How Illuminati Works

front and back of pack of Illuminati card game
It's not just a famous, conspiratorial group -- it's also a card game!
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/

It was quite early in my first game of Illuminati when I realized I was not dealing with your standard casual-fun-family card game. At that point, the five other players and I -- newbies all to the strategy-based card game -- had just figured out how to take the very first turn of the very first player.

It had taken us a full hour to do so.


Illuminati is decidedly NOT one of the so-called "gateway" games, intended to draw rookies in with simple rules and easy strategy. It's an advanced game for those who crave a real challenge. Fortunately, if you stick to it, you'll be rewarded with a rollicking good time, using your cunning and wiles to plot alliances, destroy enemies and achieve world domination. Best of all, Illuminati acknowledges its own cheekiness with satiric groups ("The Boy Sprouts," "Congressional Wives") -- even the directions poke fun at the game you're learning.

In the world of Illuminati, a vast, world-wide conspiracy is afoot. Secret societies are plotting to take over the globe, and you can see the results: The world financial system is collapsing, theologies and political beliefs have become radicalized, and the health of the environment is imploding.

Unfortunately, that same description might seem a bit familiar to anyone living on planet Earth right now. But if you're looking for something more sinister, consider that it's actually a master plan formed by a man named Adam Weishaupt in the 1760s. Weishaupt was a committed atheist who founded the Order of the Illuminati, a group that started off as an Enlightenment salon-type club. Because of its anti-establishment and discordian ideals, conspiracies surrounded the group. It was said that it was designed to overthrow governments, take control of financial institutions and generally promote world control [source: Atheists.Org].

Using the conspiratorial nature of the Order, the Illuminati game borrows the idea of a vast, worldwide network that players are attempting to corral. That's why quite a few conspiracies have sprung up around the Illuminati game itself. Later, we'll explore those strange occurrences where the game has seemed to predict future global events, but first, let's get some background on the game itself.


Illuminati Basics

spread out Illuminati cards/groups
Illuminati cards are bright and clever, the perfect foil for a game that's rife with conspiracy, cheating and intrigue.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/

Illuminati seems deceptively simple when you open the box. All it contains, after all, is a stack of cards with fun, comic-book type illustrations on them, a couple of dice and some money sheets known in the game as Megabucks. Well, that and the 16-page instruction booklet.

When beginning play, be aware that you might not want to ask your six year-old cousin to join in. Not only is the game complicated and above your average Monopoly strategy, it's also long (about three hours, if you've played before) and has some more mature themes. (Cards, for instance, speak of death, disease and destruction. All tongue-in-cheek, but those kindergarteners can be notorious for taking jokes literally.)


You're going to want to play with four to six players. You can play with less, but you won't have as much wiggle room in terms of negotiation (not to mention malicious backstabbing). Add more players, and you'll have to tweak the rules to add some more money to your bank and add at least an hour or so to your time set aside for global takeover.

To begin, each player draws a black Illuminati card. (Don't worry, we'll tell you what that means in the next section.) After that, all the players will roll both dice; the player with the highest score goes first. Play proceeds counter-clockwise after that.

Next, let's turn a conspiratorial eye to the next section, where we'll see how the basic structure of a turn works.


Illuminati Rules

close-up of Illuminati card game card (conspiracy theorists)
A group you might control, for example (as well as folks you might be playing the game with).
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/

Let's not beat around the bush. Illuminati has a 16-page rule book for a reason: It's complicated. There seems to be an exception to every rule and then another exception to those. But let's familiarize ourselves with the simple objects of the game and how it's played, and soon we'll be well on our way to maliciously taking over the world.

So, how the heck do we seize all power? There are two ways to win the game:


  • Basic goal: Control a certain number of groups, based on the number of people playing.
  • Special goal: Each player will have a special goal, based on their Illuminati group, and will win if that goal is accomplished.

Note that if multiple players are able to grasp domination at the same time (either by alliance or not), the victory is shared.

Now let's take one turn so we can see how the game works. This is no small feat; six things happen per turn. (This card game is no blackjack, in other words.) In the next section, we'll go into the cards more specifically, but for now, let's break it down so we can check out how each turn looks. In order, you will:

  1. Collect income. All of your cards will have an income number; take those numbers of "Megabucks" from the bank as the very first step of each turn. Your first turn, the money is just from your Illuminati card, but in subsequent turns, you'll be controlling groups that will have an income number on them to collect at the start of each turn.
  2. Draw a card. Special cards are kept; Group cards go face-up in the uncontrolled area (a fancy way of saying the stack of cards in the center of the table).
  3. Attack! Take two actions. Don't worry; we'll cover these in more detail on the next page.

4. Take any free actions:

  1. Drop a group
  2. Aid an attack
  3. Give away money or Special cards
  4. Use a Special card

5. Transfer money. Move any of your money to groups you control. You can do two transfers per turn.

6. Take your special actions. This is where the special power each Illuminati group has comes in handy. Take the special privilege your group grants you.

And there you go! You've now played one turn of Illuminati. Ready to control the world? Yeah, probably not.


Illuminati Actions in Detail

special card from Illuminati card game
Special cards like this one are good to have at your disposal.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/

Since there are so many actions one must take in a game of Illuminati, it's easy to get confused about what to do when (and to whom). Here's a simple list of the actions you'll choose from on the third step of your turn. Remember, you can choose two:

  1. Attack to Control: Subtract the defending group's resistance number from the attacking group's power. Check the chart provided in the game for modification of numbers. Roll the dice, and if you get this number or less, you take control. A roll of 11 or 12 is an automatic failure.
  2. Attack to Neutralize: Same thing, except the attacker gets 6 points added to increase their chances.
  3. Attack to Destroy: Same as the first two, except subtract power number instead of resistance number from the defending group. Put any destroyed groups in a "dead pile," where you can cheerfully ignore them for the remainder of the game.

First off, you're only attacking groups. That means that you're not attacking Illuminati cards themselves (those black ones that you start the game with). A player must announce who they're attacking; that is, you can't hide your intentions of what action you're taking. You also must say when you're attacking (so no saying you're going to attack someone and sneakily taking it back).


While you're adding and subtracting power and resistance numbers to determine the success of the attack, keep in mind that you can also spend your money to increase your chances of winning. One Megabuck adds one power point to you, making your odds of a victorious attack that much greater. You can also help or hurt another player's attack by spending your Illuminati money. (Group income can't be used.) For each dollar you spend, it affects the die by one point. You do need to declare when you're interfering. No covert aiding of the enemy.

As with every play in Illuminati, don't you worry; there's a way around it. You can declare your attack "Privileged" by discarding a Special Card, which means no one is allowed to interfere. Wait, Special Card? Yup, you still have a lot to learn. Let's take over the next section first, where we'll learn what those cards -- and the words on them -- really mean.


Illuminati Cards

Illuminati cards
Illuminati cards have clever names and even more clever tricks up their sleeves.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/

Learning how to take a turn of Illuminati is probably harder than attempting to take over the world in real life. But now that you have a vague idea of how to play -- by controlling your own groups, destroying your enemies' and amassing money -- we can get into the nitty gritty of how to go about doing that.

As we mentioned earlier, when you first start, you'll draw one Illuminati card from the eight available. That'll be your Illuminati Group, and each has cool characteristics:


  • Bavarian Illuminati: Make one privileged attack per turn at a cost of 5 MB.
  • Bermuda Triangle: Reorganize groups at end of turn.
  • Discordian Society: Add four points to any attempt to control Weird groups. Immune to attacks from Government or Straight groups.
  • Gnomes of Zurich: Move money freely at the end of a turn.
  • Network: Turns over two cards at beginning of turn.
  • Servants of Cthulhu: Add two points on any attempt to destroy any group.
  • Society of Assassins: Add four points on any attempt to neutralize any group.
  • UFOs: Participate in two attacks per turn.

All Illuminati cards have a power number (used when you're rolling numbers for attacks) and an income number (that you'll collect on every turn). Next are the Groupcards. These are the ones you'll try to control and will draw on every turn. Some things to know about Groups:

  • Alignments: These are political alignments (Communist, Liberal, Violent, Weird, etc.) It's easier to control similar groups or destroy opposite ones, as you'll get points added to or subtracted from your roll. (Again, there's a chart in the directions to help you keep track.)
  • Power: The power number on the card lets you know how easy it will be to control (the higher the number, the more power it has). It might also have two numbers separated by a slash; the second is the transferable power used to assist another Group in an attack.
  • Resistance: This number lets you know how easy it will be to take over. If the number is lower, you can more easily grab it.
  • Income: Each Group gets income, just as your Illuminati card does. Place the income on each Group card every turn.
  • Special abilities: Some Group cards have these, which might mean certain perks for certain actions. Follow the instructions on the card.

Special cards (like the Time Warp card on the previous page) are also in the general pool. These give pretty straightforward advantages to the player who draws them, but follow the instructions for how to use them correctly. Note that you can only employ them once, and they can be traded, sold or straight up given away out of the goodness (or pure cunning) of your heart.


Basic Skills and Strategies

multinational oil companies Illuminati card
See all those outward-pointing arrows? This group would be a strong player in your power structure.
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/

Now that you've got your cards and actions down, it's time to figure out the basics of how to manipulate your Illuminati groups.

Power structure in Illuminati is (predictably) somewhat complicated, but can help you strategize. When a group is attacked to control successfully, that group now becomes a "puppet" of the controlling group (referred to as a "master"). You can tell it's controlled because the puppet's inward arrow is now placed next to the outward pointing arrow of the master.


The closer your card is to your Illuminati, the harder it is for another group to attack. That's because you get an extra ten points on your resistance (power if you're being attacked to destroy) if your group is adjacent to the Illuminati. One group away is five points more, and two groups away is two points. (Anything farther doesn't get any extra points.)

Keep open control areas and that aren't infringing on other cards (in other words, make sure you have room to grow). It's also important to make sure that your structure isn't too vulnerable; having a lot of groups controlled by one branch of your Illuminati card leaves you open to an attack that could completely annihilate you.

One of the most important things to keep in mind when playing? Negotiate! Wheel and deal. Trade favors, make (and break) alliances, bribe, sell your protection or attacks. Beyond that, watch other players closely. See if you can convince them to conspire against others for mutual benefit--and then drop them when it suits you.

Because another fun thing about Illuminati? You can be as duplicitous and sneaky as you like. Read on to the next section for more ways to ruin the game for everyone else.


Not Hard Enough? Advanced Rules and Strategy

photograph of Illuminati instruction manual
Seriously, there's really a section on cheating in there!
Photo by Elizabeth Johnston/

So far, we seem to be dominating the world swimmingly. We know how to take each turn, we know what the cards mean, we know how to get or destroy cards, and we even know where to put them once we've done all that. Consider us experts!

Not quite. As we've mentioned, Illuminati is nothing if not contradictory. For almost every action, there is an opposite action to counteract it, neutralize it or simply make it more complicated. In other words, it's probably going to take a few three-hour games to really get the hang of it. Keep your instructions handy, and you'll get it.


But once you've conquered the basic game, Illuminati doesn't let you stop there. There are tons of ways to make it even more mind-boggling. Written into the very rules of Illuminati is the stipulation that to make the game even more fun, you can play a nasty, duplicitous version simply by cheating. You don't even have to let the other players know.

If you're down for more complicating factors, take the secrecy of the Illuminati to heart and keep things hidden from each other. For instance, the game suggests that instead of using the pre-determined special goal for each Illuminati, have each player pick one goal from the list and spend the game bashing your head against the table trying to figure out who is going to win how.

Even more nasty? Don't let anyone know what your Illuminati card is in the first place. Sure, you can only use your own power, income, and special power -- but you can also draw less income, use less power or not use the special power at all to confuse your fellow players.

Illuminati is a terrifically complicated game, but the irony is that you can play it in a way where almost anything goes.


Just a Game?

The idea of the Illuminati harkens back to an 18th century theory about conspiratorial groups set to control the world. And while Illuminati claims to be a tongue-in-cheek game satirizing the idea of vast global domination, it has developed its fair share of conspiracy theories itself.

Tipping his hat to the "Illuminatus!" books by Robert Anton Wilson (another slightly satiric series about secret, global societies), game creator Steve Jackson is typically vague about how Illuminati is shaped by conspiracy. When asked in an interview if he was a member of the Illuminati, Jackson replied, "The Illuminati do not exist. I hold a moderately senior position" [source: Jackson].


That hasn't stopped some people from taking the humor out of the game and seeing it as not just a review of conspiracy theories, but a foreteller of the vast evil that will befall Earth. Sound menacing?

According to the theories, it definitely is. A lot of the conspiracies come from the cards themselves. For instance, a group card called "Combined Disasters" shows a scene of chaos, fire and a tumbling clock tower in the art. Some see the card as predicting the 2011 Japanese earthquake and tsunami, as the clock bears a striking resemblance to the Wako Tower clock in Tokyo. The clock's hands also appear to be at 3:11 -- perhaps a tip to the March 2011 date of the (combined) disasters [source:]? (We would be remiss if we didn't note that Tokyo suffered little damage in the earthquake and tsunami, and the Wako Tower was not harmed at all.)

One of the more rampant theories is that the cards predict the September 11 terrorist attacks. One group card, labeled "Terrorist Nuke" depicts a huge fireball destroying one office-type tower with a similar (standing) tower in the background. Another card called "Pentagon" shows an inferno in the center of the Pentagon building [source: Rense].

What, not convinced? Well, there's also a card called "Oil Spill" that shows a duck covered in thick crude, which some claim is evidence of the BP oil disaster in the Gulf of Mexico [source: Hayes]. There's even a Princess Di card, with the former royal surrounded by paparazzi . . . as on the night of her death? OK, bit of a stretch [source:].

But if you do believe in the Illuminati (both the conspiracy and the power of the game) then stay out of Oregon. Because the game predicts (with the "Oregon Crud" card), that, well, something will happen to Oregon. From the picture, it appears to be some sort of purple sludge. So watch out for that, our rugged Northwestern friends [source:].

Had enough conspiracy? Of course not. Check out the next page for lots more information ... if you dare!


Lots More Information

Related Articles

  • Atheists.Org. "The Enlightenment, Freemasonry, and The Illuminati." Feb. 29, 2012. (March 13, 2012)
  • Card Games CafĂ©. "Rules to Illuminati." 2008. (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • "Illuminati predicts Japanese disaster." (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • Hayes, S. "Illuminati Card Games, Conspiracy Theories and Recent World Events." Jul. 4, 2011. (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • Illuminati Card Game. "Illuminati Rules." Steve Jackson Games. (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • Jackson, Steve. "Interview with Steve Jackson." Jul. 25, 2011. (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • "Princess Di New World Order Illuminati Card." Mar. 1, 2011. (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • McCullar, Michael. "Fantasy for fun and profit." Austin American Statesman. Apr. 18, 1988. (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • Ray, Randy. "The Illuminati Card Game." (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • "1990s Illuminati Game Cards Still Creating Controversy." Nov. 21, 2011. (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • Steve Jackson Games. "SJ Games vs. the Secret Service." (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • TheTruthBehindTheScenes.Org. "Illuminati Card Game." Feb. 22, 2011. (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • UFO Blogger. "Illuminati Card Game Shows Japan Earthquake Was Preplanned." Feb. 16, 2011 (Mar. 2, 2012)
  • "The "Oregon Crud" Illuminati card." Oct. 2, 2012. Mar. 2, 2012)