Game: Illiterati

Release Year: 2023

Publisher: Gap Closer Games

Designers: Rob Chew, Jon Kang, and Gary Alaka

Player Count: 1 to 5 players

Play Time: About 45 to 60 minutes (can sometimes take 120+ minutes under some circumstances)

Rules Complexity: Simple

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On the whole, board games about spelling words tend to be basic and uncomplicated. They don't have many rules, they don't have lavish productions, and they're ultimately forgettable.

It's not often that a spelling game—one where the crafting of words is the central mechanism—runs with the concept and tries to make a fuller, meatier game that feels like more than just a spin on Scrabble or Bananagrams.

That's what Illiterati tries to do. It gives off Scrabble-like vibes from its core gameplay, but successfully establishes itself as a wholly different game of its own.

But is it good? Are the extra bells and whistles worth the extra overhead in rules? Do they add value in a way that elevates the mundanity of spelling words? Most importantly, is it actually any fun?

Here's everything you need to know about Illiterati, what my experiences with the game have been like, and whether it's a word game you'll like.

This review is based on a Deluxe Edition review copy of Illiterati provided by Gap Closer Games. (See below for differences between the Standard and Deluxe Editions.) I played the game 10 times before penning this review and my thoughts and opinions are solely my own.


Illiterati is a real-time cooperative word-spelling game in which players are trying to satisfy their own personal goals while sharing a pool of letters. (Illiterati also has a competitive mode, which I explore in the "Competitive Mode" section below.)

Every player has a Book, which stipulates what kinds of words they need to spell in order to "bind" the Book and mark it as complete. One Book's goal might be to spell out city names while another Book's goal might be to spell out a 10-letter word that starts and ends with the same letter.

The Books come in two types: Red Books (Torched) and Blue Books (Waterlogged). Red Books ask you to spell categorical words, such as Colors, Animals, Things That Fly, etc. Blue Books are more about the mechanical use of letters, such as Alliterations, Rhymes, Only 1 Vowel, etc.

Now, here's the catch: Illiterati is played in real time in 3-minute rounds, and players must spell as many words as they can using all of their letters—even if the words are unrelated to their current Book. The primary aim of any round is to make sure you don't have any leftover letters; if you can fulfill your Book, that's just a bonus.

Why? Because if you collectively end a round with too many leftover letters (the exact limit depends on the difficulty you select), then you have to "burn" one of those letters. If you burn too many letters, you lose.

The letters aren't just letters, either. Some letters are basic and unsuited, but most letters belong to one of four suits: Swords, Hearts, Clouds, and Stars. These suits are important because many Books also require that your words have some number of letters of a given suit.

So, for example, the Book that requires words fitting the category of Emotions & Feelings also requires that at least three of the letters in those words be of the Clouds suit. It's not enough to have a letter; it has to be the right type of that letter!

The words GLAD and ANGRY fulfill the requirements of this Book. Meanwhile, the words FIT, SEND, and TIRES are unrelated to the Book but prevent me from having leftover, unused letters.

Fortunately, you can cooperate. During a round, you can freely give your letters—or even entire words—to other players. There's also a central Library of letters, which is a shared pool to which you can add and take letters as you wish. This is really important because you simply can't win in Illiterati if you don't cooperate.

If you have the right words to fulfill your Book at the end of a round, you discard those words and draw another Book to work on. (Your next Book will be the opposite type of Book than the one you just completed. After fulfilling a Red Book, you'll draw a Blue Book, and then a Red Book, and so on.)

But here's another catch: At the end of a round, a Villain card is drawn. This Villain causes all kinds of problems, like having to break up your words, throw away certain letters, etc. And if that weren't enough, drawing a certain Villain also re-activates all previously drawn cards of that Villain type!

Then, everyone draws more letters from the bag of letters and the next round begins. This keeps going until you lose (by burning too many letters) or until every player successfully completes a certain number of books (determined by the chosen difficulty) as well as the Final Chapter.

The Final Chapter is essentially a more difficult Book, and it's shared by all players. All players must individually fulfill the Final Chapter in the same round in order to beat the game.

Setup and Table Footprint

Illiterati is a relatively fast game to set up. There aren't many moving parts to the game, so it's trivially easy to pull out, shuffle, and start playing.

The setup steps essentially boil down to this:

  1. Shuffle the Villain Deck, Red Books, and Blue Books.
  2. Deal 1 Red Book to each player.
  3. Draw 5 letter tiles per player.

There might be an extra step or two depending on the difficulty you choose, but that's really the gist of it. You're ready to play!

And while Illiterati doesn't require much table space, it still manages to have great table presence, especially if you have the Deluxe Edition.

Other than the decks for Villains, Red Books, and Blue Books, Illiterati just needs a small amount of space for each player to make words using their letter tiles. You could easily play this on a card table, coffee table, or other modest table.

Learning Curve

On the surface, Illiterati is a relatively simple game: you need to use all of your letters to spell as many words as you can, while also trying to spell words that fulfill your particular Book. Leftover letters are how you lose the game.

However, it's not that simple because there are extra rules that complicate things a bit. This is not Scrabble or Bananagrams. This is what Scrabble or Bananagrams would look like if they were upgraded to appeal to hobby gamers.

Elements that add to the overall complexity:

  • The real-time, cooperative nature of sharing letter tiles.
  • The concept of burning letters.
  • Suited letters and the role they play in completing Books.
  • The extra rules when you get to the Final Chapter.
  • The way Villain cards work and how they chain.

All of these elements aren't complex on their own, but it's having to remember how they all come together and affect your decisions that can be an issue for someone who isn't a hobby gamer and just wants a straightforward word-spelling game.

Game Experience

Decision Space

At its core, Illiterati is truly a word-spelling game. You could potentially ignore everything else and just focus on spelling words with the letters you draw. It feels a lot like Bananagrams in practice—except without the crossword layout—meaning you're just constantly forming and rearranging words in real time.

Since you lose by having leftover letters, there's basically one strategy to win: use all of your letters to spell words, and then use whatever time remains in the round to see if you can safely rearrange words to fit your Book.

In this example, I was able to use most of my letters to spell the words on the left. I have some unused letters leftover, but it's okay because they comprise the Library.

So, Illiterati isn't a game of decisions, per se. You're ultimately just spelling words, but you have a few extra things to think about: the suits of letters, the requirements of your Books, and whether you should dump your unsavory letters on teammates while accepting any letters that others are having trouble with.

Outside of the word spelling activity, the decisions in Illiterati mainly come at the end of each round when you draw the Villain cards. The Villain cards don't just force you to mess up your words in various ways, but also force you to collaborate with teammates on how you mess up your words as a whole.

For example, some Villain cards present two options: either EVERY player takes a minor drawback or ONE player takes a major drawback. You'll have to talk it out as a team to decide which way you want to go, and that decision isn't always simple.

Similarly, when a Villain card forces you to throw away letters of your choice, deciding on which letters to toss can be tough. Often, you just go with your gut and intuition.

Even so, Illiterati isn't for those who want a strategic, thinky game; it's a fast-paced game of real-time word spelling. If you like Bananagrams and want a more gamery version of it, you'll probably like this.

Luck Factor

There are several sources of luck in Illiterati, and the impact of that luck ranges from "not a big deal" to "frustratingly difficult with no mitigation."

Luck can show its face in the following ways:

The letter tiles you draw every round. If you have a lopsided balance of vowels to consonants, or if you have way too many "hard letters" (e.g., K, X, Z), you can find yourself in a tricky situation with no way out.

Most of the time, this can be mitigated through cooperation. But it's possible for everyone to be stuck in similarly unbalanced draws, in which case no amount of cooperation will save you.

Illiterati provides a last resort option when you're stuck like this: as a team, once per round, you can discard up to 7 letters and draw a fresh set of replacements. The penalty for this is that you'll have to draw an extra Villain card at round's end.

The Books aren't exactly balanced. Some Books are way easier to fulfill than others, so if you end up drawing one of the harder ones, you could end up stuck on it for many rounds—even with the help of your teammates. Unfortunately, there's no way to mitigate this. Once a Book is drawn, you have to complete it.

Normally, it's not too bad... but it can be really frustrating when you get to the Final Chapter and you draw one of the harder Books. Being so close to winning the game yet being unable to cinch the win because you drew one Book over another? Not only does it feel bad, but it feels anticlimactic.

The Villain cards aren't exactly balanced, either. There are five different Villains and each Villain has five unique cards, and the way these cards appear can have a substantial affect on your progress.

There are five Villains and each Villain has five different cards. When you draw a Villain, you also re-activate every previously drawn card of theirs. This is called an "attack chain."

For example, it's unlikely but possible that your first five rounds end up drawing the same Villain from the deck. Due to the Villain chaining mechanism, you can be pummeled pretty hard right from the start. On the other hand, if you draw one of each Villain, you'll have an easier time managing your letters.

Meanwhile, the actual Villain abilities on each card aren't equally impactful. With some, you only throw away two letters; with others, you have to throw away entire words. So, it's especially tough when you draw one of the more powerful Villain cards at the start, which gets chained multiple times over the course of the game.

Fun Factor

Illiterati is definitely a tense game, thanks to the pressure of the real-time gameplay and the 3-minute timer that looms overhead. Round to round, you're scrambling to spell words without leftover letters, and there's a real feeling of relief every time you're able to get it done just in the nick of time.

But, again, if you don't find joy in the core mechanism of finding and spelling words, and if you tend to find spelling games to be frustrating or boring, then Illiterati is just going to make you feel more frustrated or more bored than usual.


There's a nice cadence to the round-to-round gameplay of Illiterati. You're scrambling for three minutes, and then you get a breather in between as you submit words, draw Villains, and get ready for the next round. It definitely makes the time fly by.

However, I do find that Illiterati has some pacing issues.

End-of-round discussions can take a while. While some Villain cards are straightforward and resolve within seconds, others force you to make a decision as a team as to how to proceed. If you're playing with people who are particularly strategic or obstinate, these discussions can take a while and kill the pace.

Villain attack chains can lead to a stalemate. I understand the design choice for chaining Villain attacks: it gradually increases the difficulty over time. I assume the intention here is for the Villain draws to eventually become so overwhelming that it forces an end to the game before it drags on for too long.

However, that hasn't been my experience. The Villain attacks mainly reverse your progress by making you lose letters, but they don't actually make you more likely to lose a particular round. Remember, you only lose by having leftover letters at the end of a round; having to discard letters and words doesn't make you more likely to burn.

So, if you're playing with competent word gamers, the Villain attacks don't actually impact the difficulty of the game; they simply cause the game to drag on because they're constantly taking letters and words away. It's not that you're more likely to fail; you're just forced to keep working on your current Book.

The Final Chapter can lead to a stalemate. Given that it's a cooperative game, I understand the intent of having a Final Chapter that everyone needs to fulfill in the same exact round together. But it's more frustrating than it is fun.

Coordinating the resolution of a Final Chapter isn't difficult in and of itself; the "difficulty" here is making sure everyone has the right letters to fulfill the Book, and that part mostly comes down to the luck of the draw on letter tiles. If even ONE person can't fulfill it, you must play another round and try again.

The problem is that by the time you're at the Final Chapter, plenty of Villains have shown up and they're chaining attacks like crazy, constantly taking letters away and forcing setbacks on EVERYONE. Even if you were really close to winning, the Villain chains can seriously destroy a lot of progress.

That isn't difficult. That's just annoying and unfun. It's especially bad when you reach the Final Chapter by the 30-minute mark and then spend another 60 minutes trying to fulfill the Final Chapter but you're unable to because of the Villain setbacks.

The game's play length has an insanely wild variance. Illiterati's box claims a play time of 30 minutes, but the shortest game I've played was 35 minutes—and that was on Easy mode with 2 players.

If you're going to play on Hard difficulty, Legendary difficulty, or with more than 2 players, expect the play times to swing unpredictably. This is mainly due to the constant, growing setbacks from Villain attack chains and the restricted win conditions upon reaching the Final Chapter.

My longest game of Illiterati lasted 2 hours—and it would've kept going if we hadn't decided as a group to call it a night and pack it up.

Player Interaction

Despite being a cooperative game, Illiterati has the feel of a multiplayer solitaire game. You are, after all, focusing on your own Book and dealing with your own set of letter tiles and trying to make sure you don't leave any leftovers.

However, the cooperative element is key to success. The general design of Illiterati really encourages talking and working together. You'll need to be proactive in asking for tiles—whether certain letters or certain suits—and willing to give up tiles that might allow your teammates to complete their Books.

That said, Illiterati can suffer if you have an alpha player in your group. If you think there can't be an alpha player problem due to the real-time gameplay and the 3-minute timer, think again! It's certainly possible.

Technically speaking, the rules only allow players to GIVE tiles to other players; it's actively forbidden to TAKE tiles from other players without their consent. But an alpha player with a dominating personality can put a damper on the experience as they try to orchestrate the group and control where letters go.


Illiterati has a great skeleton in its core gameplay, but the flesh on those bones is disappointing to the degree that it really tarnishes the overall fun. I also much prefer Illiterati as a competitive experience than a cooperative experience. (See below for more on the Competitive Mode.)

The word-spelling gameplay is intuitive and engaging. It's really no different than any other basic word-spelling game, so this is a strong case of "You know whether you're going to like this just from the description of how it's played."

The Books are fun, especially as split between Red and Blue Books. I love that on top of spelling ANY words, you also have specific GOAL words that you're trying to spell. It's a smart design choice that elevates the word-spelling tension, and it helps to set Illiterati apart from other games of its kind.

The Final Chapter mechanism and the Villain attack chaining mechanism both detract from the experience. Scroll up to the "Pacing" section for more on why, but suffice it to say that these two mechanisms artificially lengthen the game without actually making it more difficult or adding any extra depth.

It's bad enough that these mechanisms actively make me NOT want to play Illiterati, which is why I will now only play using a modified form of the built-in "Junior Mode": no more Villain attack chains and no more Final Chapter.

With those two changes, I think Illiterati is pretty fun and I don't mind playing it again. It's basically the same thing from game to game with no variability, but the core gameplay is engaging and delivers a lot of fun for word-spelling enthusiasts.

Competitive Mode

While Illiterati is officially a cooperative game, there's a competitive variant on the back of the rulebook that lets you play as either free-for-all or team-versus-team, and I believe this is the best way to play Illiterati.

The core game is the same—it's still real-time with 3-minute rounds—but there are some minor tweaks:

  • Players divide into teams. Teams can consist of just 1 player. Teams don't necessarily have to have the same number of players.
  • Each team has their own Library. Furthermore, the first team to finish spelling in a round can shout "Illiterati!" and draw three extra bonus letters. The remaining teams must play out the round (or end early without the bonus).
  • Instead of individual Books per player, there's now a central pool of 3 Books that all teams are competing to complete. When a Book is completed, it gets replaced by a freshly drawn Book of the opposite color.
  • Teams can complete more than one Book per round, but each Book can only be completed once per team.
  • Villains attack all teams independently. Villain attacks DON'T chain.
  • The game ends as soon as any team completes 5 Books. There are no Final Chapters in the competitive mode.

Why is the competitive mode superior? For starters, it gets rid of the Villain attack chaining mechanism and Final Chapter mechanism, which are the two worst parts of Illiterati by a large margin. That alone puts it on top.

However, it's also improved by the fact that you can now work on three different Books at a time, which greatly improves your options for spelling beneficial words that progress the game towards its end. You can't get "stuck" on a Book.

The "Illiterati!" bonus adds extra tension, rewarding skillful players who can use all their letters quickly, granting extra letters to work with. However, the drawback is that everyone else has extra time to spell words that fulfill Books.

And whereas the cooperative mode has an anticlimactic end, the competitive mode is a thrilling race against other players with a real possibility of coming back even if you're losing at the start.

I love cooperative board games, but I'm going to play all future games of Illiterati using the competitive mode. It's strictly better and I think the game hurt its own potential for success by not making it the default mode.

Production Quality

My copy of Illiterati was provided by Gap Closer Games, who sent me a Deluxe Edition. My thoughts on the production quality reflect the Deluxe Edition. If you want to know what's different in the Standard Edition, scroll down to the comparison section.

The overall aesthetic of the game is inviting. Illiterati has a fun, family-friendly vibe that evokes the mood of a mobile game. Plus, the theme—about librarians trying to stop an evil group of anti-literacy villains—is one that's tame. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone who finds this game to be offensive or off-putting.

The letter tiles are chunky, wooden, and tactile. This point is specifically about the Deluxe Edition, but it certainly makes the experience all the better for it. (The tiles are slightly larger than standard Scrabble tiles.) But from what I understand, the cardboard letter tiles in the Standard Edition are satisfyingly tactile, too!

The cards are big and fun to handle, but a little hard to read. I love the large card size used in Illiterati. Is it necessary? Not at all. But there's a premium feel to the whole package, and the larger-than-typical cards certainly add to that. The only downside is that some text on the cards—like the Villain attacks—could be more legible.

The sand timer is fickle and unreliable. Production-wise, this is definitely the worst part of Illiterati. I don't know if it's true for every copy of the game, but my particular sand timer gets stuck about 25% to 40% of the time. It's gotten to the point where I don't even pull it out anymore and instead use my phone's timer app.

The box is sized well, looks great, and comes with a nifty insert. Illiterati has an unconventional box design, which pulls out like a drawer. The insert is thoughtfully designed to ease both setup and cleanup. I'm really impressed here, and I grant bonus points for the box looking like a book when stood on a shelf.

Standard Edition vs. Deluxe Edition

There are only a handful of differences between the Standard and Deluxe Editions, and those differences are purely cosmetic.

  • The Deluxe Edition has wooden letter tiles while the Standard Edition has cardboard letter tiles.
  • The Deluxe Edition has embroidered tile bags while the Standard Edition has the same bags but without embroidery.
  • The Deluxe Edition has a dual-layered burn tracker while the Standard Edition has a burn tracker that's just a flat card.
  • The Deluxe Edition has a jewel-capped sand timer while the Standard Edition has a regular sand timer.
  • The Deluxe Edition also comes with five bookmarks (one per Villain).

If price is a concern, there's no reason not to get the Standard Edition. It's the exact same game with nearly the exact same components. You miss out on the wooden letter tiles, but that's really about it.

The Bottom Line


Approved Score Guide
  1. Engaging word-spelling gameplay with a solid core
  2. Interesting twists that make it more suitable for hobby gamers
  3. Multiple difficulty modes (family friendly)
  4. Cooperative and competitive modes exist
  5. High-quality production elevates the experience
  1. Villains and Final Chapters make the game longer, not harder
  2. Books and Villains could've been balanced better
  3. Vulnerable to alpha player problem
  4. Gameplay can feel samey with repeat plays
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