Cardboard Children – Talisman Forever

Hello youse.

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.

SOLID GROUND

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.)

CHRISTMAS

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.

39 Comments

  1. Distec says:

    Talisman’s a pretty fun board game, but I’ve definitely had some ruts in a number of play sessions where it seemed like nobody was going to progress by the time the next work day started. Although I’m attributing some of that slowness to the fact some of my peer group aren’t really cut out for this kind of thing.

    I myself am not much of a board game player, so I was surprised by how much of a liking I took to it. I’d definitely recommend it to anybody with a bit of curiosity/interest in these kinds of games. Just make sure your evening is clear.

    • Baines says:

      The length really works against it when less than halfway through the game, you already know which two or three players have a chance of winning. Everyone else barring insane shifts in luck are out of the running, at best perhaps able to play kingmaker (or breaker), at worst complete non-factors.

      Heck, sometimes you can know less than ten turns into the game that a particular player has already lost.

      I’ve always thought that Talisman should go full into its randomness and possible variation by embracing a full-on modular board design. Something where you could outright replace the center region with a completely different region, where the outer region was mix-and-matchable from multiple pieces, where additions bolted onto the board (as they appear to now do), and where you could outright change the shape of the board with different placements. Where features could be swapped in and out even within the same board section.

      • Haldurson says:

        I sorta like Talisman, and when I’m in the mood, I don’t even mind the randomness of it. But it does have certain huge flaws that can lead to really annoying situations for one or more of the players in it (sometimes even the player who is winning).
        For example:
        1. Certain endings (namely the original one) wind up being boring as hell, as you have no decisions to make, you are just rolling a die. And depending on luck and other factors, that can go on for far too many turns.
        2. By the standard rules, players are not eliminated when they die, but while they may not be completely out of the game, for all intents and purposes, they might be. On the other hand, if you decide to allow people to drop out out of mercy, you end up with the same problem that other elimination board games have, and that’s that you have players who are stuck watching the game for far too long.
        3. Long game lengths are best suited to games that are a lot more involved than Talisman (such as strategy games). You really need something that will absorb all of your attention in order to make a long game tolerable. Because of its randomness, and oftentimes arbitrary cruelty to players, Talisman doesn’t quite make the grade here.

        Talisman is ‘ok’, and I can play it once in a blue moon. But if I’m looking for a game with some randomness to it, I STRONGLY prefer Cosmic Encounter. It’s a better game on every count, particularly because every player can be involved in every turn, because good play can often balance out a bit of bad luck, because its a game that rewards being clever and creative, and players can actually work together a lot more effectively than you can in Talisman. And because of that, it’s self-balancing.

  2. thekelvingreen says:

    I’ve never played Talisman even though it’s been hovering around in the background all my life. Is the Chainsaw Warrior still one of the characters?

  3. RedViv says:

    Warm. That is the perfect word to use. I am looking forward, as always, to spending a day playing Talisman with Ma & Pa & Madame. It’s a good tradition.

  4. frenz0rz says:

    Having recently been playing a ton of Relic but never actually played Talisman proper, is it worth me picking up the latter or am I likely to find it too similar a formula?

    • malkav11 says:

      Relic is a superior base formula with less expansion content. They are very similar, though.

    • Frogshackle says:

      Relic removes MUCH of the “suck” from Talisman but it’s still quite recognizable as the same game structure beneath the surface.

  5. Voodoo says:

    Every time you play Talisman, a kitten dies somewhere :-(
    It’s one of the rare games that induces headache just saying their name. It’s the “Risk” of the 80s
    – not much input on what happens to you
    – the strong gets stronger, the weak gets weaker, unless a stroke of fate changes it (something you could not have prevented)
    – the endgame is waayyy too long.
    There are so many better games if you just want to roll dice in a fantasy setting and have fun…

    The strange thing is that one of my best friends always beg us to play a game of Talisman too, go figure…

    • AngoraFish says:

      1000 times this.

    • mouton says:

      Yeah, it is a random, poorly designed game popular solely because many people played it when they were young. Billion better board games out there.

    • MisterFurious says:

      I tried out the digital version a couple of years ago and it reminded me of Monopoly in all the wrong ways. I can’t even begin to fathom how people can love that game so much. It’s by far one of the most random games I ever played. My six year old niece won one game and we didn’t let her win. She just got lucky.

    • RogueJello says:

      Ditto. Choice in Talisman: Bag of Gold or the Hideous Death?
      Travel Version of Talisman: Roll a D6, whoever rolls highest, wins!

  6. Phantom_Renegade says:

    Every board game post makes me wish an XCOM post will happen:(

  7. pucspifo says:

    I enjoy Talisman, but it really is the Monopoly of the hobbyist table top player. It is one of those games that requires little to no thought, can be brutal to the players and has some serious lag in the middle building up to an often anti-climatic end game.

  8. Humppakummitus says:

    Any recommendations for an alternative? I love the feel of adventure and character progression, but the randomness is too much for me. Same with Relic.
    Mage Knight comes to mind, but that’s a bit too heavy.

    • Ragnar says:

      Munchkin comes closest of the games I’ve played.

      Thunderstone has all those things in a deck building game.

      There’s also Descent and Heroscape as more combat heavy, dungeon crawling options.

      • Rack says:

        Gauntlet of Fools and Welcome to the Dungeon are the ones that are regularly recommended to me, though with boardgame time being hard to come by I haven’t got round to either of them yet.

        Munchkin is generally regarded as “Talisman but faster, though still too slow” so it might be more what you want. Myself I’m not a fan.

      • MisterFurious says:

        Munchkin is too light and also very random. It’s fun the first few times you play it, but once the jokes stop being funny, all that’s left is a pretty shallow game.

        I haven’t played the Pathfinder Adventure card game so I can’t vouch for it. I’ve heard mixed things about it. It looks a little light and repetitive from what I saw, but you might want to check it out.

    • malkav11 says:

      Arkham Horror (and perhaps now by extension Eldritch Horror) was the game that replaced Talisman in my affections. It has the unique character powers, huge range of options and variables in every aspect of setup, and sense of progression that were the big draws of Talisman for me, but with more depth and agency, plus it’s cooperative, which I’ve always preferred. Many people still find it too long and too random, but I feel like there’s a lot more decision-making to be had and significantly more player input into victory.

      Alternatively, I am hearing good things about the third edition of Runebound. Do NOT substitute the first or second editions, which are utter rubbish, but it sounds like third removes the despawning encounters that are one axis of why the earlier editions are terrible, and at least mitigate how awful the stupid movement dice are, which were the other axis of terribleness in previous editions but would be a bit more tolerable without despawning encounters anyway. Grain of salt, though, since I’ve not played third edition yet.

  9. Paxeh says:

    My gaming group (regular D&D sessions, sporadic board game sessions) tried Talisman twice. Both times we just quit 3 hours into the game because everyone was bored and we didn’t feel like progressing somewhere. I’m not, however, going to dish out money for an expansion that fixes the slog of the base game.

    It might have been fun when first released – and I’d even have loved it then and still would love it now – but right now (having played it at 29+ years of age) it just feels like a chore.

    • MisterFurious says:

      Yeah, I think a lot of people that love this game so much played it when they were little kids and have a severe case of Nostalgia Blindness.

  10. Premium User Badge

    CdrJameson says:

    I still play the big T, but we limit it to ‘first one to the Crown of Command wins’.
    Usually by the time someone’s got to the middle the CoC ain’t all that and can be brushed off fairly easily.

  11. Ragnar says:

    I absolutely hated Talisman. It is one of the least fun games I’ve ever played.

    It’s not just the randomness and interminable length that bothered me, it’s the almost complete lack of player input. 99% of the time my only input was “go left or right”, and otherwise the game played itself.

    You could actually play the game solo, flipping coins for all the other players – heads moves right, tails left – and given the randomness I bet one of the coins would win more often than not.

  12. 1Derby says:

    Excellent post. Going to ask some advice from the board game crowd:

    I long for the pen and paper RPG days of my youth and due to marrying a woman with no interest in these things suffer in silence with no way to scratch my fantasy RPG/board game itch.

    First world problems. The struggle is real.

    But… I have a six year old. A six year old who I can kindle a love of all things tabletop and nerdy within… IF I play my cards right! -so to speak. Any recommendations for board games or card games for a six year old?

    Much love in advance for any who weigh in!

    • gunny1993 says:

      A good shout to start with is various “Microgames” these are usually card games that play in 10-20 mins and are cheap (10 gbp is an average price).

      Some that I know are fun to play are “Love Letters” and “Coup” although there’s tonnes of the things, they rely on easy rule, fast paced gameplay and are a great gateway into more complex games n such.

      In fact I bought Love letters for a friend of mine and her 6 and 10 year olds love it.

      From there if you want to kindle some love for Table Top RPG you could go for something like Mice and Mystics or mousegaurd storms and strongholds, these are board games designed for families that use some of the elements of TT RPGs.

      once you’ve got those hooks in trying a narrative rules light system such as dungeon world for a pure TT RPG experience without the boring slog of numbers that DnD is.

    • Frogshackle says:

      Two words (and an ampersand): Mice & Mystics.

      This is a very light tactics board game (age 7 and up but a younger child could play with some parental advice) with a tiny bit of roleplaying that is VERY strong on narrative and theme. The game is a series of linked chapters in a longer story about humans-turned-mice.

      Anyway, look it up at boardgamegeek.com – it’s a winner.

      (Oh! I see that the comment above me mentions Mice & Mystics as well… the motion has been seconded!)

    • Ragnar says:

      I think cooperative games are great at that age, that’s what we played with my daughter, so I would start with Forbidden Island and Castle Panic. On the competitive side, Ticket to Ride (Europe is my favorite), Bohnanza, and Dixit are all wonderful.

      As she gets older, you could get Forbidden Desert and try Heroscape, which is kind of D&D-lite.

      Coup, being a game about bluffing, deception, and lying, is probably way to advanced for a 6 year old.

      • gunny1993 says:

        Clearly you don;t know many 6 year olds if you think they wont take to bluffing, deception, and lying like a fish to water XD

        • Ragnar says:

          That’s true, I only really knew mine, and those were not the skills we wanted to encourage at that age. ;)

          • 1Derby says:

            Thanks to all for the list of games for my young’n.
            Looking forward to some Mice & Mystics on Christmas Day!

    • zipdrive says:

      This depends on what your offspring likes.
      My own 6 year-old son absolutely LOVES board games with cool minis, so he was lured by cool-looking games (Imperial Assault, Castle Ravenloft) and started messing about with them even when the rules are too much for him.
      If your kid likes dragons, get him something with dragons. If he (Is it a “he”?) likes Ninjas, get him something with ninjas (Kung Fu Fighting is a nice, simple option, although it not a looker).
      Talisman can be a nice introduction to the genre, especially if you cut the game short and make it more cooperative (for example, by seeing if one or both of you can get to the inner part by X turns/minutes).
      Also: Dice games! Cool dice are cool, so Zombie Dice or similar.

      And always recommended: Once Upon a Time.

  13. Lord Custard Smingleigh says:

    I hated Talisman for a while for the fact you bounce around the board like a demented lunatic… Until I made a conceptual leap. The board is not a literal space, it’s an unknown, probabilistic space. You’re not roaming around in circles, you’re on a journey. You know the general direction, but you don’t know the way, you don’t know how far it is, and you don’t know what’s between here and there. The board just generates the next step on the journey.

    • Ragnar says:

      My issue is that the board generates too much. It generates how far you go, where you end up, what you encounter. If you encounter a monster, it decides the outcome for you.

      Across 3-4 hours of playing, the only input I had outside of picking left or right was casting a single spell and choosing to upgrade strength or magic. Technically, I could have cast a second spell to try to sabotage the sole player to make it out of the first circle to try to keep her from winning, but I had no desire to extend the boredom for several more hours.

      For me, the only winning move in Talisman is not to play.

    • zipdrive says:

      Even then, it’s still too long. It’s still too repetitive and too random. The inner part of the board is completely luck-driven and horrible.

      • Ragnar says:

        From my experience, every part of the board is entirely luck driven.

        The dice determined that you can visit a town? Great, you’ll visit the town. The dice will then determine what you do in that town, and what the result of that action is.

        The game is playing itself with you as its random number generator.

  14. Greenpegasus says:

    I think those complaining not only completely miss the point of Talisman but also lack an imagination. This game is a beautifully craft sword and sorcery adventure, magical and whimsical. And to those say there are no decision, only left and right blah, blah, blah, you know there is also Fate tokens too, rolled the dice and cannot reach that Sword of Light (awesome if you are of good or neutral alignment, +2 strength in battle and +1 craft in psychic combat) – there are other options and depending on your character and expansions there can be a plethora of choices to make.

    But we wil never convince those that already hate the game, it’s cool to hate Talisman, ask anyone on BBG they will more than likely agree.

    • Greenpegasus says:

      Meant to say with Fate you can reroll that dodgy die roll and possibly get to where you want.

    • Haldurson says:

      “I think those complaining not only completely miss the point of Talisman but also lack an imagination.”
      So the fact that you lack the imagination to understand that someone might have a differing opinion, so you attack that person’s character??? Have we actually sunk that low that people cannot have an honest disagreement?

      The fact is that while there ARE choices in the game, luck plays a much greater role than tactics. And if you want a game that promotes imagination, you should try something like Cosmic Encounter, which also relies a bit on luck, but where clever play and collaboration and CREATIVE use of one’s resources can overcome almost any run of bad luck.

      Furthermore, in Talisman, most of the time you have to sit back and wait for other people to do stuff. Some players may occasionally get a spell that is of some consequence, but too often it’s one of severe unfairness, or on the opposite end, a single tear in an ocean.

      And if you are going to complain about BGG, you’d better back it up with evidence of hundreds of games that are rated higher than Talisman but ought not to be. You are blind to the fact that BGG is not about whether you enjoy a game or not — it’s about all of the better alternatives to that game that may scratch the same itch (assuming it’s a common itch), only do it in ways that are more compelling or more fun. Talisman feels more like a spectator sport where you are along for the ride. Occasionally, you can screw people (in thoroughly obnoxious ways that really are not fun), and sometimes you’ll actually get a choice that is not obvious, nor obnoxious, and can be a piece on the road to victory. But mostly not. That’s why BGG rates it low.