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.