When I think of high fantasy themed board games the first name that always comes to mind is Talisman. I am probably biased as Talisman was first released during the time that I first discovered fantasy role playing games. The year was 1983, I was fully immersed in Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, Gary Gygax had just sent six friends on a roller coaster ride into the “Realms”, and Talisman hit the shelves.
Talisman is a game that combines classic faerie tale elements with hard core fantasy adventure. Like the idea of players being turned into toads by wicked witches? Talisman has that. Want to fight dragons and demons in the depths of a dungeon? Talisman has that too. All the while maintaining the feel of a relaxed lightweight game that is easy to learn. I have heard some people refer to Talisman as heavy on rules but when we had two players who had never played before try the game they were rolling dice in about a half hour. Yes, the rule book is 21 pages long but it is also fully illustrated with large sections devoted to examples of game play on rules they had just described.
The objective of Talisman is to build your character, find a talisman, traverse the three regions of the game board, and reach the Crown of Command before the other players do. Once at the Crown of Command the player may invoke Command Spells to knock other players out of the game.
Players begin the game by randomly selecting from one of the many character cards. Then, strength, craft, life, and fate tokens are handed out as designated on the character card. Any starting equipment or spells should also be given. Characters are then placed on the starting position designated on their character card. Players should pay close attention to special abilities that their characters have. This is actually a bit of a weakness of Talisman. Not all characters are created equal. Some special abilities are only marginally useful while others are incredibly powerful. For this reason we suggest using the optional rule where each player randomly pulls three character cards and selects one.
Once game play begins players roll a D6 to move around the board starting within the outer region. Players should begin focusing on building their characters which means landing on game board spaces that allow them to pull adventure cards. I already mentioned once that Talisman is a laid back gaming experience but I feel that I should remind you that random chance plays a big roll in the game so players shouldn’t stress too much about making the perfect tactical decision because any move is just as likely to lead to glory as it is ruin. Your first move has an equal chance of pulling a dragon as it does a wimpy, yet loathsome, goblin.
Each time a player moves to a new square they simply follow the directions given on the space they have landed. This might include drawing adventure cards, interacting with NPC’s, or attempting not to get lost in one of the many pitfalls of the game. While gambling at the Tavern or visiting the mystic may be a fun diversion players should focus on pulling as many adventure cards as possible. Magical items, followers, monsters, NPC’s (good and bad), and events all flow from the adventure card deck.
Some players may see being at the mercy of chance to be a major drawback of the game. However, this also means that a front runner for the race to the crown can be completely derailed at anytime allowing other players to catch up. That said, it is not fair to say that Talisman has no strategy. Where a player who thrives on a more strategic game may find their stride is in the player versus player combat. There are a number of spells, items, and even NPC’s that players can use to advance their quest while raining destruction upon their enemies. While there is no requirement to battle your fellow players there are a number of character special abilities, spells, and items that can only be used against your opponents making this kind of conflict an important part of the game.
Another aspect I like about Talisman is that when a player dies they are not out of the game. The unfortunate soul gets to select a new character card and jump right back into the action. No one is ever left sitting around waiting for the game to be decided. While playing catch up can be very difficult playing spoiler is sometimes far more satisfying especially when the previous character was killed by another player.
Generally speaking, a game of Talisman can last an hour to an hour and a half per player. However, this time can be cut down if the players choose not to fight one another. There is nothing wrong with playing the game this way but characters tend to grow in power rather quickly when another player is not trying to stop them.
One knock against Talisman has been that since their is such a heavy element of chance, encounters do not scale with the strength of the character. There comes a point in the game where hanging out in the outer region becomes overkill as the character destroys everything in its path. While there is nothing that can stop a player from playing Godzilla, Talisman has many expansions that offer new regions with a higher level of difficulty to further challenge the mettle of players.
Large expansions attach to the main game board on one of the four corners. Specific spaces are designated as entry points for these expansions. For example, the ruins square in the outer region also acts as the entrance to the Dungeon Expansion, my personal favorite region. These add-on areas come with additional characters and their own decks of more difficult monsters and encounters.
Smaller expansions do not add board space but rather add challenges to overcome. For example, the Reaper expansion puts the Grim Reaper in play. If anyone lands on the Reaper they must dice with death often leading to disastrous consequences. The catch is that the Reaper is controlled by the players. Anytime a player rolls a 1 on their movement dice they complete their move normally and then roll to move the Reaper with the goal of landing on another player. This fantastic little expansion also comes with additional characters.
The first time I played Talisman I had never seen anything like it. Character pieces were cardboard standees and the game board and cards were colorful and well detailed. For that time the game was amazing! Today, competition in the board game industry has raised expectations to a whole new level but the publishers of Talisman, Fantasy Flight, were up to the challenge. Character pieces are high quality plastic miniatures and the artwork on the board, cards, and box is amazing. Even better, the components are built to last. Each and every piece of the game from the cards and characters to the box they come in feel substantial. I have literally played dozens of games with my set of Talisman and it looks as good as the day I first purchased it.
Talisman has always been an excellent game and it’s future is secure in the care of Fantasy Flight. While Talisman may not be for the hard core strategic board gamer it’s strength lies in the game’s ability to bring friends together for a full evening of lighthearted fantasy fun. With so many expansion and character options Talisman also has a high replay ability as players explore new regions and characters. Elwood gives Talisman an 80 proof as it never fails to leave him warm and fuzzy every time he plays.