Let’s play Talisman. It’s a phrase when uttered in gaming circles will either materialise hazy half-remembrances of wasted Sunday afternoons and dreamy expressions, send a gamer screaming from the room or get you punched.
On the button pushing scale of gaming, it’s up there with other marmite flavoured delights such as Munchkin, Cards Against Humanity and Flux.
So what is Talisman? Well, it’s the ghost of gaming past, the hobby’s dirty little secret that refuses to bow to modern design mechanics, reciprocate in any way to those ninnies who cry foul at player elimination, randomness or the rolling of dice. It’s everything that was wrong about classic board games yet seems so right.
In all its many iterations are the same core ideas, players choose an adventurer replete with Cosmic Encounter levels of random potentially game shattering abilities and traverse the board by rolling and moving. The effects of whatever random spot you land are resolved by drawing cards from monolithic decks threatening to topple and crush a passer-by or rolling more dice.
Think of this as the bastard love child of Monopoly and Robert E. Howard.
If a player manages to level their hero up without dying, and that’s a big if they’ll then need to obtain one of the Mystical Talismans of the games title. Once that seemingly simple feat is achieved, it’s a swift jaunt to the centre of the board to run a gauntlet of deadly traps and overpowered enemies before attempting to claim victory via a hidden final goal that could potentially kill them straight away or shortly afterwards.
Designed back in the bygone days of 1983 by Bob Harris and formerly part of Games Workshop’s stable it received various expansions that bolted additional boards to the base set offering up further chances for frustration and joy in equal measure. It was resurrected briefly in its Third Edition during the early 90’s reminiscing bits and pieces and adding more expansions and playable characters. And then it disappeared faster than Keyser Soze from an FBI interrogation.
However the fickle gods of Talisman were not done with us just yet, in late 2008 Fantasy Flight Games became the torch bearers which seems oddly correct, Talisman is the epitome of Ameritrash and joining the FFG stable was like a long lost child returning home. They hit the ground running with a new lavish edition replete with mini’s a gentle smoothing of mechanics and some fresh spins on old favourites and we were off to the races.
For transparency Talisman has rightfully earned all of its press good and bad, its random has no discernable path to victory and games can potentially outlive players. Tom Cruise is obviously a fan, his 2014 blockbuster ‘Edge of Tomorrow’ includes the blatantly Talisman inspired tagline ‘Live, Die, Repeat’ and he was in Legend, which has fantasy stuff, so yeah. But despite what should be deliberating mechanics, design choices and play length it not only continues to be published but has flourished acquiring somewhere in the region of fifteen expansions with Cataclysm it’s latest releasing this month. How has a game loathed by so many somehow managed to keep on trucking?
I must admit to a nostalgic wobble in my nethers whenever I see the box, and it’s not just me supping from the Kool-Aid. Across dusty corners of the web, numerous Talisman communities support the game with fan made expansions and characters Talisman Island being one of the longest running. People who love it, adore it. Its silly, its random but its also something else that can sometimes be forgotten in this age of refined mechanism’s and EURO peaceniks it’s riotously fun. If approached with the correct mindset, that your character will die (potentially more than once), it’s the only game you’ll playing that night and that a great splosh of random is about to drench you then you’re set for a epic evening’s entertainment. I think it’s something else as well, Talisman thrives because of its simple mechanics and play it’s the ultimate ‘Beer & Pretzels’ game, it’s like mainlining hobby gaming in its purest form.
This past weekend and what prompted this post, local convention Stabcon South was taking place and the opportunity for a game of Epic Talisman* was teased. Graham, a member of my local gaming group self-confessed Talisman junkie and owner of every expansion available, made the call, we were on it was happening. So a valiant six of us Graham, Myself, Matt, Gemma, Kamil and Aaron gathered at a large playing surface and spent as long assembling the boards shuffling decks and arranging tokens as some other games had taken to play, and then with a generous selection of snacks and drinks we set about things.
*Epic Talisman involves compiling every available expansion and item for Talisman 4th edition and throwing it all together. On this occasion, we would not be using the Dragon Expansion (because that would have been silly).
Epic Talisman is not for the ill prepared or uninformed. It requires stamina (no dice towers for us roll those little suckers), a rigorous pre-game mental workout in preparation for the preposterous levels of chance about to befall you and those of you out there with the bladder of an infant a sturdy pair of incontinence pants. In a rare treat this year Graham had removed the Reaper character but instead included for our delectation ‘The Harbinger’ a recent edition to the game and excellent precursor to the forthcoming Cataclysm expansion.
For those not in the know, The Harbinger expansion ups the violent random repercussion factor to 11 with a set of Omen cards that countdown to the apocalypse with board affecting unpleasantness. It does add a mild co-op mechanic to the game as besides the usual questing and carnage everyone is now also trying to avoid accidentally bringing about the end of the world, well most people but well get to that in a bit. Now you could argue that all this is incredibly sadomasochistic of FFG adding a game mechanic to Talisman that forces players to join forces to stop the game ending too soon, or maybe by this point they’ll in on the joke as well.
In an omen (ha!) of the carnage to come, Graham immediately encountered the dreaded Basilisk. Now this critter is unique in that its one of the few in the game with the ability to kill a character outright when it rolls doubles, so a double four later and he’s dead before even finishing a turn. Ah, Talisman how we love you.
Things progressed at an enthusiastic crawl and it readily became apparent that the addition of The Harbinger was going to cause issues. On every EVENT card draw, he materialises like a malevolent Mary Poppins and forces anyone in his vicinity to draw from his deck these cards were very, very bad.
Apart from rushing toward Armageddon with alarming regularity, the item drops are all a bit naughty, one of which the Apocrypha some innocuous crusty old cursed tome happened perchance into my inventory. Besides the multitude orrible things it did to me like draining life and experience, it included an interesting side effect of allowing the holder and only them to survive the apocalypse, remember this gentle reader we might need to come back to this later.
Around three hours in most of the table were doing quite well, Matt’s Bounty Hunter was levelling and gaining gold faster than a Chinese World of Warcraft battery farm. Gemma and her Dragon Rider were keeping it real and unshowy just getting the job done. Kamil despite an early lead had lost his war horse and had become obsessed with replacing it for the past hour or two. Grahams Troll had died a further three times and despite now owning a pet panda he finally admitting defeat and switched to a Warlock. My Swashbuckler frankly lacked in both the buckle or swash department and had spent a great deal of time wandering about closely pursued by the Harbinger, which really doesn’t make one very attractive finally meeting his end somewhere in the highlands at the mandibles of a particularly pissed off spider. Aaron’s Warrior, Barbarian… He was enduring the classic Talisman experience and by the fixed grin on his face either loving every minute or had lost his mind.
While I respawned the others were gallivanting around the Dungeon levelling up and brandishing weapons of mass destruction, it seemed highly plausible as we neared the five-hour mark that the end was indeed in sight. Matt’s Bounty Hunter having reached ridiculous levels paused before attempting the final battle to secure some more life points by having a snack in the Dungeons Kitchen, however due to some unfortunate rolls promptly expired from a protracted dose of terminal flatulence. That’s the issue with these Dungeon based eateries, the sanitation really isn’t up to par.
Resurrected and taking the Possessed for a spin I recommenced my poorly conceived efforts stumbling upon another cheeky little Harbinger accessory the Black Astrolabe. This cursed talisman as well as quickening the Harbinger effects protected me from the repercussions of the Armageddon encouraging Omen cards, slowly at the back of my noggin a plan formed. With us basically at def con 4 and with no hope of securing a win for team WDR honourably I took the only sensible path open to me, head to the highlands pick up that book and embrace the horror.
However, it looked like my nefarious plans were about to be derailed as Gemma and her Dragon Rider having levelled zippity zip in the dungeon made a rush for the crown by taking out the big bad and going for the win. We waited with baited breath as she flipped over the ending card, and briefly glimpsed her confused expression as she was devoured by a horrible black void, oh Talisman you cheeky sausage. This being the seventh hour of business she sensibly tapped out.
We were down to the wire, people were packing up games and leaving the organisers were giving us looks and dropping not so subtle hints that things were winding down, we had 45 minutes to finish. In a last desperate rush, Matt hot on Gemma’s heels reached the Crown activating our new end game ‘The Crown Of Flame’ it was time for the last man standing. The crown attached itself to Matt and started incinerating him, burning off items, followers and weapons and of course life once Matt expired the crown passed to the player to his left, me.
Graham having deduced my game plan decided that if you couldn’t beat them then join em, and made a beeline for me and the book. Matt promptly performed his best Johnny Storm impression gifting me with the burning ring of fire now the pressure was really on. As the turns ticked round I was losing weapons, armour and lives, not only was I now racing to bring about the apocalypse but quick smart before the book was incinerated stranding me with the others.
With Grahams Warlock slinging spells desperately trying to kill, immobilise or otherwise halt my encouragement of the Rapture it was down to the wire. Resembling a charcoal briquette clutching the tome to my chest, I took my last action and pulled my final, fateful card from the deck “witness me!”. You guessed it, it was a shiny event card and big badda boom I embraced the end of times, it stung a bit but otherwise could have been worse.
Eight hours, hundreds of cards, quite a few coffees and we were done. I’d won, yeah I’d destroyed the world, but you know I think it was blown out of proportion. And that my friends is Epic Talisman, what a ride. And despite the numerous looks of terror from passers-by and the bed sores I contracted from not moving for a day, it was a hoot. And it’s a rather excellent precursor to our next game planned for sometime in the autumn we’re be breaking out the Cataclysm expansion and we can pick up where we left off. It’s a brave new world.
If that’s whetted your appetite for some Talisman shenanigans, I’d advise against attempting the insanity of Epic Talisman not least due to the fact your bank would be lighter around £250. The base game and Reaper expansion is thought by many to offer the fullest and most satisfying ‘beginners’ experience and will provide you many hours of random entertainment. If you want to dabble you’re toes in its many delights without breaking the bank then I heartily recommend the digital edition from Nomad games, its one of the best implementations of a board game on the market and has most of the expansions available and can be played multiplayer online.