Illuminati is a standalone card game made by Steve Jackson Games (SJG),
inspired by The Illuminatus! Trilogy by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea. The game has ominous secret societies competing with each other to control the world through sinister means, including legal, illegal, and even mystical. It was designed as a "tongue-in-cheek rather than serious" take on conspiracy theories. It contains groups named similarly to real world organizations, such as the Society for Creative Anachronism. It can be played by two to eight players. Depending on the number of players, a game can take between one and six hours.
In September 1981, Steve Jackson and his regular freelance cover artist Dave Martin discussed their shared admiration of the Illuminatus! Trilogy, and the latter suggested a game. Steve Jackson decided against adapting the novel because of the expense of game rights, and the difficulty of adapting a novel with such convoluted plots. He decided "a game about the secret-conspiracy idea behind Illuminatus!" was doable. After doing research on the Illuminati and conspiracy theories, and "extensive and enthusiastic playtesting" it went on the market in July 1982 in the Pocket Box format (a plastic box the size of a mass-market paperback) which was at the time the usual for SJG. Over the next few years, three expansions for the Pocket Box Illuminati game were published—the first two were substantially incorporated into the deluxe edition, while the third was an earlier version of what would become Illuminati: Brainwash.
Robert Shea provided a four-paragraph introduction to the rulebook for the Illuminati Expansion Set 1 (1983), in which he wrote, "Maybe the Illuminati are behind this game. They must be—they are, by definition, behind everything." Despite this initial involvement, Wilson later criticized some of these products for exploiting the Illuminatus! name without paying royalties (taking advantage of what he viewed as a legal loophole). Later commentators have attributed both the game and the Illuminatus! Trilogy as using real conspiracies as "targets of ridicule."
The players take role of Illuminati societies that struggle to take over the world. The Pocket Box edition depicted six Illuminati groups: The Bavarian Illuminati, The Discordian Society, The UFOs, The Servants of Cthulhu, The Bermuda Triangle, and The Gnomes of Zürich. The deluxe edition added the Society of Assassins and The Network, and the Illuminati Y2K expansion added the Church of The SubGenius and Shangri-La.
The world is represented by group cards such as Secret Masters of Fandom, the CIA, The International Communist Conspiracy, Evil Geniuses for a Better Tomorrow, California, and many more -- there are over 300 official cards available. Every group and Illuminati has some Power, Resistance and Income values; most of the world groups have an Alignment. The game is written with the usual SJG humor. The game uses a multitude of conspiracy theory in-jokes, with cards such as the Boy Sprouts (where sinister youth leaders influence the world leaders of tomorrow), the Orbital Mind Control Lasers, the Mafia, two headed Anti-Nuclear Activists, or Trekkies.
Steve Jackson Games also released a collectible card game version called Illuminati: New World Order and a stand-alone version called Illuminati: Crime Lords. SJG also developed some Illuminated role-playing game modules for its GURPS system, including GURPS Illuminati, GURPS Illuminati University and GURPS Warehouse 23.