents a puzzle that my brain finds enjoyable. What do you take? What row/column has the most you can use and the least that will harm you? What do you try to keep back in the hopes that the next tile draw will give you a complete row of “goodness?” There are times it all comes together and you can use every tile, and times where you have nothing but awful and worse and you have to make the best of it. For me, those sorts of decisions are fun.
And you also have to take into account any scriptorium cards or coins you have that might let you mitigate possible damage. Can you swap some tiles around? Move tiles from one book to another to score more points or free up some space for new tiles? Since you can take actions and spend coins at any time during your turn, you can work things in your favor so that your actions chain to your benefit. This can lead to a little AP in those prone to it, but it’s usually not too bad.
Illumination is also a highly re-playable game. Despite not being truly asymmetrical (more on that below), the puzzle it offers changes each game. No, you’re never going to need to deploy completely different strategies, but you will have to think and adapt to the changes each game. The biggest factor is the random tile draw. Your tiles will come out differently and end up in different places on your mat each game. Plus, the book mats are double-sided and you can arrange them however you want. This gives you multiple board setups to play with. You’ll also have to deal with different scriptorium cards at different times. What you have available (and when) to bend the rules will vary from game to game.
There are also the drollery tiles to consider. They are wild from the perspective of scoring, but at the beginning of the game, one tile is placed on an open text space in each book. The position is determined by agreement of the players. When you place a tile adjacent to one of these wild tiles, you gain a ritual token that matches the color of the tile played. They don’t change the game that much, but their random placements do prevent you from forming a single strategy for each book. You’ll always have to adapt to their presence.
All of these little changes from game to game mean that you’ll likely never play the exact same game twice. And this is the kind of randomness I like. It keeps the game interesting, but the randomness doesn’t affect the endgame or ruin a players chances “just because.”
The last thing I want to mention in terms of enjoyment is the level of interactivity. Illumination is not a solitary experience. You can’t keep your head down and just manage your own thing without caring about your opponent. Almost everything in the game is designed to make you look around.
When placing your tiles, you have to keep an eye on any blooming battles and make sure you keep an advantage, or at least bow out before your opponent can crush you. At the end of the game, you earn points for every face up tile in the book, so you need to win those battles, or make sure you have a lot of tiles in the book outside of the battles. Winning battles also determines whether or not you will gain points from the battle cards at the end of the game, and your secret crusade. Ritual bonuses can only be claimed by one player, so if your opponent gets the big number for a given ritual, you’ll have to settle for the smaller numbers. (Or none at all, if you’re not careful.)
For all that you must keep watch on your opponent, the interactivity is largely based on being the first to achieve certain goals, not cruelty. I’m not a fan of games where you can really mess up another player’s stuff, and there’s only one way in Illumination to deliberately “attack” an opponent. There’s one scriptorium card that lets you move one of their tiles out of a book and into a book of your choosing (they choose where to place it within the book, however). The game even awards consolation bonuses, in the form of cards or coins, if you lose a battle or miss out on a space on the monastery mat. Success is based on being efficient and thoughtful rather than mean or aggressive. (And there’s a bit of luck involved in the tile draw/replenishment on each turn.)
Basically, Illumination hits most of my sweet spots. It’s puzzly, interactive without being cruel, and offers some randomness in setup that keeps things interesting game to game. It offers several different ways to score points, but they all work together in such a way that you can’t really ignore any of them if you hope to succeed. For example, you can put all the tiles you want in a book and hope to score points at the end of the game, but if you don’t watch out for the battles, you can lose a fair number of those tiles. Plus, if any battles occur and you don’t win at least some of them, you’re probably going to lose out on the battle card points. And you can’t ignore the ritual bonuses because you don’t want your opponent to take all of the high value spots. So you’ve got all these balls in the air and you have to juggle them all if you want to win. That’s exactly the kind of game I enjoy. Especially when it’s just two players and the overall chaos is low from turn to turn.
As for the things I didn’t enjoy, the list is small. My biggest con for this game comes not from the gameplay, but from the tiles. Although the “critters” are different for each faction, the primary thing that’s designed to catch your eye and differentiate the factions is the white or black border around each tile. Maybe it’s just me, but there’s something about the design that, once you have several tiles in a book, makes it difficult to tell what is what.
The problem for me is that the borders don’t go all the way to the edges of the tiles. Instead, they act more like picture frames around the image, leaving the color of the tile bleeding out to the edge (which is, admittedly, useful because you do need to see like colors in order to collect ritual tokens). This makes for a very busy board where you can see, for example, two white tiles next to each other, but then you have to look twice to see that the “frame” for each is actually a different color when you’re ready to determine battles.
While you’ll eventually learn to check for “your” critters and cue off of the artwork instead of the frame (and it does help somewhat if each player turns their tiles so that their critters face them, rather than orienting them all in the same direction as the instructions suggest), the busy presentation can be challenging for the first few games. Then again, it might just be me.
(Note that the components I played with are from a not-final production copy. I’m told by the designer that there is still room for some component changes based on feedback from these early reviews, so do note that this gripe may be meaningless by the time the final version is released.)
Another gripe I have is that I never really felt the theme. I was super excited to battle for control of a book, playing as either a Reverent or Irreverent faction, and to feel as though I was somehow illuminating a manuscript or engaging in some sort of humorous holy war.
But… The parts of the game feel a bit mechanical and never quite come together into a cohesive story. Even the battles in the book don’t feel much like fights because you simply count tiles. It’s all very abstract and I never felt like I was creating a manuscript, running a scriptorium, or fighting good vs. evil. That’s okay because game plays very well and the puzzle it presents is fun, but just don’t go into it expecting immersion.
Finally I just want to mention one more thing. You might think, at first glance, that Illumination is an asymmetrical game. It sort of looks like it should be, with the two different factions, but it’s not. The factions are identical in terms of gameplay. Choosing one over the other won’t change your experience, or require different strategies. The only differences are that the Reverent player always goes first, and the Irreverent player begins the game with more coins to sort of balance out that slight advantage. This is neither good nor bad, but I wanted to point it out in case you are really seeking an asymmetrical game.
Those minor gripes aside (one of which might not be a thing in the final version), Illumination is a good game if you want a puzzly battle of wits and you don’t expect an immersive storyline. It’s a game that challenges the mind, but never overwhelms it with too many options. (And given the state of the world today, the fact that it’s two- player and solo can only be considered strengths.)
Illumination will be on Kickstarter in January 2021.
(iSlaytheDragon.com thanks Eagle-Gryphon Games for giving us a production copy of Illumination for review.)