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Cardboard Children: Talisman

The Heartland

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.


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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About the Author

Robert Florence