Christope Boelinger
5 - 9
18 - 199
InteractionComponents & Design

[pullshow/]Age recommendations on games are mostly based on kids’ abilities. You can’t really play Settlers of Catan with a six year old, or Dominant Species with a ten year old, at least not without some heavy editing on the rules. The exception to that is the designation 18 an up. Your ability to understand complex rules doesn’t improve much above 16, or even 14. Games for adults are not for adults because of the skills required but because of the subject matter. Don’t worry, we won’t start reviewing Boob Memory or Strip Settlers – and I only made the second one up. The reason Christope Boelinger’s Illegal is marked 18+ is not because of too much naked skin but because the players deal in arms, drugs and state secrets. Oh, and prostitutes, so there is a bit of sex involved.

Illegal is a party game for five to nine players, one of which will be the game master. He prepares a deck of cards for each player giving them their role in the game and their starting resources. A players role in the game is defined by two things: the goods they have for sale and the goods they wish to acquire. For obvious reasons, what a player wants and what she needs shouldn’t be the same or the whole game becomes pretty pointless. Hence the need for a game master to set up the decks, instead of just building them randomly. Players also get five resource cards of the goods they are selling plus one card of another type. That one card is extra important, it gives the player a chance to hide what they are really trying to sell. Because [pullthis]that’s the ground rule in Illegal: don’t let anyone figure out what you have or what you’re after[/pullthis].

The many flavors of crime
The many flavors of crime

Playing the game is quite simple: you trade with the other players and try to collect as many of your wanted cards as you can. There are only two rules. First, what is being traded is open to all players involved in the trade. You can’t hand over some drug cards face down and claim they are luxury cars. That sort of behavior will quickly get you killed. Second, you don’t trade publicly around the gaming table. Get up, sneak into dark corners of the room in small groups and make your deals. Mostly this works out to players trading in pairs, then breaking up and finding new trading partners. But nothing in the rules says it has to be like that, only that you can’t all stay sitting around the table. So invite four people into the next room for an auction, insert yourself as a broker between two other players if they let you, come up with clever ideas – as long as you can profit without giving away your secret, go big and outrageous.

The goods you start with are not your whole capital. New deliveries arrive at the docks regularly. That’s where the game master comes in again, he prepares those deliveries and interrupts the trading every three minutes to get them to the players. One by one, he turns up one card of each type of goods. As soon as the last card is up, every player grabs one of them, then trading resumes. Those fresh cards not only give players fresh material to trade, they also add some uncertainty about what each player wants. Is it really the goods they grab, or are they taking those to confuse everyone else?

After four deliveries of fresh goods and a final round of trading – a total of 15 minutes of trading – the game enters the second phase: the Tribunal. One by one, the game master shows a pair of seller and buyer cards and, after a brief discussion, the players vote who they believe is the player with that cards. They don’t find out if they were right yet, the cards just stay with the accused player until all roles have been voted on. For an advanced, much harder variant of Illegal, votes aren’t cast on a pair of cards but on each card individually, so you can’t know who wanted to buy alcohol just because it was the same person that was selling pornography. After the Tribunal, points are awarded: each card of your wanted goods is worth one point, all other goods are worthless to you now. Also worth one point is each card wrongly accusing you. Correct accusations, however, cost you five points – and that’s per card, so in the basic variant it’s an immediate -10, which kicks you out of the running every time.

Criminal Empire, Pocket Edition
Criminal Empire, Pocket Edition

Illegal is a game that has to grow on you. The first few times you play, most players will end up with all available resources of their wanted type and you’ll probably have a draw between two or three people that didn’t get caught. After playing a few more times, people get smarter about figuring out your role and you’ll have to adapt and trade more carefully. That’s when things get interesting, getting all your cards without being caught is a real challenge and you’ll be happy to just get a few. That’s when Illegal is really fun. But of course there are downsides, too. Like the need for a game master. A game only lasts around half an hour, so it’s not a huge deal, but between all those games on the shelves you can play without a game master, it stands out. Or like a downright silly oversight on the cards. That one is actually really annoying because it would have been so easy to avoid: the suspect cards used in the Tribunal don’t have icons identifying what type of goods they are about. Not a big deal when you have played a few times, but a clueless game master – i.e. me – can mess up 30 minutes of playing by misidentifying those cards, letting people discuss them, then later tell everyone he was wrong and NOW is the alcohol. The role cards, which have the same character picture, have icons, so why leave them off the suspect cards?

Minor gripes aside, though, Illegal is a very good party game with a new and interesting idea. It feels very different from the Werewolf style games that are a staple for groups between six and ten people, but most people that enjoy those games will be happy to play a few rounds of Illegal as well. Its emphasis is more on hiding your identity than on discussing who is who, although the Tribunal can get quite heated in that regard, but there are similar elements. Also, Illegal has the same tendency to get everyone into playing their role and you’ll be surprised how well some usually quiet people can adopt a shifty look and gangster jargon when playing. Illegal is a party game, its purpose is for people to have fun and to get them talking. It does both things very well, even for a group of people that never met before.

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