Illimat Review (Featuring The Crane Wife Expansion)

Back in 2016, we did a Kickstarter preview for Illimat, after we had the pleasure of meeting Keith Baker, one of the game’s designers, and were immediately impressed with the card game that he demoed with us.  The game surprised me in several ways, not the least of which being when Jess & I learned about its origins, as sort of a passion project for the band The Decemberists.  And I’ll be honest; that aspect of it wasn’t immediately a strike in its favor for me – cynical though it may be for me to admit, I wasn’t certain that Illimat would be anything more than a vanity project for the group, whose inspiration for the game came during a series of photo shoots in which they pretended to be members of a secret, card-playing society.

Andrew
Andrew
Fortunately, my cynicism was unfounded – the group’s interest turned out to be totally genuine, and just as fortunately, the creative minds behind the game’s mechanical design, Keith Baker and Jennifer Ellis of Twotogether Studios, produced a game that, 3 years later, still has a permanent place on our overfull shelves.
Jess
Jess
And that’s no small trick! With so many games coming and going, Illimat is sort of timeless, and I can’t imagine letting it leave our collection!
The aesthetics are one part parlor game, one part seance

Recently, we picked up The Crane Wife, a small expansion for Illimat, which brought the card management/set collection game back into our regular rotation.  It also made us realize that while we glowed about the game in our preview, we hadn’t yet done a formal review of Illimat.  So to rectify that oversight, and to take an opportunity to check out its expansion, let’s take a closer look at Illimat and The Crane Wife!

First, the main game.  As we just said, Illimat is a card game, the goal of which is to be the first player to 17 points. The game board (technically a cloth mat, which only adds to Illimat’s portability) is divided into 4 fields, and gameplay involves seeding cards into those fields, pulling cards from them, and manipulating the seasons to your advantage.  The game box itself sits in the middle of the play space, denoting which season is affecting the fields, and rotating to reflect player actions.

On your turn, you’ll pick from three possible actions:

  • The Sow action lets you put a single card into any field, except where it is fall
  • The Harvest action lets you play a card into a field (except in Winter), and claim any combination of cards that match the one you played into your score pile.  For example, you could play a 5 to claim another 5, as well as a 2 and a 3, so long as all those cards were in one field
  • The Stockpile action lets you play a card into a field and then merge cards that match your played card’s value into a single stack, to be harvested as a single unit.  Stockpiling cannot be done in Spring
Andrew
Andrew
Admittedly, I had the most trouble understanding the nuance of the Stockpile action. But the rules explain it well, and once you see it in action, it makes sense.
Jess
Jess
For sure. Illimat isn’t a complicated game, which is one of the reasons we like it so much, but that doesn’t stop it from being complex, which is another reason we like it so much!
In Winter (as shown on the top and side of the box), there can be no harvesting in this field

Adding to this delightful complexity are the seasons and the Luminaries.  The seasons, as mentioned above, impose some restrictions on actions that can be taken in a given field.  Whenever a face card gets played into a field, the box is rotated to make the current field match the season of the played card.  Manipulating the seasons is a critical part of the strategy behind Illimat, since it can be the key to blocking an opponent from Harvesting a huge pile of resources or opening up possibilities for yourself.

The Luminaries are tarot-like cards which are dealt to each field during setup, only to be revealed the first time the field is completely cleared.  Once shown, the Luminaries impose unique rules to the way Illimat plays.  These mysterious figures are collected by the next player to clear their field, but until they are claimed, their powers remain in effect.  Some of the Luminaries will only affect the field they appear in, while others will completely change the rules of the game.

Jess
Jess
I like a lot of things about Illimat, but I think I like the Luminaries the most. I really like how they change the game, and I love how they add to the game’s aura of being a lost artifact from another world.
Andrew
Andrew
Agreed on both counts. The Luminaries are technically optional, but I can’t imagine playing without them.
Okus pieces are worth a point apiece, and add to the occultish feel

Once the draw pile is exhausted, the round ends and players will gain or potentially lose points based on the cards they harvested.  The player who harvested the most cards gains 4 points.  The player who harvested the most summer cards gains 2, while the player who harvested the most winter cards loses 2.  You will also gain points for any Fools (1’s), Luminaries, and okus pieces you’ve claimed during the round.  Gameplay continues until one player ends the round with 17 points and wins.

Andrew
Andrew
And that’s Illimat. To be honest, it really surprised me how damn playable this game is, and how successful it is at feeling like some occult artifact from a forgotten age.
As long as the Rake is active, his field will rapidly fill with cards
Jess
Jess
I’m right there with you – Illimat is smart, really smart, and the relatively simple gameplay only makes it easier to get into. And don’t even get me started on how much I love the look and feel of it all. A+ for me!
When the Maiden is present, Winter has no power
Andrew
Andrew
What really sells Illimat for me, though, is the strategy. While you’re always trying to make the best of the hand you’re dealt, the way the seasons can be manipulated and the impact of the Luminaries creates an ever-changing landscape that isn’t so chaotic that you can’t plan, but doesn’t let you stick to a formula, either. I love it.
Stockpiled cards, all of which can be claimed with a 9

Illimat is one of those games that we’ve played with seasoned gamers and folks who hadn’t played much more than poker, and we found that everyone seemed to be able to engage it and have a good time.  It’s an easy game for us to get to the table, and we feel like it will find a place on most any table.  More filling than a filler but not particularly dense, Illimat is a great game night game (within its player count limitation, of course), is fun at every player count, and we highly recommend it.

Jess
Jess
And I’m happy to say that The Crane Wife only makes Illimat better!

The Crane Wife is a modest expansion, adding six new Luminaries and introducing two new, optional rules.  The new Luminaries are powerful, some of which allow you to interact with your opponents in previously impossible ways, such as stealing okus pieces from them.  They add more variety to a game of Illimat, keeping things interesting and changing your strategies when they appear.  The two optional rules are quite different from each other – the first enables you to turn a weaker hand into a potentially very powerful one by letting you play multiple cards during Harvest actions depending on the circumstances.  The second adds an element of risk to Illimat, by encouraging players to add personal objects as okus pieces…and introducing consequences (and ransoms) for when other players take them.

Andrew
Andrew
On the whole, The Crane Wife doesn’t really change the Illimat formula much at all. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s a good thing. If you tried Illimat and it wasn’t for you, then The Crane Wife is unlikely to change your mind. But if you like Illimat as much as we do, the extra Luminaires of The Crane Wife are certainly welcome additions.

Illimat is a game that clearly captured our attention.  We don’t play it all the time, but each and every time we do, we are reminded of what quality design went into its gameplay and production.  We highly recommend both Illimat and The Crane Wife for anyone who has a place in their collection for a game that somehow feels classic, timeless, and just a little bit occult all at once!

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