Sometimes, a game just takes a while for something to get inside your head and remove prior doubts or concerns. FFG’s 4th Edition Talisman, which is unarguably the best reprint of the Games Workshop classic adventure game, was one of those games for me. I never liked it for a few key reasons, and actively despised and derided it for a long, long time because of them. I’m not sure what changed, because the simple roll-and-move-exactly-that-much mechanic sucks ass in most games, and most especially in an adventure game where locations matter. In practice, it does suck to a great degree in Talisman as well, and that’s the number one reason I hated it for so long. Knowing that I couldn’t change it, and wanting to understand why people love it so much, I tried to find a way to rationalize it so that it makes sense and doesn’t infuriate me.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s not that my adventurer is somehow bound to travel a set amount of provinces based upon the outcome of the die roll, it’s that due to fate alone, he was delayed in his travels and could not make it to his destination because of side-adventures and perils that happened whilst he was traveling. When you look at the die roll as an abstract way to express the difficulties traveled en route, you could look at it less as a frustrating situation that came about due to a shit die roll and much more like Odysseus’ journey, fraught with delays and perils due to a vain deity set upon his or her ruination. When you look at it like that, Talisman isn’t a shitty roll-and-move, it’s an epic journey. It’s not a race to the finish, it’s an adventure to be enjoyed; to be savored like a fine wine that’s been sitting in a cellar for decades.
If you’ve never played Talisman, you have to go into it knowing that it’s likely going to be a little frustrating. It’s a game that requires you to go around the outside of its Monopoly-like board until you are tough or lucky enough to get past the Sentinel, a colossus of inconceivable strength, into the middle section. Once there, you face even an even more perilous journey as you attempt to find the Warlock who gives you a quest, which once completed will see you rewarded handsomely with a Talisman, the only artifact in the game that will allow you to attempt to breach the Portal of Power and enter the inner section. If you can manage to do that, you then have to move one space at a time through the most perilous section of them all until, if you survive, you gain the Crown of Command, the pinnacle magical artifact in all the realm. Then, as your true reward, you get to walk around as this unstoppable demigod and beat the brakes off of your opponents until they’ve all been killed, or by some cruel twist of fate, they kill you and take your crown, subsequently culling the remaining opponents in the same manner until either that player, too, is defeated or wins the game through fratricide.
When you quit looking at it as a race and focus on the adventuring side of it, all of the sudden you’re thrust into this amazing, rich, deep, mysterious world of faeries and dragons, ghosts and unicorns, where in every single turn you’re doing some heroic shit or, conversely, visiting the graveyard and compelling evil deities to grant you powers. It’s all quite enthralling after the first few turns, and if you allow yourself to be immersed in the world, you’ll find that it’s quite the experience. The artwork is really conducive to that, as are the wee plastic miniature dudes that come in the box. Everything about the game’s included bits are quite good, and in one of the smartest moves FFG has ever made, there’s so many bloody cards in the box that you will literally play the ten times before seeing every card in every deck. My only real complaint is that my eyes are starting to go on me, and the half-sized cards can be hard to read in a dark room, despite having black on beige text which is conducive to easy reading. That, and the board is truly massive; it will easily take up most of the table unless you happen to have a huge table. Notwithstanding those minor gripes, the game can be called a triumph in virtually every regard, because everything about the game contributes to your immersion, provided you can see that the movement is abstract and not get too frustrated that you can’t land on the space you want to for several consecutive turns.
There’s so much to do in the world of Talisman that it’s actually a bit daunting; there’s so many spaces, so many little side-quests that are given to players through card interactions, and such a variety of fauna to slaughter along the way that it can be a bit overwhelming for players. Considering that to get past the Portal of Power, let alone the Sentinel, you need to load up your character with multiple weapons, items, allies, and buffs, you really spend a large portion of the time equipping yourself through adventuring and exploration. It’s far more Skyrim than anything else, because it has a strong role-playing mechanic that allows you to develop your character, buy items, gain allies, and go from the average, everyday kind of adventurer into a pseudo-demigod. I think that’s a huge draw, because going around buffing your character and getting cool shit is a evergreen mechanic that almost everyone can get behind, especially when it’s done well.
Talisman has been expanded by a host of small and large expansions, each bringing to the table something unique, but the downside is that the large expansions add to the already mammoth board. If you end up wanting to put them in play, you’re going to either have a backache from playing on the floor, or you’re going to need a bigger table. I kid you not, when you get two expansions going it’s huge. It’s worth it, though, because while some of the expansions are kind of worthless in the sense that they don’t add a whole lot to the game and don’t even really add the “more of the same” expansion value due to their limited scope, most of them add new facets to the game which provide you with an entirely new set of options, as well as new objectives which can completely change your strategy. Here’s some of the expansions I’ve played, and what they do:
– Reaper: This expansion is a small card expansion that has a bunch of new adventure cards, which are drawn when you land on a space that instructs you to do so, which is most of the time. This is the “more of the same” kind of expansion content, and it is primarily used to decrease the chance of seeing the same card twice. It also includes a grim reaper miniature that gets moved around the board when a player rolls a “1” for their move. Essentially, you use him to screw with other players. Despite it being named “Reaper”, the coolest part of the expansion revolves around how the Warlock works. Normally, you a die and are stuck with what he gives you out of a limited set of quests, but with the expansion in play, you can instead draw a card, each of which gives different and, arguably, more interesting quests. Finally, it contains four new characters and their miniatures, and I happen to think that they’re pretty good.
– The Dungeon: This is a large expansion that adds a new section to the board, and this one is probably my favorite of the large expansions. It gives you a whole new area to explore, complete with its own set of cards which are drawn only when you’re within its confines. It also has a new “big-baddie” boss battle at the end of the path within, and if you beat him, you get a treasure card which provides you some really powerful bonuses, and more importantly, depending on how tough a character is, it can exit the dungeon section directly onto the Crown of Command. Finally, it contains five new characters and their associated miniatures, and while they are certainly different, they aren’t particularly enticing to me.
– The Frostmarch: This is, hands down, my favorite expansion, despite being a small card expansion. It contains four characters, and more Warlock quest cards which can be used with or without the Reaper expansion, allowing you to use the new Warlock card mechanic instead of the die roll. Also, if you own the Dungeon expansion, it contains rules regarding foregoing a Talisman reward when completing a Warlock quest, and instead, taking a Treasure card, which is truly the bee’s knees. In addition to that, the variant rules allow you to take on a new Warlock quest if you already have one, which up until this point has been taboo. Now, all of those little fixes are nice, but a great expansion do not they make. What makes this a “must-have” expansion is that you may now replace the Crown of Command ending with variant endings, such as having to destroy the Ice Queen, who is tough as a box of 30d nails. This gets rid of the extended “Reservoir Dogs” normal ending, which I feel is weak and adds significant time to the game, and replaces it with a finite, quick climax. There’s three of these alternative endings, so you now have four total end-games to choose from.
– The Dragon: Besides having six new characters, it has a double-sided board overlay which replaces the default inner region, exchanging it with your choice of “the dragon realm” and “the dragon tower”, both of which are far different than the stock Crown of Command inner region. In addition to this, there’s Draconic Lords, three of which are active the whole game and controlled by little tokens that you place on the board. The expansion adds more variety, and more difficulty, because you now get hosed by locations more often than not, since drawing certain tokens will cause the current Lord to attack or cause some effect. It also adds four new alternative victory conditions, which are less interesting than the Frostmarch conditions, in my opinion, but still change things up and relate directly to the other facets of the expansion. I’ve played this enough to see the reason it exists, but I’m not convinced that it adds the right things, since Frostmarch does the same thing, but a little better, and causes almost no upkeep and complexity whereas this expansion does.
Now, I own several other expansions, but I’ve simply never gotten them to the table. I think that at this point, I’m pretty much set with my Talisman collection, because I don’t play it often enough to require a lot more content, and the game already comes with a lot to begin with. Frostmarch and Reaper are the ones that I always add into the game, because they are all positives and no negatives, and I simply prefer the tighter end-game to simply getting the Crown of Command and then taking a bunch of extra time to go around killing off other players.
The long and short is that Talisman is a great game that delivers on the promise of rich, interesting adventuring, doesn’t overstay its welcome for the most part, has great production value, and overall is something that I would recommend that everyone on the planet play at least a few times. The only thing I’ll caution you about is that if you can’t handle the really limiting roll-and-move mechanic, you will probably either not like it, or you’ll be like me and allow yourself to become immersed in its world, accepting that sometimes, when you’re traveling with a pack of allies, mules, boats, swords and magical staves, you don’t always get to where you want to go all that easily. Shit, how many times have I, a middle-aged salesman, been stuck at an airport due to “equipment malfunction” or “sudden weather”? I guess I really needed a four and I rolled a one, when you think about it in Talisman terms. TL;DR: Get over it, because it’s worth taking the bad to get to the good.
Why This Talisman Is A One Foot Diameter Golden Wall Clock:
– Great art, components, and simple rules make this a great time
– Fast turns keep the game moving at a brisk pace
– The RPG elements are a huge draw to keep the game off the shelf
– Replay value out of the box is huge thanks to lots of cards and characters
– Tons of expansions give you dozens of unique ways to play
Why This Talisman Comes With A Noose For A Chain:
– Roll-and-move-and-move-exactly-that-much can be tremendously frustrating
– The built-in end-game is tedious and uninteresting; abandon it
– This game can be a giant money pit if you have OCD Collector’s Syndrome
As I’ve said before, I really have a hard time with the roll and move mechanic, but I can see past it because the game deserves to be played, despite it. It’s a rich, fulfilling game that you can play as a race, or as an epic journey, depending on your philosophy. If you’re the kind of person who likes to roam around and collect things, buff your character, and do lots of side quests, you can do that; If you’re the kind of person who wants to win as fast as you can, you can do that too. It’s the huge amount of variety and “open world” flexibility that keeps me playing, and I think it will keep you playing too. I, personally, still like Prophecy better, but only marginally, whereas many of us at the Circus like Talisman better. In any event, you really should try Talisman, because odds are that you’re going to love it, and it has most assuredly earned its keep here.
Learn more about Talisman here:
Note that on that page, there’s a pull down arrow labeled “Expansions” which will give you a full list of all the of the expansions made for this edition:
Finally, if you can’t be bothered to play this on your table, there’s an iOS app for it: