Published on September 18th, 2013 | by Luke Turpeinen
Talisman: The Dark Lord of Board Games
Summary: While the roll-and-move mechanic is antiquated and the game can take a long time, Talisman is great for killing an afternoon with friends and family.
The fantasy genre has long been a staple of all things nerdy. From books to film, video games to board games, the omnipresence of the fantasy genre is undisputed. When it comes to board games there are many great games that make a good run with the fantasy theme. Some games, like Battle Wizards are incredibly silly while others, like Dungeon Command, tend to play it straight. Then, in the far-off distance, on top of the highest peak of the Dragonback Mountains is TALISMAN.
Now in its fourth edition, Talisman is the legacy board game of high fantasy, much in the same vein as Iron Maiden album covers, Led Zeppelin lyrics and those vans with the wizard riding a unicorn on it. Talisman was first published in 1983, and was originally designed to be a game about becoming a prefect in an all-boys boarding school but the publisher (Games Workshop, of Warhammer fame) suggested changing it to fantasy so as to increase sales to their current market. In the third edition Games Workshop changed some of the mechanics, switched out an iconic part of the board and tied the whole thing more closely to their Warhammer universe. Eventually the changes would be reverted in the fourth edition, which is more based on the second edition of the game. Now published by Fantasy Flight games, the fourth edition is the one currently in print and the one which continues to get expansions and support.
One of the good things about a game being picked up by a big name publisher is that as a consumer you don’t really have to worry about the quality of the components. Talisman’s game pieces are exactly what you’d expect by looking at pictures of them- the cards are on playing card stock, the minis are made from decent plastic with good sculpts and so on. The art on the cards and the board is all very well done and has a consistent style. The base game has a very large board, and the expansions that add to the board do so in a logical way- namely expanding the corners. Instead of blocks or discs to show levels of Strength and Craft (as in witchcraft, aka magic) the game uses plastic cones that easily stack into one another for ease of use. Overall the product design is very good and the components are well put together.
Talisman itself is fairly basic in many ways. At its base it’s a roll and move game in which you encounter the square that you land on, except that many of the squares have you draw a card from the encounter deck. There are three tracks to go around on, the Outer, Middle and Inner circles. You start in the Outer ring and the goal is to eventually work your way inward to that last space in the Inner circle to claim the Crown and rain down terror upon your foes. You get more powerful by defeating enemies, either with Strength or Craft (magic) and with the treasures you acquire in your journeys. Because of the random rolls and the need at times to get to very specific parts of the board to further your quest, Talisman can take quite a long time. The end game is very hard and the Outer circle hardly seems like it’s adequately preparing you for your future, which can be frustrating for new people. Expansions to the game that add board spaces all connect to the Outer circle, which solves some of the power scale problem but also potentially increases the length of the game.
The Talisman experience is really a unique one. The base set comes with 14 playable characters, all of which considerably change the way that the players interact with the board and each other. To me, the biggest draw of Talisman is the huge amount of character options. The base set has more characters to choose from than most games and every expansion includes five or more characters in addition to whatever else the expansion offers. This wealth of characters really adds to the experience and the little details in the stats and abilities really does change the way you play. I can’t think of any other game that supports this range of diversity in its character types and that’s a huge mark in its favor.
Because Talisman supports player-versus-player fighting, your choice of character changes not only the way you approach the board but the way you approach other characters. If you notice that everyone else is going for Strength based characters, it might be prudent to for a magic based one, not only to be able to take out monsters on the board that others can’t handle, but possibly to sneak up on those other players and steal their treasures or make life more difficult on them (possibly by killing that character!). That said, there is nothing that says that you need to include PvP conflict in the game, so if that doesn’t appeal to you it is very easy to leave out of the game.
Talisman might have a somewhat archaic base system and the game barely presents a coherent theme, let alone coherent mechanics based on that theme, but it plays really well. If you have an hour to set up a game and at least three to finish it, Talisman is a great way to kill a rainy Sunday. For those hoping to see a better score for this game, which I clearly like, look for our article coming out next week that goes over the Expansions!