Cardboard Children: Talisman

By Robert Florence on February 4th, 2013 at 8:00 pm.


Definition of talisman
~ noun (plural talismans)

an object, typically an inscribed ring or stone, that is thought to have magic powers and to bring good luck

There are some board games that I consider central to the entire landscape of gaming. Talisman is one of these games. Its story, for indeed it is a story, is built on a struggle with the fates. Dice are integral to this story, and are the reason why many modern gamers argue that the game features “too much luck”. But Talisman is a classic design. A triumph of theme. And too much luck is rarely a problem in Talisman. Too little luck, so hilariously often, is the kicker that makes Talisman really fly.

TALISMAN

Oh, Talisman.

The things I’ve heard them say about you… “Too many dice rolls. Too few decisions. It’s just a roll and move.”

Can’t they see what they’re missing?

There is a land. Hills and plains, ruins and temples, aye. There is a city, and a tavern, and a bridge guarded by a giant sentinel, aye, true.

Talisman’s board is a thing of beauty. It looks like a board game – that’s the first great thing. It has “spaces”, and these spaces are “adjacent”. It looks like a thing of play. The illustration of the board turns it into another world – for me, it’s the Keystone “other world” of fantasy board gaming.

And walking this way are some adventurers. Each one is different. Some are good, some are evil. Some haven’t made up their mind yet. Some can cast spells, some ride horses, some wield axes well. Some serve drinks to other adventurers, and expect a tip. Some like to steal, and some like to seduce.

Talisman’s characters, and their special abilities, make every game different. With every expansion in play, the character count is enormous.

Oh, and there is Death too. The Grim Reaper himself, aye. He walks this land too. If he finds an adventurer, he might just take their life, you’ll see.

The Reaper expansion brought Death to the table. These days I would never play without him. Whenever a player rolls a 1 for their movement, The Grim Reaper activates. You then roll and move him around the board. If he reaches a character, they better hope for a lucky roll. It’s an added bit of tension, and keeps characters on their toes.

And where are these adventurers going? To the Crown of Command. Across the water, past the Black Knight, through the Portal of Power. Or to the Warlock’s Cave first, to quest for a Talisman. And then into the Inner Region, to Dice with Death. Past that, aye, if lucky, aye, to face the Werewolves in their Den. All the way to the centre of the world where… well, we’ll just have to wait and see. Perhaps your prize will be everything. Or nothing.

Talisman is all about levelling up your character so that he or she can travel towards the centre of the board. Killed monsters can be traded in for increases to a character’s Strength or Craft stats. And these stats will need to climb if a player has any chance of reaching the Crown of Command. The way ahead is punishingly hard. And forget about even nearing the Crown of Command without a Talisman. Somewhere, you will have to find a Talisman.

But wait. More. What is this, opening up beyond the crags? An entire mountain range, crawling with enemies? The Eagle King, high on his throne, daring challengers to approach? Aye, for sure.

The Highlands expansion is one of the “corner” expansions that transform Talisman into a thing of giant, epic scope. It’s a whole new area, full of new encounters, and new ways to improve your character. There you might find a valuable relic, such as a winged creature that allows you to teleport to spaces of your choice whenever you roll a double – an awesome power in a game like Talisman.

And have you heard tell of the Dungeon? We know little about it, save that it is full of treasure and no-one has ever come out alive.

At the opposite corner, the Dungeon expansion allows players to take their character into a classic fantasy dungeon. The battles are difficult, the monsters strong, but the treasure so tempting. Watching an opponent travel through the dungeon is a delight. Much of Talisman is wishing bad luck on your friends, and there is a healthy share of bad luck in the Dungeon.

But there is the City. And there you can shop to your heart’s content. You need better weapons or armour, aye? Bring your coin. You need a warhorse? A cart to carry all your magical objects? Bring your coin. You want a pet to keep you company on your travels? Bring your coin. And maybe you can make some coin too, if you’re the killing kind.

The City is the latest expansion for Talisman. It’s the expansion that finally inspired me to write this piece, because it makes Talisman feel like a completely fleshed out world. The City, and I can think of no higher praise than this, feels like the Fighting Fantasy book “City of Thieves”. It is a place of glamour, danger and excitement. Last night in the City, a strongman challenged me to a wager. I lost the fight and lost my coin. I befriended a street urchin who allowed me to travel faster through the streets. A gremlin attached itself to me, making all my magical objects temperamental and easy to break. I then took a job cleaning up horseshit for a few coins, while my opponents adventured and grew stronger.

Aye, you need fortune to be your friend in this world, for sure. But you’re no slave to it. You can bend the fates to your will. Don’t let anybody tell you no different. You can bend the fates to your will, if you keep your wits about you.

The City gives you more control as you “tool up” your character for the adventure ahead. It’s the final answer to that weak criticism that Talisman “plays itself”. It never did, and it surely doesn’t now. You can build your character in the city. You’re weak in physical combat? Go buy a fighting wolf from the menagerie, and hit the plains and fields with new confidence. Oh, and yeah. This is pretty cool. You can check Wanted Posters at the city gates and become a Bounty Hunter. Seriously. I mean… seriously.

And this world will never be the same twice neither. Every step you take, aye, something new. Something different. Prepared are you, aye? You might think so. But you’d be wrong. And that’s saying nothing about the Frostmarch, aye. Or the night of the Blood Moon. Myth and legend, no. All true. Aye, all true.

When you land on a space in Talisman, you have to draw Adventure Cards. And there are hundreds of them on the main board alone. Each expansion area has its own giant deck of cards. Within these decks you’ll find Enemies, Events, Followers, Strangers. Every game will play out differently. Some cards you might never see. Some cards, some terrible cards, will have you roaring with laughter at how often you see them.

A full Talisman, with all expansions, is a frightening sight. It is, simply put, a whole world of possibilities. And then there are the small expansions too… The Frostmarch introduces Adventure Cards that bring on the snow and frost, and task the characters with conquering an Ice Queen. The Blood Moon introduces a Day/Night cycle, a roaming werewolf, and a horror themed Adventure Deck. Oh, and the big Dragon expansion changes the game entirely. I have it, but haven’t played it yet. I love THIS world too much.

So much stuff. So much glorious stuff!

But the stories, oh, the stories. Aye. Stories like you wouldn’t believe. This world is full of magical moments, memories, never to be forgotten.

Yes. The stories, oh, the stories. Stories like you wouldn’t believe.

Last night, an adventurer died five minutes into our game. The Sage, travelling through the relative peace of the Outer Region, had two encounters.

An unlikely combination. And a true killer, if the dice are not on your side. How to respond? Laughter, of course. Stupid Sage. One and done.

For me, last night, one moment summed up the magic of Talisman. My Ghoul had been captured by the City Guard and sent to Jail. Here you can see me, planning my escape.


In jail, you can pay coins to bribe the guard, and add your die roll to the coin. You need a high roll to escape to the Town Square. Now, I only had one coin. But I did have a magical purse that always spat out a coin for me. So, I spent a coin and made my escape roll. I failed and lost a life point. Next turn, I activated my magical purse to get another coin. But my Gremlin was still attached to me. I rolled to see if my purse would work. It didn’t. Thanks Gremlin. Made my escape roll, with no bonus this time. Failed, lost a life point. It was now looking like I would die in prison, because of that Gremlin. My next turn would be vital.

Again – my purse failed to work. Bastard Gremlin! But my roll was a good one. I was free! Into the Town Square. Now, in the Town Square, instead of drawing a card, you move a card already in play from another area of the City to the Town Square space. Only one card was in play. The City Guards again! Everyone laughed. The guards came, I fought, I failed…

And went back to jail. God, I love this game.

Aye, expensive to travel here it is. But magic never comes cheap.

Talisman is the soul of my board game collection. I have every expansion. Believe me, if this game grabs you, you will want every piece of it in your arms. But every expansion I’ve used improves the game. The core of it stays the same – unpredictable adventure – but the expansions introduce so much variety that you just keep wanting to go back for more. And with every expansion there are alternate endings to the game, some of them deliciously cruel. I love – love – love this game. It’s the game I want to adapt into a TV show one day. It’s in my blood.

This isn’t a game, in truth. It’s a place. It’s the heartland for people like us.

For those who’ve never been? It’s time to grab your dice and set out on your journey.

For those who have been there before? It’s time to come back home to Talisman.

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37 Comments »

  1. Network Crayon says:

    It’s a classic. A wonky unperfect classic. Randomised Fantasy monoploy. I love it dearly.

  2. Asurmen says:

    I have a love/hate relationship with Talisman. Very few of my groups games are close nail biting pvp finishes on the crown. It’s always one person running away with it, with one person never quite catching up, and the rest having a dull boring game. Get a bit of power, level some more in the Dungeon, deafeat boss dude by enough to teleport to the inner region, and take the item that you can sacrifice to teleport again. Instantly on the Crown of Command.

    • Hallgrim says:

      Same here… I want to love it, but instead I hate it.

      Despite the promise, it is simply intolerable to play a two (or three, or four) hour game that is really only a ‘game’ for a few people.. Dying in the first five minutes is a laugh, but dying even 30 minutes in is a terrible handicap, and it takes SO. FUCKING. LONG. to lose this game when you are hopelessly behind.

      My worst observation of this game is that I rarely see pvp after the opening salvos, because everyone is terrified of prolonging the session any further.

    • mouton says:

      It was fun when I was ten, but seriously, right now I would only play it as a foundation of various substance abuse.

      • Asurmen says:

        Drinking game based around Talisman could be fun. Whenever the Dark Cultist becomes more overpowered, drink everything in the house.

  3. Ninja Foodstuff says:

    goodness I loved this game in my teens. I must have had every set. I was very disappointed to hunt around in the attic last year and discover I no longer had it.

    Also it’s a shame that the maddest expansion, timescape, doesn’t seem to exist any more. There was something rather wonderful in having a cyborg fight a dragon.

  4. RedViv says:

    Talisman was the father-daughter bonding game. I entered the amazing world of RP through this, and it has thus held a very special place in my heart and mind, ever since that first adventure in the very weird spring of 1986.
    Ma later made tiny figurines of minstrel and wizard and sorceress and all of them, because the paper did wear out after a while.

    Nostalgia ho!

  5. Cardinal says:

    This felt like the soul of Games Workshop to me, before the more recognisable franchises were all-consuming. Comparing it to the Fighting Fantasy books is spot on for some reason, probably because I associate them both with the surreal John Blanche art style.

  6. Jack-Dandy says:

    The thing that always bothered me about these games was how it had a very, very small chance of beating it.

    Then again, I only played the early 1st edition that they imported to my country. Maybe the later editions are better in that regard?

  7. Chris D says:

    This description is at once entirely familiar and utterly strange. I too have every expansion for Talisman, now crammed into a single box after too many changes of address. I know the Dungeon and the City intimately but not these Highlands of which you speak. And how can you forget the Timescape? A trans-dimensional excuse to smuggle in characters from 40K? My Talisman is the 2nd edition, the one true edition and I will fight anyone who says otherwise.

    As with any love affair that goes on too long I have become intimately acquainted with all it’s flaws. Sadly the playing itself accusation has more than a little truth to it. But that can also be a strength. I spent more afternoons than I care to admit to laying out the cards and rolling dice, watching the stories unfold. Whatever its shortcomings in design it more than makes up for in atmosphere. Talisman isn’t a rigorous strategic test, it’s really a machine for generating stories and there may be games I admire more but there are none that hold quite the same place in my heart.

    Ok maybe we can agree to disagree on the one true edition thing.

  8. Spacewalk says:

    Might be better with space marines?

      • iucounu says:

        Ah, Timescape. Don’t think it really worked, though, except for the extra characters.

    • Knufinke says:

      I’ve heard Fantasy Flight publishes a new Warhammer 40K themed version of Talisman called Relic this year.

      • malkav11 says:

        Can’t vouch for publishing schedule, but Relic is in the works, it strongly resembles 40K Talisman, and the playtest build I played a year or two back before it was announced was awesome and a significant improvement over Talisman, which is a game I love dearly.

  9. MOKKA says:

    Can anyone give me a rough estimate on how much money I need to spend to get this game with all its expansions?

    • RedViv says:

      Roughly 200 quid, last I checked. Still the cheapest GW product to get into!

  10. nli10 says:

    When exploring Toys R Us as a child this was the one game that eluded me. It was out of my price range and not something anyone would think to buy me as it was both too similar to things I already had and didn’t have D&D on the cover. I got many other lesser games but never picked this up, but every time I went in the store I’d go over and pick it up and read the box – always convinced it was the exact same slightly damaged copy and always hoping it’d be reduced so I could afford it (or convince a parent it wasn’t going to gather dust like all the other games).

    The new version intrigued me and I did ask about it a few times in the games store, but they talked me out of it with the whole ‘random & too long’ thing and ushered me towards other pursuits. I guess that if I could resist the temptation to see just how fantastic it was when I was 8, then resisting in my 30s should be easier, but maybe I’ll skip a few MTG cards, or an xbox game one day and see what I’ve been missing.

    People seem to prefer Small World these days – another one I’ve never tried.

  11. Saul says:

    I have a couple of very battered copies of the second edition, along with most of the expansions. Also, the fourth edition (the non-revised Black Industries version – how annoying was it that they revised it right after it came out? I got the Upgrade Pack”, but none of it fits in the box, so haven’t ended up using it).

    I love Talisman, but rarely play it these days, as it does tend to end in frustration.

  12. Duke of Chutney says:

    arrrh the city is back now we just need timescape, but wait FFG are making it in to its own game.

    I like talisman, despite its sometimes long running. The length can often be due to the players lack of urgency though. As soon as you get a talisman, even if your character sucks, run for the crown, it galvanises things.

    The main things talisman have got going for it are; simplicity of rules, shear volume of variety in terms of encounter cards, characters and locations.

    Its a good social glue game.

    And this is a very engaging review Rab

  13. greg_ritter says:

    Oh man, you do know how to peak my interest, mister Florence.
    First Arkham, then Netrunner, then X-Wing, and now this.
    And every time, every goddamn time I think to myself “By God, I must have it!”.
    Then it is a tour to EBay and than two or three weeks of nail-biting wait, thinking “Oh God, those hacks from the Post Office, they could’ve lost it!” and indeed, those hacks are losing things all the time, and it is cold and dark in Moscow, and waiting is unbearable, and thoughts of torching Post Offices are coming to my head every waking moment of those two or three weeks, and finally, FINALLY the game is here, and I open it, and I touch those cards or models with love and care, and I think of those great, riveting stories, that will unfold during the game, and I know that someday soon I will need add-ons, and those feelings of hatred and fear toward the Post Office are back, just for a second, but I chase them out of my head, because I won’t need add-ons for some time, not today, not now….

    And then those bastards that I call my friends don’t show up on a weekend.

  14. Gap Gen says:

    So I played Talisman once, and had a lot of fun. Observation: if you’re a boring play-to-win gamer, then clearly you will hate it, and this is OK, because I hate you. But if you’re in it to metagame it, it’s amazing. I played a thief, and amassed a huge wagon train of stolen goods that everyone else tried to destroy by murdering my donkeys. Someone else was an evil wizard, and played entirely according to the metric “what is the funniest thing I can do right now?” Two of the weaker players just turned each other into frogs the whole evening. So yes, it’s entirely broken, but who cares.

    • Advanced Assault Hippo says:

      Actually, there are plenty of us who can do both – and approach both styles in both ways when required.

      If I’m playing a play-to-win game then I’ll play to win. If I’m playing a more randomised game then I’ll just chill out and do bonkers stuff.

  15. mineshaft says:

    OT:

    Kingdom Builder is great fun, Donald X Vaccarino strikes again. I played last night and had a ball (we broke some rules, it turns out today, but ok). It’s a very replayable thing where you have a few terrain boards and a few goals to score victory points and a few special moves and houses to play down in a certain way (in particular, if you can play contiguous to your existing houses, then you must).

    The challenge is that everyone is trying to put down their houses in the same way (“next to a mountain”; “in a line from a castle to a town”) and you start cutting each other off like roads in Catan. Or you may be stuck playing worthless blobs in a large contiguous space while your opponents fulfill the goals more easily.

    Obvious why they picked it for Spiel Des Jahres. Simple rules, but it’s a deep game, lots of fun.

  16. superflat says:

    I really loved this game, probably my favourite board game from childhood.

  17. malkav11 says:

    I have fond memories of second edition, as wildly unbalanced and broken as it often was (the Dragons expansion put so many strength 6+ dragons into the encounter deck that they were more common than any other type of encounter). One of the fellows I regularly played with at our local boardgaming nights, Jon Goodenough, made a whole fan made expansion (complete with printed board) for a Realms of Chaos expansion based on material from both Warhammer and Warhammer 40K’s books about Chaos, which could reward Chaos Gifts that mutated your character in strange and intermittently beneficial ways, and had a mechanic where you could pledge your service to one of the Chaos Gods and become a Knight or eventually Daemon Prince of that god. Becoming the latter meant you could then hunt down and kill the other players to win. Games Workshop cease-and-desisted him from making it available outside our gaming group, but we had some good times with it.

    When Fantasy Flight went on to acquire the Games Workshop license, he was hired as the lead developer on the current edition of Talisman and worked on several of the expansions that Rab mentions. Funnily enough, I never really got to play much of his edition of the game, but I was listed in the playtesting credits for the main release and at least a couple of the expansions because I had played so much second edition with him. He also brought Relic by to playtest before it had even been announced, which was neat.

    These days he’s moved on to working with…I think, Atlas Games… but what a thrill that must have been for him.

  18. Bweahns says:

    I got a copy of second edition as a kid some 20 years ago for $20. Still play it today when I get the chance. In later years my friend and I would always remove a lot of the more powerful items from the deck to make things a bit more challenging.
    It’s also a lot more friendly to newer gamers than a Nethack simulation like DungeonQuest which in it’s own way may be my favourite boardgame as I love every game ending in ignominious death in a revolving room or such.

  19. Beefeater1980 says:

    That was a beautiful review Rab. Thanks.

  20. nemryn says:

    The first game of Talisman I played, we had an expansion that replaced the Crown with a minideck of different possible fates. After an hour or two of play, my brother had finally amassed enough loot to make it to the center of the board. He moved onto the Crown space, drew his fate from the minideck– and it was the Black Hole, which super-permakilled his character and destroyed all his stuff. We argued for a bit about whether that meant he had to stop playing, or could he roll up a new character; and then we put the game away and did something else instead.

  21. MadTinkerer says:

    I had a copy of Talisman 1st Edition. It, along with my Magic 4th & 5th Edition cards and various early expansions, Allansia (but thankfully not Dungeoneer and Blacksand), the second edition of the Dwarf Army Book, half of the Sorcery! series and almost all of my Lone Wolf books were all lost in The Awful Basement Flood. The rest of the FF collection, most of a set of Warhammer Quest and Necromunda, the complete set of Dragon Warriors books, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 1st edition each had near-misses, but survived! (As for my Dwarfs and Space Marines, Citadel Miniatures fear no water!)

    Eventually I’ll invest in the latest Talisman edition, but I still miss the original.

  22. Edgar the Peaceful says:

    For me, Talisman is bound to Gary Chalk’s artwork. Not sure I’d enjoy it so much without it:
    http://www.talismanisland.com/tour_1en_box_tal.jpg

  23. meepmeep says:

    This was a game that truly suffered from the Monopoly Issue: 1 hour to decide who is going to win, another 3 hours for them to do so.

    • malkav11 says:

      Not in my experience. I mean, we’ve never played it to win particularly because it’s about the play experience, not victory, but once someone started to move in the direction of the Crown of Command, everyone who had the slightest chance to stop them would try, and sometimes succeed.

  24. Kefren says:

    This is the one I play: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_2TCYQxSUqGQ/Sr-4Vj6xH3I/AAAAAAAADJ8/a9JfJyLXvsY/s400/Talisman_Board.jpg
    I prefer the artwork to the newer editions, though don’t play with the expansions any more (I had all of them).

  25. zbmott says:

    Twelve ayes, zero nays, the motion is carried!

  26. distantlurker says:

    10.

    That’s how old I was. Just 10. A complete innocent.

    Somebody brought a copy of Talisman into school, it was my first taste of RPG’s and I was hooked from the very first second.

    From there it was WFRP at lunch times, Alternate Reality and Bard’s Tale on the home 8-bit; and now, now I spend 40+ hours a week in MMO’s and have 3 figure hour totals in games like Skyrim and Mass Effect.

    **** you Talisman! **** you very much! :P