Illuminati: New World Order: An unearthed review

Hey, look what I found on an external drive! It’s an old review of Steve Jackson Games’ Illuminati: New World Order trading card game. I don’t even know when this dates back to; I picked up the game some years after it was released in ’94. I wrote the review for a site or ‘zine, but it wasn’t published. 

While my memory of this article is hazy, I recall some great games with a good handful of mutually-backstabbing players. Ah, INWO. Good times… 

Illuminati: New World Order: An unearthed review

“Betray your friends. Crush your enemies. Control the world. Drink some coffee.”

That pretty much says it for me, folks. Manipulated by that tag line, I too joined the ranks of the Illuminated.

The plot thickens

Steve Jackson Games’ Illuminati: New World Order (INWO) is big, jumping firmly on the trading card game bandwagon and selling like Car Wars and GURPS never quite did. SJG calls the game the biggest release in its 15-year history. Of course, the original Illuminati was an old SJ classic, so when the card boom rolled around, the company not only had a release half-made, but one with name-brand caché to boot.

INWO carries on most of its predecessor’s basics, but with plenty of convoluted twists. You’re still one of the Illuminati, those secret masters of everything – you know, the guys who made you buy D&D all those years ago, step into gaming, and blow all chances at future financial security. An Illuminati card remains at the center of the game, as “your character”. You still take over groups – the Mafia, the Trekkies, the Fiendish Fluoridators – and fit these into an ever-growing Power Structure, a nefarious chain of masters and puppets. (Physical placement of cards is as crucial as logical placement.) And you still roll dice, adding the powers of attacking groups to overcome defenders’ resistance.

But Illuminati’s little yellow money chits no longer complicate things. Rather, Groups in INWO use their actions – generally one per turn per Group – to aid other Groups’ attacks and defenses. And groups that rolled in the bucks in the old game are compensated by higher Power in INWO, with a few other tweaks: the Gnomes of Zurich Illuminati, for example, get extra Power against Banks, and reach their Goal more quickly by controlling Bank and Corporate puppets.

Groups’ alignments (Weird, Corporate, Liberal, etc.) have become even more vital. They affect not only the difficulty of controlling or destroying other Groups but also who can aid whose attacks and defenses, how loyal Puppets are to Masters (read: how resistant to being stolen by other players), and more. Then there are other designations, such as Media, Science, Magic, Nation and so on; these tags group cards by special properties and will affect tactics.

Blowing a Group’s action is a nail-biting decision: attacking’s fun, but that card just may need its action later to aid an attack, aid a defense, or even improve its own defense if attacked on another player’s turn. Or you may want to use actions – especially those all-powerful Illuminati actions – to draw extra cards or power a Plot.

Ah yes, Plots. In addition to the Groups that have traveled from your deck to your hand (lambs to the slaughter! puppets for the grinder!) you have evil Plots from your deck, ready to unleash on the world. These will let you undo enemy actions, peek at enemy cards, steal cards, launch disasters and assassinations, reverse alignments, or perform a zillion other tricks. Some Plot cards are secret Goals, letting you grab an unexpected win if the players don’t see the pattern in your actions. Other Plots are New World Order cards that change the structure of the world in your favor. (“New World Order: Political Correctness. Good thoughts are now required. Increase the Power of all Liberal groups by 3. All Conservative groups with a Power of 0 or 1 become Criminal as well…”) Yet others are cleverly designed for inter-player nastiness: one Plot forces an opponent to single out one Plot card from his hand – and then lets you choose whether to look at that singled-out card, or at all the rest. Your foe’s sweating over which card to single out, because he doesn’t know which set you’ll choose to look at. Those are the sort of mind games INWO loves.

Two more bits of evilness I’ll mention are Resources – the Holy Grail, a Hidden City, the Center for Weird Studies – that help you shaft the other guys. Like some Plot cards, these can be double-edged, so watch out… And then there’s my favorite twist: duplicate cards. These are unavoidable in a trading card game, so INWO gives them a life of their own. Duplicates let you wreak havoc on the plans of an enemy making use of the same card:  “Ha! I’ve an agent within your Black Activists! I roll for control…”  Or better yet, you can toss down that Discordian Society duplicate you’ve been hiding among your Plots, to show that your foe’s very Illuminati crawls with your moles! You can even both (all?) play the same Illuminati from the start, in which case you represent hate-consumed opposing factions of that Illuminati and can never share a victory. That’s okay, because you gain increased ability to hurt each other and extra benefits from killing each other.

The cards

Last time I looked, your $9.95 gets you two decks of 55 Unlimited Edition cards each, theoretically enough to play a two-player game. Each deck also contains two Illuminati cards. There are also booster packs available and even a “one of everything” Factory Set with all 400-plus cards. There is an expansion set, Assassins, introducing the group from the original game that mysteriously had been missing from INWO. Note that when you buy the two-deck sets, there’s no guarantee that the two decks won’t contain duplicates, even duplicate Illuminati. (That’s fine, as duplicates are fun; see above.)

I’ve heard praise – even raves – over the art. INWO pictures are brightly-colored line drawings, a comic-book (excuse me, graphic novel) approach that does the tongue-in-cheek tone good. The artists are Shea Ryan, John Kovalic, and the skilled Dan Smith, with a handful of pictures by other artists drawn from SJ Games’ files. (Of course, SJ Games isn’t famous for great art, so don’t expect a handful of Frank Millers…) The coloring’s generally good. Some of the humor is great. Hillary Clinton holds something that looks like a leash; if you look at the Bill Clinton card, you’ll see where it leads. The New Federal Budget card shows a Starred-and-Striped truck dumping money right into a hole in the ground. (A black-suited man stands nearby and holds up his hand as if to say “okay, that’ll be fine right there.”) The Post Office card sports a mail carrier blasting away with an automatic. (Feeling a bit disgruntled today?)

But too many of the pictures are, well, just pictures. France’s card displays – gee – the Eiffel Tower. The pictures of Personalities are too mediocre to make it either as caricatures or as realistic portraits. The Tidal Wave card gives us a mighty wave bearing down on a city – but where are the fleeing beachgoers, the enraptured surfer dude, the gleeful Illuminati genius fiddling with his Discordian Wave Generator, anything to add some interest? There’s still more humor in INWO’s pictures than in most other games’ cards, but there could have been much more.

Strategy 101 (or, I should have listened to Lovecraft…)

Moving on. For my big playtest session, I coerced a non-gamer (no, I don’t believe in stoning these) into joining me for a session. (Wish I had had more players; like its predecessor, INWO’s built to revel in the back-stabbing and dirty dealing of a big group.) I knew it’d be tough enough to explain the game, and didn’t want to add deck-building technique to the lesson. Besides, it was my first time too, and I wouldn’t have known a good deck from a hole in the ground using both hands. So I said, “here, we’ll just deal out an equal number of Group and Plot cards to each of us”, and gave us 30 or so of each. That works out to more than the 45 cards the rules recommend, but I figured that with random decks we’d need extra cards to give us a chance to pick and choose good hands as we went.

It soon became clear that extra cards or not, deck-building is the way to play. (Yes, I’m a latecomer to the trading card game thing.) With random decks, we each had handfuls of cards that weren’t good for squat. I held absolutely none of the Bank or Corporate Groups that would have complemented my Plot cards and made my Illuminati (the Gnomes of Zurich) very happy. And the opposing Shangri-La Illuminati, those purveyors of peace, were being forced by fate to lay out strings of Violent Groups. But we each still had our shots at a regular victory (get 12 Groups, any 12, in your power structure), and the action picked up as good cards eventually came along.

So, on to strategy. My guinea pig had never heard of Illuminati or trading card games. And he knew only those INWO rules that I passed on before I succumbed to the desire – the need – to dominate without further delay. “Aw, you’ll figure out the rest as we go. Let’s play.”

And figure it out he did. He whupped me. Well, I helped him: after suffering some lucky attacks, my only Groups left were Russia and its puppets (Saddam Hussein and Urban Gangs). Russia was playing with some pretty bad fire, doubling its Power with – yikes! – the Necronomicon. One bad die roll, and BLAM: a semi-industrious population of millions found themselves afloat in vacuum, staring at the quintuple suns of unspeakable Yaddith. (Hey, beats Russian TV; I’ve seen it.)

I would’ve lost even without blowing my last Illuminati puppet to hell and beyond: my opponent had a powerful conglomeration of Media groups, he’d stolen my Clintons, and he’d racked up eleven Groups to my three. Big Media is a nasty card, especially when it sits next to Madison Avenue and other Media puppets! Shangri-La had shown themselves to be quite the Puppet Masters, and we Gnomes learned how it felt to have our purse-strings yanked.

So I’m not going to preach strategy at you. Ask me when I’ve got more experience, or ask another player, or check out SJ Games’ The INWO Book, or read the tips in Pyramid #11. Heck, you can ask my last opponent, and he doesn’t even know how to play.

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