Well, they’ve announced yet another expansion for one of my favourite board games – Talisman. And I want to just talk on Talisman a little bit today and what’s important about games like that – particularly as we’re just round the corner from Christmas. Talisman isn’t the most popular game with board game fans. It’s too “”random”, too “light”, too long. But those who love the game – people like me – really love it. And we want it to be expanded forever. And isn’t it fascinating that it probably can be?
TALISMAN: THE CATACLYSM
With the announcement of The Cataclysm, we see Talisman’s story take a new turn. While the other expansions (and there have been many, very many) add new ways to play, additional boards that fit onto the original board, and even some smaller boards that are overlaid on the main game board, The Cataclysm comes with a whole new board. Yes, this expansion replaces the Talisman board – that beautiful thing, that place that feels like home – with a board that depicts the same land one year after some terrible cataclysm. It’s a post-apocalyptic version of the game’s world, with familiar places shattered and transformed, and the story of the world kicked into a new, dark place.
The Black Knight, that frightening warrior who stands firm in the Middle Region of the board, forcing players to pay him a gold or lose a life – he has now left his post and become a playable character. A board feature has become playable, in just one example of how transformative this new expansion seems to be. Talisman seems to be endlessly adaptable. And that’s because it is a wonderful board game.
Fundamentally, Talisman is a roll-and-move adventure game. It has extremely solid foundations upon which everything else is built. Players take control of one character, roll a die to see how far that character will move that turn, and choose to move either clockwise or anti-clockwise around the map. Spaces are explored, adventure cards are drawn, and then events and enemies are encountered. Combat is simple, and trophies from combat victories can be used to improve your character. Character improvement is essential to move towards the middle of the board, where the most difficult challenges await. The whole point of the game is to reach the very centre of the board, and claim the powerful Crown of Command.
Now, of course, there’s a lot more than that these days. With all the expansions, you’re going to have additional areas of the board to play with. At each corner of the board you’ll find a unique mini-world – The Dungeon, The Highlands, The Woodland and The City. All of these places have their own flavour, but the fundamental rules stay the same – explore, encounter, improve. New stuff is laid on top, with shops to visit in The City, bounties to pick up, faerie spirits to align with in the Woodland, bosses to destroy in the Dungeon. Other mini-expansions allow you to flavour the entire game how you see fit. The Reaper lets you bring Death into the game as a roaming, terrifying agent of chaos. The Blood Moon is the version you’ll play at Halloween, as it turns the board into a real Witching Hour horror-fest and can turn player characters into werewolves. The Frostmarch brings on an endless snow, and an Ice Queen who must be destroyed. The Firelands gives the world an Arabian Nights feel, and scorches the board with flame. And then beyond all this there is the stack of different endings that the game can have – you can replace that middle space with all sorts of stuff from all the expansions, changing the game’s objective completely. One ending can even destroy the winner of the game – an example of that beautiful randomness that so many gamers seem to fear.
And I’m only scratching the surface with the expansions here. There are many more, and they bring so many cards into the game that now you will never play the same game twice. In fact, there will probably be cards that you will never draw in your lifetime. There will be artifacts you never claim, and followers you will never befriend.
The game is vast, rich and glorious.
THE FOREVER GAME
I’ve called Talisman one of my “forever games” many times before. There are games I have loved and lost (given away to friends) and there are games that I love but just might never get the chance to play very often. Talisman is different. Talisman is a game that I will keep forever, play regularly, and I’ll pick up every single expansion that is ever released.
And here’s why – there is a purity to Talisman that makes it a pleasant place to visit. Like reading an old storybook, it’s so easy to flick through. It’s warm. And as new elements are added to it, as new stories are written, the purity of the game’s design allows for a perfect balancing act to be performed. Freshness is introduced, but it all still remains familiar. It all feels right.
Think about how other games are expanded. Often there’s just a box full of “more”. More of everything. Other times an expansion changes some core elements of how the game is played. With Talisman, the expanded content seems to be far more elegant than that. It’s more like a respectful embellishment than anything else. (In fact, the one expansion that is probably the least popular is The Dragon, which does try to alter some crucial gameplay features.)
As we move into Christmas, when we might play board games with our families, I want to recommend Talisman to you again. For a quicker game, you can always lower the requirements to level up – this absolutely works and harms nothing. I guarantee that if you go into Talisman in the right spirit you will have an absolute blast. And then, maybe, you’ll fall in love like I did many years ago.
There are so many stories to tell with this game. I hope, and trust, that people will keep writing them.
NOTE: Early in the New Year I’ll be doing another session report. This time it’ll be Talisman with most of the expansions. So look out for that.