Have you played… Talisman?

Have You Played? is an endless stream of game retrospectives. One a day, every day, perhaps for all time.

Talisman, in either boardgame or videogame form, is a stupid game. It might even be a fundamentally broken game. Man, I love it. And I hate it. But also, I love it.

Talisman’s had a couple of recent PC appearances, first as a straight (too straight, really) digital adaptation and then as as a Warhammer 40K Horus Heresy-themed remix. The concept in either case is essentially competitive, high-speed Dungeons & Dragons, shorn of the storytelling and distilled into “and you run into a room and there’s a monster and/or treasure”. Only a bunch of other people are doing this not with you, but instead in a sort of passive-aggressive arms race against you.

There might be a few early or mid-game scuffles, but in the main no-one really interacts until one player stumbles, through a combination of blind stubbornness and blind luck, into the tile in the centre then rains hell on everyone else.

It’s conceptually terrible in so many ways, but where it springs to life is when its notorious imbalance – some characters are simply better than others, while a certain degree of luck in rolls or draw can heavily skew things in one player’s favour from early on – really comes to the fore. Then you get every other player working together to try and take down the pack leader, and it all becomes a game of asthmatic cats and lethal mouse.

Or, alternatively, the mouse decides to become a total dick and roams around slaughtering everyone else for kicks, before proceeding onward to a climactic slaughter.

Only that doesn’t work out, because the perils faced on the innermost tier of the board are so hilariously amped-up that the pack leader ends up getting slaughtered just a square or from victory.

It’s a mess! It’s a collapsing trifle of chance and imbalance, but by some miracle it works. It’s impossible not to become invested in your character’s gradual acquisition of upgrades, to hoot in delight when they land something great or suddenly have a huge span of life tokens, or to howl in rage when a treasured weapon or follower is lost, particularly if it’s to a rival player.

It’s just a friggin’ bearpit, is Talisman, and it looks wretched next to the many oh-so-elegant turn-based or card-base alternatives in both the worlds of physical and digital. But it’s also got the fun and fury and shame of a riotous night out that ends up with everyone ill, skint and embarrassed. Two weeks later, they happily do it all again.

20 Comments

  1. Gothnak says:

    I borrowed Talisman off a schoolmate in the 80’s and loved it, and in the late 90’s it is what made me check out BoardgameGeek to find a copy. 20 years later, i have over 100 boardgames (And have owned over 500, i trade a lot) so thanks Talisman… Thalisman.

    However, the game itself is random and rubbish :).

    • AngoraFish says:

      I played it when the boardgame was first released, it was bad. I played it again on the PC and it’s still bad.

      The game is tedious roll and move rubbish with barely more strategy than Snakes and Ladders while dragging on longer than Monopoly.

      I genuinely can’t imagine what others see in this game, other than perhaps where alcohol is involved.

      • Someoldguy says:

        This is one of those games that has a time and a place. Like the absurd Nuclear War, it’s a lot better as a board game with friends who don’t want to play a serious game but know how boring most of the family “classics” really are. With a bunch of friends and some alcohol it’s a great time waster that often generates a lot of laughs. I’d never think for one minute of playing it as a computer game against AI opponents. That’s stripped out the best part of it before you even roll the first dice.

        • HopeHubris says:

          The thing is, Talisman is rubbish in the exact same ways as the ‘Classics’, there are so, so many better, non-serious, games to play with friends

          • malkav11 says:

            Well sure, it’s bad because it’s roll and move, there are few meaningful choices, and a lot of things rely on random dierolls. But it’s better – or at least, more interesting – than your Monopolies or whatever because there are characters with unique special abilities, and you get to loot stuff and (kinda) level up.

          • April March says:

            I now kind of want to create characters for Monopoly with special abilities. Even though one of the infinite variant Monopoly sets must already have it…

        • AngoraFish says:

          Well, Nuclear War, on the other hand, is the greatest game of all time.

          And, further, I can play 100 games of Nuclear War in the time it takes to play a single game of Talisman.

  2. RobbieTrout says:

    Love Talisman (the board game)! Great fun for a mixed group, as it’s easy for everybody to understand the basics, and things happen so fast that it’s guaranteed to be entertaining. Lots of action, lots of reversals of fortune, and just enough ability to do the dirty on opponents.

    My husband has never been very keen on games, but he got hooked on Talisman “because it’s so greedy”. He loved nothing better than trying to amass all the gold and goodies. We ended up buying every expansion pack available, and struggling for space to spread out all the expansion boards for our weekly session. I still have the whole set.

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      Waltorious says:

      I’d like to add that Talisman is a great game to play with younger kids too. The rules are simple and the luck-based events can be exciting without them having to grasp complicated strategies. And it can be a lengthy adventure, which is in contrast to many quick-playing games aimed at kids.

      I like playing games with more strategy and tighter design when I play with friends, but Talisman is often the pick if there are kids who want to play.

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    Aerothorn says:

    Fantasy Flight’s (now forever out of print) Relic does a game job of tightening the mechanics of Talisman and giving players more actual choices while retaining all the goofy thematic madness (with, of course, Warhammer 40k theming on top).

    • Scurra says:

      Yeah, I have spent a decade or so now trying to design a board game that “feels” like Talisman but only takes an hour – it’s really, really hard. Relic was a pretty decent stab but the theming didn’t work for me (although it certainly works as a W40k game.)

  4. Vacuity729 says:

    I’ve played the boardgame a bit, played the computer game adaptation very briefly, and played the Horus Heresy adaptation quite a lot.
    I understand why some people really don’t like it: it’s perfectly possible for someone to catapult into an unassailable lead, or just get kicked to the kerb through sheer poor fortune; the characters just aren’t balanced, but there are so many of them, and the game mechanics tend toward mostly avoiding or ignoring other players until there’s a collective decision to mob the leader before it’s too late.
    And yet somehow, it’s really good fun (at least most of the time).
    I really like the Horus Heresy adaptation, and the loose teams in that game make a welcome change; encouraging you to take opportunities to trouble the opposing team’s players a bit more seriously; you don’t have to be the winner, you just have to make sure those two players *don’t* win. Still, only being able to have four players really limits the feeling of a real team conflict.

    Edit: Wrong “curb”

  5. CdrJameson says:

    Talisman’s great – as long as you see it as a kind of amped-up Snakes and Ladders.
    It’s also a very Tao game. If you go with the flow you’ll have a much better experience than trying to force what’s happening.
    Few things are more frustrating than having to land on a particular, exact location to do something. You’ll be there forever. You have to develop a very flexible and adaptive strategy, and that really irks some people.

    • RedViv says:

      It also gets far better when you handle it like a very light RPG. Just be your characters.
      A very fun and pleasant introduction to the concept, I think.

  6. andregurov says:

    Is it entirely coincidental that I received an email this morning telling me of Talisman Lite (free to play) on IOS?

  7. hfm says:

    I really like this game, it’s Warhammer themed brethren Horus Heresy is also pretty good. I wish the Obsidian would start working on Mummy’s Mask for the PACG digital version though.

    Also.. since Fantasy Flight Interactive is working on the LoTR LCG, hopefully we’ll see ALL THE THINGS from FFI. Maybe starting with Arkham Horror LCG or Eldritch Horror board game adaptation. One can wish.. but I’m pretty sure they’ll probably do Android : Netrunner after LoTR.

    Oh P.S. My favorite way to play Talisman is to just toss random characters in the mix and see what happens… It’s more fun that way. Same with Elder Sign really, except with Elder Sign certain chars are really WAY better at beating certain elder gods. You need someone with massive sanity go up against Cthulhu.. You can solo Cthulhu with a high sanity char and some really good planning (and luck).

  8. malkav11 says:

    This is pretty much spot on. Talisman is an objectively rubbish design that still scratches the basic loot-and-grind compulsion loop, with characters offering those sweet sweet asymmetric powers in a way that keeps the experience fresh for far longer than it ought to be. I probably wouldn’t recommend it at this point because there are a lot of better games that scratch that itch, including 40K themed spinoff Relic (which is still basically Talisman, but it’s at least better Talisman), as mentioned above. But god did I play a lot of it back in the 90s and early 00s, to the point where, because I played a lot of those sessions with the guy who went on to head Fantasy Flight’s edition of the game when they signed their now-defunct deal with Games Workshop, I was credited with playtesting their edition despite not doing so in any formal sense. (I actually did get to playtest Relic before it was announced, though, which was a treat.)

  9. Stargazer86 says:

    I got the digital version somehow, I can’t remember whether it was free or whether I paid for it, but either way I just can’t stand it. Perhaps it’s because I play against the AI since none of my friends own it, but it’s just a trash pit of a game. The imbalance, the RNG dice rolls, the teeth grinding frustration… it’s just definitely not for me.

  10. NHmetalhead says:

    I haven’t played the cardboard version of this, although back when I was highly active on BoardGameGeek, I recall it being mentioned often as one of those ‘holy grail’-type games, due to its out-of-print status at the time.

    I did pick up a copy on Steam many years ago, but I’ve barely touched it. According to Steam, I last played it in December 2014. I somehow occasionally get free copies of it added to my inventory, so if anyone here wants one, message me on Steam (nhmetalhead).

    Cheers.

    P.S. off-topic: I miss Unknown Pleasures. I’ve missed it the past 3 Fridays. I hope it hasn’t permanently disappeared. :(

  11. 9squirrels says:

    Pretty much every game of Talisman I ever played degenerated into a grudge Match of players chasing each other around the outer ring of the board trying to kill each other and steal their stuff. Good times. ;-)
    I only once saw someone make a run for the middle and get the Crown of Command. It was kind of anti-climactic really.