46. In the field of the Forest Queen
March 7th, 2021
Speaking of elaborate fictional backstories, let’s talk about Illimat.
In 2009 the Decemberists appeared in a series of promotional photographs depicted as members of a secret society playing a mysterious card game. Designed by Carson Ellis, the game was a prop—a wooden box covered in esoteric black and white symbols surrounded by playing cards and placed on a cloth mat. It looked like a bridge club Ouija board, riddled with ritualistic juju. Years later the band commissioned game designer Keith Baker to create a game based on the original artwork, and Kickstarted it to the tune of over $400,000. Being both a die-hard Decemberists fan and player of games, I backed the project in a heartbeat.
Everything about Illimat (Urdu for ‘symbol’) is designed to make it feel like a centuries-old game dug out from beneath a mantle of dust. From the writing to the game mechanics to the production quality, the game evokes a rich folklore without spelling it out explicitly. The deck of playing cards looks suspiciously familiar but replaces the suits with seasons. The ‘luminary’ cards borrow the format of tarot cards but with an entirely rewritten mythology of butchers, maidens, and soldiers. The Monopoly-like ‘okus’ tokens are made of patina-hungry brass and include a tooth, a bathtub, and a pleasingly rotund bird. The rulebook includes the phrase ‘It is always summer in the field of the Forest Queen.‘
(Sidenote: I’ve always wondered if there was a word that could neatly describe these projects based on manufactured histories that I tend to gravitate towards. I briefly thought I’d coined a phrase in ‘fakelore,’ but somebody beat me to it. Fakelore!)
Given that the game began life as a prop, it isn’t surprising that the act of playing it feels inherently theatrical. I’ve introduced dozens of people to it at dining tables, but there’s a performative thrill to playing it in public. I once played a few rounds with my friend Matt at a pub in Islington, realizing too late that we must have looked suspiciously like two friends enjoying a casual Sunday afternoon séance with two pints of bitter and a pack of peanuts. Next time I’ll bring candles.
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