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Illiterati

Designed by Gary Alaka, Rob Chew and Jon Kang, Illiterati is a cooperative word game played in real time. The 1-5 players (the game is playable solitaire) are librarians intent on saving the books from the eponymous Illiterati - an evil organisation that controls the world. Don't worry, the theme is tongue in cheek, this isn't a game that fuels crackpot Illuminati conspiracy theories.



The game is played in three-minute rounds, and there's a sand timer supplied - tho' most people these days will prefer to use a timer on their smartphone. You draw letters from a bag and try within the three minutes to use them all to make words. That's your minimum objective because if you have any surplus unused letters, they get banked in the middle in the 'library' and if the round ends with more than the permitted number of letters in the library, you lose a letter (in effect, you lose one of your three lives).


Tho' mere survival is your minimum objective, players are actually trying to meet the more specific word requirements of first a red book and then a blue one, before all trying to simultaneously meet the harder 'book binding' requirements for one of the books. Red books set thematic requirements; for example, to use eight or more letters relating to shapes and mathematical terms. They also require that the words use letters with specific symbols on them (the majority of letter tiles have on them one of four symbols and low-frequency letters have all four symbols). Blue books may or may not require specific symbols but their focus is on particular types of word; for example, words that begin and end with the same letter.


Because the game is cooperative, you can freely swap letters and/or donate them to other players - but you're all simultaneously up against that three-minute timer so there's not a lot of time for banter and barter. It's the pressure of the timer too that protects Illiterati from alpha player syndrome - the bugbear of many cooperative games, where one bossy or demonstrative player takes control and tells everyone else what to do. With just three minutes per round, few alpha players will have sufficient time to bulldoze other players.



The Illiterati of the title come into play at the end of each round. They are represented by a deck of character cards and you draw one at the end of each round; typically requiring players to discard letters or words. There are five different Illiterati characters and there are five cards for each of them. If a character card appears a second or subsequent time, the cards are stacked and you have to carry out the effects in the text of all of the cards in the stack! This makes the game increasingly challenging the longer it takes players to complete all their 'book binding' challenges rather than merely surviving.


If you like word games, you'll certainly get a kick out of Illiterati. You can alter the game parameters to set the difficulty level to suit the players, and that includes extending the timer or dispensing with it altogether (albeit that that comes with the risk of a domineering alpha player). There's a distinct game arc, with the difficulty gradually stepping up as you play, but you're conscious throughout that this is a game that doesn't take itself too seriously. That's evidenced, for example, in the book titles.


With art by Audrey Jung, Gap Closer Games have done a great job in the production of Illiterati. There are even two bags for the letter tiles; one to draw from and the other to place your discards. When the draw bag is empty, you can then just switch so that the discard bag becomes the draw bag, and vice versa. We added our own second bag to do the same thing with the tiles in Azul (Plan B Games), but it's good to see this convenient approach provided for here at the outset. And if it's the cooperative aspect that you dislike, the rules include the option of a player vs player variant and/or a team vs team game. This isn't just a tile game, it's a versatile game!


(Review by Selwyn Ward)


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