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Wot I Think - Talisman: Prologue

Chapel or Graveyard?

Talisman: Prologue, out now, is Nomad Games' singleplayer-only adaptation of the long-running multiplayer-only boardgame that can be loosely described as a high-speed, competitive fantasy RPG. You pick a character, you 'explore' the board picking up loot, upgrading stats and fighting monsters, and you strive to defeat or delay your opponents as they do similar. Here, there are no opponents. How does that work, then? I combine my strength and craft (for a total of 3) to find out.

I should warn you that this piece is probably going to come across as negative. That's not really the case - it's more frustration. Prologue makes me feel as though I can see something I really want - for instance, a kitten, a pint with David Bowie or a Beomaster 8000 - but there are iron bars in front it. I can reach through and stroke it (the David Bowie reference probably gets confused/disturbing now) but I can't actually have it. I want an electronic version of Talisman that I can either play remotely or, far more importantly, on a laptop or boo-hiss tablet in the pub with friends. If Talisman the boardgame is raucous house party, Talisman: Prologue is the quiet pint at home alone. That's very nice and all, but it's a tiny fraction of the known experience.

(I'm making a lot of drinking analogies here, aren't I? This probably speaks to just how heavily associated playing Talisman is to boozing, in my experience. So it's not just that I'm a lush).

The clue's in the second word of the name. A prologue it indeed is, as there's no multiplayer or AI to strive against, so instead the entire game is a sort of extended tutorial for how to play this classic, notoriously and agreeably unbalanced game of boards, presented as a series of semi-scripted challenges.

The thing is, Prologue recreates Talisman well. Maybe even a little too well, both in terms of being a straight-up digitisation of the cards, board and playing pieces and because it leaves the game's myriad balance issues essentially unaddressed. (Briefly, these are that the bulk of the game hinges on the roll of a die rather than true strategy, some characters are sorely over-powered and the challenges on the game's inner-most tiers carry extreme penalties). This creates brand new problems for a solo game.

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Foremost of these is the fact that all competition is removed - no-one will get worried and try and hunt you down if you're doing well, or indeed if you look vulnerable, no-one will try and steal your gear if it has to be set down for any reason and there's no joy in watching others' suffering if you play a massive arsehole of a card. The game's most awful punishments, meanwhile, are mere delays - getting turned into a Toad for three turns is pretty much the most feared thing in Talisman, as you're left weak, slow and slimy and have to drop all your gear for anyone else to pick up. Here, you just hop back and forth for three turns, pick your stuff back up then carry on.

I'm very wary that this whole piece is going to play out as point-missing, bloody-minded 'SINGLEPLAYER GAME DOESN'T HAVE MULTIPLAYER MODE WAAAAH' but honestly, the issue is that Talisman just doesn't quite work as a solo affair. Not as it is, at least - more profound change is needed, but this seems far too cautious. Talisman's fireball-throwing endgame, ridiculous and cruel as it may be, specifically revolves around defeating others, but that can't be an option here. Talisman's ending has always been as ropey as a Scunthorpe stand-up, which is why there've been official expansions to address it, but Prologue's approach is not to replace it with a single-player specific alteration but remove it entirely. Its lock the player out of the board's climactic Crown of Command square to boot. This happens because the Talisman card, necessary for access to the crown and its fatal fireball-lobbing, isn't in the game at all.

Talisman doesn't have any talismans.

Edit - oh, it does, in a sort of free-play, get-to-the-middle mode unlocked if you beat every quest with every character. I had just one quest for one character left to go, without a whiff of a Talisman, at the point I decided to finally write this. Typical!

Which renders at least one word of the title a little inaccurate. So, again, let's focus on that useful subtitle. This does throughout feel like mere prologue, an introduction to a full experience that never arrives. Each of Talisman's core classes are playable and a have series of increasingly but never very difficult quests. Some of these are ingenious, at least within the confines of the game's rules, but many essentially involve grinding around the board until you chance upon the required card. There's very little risk of actual failure unless you're an idiot (hell, I'm pretty idiotic and I didn't get even one of my characters killed), though you will get a higher star rating if you complete quests more quickly. This star rating can't be shared anywhere and doesn't unlock anything so I can't say there's any extra thrill to completing a quest in 15 turns rather than 50.

Prologue is a pleasant enough timesink and it successfully those timeless hooks of statistical hunger inside one's brain, but completing individual quests and complete questlines alike is simply not satisfying, as thoughtful as they may individually be. The game suddenly fades to black and you're back at a menu screen. In fairness, new classes are unlocked as you play the first quest of each available class, but this doesn't take long and involves just the most simple challenges.

What the game does do well is the presentation of information. While it's pretty simple as non-family boardgames go there's a lot to keep track of at once and Prologue is highly efficient at tucking this into corners of the screen, cleanly showing what core stats are and what bonuses to them are and generally leaving the bulk of the screen dedicated to the board rather than the piles of cards and tokens its source material requires. It's tidied up a messy game enormously, and is the biggest step the game takes in terms of true adaptation rather than simple digitisation. Shame it's mouse-only though - the clicking can become fatiguing and I'd love to speed things up with a bit of cursor key or Enter action. [Edit 2 - there are some keyboard shortcuts after all, though they're not ones I'd have intuited]. The move to a no-disputes videogame does means some nagging rule vagaries are also ironed out, plus Prologue at least presents an image to represent those enemies which formerly were just lines of text - e.g. the Sentinel who guards the road from the outer to centre board.

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On top of that, a slightly deeper level of strategy than the all-out carnage of the boardgame necessarily allows makes itself known within the quests. If, for instance, you're doing the late Monk challenge that requires you to spend all your Fate points (Fate tokens get you a free re-roll of any die) then replenish them, you can specifically target visiting the Village Mystic and trying to roll a 1 so that you're turned from good to evil and thus qualify to resupply Fate at the nearby graveyard. If that sounds confusing, good. That's because it's the kind of thing you hit upon only once you know the game well, and Prologue will indeed teach you that. It's never been a game that requires particular mastery because it's so heavily chance-based, but remembering what's what is certainly helpful if you are ever invited to a drunken session with chums.

A shame it went so completely for straightforward images of cards, boards and unpainted character playing pieces, though. The faithfulness is appreciated to some degree, but there was a chance to really tart up what's an oddly plain boardgame in its current edition. I don't imagine the purists (if indeed there are any about Talisman's unpretty 4th edition) would have been too irked by whizzbang particle effects, animations or 3D models rather than photographs of grey, porridge-faced miniatures. I probably wouldn't be saying similar had this been the apparently forthcoming multiplayer version of the game, but Prologue feels a bit too much like great sacrifice without any improvements to ease the suffering.

For all that, it's cheap. Cheap enough, probably, and I'd certainly expect any multiplayer version to cost a bit more. I played through all the characters' quests, which probably took about six hours, and if I wanted I could go back and try to three-star everything. I can't help but feel teased though, even while knowing full-well, from the very start, that this is an offline, solo Talisman. If it had been a looser adaption that mightn't have been the case, but having a technically very well put-together, slick and ostensibly complete version of Talisman before me and not being able to use it for its originally intended purpose is like someone giving me a sports car without the keys.

I wouldn't be terribly surprised if Prologue exists to help fund the already-promised full, multiplayer version, and for that reason I do kind of want it to succeed because I want that game. This doesn't stop me from feeling deflated by it - it has the systems of Talisman, but none of the carnage, none of the in-fighting, and even none of the brutality, as with time the only enemy and not a fearsome one at that, you can just grind your way out of most situations. It's smart with its interface and it is Talisman on the PC - but right now it's only Talisman's cold, hard brain and not its wild, mad heart.

Talisman Prologue is out now for £6, and also has a free demo.

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