Talisman. Talisman. Talisman.
So, apparently I’m a repository for people’s unwanted goods. Recently, this included a digital copy of the 1983 cult classic board game, Talisman. What, you’ve never heard of Talisman? How can you call yourself a child of the eighties–the yuppie years!–and not know what the cultural cornerstone is? For shame, I tell you. For shame!
Alright, I had no idea what the damn thing was before Derek discovered he had an extra copy in his inventory and threw it at me. The game languished in our backlogs until we discovered we were depressingly short on multiplayer games to spend our meager breaks in idle distraction. Of course, Derek has the deluxe version with all the bells and whistles and pay to win mechanics while I have the poor man’s “stop whining and give us more money” version. Both of us were surprised to discover the game is old, and we drew this realization long before looking for its history on the Internet.
When you download Talisman, my first reaction is how quickly it is done. The game is small–in the data sense. Loading it up explains everything. This is very literally a digital board game. There are no fancy graphics or moving pieces or anything. We’ve got just the necessities and stripped it of everything that could distract you from the fact that, yes, you are playing a digital board game. This, of course, extends to functional multiplayer support and online options. So, I’ll give the bad upfront: You can not save the game. You can not reconnect to the game. You can not voice chat in the game. And, if you’re playing with Derek, you can’t even swear in the game because he keeps the damn chat filter on.
It’s… not pretty and for more reasons than you’re looking at hilariously bad 80s art of medieval fantasy tropes. There isn’t even a tutorial for us poor souls who have never heard of this monstrosity. In a way, this probably turned out to be a good thing as it made our first attempts at playing Talisman hilarious–if not necessarily for the reasons the designers intended.
But first, an explanation of what the game is. Do note that what I’m telling you now is far more information than either of us received when we loaded our pieces onto the board. Talisman is a four person game where players choose between a varied number of fantasy “classes” reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons and spend the game roaming around a three tiered board going on wild adventures looking for epic loot and stat improvements so that they may brave the dangers and guardians of the coveted Crown of Command. Once a player has crossed the Plains of Peril (you can’t make these names up), they then seize control of the crown by unlocking its chamber using a titular talisman–a MacGuffin generally obtained by fulfilling a request of some mysterious Warlock which usually requires some paltry action like slaying a monster or being a generic jerk. Once possession of the crown has been made, the commanding player then casts a spell to order his fellows to… from what I can tell attempt suicide repeatedly until the dolts succeed. Lots of dice are cast in this misadventure and good luck trying to come up with any sort of sane strategy which doesn’t involve “roll the dice and pray for the best.”
This is probably where the inspiration for Mario Party arose.
Alright, the game isn’t that random but it is pretty random. All challenges are resolved through usually a single d6 roll. Your adventures and rewards are typically determined by drawing a card from a deck with very little ability to affect the draw. That said, obtaining the required stats for braving the plains of peril, I don’t think, are nearly as onerous as our misguided four hour slog of our first game suggests. Beating monster challenges awards trophies which can be turned in for stat increases in a similar vein to Elder Signs. There are also shops around the map which you can purchase set items that always perform the same function and weapons are included in these purchases meaning you have two routes to reliably improve yourself. There is also the bold face robbery which, judging by the frequency the AI engages in such behaviour, is standard fare for a game of Talisman. Should you, by chance, get a hold of one of the necessary talismans early, expect pious monks to come around and beat you senseless for it. If anyone starts to drag behind the rest, they become the schoolyard victim, constantly ambushed and robbed of their lunch money whenever a bully catches them.
That said, at any moment an errant roll can change things drastically. I suppose part of the enjoyment of games like Mario Party is the unpredictability. Should your highway robbery go awry, your would-be victim can instead mug you. Getting into the Plains of Peril, even when adequately prepared, has a decent chance to launch you–catapult style–half across the board, opening a trailing rival to take the lead. Even gaining possession of the crown does not guarantee victory as someone can ascend behind you and wrestle, Gollum style, for the precious artifact. Also, there are quite a few situations where you’re asked to roll with a 50 percent chance ending in disaster. Much like Derek losing all his craft to an errant tribal woman. Also, you can’t predict when someone may just offhandedly draw the rune sword or war horse and then start on a snowball of murder through the countryside, racking up tons of trophies and beating down the doors to the inner realm through sheer number of severed goblin skulls.
There is a slight mechanic to lessen the fickleness of dice–insomuch as such a feat is possible. Each class has a different number of “fate” points which they can spend to re-roll a die. Of course, our first game we didn’t know why were were allowed so many rerolls nor how infrequent replenishing fate truly was so Derek and I squandered ours on pointless journeys to the tavern. A poor choice of which our pious monk took quick advantage. Have I mentioned the AI are complete jerks?
There is a dizzying array of expansions for the game which adds more, more, more. Some slap curious expansions to the boards which neither of us bothered to truly explore (I found a library which apparently contained a ton of good reads but other than that, I abandoned the scholarly pursuits). Most simply add additional classes, encounters and spells. As I mentioned, I don’t have any access to classes beyond the twelve or so that comes in the main game but I can’t help but be slightly leery with some of them appearing stronger than others. I suppose there is also the Reaper mechanic introduced (another random element where anyone who rolls a 1 on their movement can move death in an attempt to chase the hooded spectre after their foes in the attempts to enact petty annoyances upon), a few alternative endings and variants offered. Given our disastrously long initial foray, Derek and I have yet to explore these other options fully.
Did I mention that our first match went four hours?
Course, if you haven’t guessed, I’m not as huge a fan of all the random elements. It’s no secret that fate and chance have a long standing hatred of me. Anything that has the potentiality for luck coming in and screwing up will always befall me. It’s why Xcom and I are not on speaking terms. RNG and I square off in an age old struggle of spite and stubbornness. For example, in our first full game, I managed to get ahold of the crown and it took around 12 turns for me to off my erstwhile opponents. This is nearly 1.5x longer than statistics would suggest.
Even more nefarious, however, are the bold pay-to-win elements involved in Talisman. I don’t just mean the greater selection of classes to those who shell out money. The game also includes a “rune system” which grants a person who equips them tangible benefits over those who do not. The first rune I unlocked as a simple “+1 life” which applies to all classes which I equip it upon. You can purchase all the runes from the start or frustratingly grind them out through the game’s impenetrable experience system at the end of a match. The only–and I stress only–positive of this system is that there’s an option to turn runes off at the start of the game and I would urge any person to do so. Pay for win mechanics are a blight and should not be promoted anywhere.
Anyway, at the end of the day, Talisman is a faithful reproduction of a board game experience to the online space. It’s rife with problems big and small, from the pay-to-win, poor netcoding and lack of basic functionality like voice chat. The game relies heavily on chance and randomness which makes strategic planning a rather pointless endeavour. All that said, it is mindlessly fun if you can cut out some time to play it. Now, I don’t mean to suggest all games will take four hours. Derek and I are neophytes when it comes to the game itself and as we get better I suspect the matches will get shorter. Talisman is cute if not flawed. Besides, it has such amazing art as the minstrel and monk, so how could you say no to that?