Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The undisputed king of adventure games

Talisman was the first adventure board game I ever played. It showed me that board games could be more than Monopoly or Clue, and it set me down a life-long path of gaming that I can't see ever straying from. To this day, the games I like best tend to be the ones that remind me of Talisman in some way, like Firefly, Fortune and Glory, or Runebound. Those games have all improved on Talisman's formula, to the extent that they get played a lot more often than Talisman does, but respect must be paid to the game that, for me, started it all.

The game structure will be familiar, since so many other games have copied it. Each player takes on the role of a character with specific strengths and weaknesses, whose goal it is to wander around the board fighting monsters and gathering treasure, weapons and magic items. Eventually, players must fight their way to the center of the board where they will assume the Crown of Command and attempt to use it to knock the rest of the players out of the game.

It is this sense of open-ended adventure that I love most about Talisman, the idea that you can just wander around the countryside encountering bandits, dragons, kindly wizards, and bags of gold inexplicably laying in the middle of the road. I enjoy the journey so much that I usually have to remind myself that there is an end goal: I would much rather just explore the world.

However, because the characters get gradually stronger as they defeat more foes, eventually you find that run-of-the-mill goblins are too easy to beat, and it's time to head to the center of the board and try to win. In many ways, this is where Talisman's game play falls a little flat for me.

In the base game, the center of the board is occupied by the Crown of Command, which can be used to force the other players to either admit defeat or grow gradually weaker. However, if another player manages to make it to the middle, you have to fight it out using all the weapons, armor and spells you've gathered on your journey. If the other player manages to defeat you, they then take up the Crown and go to work on the other players.

It's amusing, but at the same time it makes Talisman into an elimination game like Monopoly, and it can take a long time to determine a winner as players stubbornly hold on to life in an effort to knock the Crown of Command from your head.

One of the expansions I have (my copy is the Second Edition from 1985, rather than the current version published by Fantasy Flight Games) replaces the Crown with one of six random, surprise endings, so that the first player to reach the center doesn't necessarily know what they're getting into. Choices range from the Belt of Hercules, which allows you to teleport around the board picking fights with the other players, to the Demon Lord, a powerful enemy whose defeat wins you the game, to the Horrible Black Void, which simply destroys the first player to land on it.

My favorite is the Dragon King, whose reaction is random: he could just eat you out of hand, he could attack you, or he might even decide he likes you and head out to devour your opponents.

Rating: 5 (out of 5) Even though later games that have followed in Talisman's footsteps have improved on its adventure game formula, you just can't beat the original.

  • Talisman official website for the revised Fourth Edition
  • Talisman on BoardGameGeek.com

Date played: October 18, 2014

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