Illiterati is a cooperative word game that incorporates the best aspects of both

For Christmas, I got my fiance a copy of Illiterati as something of a last-minute gift, and we’ve had the chance to play it a few times already.

I knew absolutely nothing about the game apart from the fact that it’s light-to-medium weight and that it supports 1-7 players, so I was crossing my fingers and hoping that it’d be good. It’s been a very pleasant surprise, because I liked it immediately, and I’m always down for another game.

The premise is that each player is a librarian, trying to use random letter tiles to form words which will complete books. Meanwhile, a cabal of villains called the Illiterati are trying to eliminate all books from the world. Each turn, a new villain will appear to hamper your progress.

In practice: each player starts with a hand of tiles drawn randomly from a bag, with a separate “library” of tiles shared among all players. Each player also gets a red book and a blue book that they’ll try to “bind” over the course of the game. Each book has an objective, based on either a theme (the example in the featured image is “Sports Terms”) or a type of word (some examples have been words that are anagrams of each other, words that rhyme, etc). Once you have made enough word(s) to complete your current objective, you bind that book and move on to the next objective.

At the end of each turn, the players draw a random villain from the Illiterati deck, and its effect will play out. Then the players draw more tiles to supplement their hand, and the game continues. After every player has bound their two books, all of the players as a team draw a book for “the final chapter,” a more difficult objective that everyone has to complete simultaneously.

Just reading a description of the gameplay, I got the impression that Illiterati would be fun but straightforward, and probably light enough to be forgettable. Something like Bananagrams but with much nicer components, for instance. After playing a few games, though, I realized I wasn’t giving it nearly enough credit. It’s a word game plus a cooperative game, and somehow it has all of the best aspects of each, and it fixes most of the annoyances of each.

  • Simultaneous Turns
    After drawing tiles, there’s a shared timer set to three minutes, and each player tries to build words independently. That means you’re not waiting for another player to decide what to do, and more importantly: there’s less opportunity for quarterbacking, where one player is trying to tell other players what to do.
  • Flexible Cooperation
    A lot of cooperative games can be really finicky about how the players are allowed to cooperate. Basic logistics is such a huge part of Pandemic, for instance, that it treats moving around the board and exchanging resources as if they were super powers. In Illiterati, there’s a shared library, but players are free to give, take, or swap tiles as much as they want.
  • Character-Based Obstacles
    The format of cooperative games is familiar at this point: the players play a round, then draw some randomized obstacle that will impede their progress. Illiterati‘s villains serve that purpose, but are interesting because they take the form of characters whose traits gradually become evident. There’s a pirate who limits your hand size or number of available words for the next turn; a girl and her sidekick demon dog who give you a choice of either/or penalties that will tear apart your progress; and so on.
  • Varied Objectives
    Splitting the objectives into red and blue books has a lot of repercussions I wouldn’t have predicted. It feels like an organic difficulty progression: your first book is mostly just thinking of words on a certain theme, and then your second book introduces more technical restraints on the words themselves. It gives the game on the whole a natural difficulty curve.
  • Catching Up
    Once you’re finished binding your books, no one can progress to the end game until everyone has caught up. That’s a mechanism built into the game where more experienced or better players can help out players who are new at the game, are having trouble with a specific objective, or are just plain having unlucky draws. And significantly: the “faster” players can’t just tell everyone else what to do, since they’ve got to form their own set of words each turn.
  • Comfortable Difficulty
    At this point we’ve played about six games at the default difficulty level, and we have yet to lose a game. But it’s never felt like there’s been no challenge at all. After Forbidden Desert, Forbidden Island, and countless games of Pandemic, I’m kind of tired of games that feel like you’re constantly one step away from drowning. Illiterati doesn’t present a huge challenge — and it offers several difficulty levels, if you’d prefer more of a challenge — but just enough to feel fun.
  • Verbal Cooperation
    Most of the aspects of Illiterati that I think of as “fixes” are addressing the things that annoy me about coop games. But just by being a coop game, it fixes one of my biggest annoyances in word-based games: when you’re just drawing a complete blank, and all it would take is one suggestion or even one letter from another person to kick the brain back into action.
  • Presentation
    Not related to the gameplay mechanics, but making a difference throughout: this is a word game with personality and character. Each of the books has a gag title that relates to the objective, along with some flavor text. (e.g. “Of Rice and Ramen” for the card that requires you to make words about food). Like giving a face and consistent character to the villains, it all works together to give the game a clever, silly voice.

It’s always a risk to buy a game that I haven’t played before, especially when I haven’t heard any positive buzz around it. So I’m really happy that we found a game we both enjoy, and I’m especially pleasantly surprised that it’s also a cure for my cooperative game burnout.

One thought on “Illiterati”

  1. I ended up buying this randomly a few months ago because I was stuck at my parents and needed something to do. Got it on the strength of the premise and the cover art, and was relieved that it wasn’t a huge mistake. 😀

Comments are closed.