Designer Diary: Of Murderous Rabbits, Crossbow-Slinging Squirrels, and Medieval Manuscripts, or A Tale of Illumination
by Alf Seegert
I’ve been designing board games for two decades now, and with a Nigel Tufnel’s worth of published designs behind me, I think I’ve detected three trends or perhaps even (to sound fancier about it) principles at work in my designs:
1) Instead of making games with a lot of rules, I like “simplexity” — a few relatively simple game mechanisms combined in such a way that they present tough decisions and a fair bit of emergent complexity,
2) I like casting the major players as animals or creatures of myth and fairy tale, housing them in absurd, fantastical, or at least unorthodox narrative settings, and
3) I work hard to make sure that the mechanisms and the theme actively feed into one another — whenever possible, I don’t want to just overlay a theme onto existing mechanisms.
Putting all three of these design principles together (esp. with the weirdnesses of #2) can end up producing odd results, and some of these designs are perhaps…a little bit twisted? A few examples might serve:
• My first published game, Bridge Troll, is a bidding game, but one in which you play as fairy-tale trolls competing to eat or extort travelers who wish to cross your troll-bridge, whilst fending off threats from belligerent billy goats and knights errant.
• The Road to Canterbury is a Chaucer-inspired press-your-luck and area control game, with the catch that the areas you’re vying for are the Seven Deadly Sins of yore and illustrated by Hieronymus Bosch. Your goal is to tempt pilgrims to commit the very sins for which you then sell pardons. (designer diary)
• Fantastiqa is a deck-builder, but among the first to use a board and thereby combines card-acquisition with traversal, all in a wild and weird landscape ruled by fairy-tale logic and 19th-century Romanticist artwork, with goats reliably returning as guest stars. (designer diary)
• Heir to the Pharaoh has players vie to become the new ruler of Egypt, but conflict occurs from the perspective of the Pharaoh’s pet cat and dog, who just happen to be the gods Bast and Anubis.
• Dingo’s Dreams is a hybrid of Bingo and a sliding-puzzle challenge lost on Walkabout with the creatures of Australia’s outback.
• Haven combines press-your-luck card management and strategically hidden information with area control to create a game that feels like a weird hybrid of Condottierre and Battle Line, set in a world that feels a lot like the anime film Princess Mononoke. No goats here, but it does have the genius of Ryan Laukat behind the illustration and development.
Which brings me to the genesis of my latest game, Illumination. It’s been brewing for a very long time. I first played Tigris and Euphrates and Carcassonne in the year 2000, and ever since then I’ve wanted to make a tile-laying game of my own — but I was never sure what sort of theme and mechanisms would appeal to me.
I experimented on games about ecology, gardening, zombies, and gnomes (not all together, but that’s not a half-bad idea). Eventually mechanisms and theme all came together with a bit of serendipity. About a decade ago, I bumped into a web app that let you place medieval artwork onto a tapestry or manuscript to create your own free-form stories or battles. (A more recent version is here.) The moment I saw it in action I wanted to make a game with that sort of visual and dramatic effect — but instead of making yet another game with people duking it out on a battlefield, I thought it might be a lot more interesting to set the game inside an illuminated manuscript with a less orthodox set of characters.
But I’m getting ahead of myself: What is an illuminated manuscript, exactly? The National Gallery of Art explains:
What makes these ancient manuscripts so special, you ask? I’ll let Dan Thurot, who is both an expert game critic and an expert in the history of religion, do the honors:
But these polite images don’t tell the whole story. On the margins of such sanctity there be dragons, often literally — or things much weirder than that, namely drolleries: grotesque figures, often “fantastic human-animal and animal-animal hybrid creatures“. Here’s an example:
Here’s what a few of the drolleries in the published game look like (more on art below):
For Illumination, I thought it would be fun to take the drolleries, doodles, and other odd dwellers of medieval manuscripts and put them at the center of a game along with other monastic duties like ringing of bells, making bread, lighting candles, and fermenting wine. I adore Bruno Faidutti and Serge Laget’s board game masterpiece Mystery of the Abbey, based on Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose, and wanted to offer my own take on the monastery-and-manuscript setting.
Because of my game’s rather odd theme and its natural connection to my earlier irreverent medieval game The Road to Canterbury, I approached my long-time publisher Eagle-Gryphon Games to see whether they were interested. When I showed my prototype to CEO Randal Lloyd at SaltCON in 2019, he quickly grasped how everything worked and had a good feeling for how it would go over with company president Rick Soued and EGG overall. He was right. In fact, Rick was so excited about it that he suggested that EGG produce a new lower-cost edition of The Road to Canterbury at the same time — the “Impoverished Pilgrim’s Edition”. (See details here at iSlaytheDragon.) The games ended up being produced together.
The result is a “spiritual sequel” to my game The Road to Canterbury. Here is the premise of Illumination:
But not all is as peaceful as it once was! Possessed with eccentric enthusiasm, one of you has turned from the reverent to the irreverent by scrawling demons instead of angels and by painting fierce dragons instead of noble knights. Who will become the new master of the Scriptorium? Will it be the monk who reverently illuminates the page with monks, dogs, knights and angels; or the irreverent monk who whimsically draws the forces of rabbit, squirrel, dragon and demon? Play Illumination to find out!
The dramatic premise of the game wasn’t fabricated, but is a case of truth being stranger than fiction. In addition to putting bizarre drolleries on display, illuminated manuscripts often put bloody conflict on show, none more interesting than that with killer rabbits. Like these:
It should be no surprise to find medieval precedent in illuminated manuscripts for the bizarre antics of Monty Python’s impossibly vicious Rabbit of Caerbannog. It was supposedly inspired by this sculpture in Notre Dame Cathedral…
The behavior of these bellicose bunnies on the pages of medieval books appears to be a version of the carnivalesque — a pleasure in overturning of status-quo systems of order, and it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to consider how violent rabbits might provide a vicarious comic thrill for an illuminator living under a strict code of monastic rules. Author and researcher Jon Kaneko-James offers a detailed account here.
For Illumination, I created four dueling factions inspired by conflicts found on the pages of medieval manuscripts: Monks vs. Rabbits, Dogs vs. Squirrels, Angels vs. Demons, and Knights vs. Dragons.
These tiles are the GOODIES — the REVERENT player gets these:
And these are the BADDIES, which go to the IRREVERENT player:
My first attempts at mechanisms emphasized tile positioning and set collection in promising ways, but resembled my card game Musee more than they should have. Everything improved after I heard someone I respect gripe about too many games that felt like “multiplayer solitaire”. I took that as a challenge and resolved to make this new game involve the potential for palpable conflict by having players share the playing area instead of each having their own tidy tableaus to manage.
Each player has their own player mat on which tiles are randomly placed from the supply onto a 3×3 grid. Players can choose any single row or column to play on their turn, but their choice affects which of the three books receives those tiles: Row 1 and Column 1 get assigned to Book 1, Row 2 and Column 2 get assigned to Book 2, and so on. Coins can be spent to move unplaced tiles from the margins of one book to another before they are sealed on the page.
Here is what the player mats and monastery mat look like:
I wanted each action to result in multiple effects. By placing a tile on a quill of matching color, a player can collect a coin (useful in many ways, such as moving the abbot in the monastery, moving around tiles, and drawing scriptorium special-action cards). By making tiles connect to other tiles of matching color, players collect ritual tokens that can be turned in as sets to the abbot at the monastery and score points. In addition, the positions and factions of creatures placed in books will create potential conflicts with other factions, which can ultimately result in battles for dominance on the page, which means further scoring opportunities.
Here is what these books look like:
To learn more about how Illumination works, I recommend Space-Biff’s overview and review.
Art + Strategic Gameplay
For my prototypes, I use whatever art I can find online as placeholders. Sometimes people see my prototypes and take them as definitive of my vision for the game, which is usually not my intention. We discussed using art with the literal style of actual medieval manuscripts, but Eagle-Gryphon Games tried something different by hiring artists Jake “Seven” Thomashow and Claire Campin, who brought a colorful “graffiti-art” aesthetic into play. Both live in Tasmania, and you can see some of Jake’s amazing murals and street art here.
I found the result irreverent and unexpected, meaning both in a good way. The illustrations remind me, and others, of a grown-up but still whimsical Ravensburger game like The A-MAZE-ing Labyrinth. I really admire and enjoy the delicious comic details in the margins of each book. I think this approach also works especially well because the baddies are so delightfully naughty: crossbow-bearing squirrels and sword-wielding bunnies vs. hapless dogs and monks. It’s fun battling with such cuddly monstrosities!
But of course, whimsical artwork can potentially create the impression that a game is childish or only for kids. Illumination is emphatically not a game for young children as it’s surprisingly involved. I wouldn’t say it’s quite as demanding as Tigris and Euphrates, but tactically it does echo that game. Overall it’s probably more on par with something like The Castles of Burgundy.
Eagle-Gryphon Games encouraged me to create a strong solo version of gameplay. I’m delighted that, by all reports, it works extremely well.
As you can probably tell, I’m quite proud of Illumination and I hope that many people play and enjoy it. It’s probably my strongest strategic design, and it compares well with my game Haven in its tough choices and intensity.
For a thorough guided tour of Illumination, I recommend Ender’s Comprehensive Pictorial Review.
If you have any questions about Illumination or its development, feel free to ask them below!
by Alf Seegert I’ve been designing board games for two decades now, and with a Nigel Tufnel’s worth of published designs behind me, I think I’ve detected three trends or perhaps even (to sound fancier about it) principles at work in my designs: 1) Instead of making games with a lot of rules, I like…