“Take as many cards as you can, especially summer and fools, be careful of how much winter you take, and if you can clear a field, clear a field,” explains game designer Keith Baker, and I’m intrigued. He and producer Jenn Ellis are describing their latest game Illimat, produced in collaboration with indie band the Decemberists and award-winning illustrator Carson Ellis (Wildwood, The Composer is Dead). It’s partly a card game, a bit of a board game, and mostly an extremely beautiful collection of cards and cloth and tokens. Before playing a round and soundly trouncing me in the process, Baker and Ellis detail the game’s peculiar origin.
“In 2008, the Decemberists were working on an album called The Hazards of Love, and they were doing a promotional photo shoot,” Baker says. In keeping with the rock opera’s Edwardian narrative of betrayal and conspiracy, the shoot’s theme was “What if we were a secret society playing a mysterious game that nobody’s seen before?”
According to Baker, photographer Autumn de Wilde and illustrator Carson Ellis produced a prop that resembled what Illimat eventually became, but at that point there weren’t any rules for how you’d actually play it. Several years later, the band reached out to Baker, based on their experience with his storytelling game Gloom. “They said, ‘Hey, you make games, we have this mysterious thing. Could you make it into an actual game?’” Baker recalls, “They wanted it to be something that could be 100 years old and simply forgotten about.”
The core of Illimat is a straightforward two- to four-player card game reminiscent of Hearts or 13, with various strategic modifiers layered on top. There’s a symbol-strewn cloth mat that represents the aforementioned fields, and the game box itself assigns each field a season.
The most distinctive elements are the Luminaries: gorgeous Tarot-like wildcards that alter the rules of the game when revealed. Carson Ellis has illustrated each card with her signature slightly sinister elegance: The Rake is a bandy-legged dandy standing astride a discard pile; the Forest Queen holds a fern and a brush fire in either hand. These elements might be familiar to fans of the source material, but Baker is quick to note that the thematic overlap is largely what you make of it. “[Illimat] might be played by the people in the world of The Hazards of Love, [but it’s not] Hazards of Love: The Game.”