Wow. Sometimes I forget I have a blog. It's easy to do. I haven't written anything about anything here in a long time. But if you've been following me anywhere online the past month you probably know that I helped create a tabletop game called Illimat with The Decemberists, game designer, Keith Baker, and Twogether Studios. The game was originally designed by photographer Autumn de Wilde and I as a photo shoot prop for the band's 2009 release, The Hazards of Love. We built the actual board out of wood and ink and black paper and tape, working on it into the wee hours in a room at the Ace Hotel in Portland. After Autumn used it for a photo shoot set-up she put it in her storage space where it moldered away until about a year ago when we handed it over to Keith and asked him to turn it in to a real game.
He did! It's called Illimat and it's sort of a card game, sort of a board game. It has some of its origins in the card game Casino, if you know that one, but also incorporates other mechanisms that change and complicate the way the game is played and make it feel more like a board game. It's true: I'm biased. But I love this game. Keith Baker did an incredible job of turning a weird, witchy-looking prop into a very playable game that references The Hazards of Love just enough to be fun for fans yet not distracting for people who don't know anything about The Decemberists. Colin is a great lover of complicated board games. Me, not so much. I like to play cards. And somehow without even knowing this Keith created the one game that we both love to play. He bridged our family's gaming divide. Thank you, Keith!
Anyway, we're kickstarting this game and are down to the last day of our campaign so I thought it would be a good time to remember I have a blog and to tell you a little bit about the making of it. Maybe you'll check out illimat.com and back us to receive the game plus unique kickstarter perks and to help unlock some remaining stretch goals (kickstarter speak, folks).
But let me tell you a little about the art of Illimat.
The original photo shoot prop featured a small wooden box atop a much larger one, as in the above photo, and a few small playing cards. The smaller box remains virtually unchanged in the playable version with the exception of some descriptive text. (It's called the illimat and has an important function in the game in addition to being the box that houses it.)
The larger wooden board is now cloth, so it folds up and fits inside of the illimat, along with all the other game components. Here is the demo board we've been playing with:
We're still experimenting with the size of the cloth and fine-tuning the art a little and, of course, the final version will have nicely hemmed edges.
In addition to the box and board, the game uses two different decks of cards: playing cards and luminary cards. The playing cards are a lot like a typical deck of cards: 4 suits with 13 cards in each, including 4 face cards (knight, queen, king, and fool) plus a 5th suit to be used in games with four players. Each of the four suits represents a season: winter, spring, summer, and autumn. The fifth suit is "stars" and represents a kind of celestial plane. All the art for these was drawn in pen and ink. All the design work for the game was done by wonderful geniuses, Glen Nakasako and Jeri Heiden of SMOG design.
The face cards of each suit are connected through a series of symbols that reference both that suit's season and motifs from The Hazards of Love. For example, all winter face cards feature a snowflake, a bare bramble, a thistle, a corncrake crowing, and a spoon, because in winter we eat the food we've grown.
All spring face cards feature a sprout, a bramble with buds, columbine, a fawn, and a bag of seeds because in spring we sow.
All summer cards feature a sun, a bramble with leaves on it, foxglove, fire, and a spade because in summer we tend our plants.
All autumn face cards feature an oak leaf, a bramble with berries on it, a clover, a mistlethrush, and a scythe because in autumn we harvest.
And all stars face cards feature, a star, a starry bramble, a third eye, comets, weirdness, and a scepter for ruling the heavens because WHAT. The Knight of Stars also features boobs because she is a lady and you can totally let loose when you rule the heavens.
The face cards are also connected by various patterns and motifs in their clothing and all the cards are color coded for easy scoring at the end of a hand: red is good (fools and summer cards are worth points) and blue is bad (too many winter cards equal negative points).
I spent a ton of time thinking about the card backs. Oh how I have wanted to design a deck a cards. My whole life, I have. And I had so many ideas; it was hard to choose a direction. Below are lots of directions I explored. (The gray and black cards are only gray and black because my printer wasn't working at the time.)
I vacillated between wanting to do something really bold a graphic and wanting to do something that felt traditional and eventually settled on the designs below. The black and white one is the card back for the playing card deck; the red and yellow design is the card back for the luminaries.
The luminary cards are roughly the dimensions of tarot cards and look like them too. Each one effects the play of the game in a different way. The art alludes to bot their function and an element from Hazards of Love (a narrative concept record inspired by British folk music tropes) for which they're named. For example, if you know that record you probably know The Rake's Song, about a father who murders his three burdensome children (that was - yes - written by the father of my own children).
When this card is turned over, or revealed, we put three cards face down beneath it. Then, when a player claims the card, they get to keep those three cards along with it. The three dead children are each holding a card as a reminder of the card's function. The luminary art was all done in gouache and ink. I used three distinctly different colors of gouache so that I could easily separate them digitally and experiment with a variety of color schemes. Below is what The Children looks like now, along with The Maiden, whose function is to negate the effects of winter (which will totally make sense to you once you play the game). All in all the game comes with 8 luminaries (including a Rake card) and we're currently working on the first expansion set, based on The Crane Wife (another Decemberists album that was just rereleased on its 10th anniversary) and available as a kickstarter add-on.
We all thought a lot about whether or not to include more information about the luminaries and their function on the actual card. In the end, we opted not to because this looks better and we know you would rather look up and eventually memorize the luminary information than have to look at lesser graphic design. Right?
Man, I could go on and on about all of this. I worked so hard on this art and have spent so much time playing this game. But I have to pick my kids up at school and the clock is ticking down on our Kickstarter so I'm signing off. Please excuse any typos and please back our game! Also, I'll be taking part in an Illimat tournament tonight with Decemberists and some other folks. It is called THE RUMBLE and you can watch it live at illimat.com (which is also our kickstarter page) at 6:00. So tune in and ROOT FOR ME PLEASE.