Sunday, April 20, 2014

Fantasy Monopoly meets Snakes and Ladders

I’ve been really busy with work and a few other interesting things that I hope I’ll be able to talk about soonish, hence the lack of posts over the last week. There’s still one more PAX East panel I want to dive into. However, this weekend I went up to Vancouver, BC to hang out with some friends of mine from high school, and we played a little game known as Talisman.

So apparently the current edition is the 4th, which means there were 3 editions before it, and it was actually originally released in 1983. From what we’ve heard, it was supposed to be fantastically fun epic fantasy, and a mainstay of any board game group. I have no idea what is wrong with those people, because, rules as written, Talisman was probably one of the worst board games I have ever played.

So what’s the deal? The game plays two to six players, and the box states 90 minutes, which is laughable (our game of 5 people took 270 minutes or so). The objective is simple: get a Talisman, get to the center of the board, and be the last person standing. Actually achieving that objective is brutally difficult, because you have nearly no control whatsoever about how you get there.

You get randomly assigned a character (in our case we house-ruled it to three characters and choose one), and that character has a few abilities as well as statistics: Strength, Craft (magic), Life, and Fate. Abilities range from the Warrior using 2 dice in combat and choosing the higher one, to being able to hide from enemies in the forests as an Elf, or beguiling your fellow adventurers and taking their stuff.

As you can see on the image of the board above, there are three loops. The goal is at the end of the innermost loop. Movement consists of rolling a die, moving clockwise or counter-clockwise, following the instructions (which almost always involve drawing a random adventure card), and then that’s the end of your turn. The second loop has more difficult spaces to deal with, often dealing damage or just knocking you right out of the second loop. The third loops is more ridiculous, but I’ll get into that later. Needless to say, you’re far more likely than not to be kicked back out to the outermost loop and have to make your way back in again, hence Snakes and Ladders (or Chutes and Ladders for you Brits).

Getting into an inner loop was ridiculously difficult. To get to the second loop, you either had to get lucky by landing on the Tavern, and then rolling a 6; find an axe or buy a raft from the adventuring deck; or defeat an extremely powerful Guardian. To get into the innermost loop required you to roll 2d6 and roll less than your primary combat statistic. If you failed, you lost one in that stat. Given how long it can take to get even a single point extra in a stat, unless you get really lucky, this requires you to hedge your bets and really try for high ability scores before actually making the attempt.

This flowchart is literally on the back of the rulebook. Don't be fooled by all of the yes/no, there's only actually two spots where you make decisions.
The flowchart above delineates a typical turn. The MOVE is where you roll and choose, and the only other decision on that flowchart that isn’t mechanical is whether you fight a player that you’ve landed on or not, and how you fight them. Of course, since movement is a precise amount (1 through 6), and you cannot move more or less, you often end up missing other players a lot. Even with 5 of us, we only landed on each other’s spaces a handful of times. By the end of the 4.5 hour game, we’d only done PvP combat twice (both initiated by me, funnily enough. I might be a jerk).

Adventuring cards weren’t much better. A massive deck of possible outcomes shared amongst the entire board, and the majority of spaces were “Draw 1 Card” from the adventuring deck. Most encounters consist of combat or random events, and combat itself is a random outcome. If what you’re fighting is Strength-based, you take your strength, add d6, and see if that’s more or less than the enemy’s Strength plus d6. If yes, yay, you win, take your trophy, and potentially upgrade that statistic if you have enough trophies of that type. If not, you take damage, and the monster sticks around for someone else to fight.

In theory Craft and Strength should be equal in terms of how often they came up, but the definite feeling at the table was Strength was far more useful than Craft. That may have been coloured by my Warrior’s massive Strength stat, though. But I could effectively ignore Craft entirely and it was no skin off my back. Since the Guardian to get to the second loop was Strength-based, all of the casters were effectively hosed unless they got really lucky. While I could walk up and womp him, everyone else had to rely on a one-in-six chance if they could hit the Tavern, or find an axe.

When you weren’t grabbing adventuring cards, or fighting baddies, most other spaces had a random event on the board. Roll a d6 (or 2d6!) and see if something bad or good happened to you. Most spaces had a 50/50 chance, but some were definitely far worse than others. You could easily end up gaining a Strength, or losing a Craft, or be teleported to another square (probably in a lesser loop, to boot).

The only mitigating factor to all of this luck were the Fate tokens. Characters started with somewhere between one and three tokens, and you could spend those tokens to re-roll any d6 that you rolled once. The problem was that Fate tokens were extremely hard to come by. If you were a specific alignment (Good, Evil) there was a single space where you could refill your Fate tokens to maximum (assuming you could even land on the square), but if you were Neutral? Hosed. And even with the refill option, they were still really hard to come by.

A couple examples of where this immense randomness really screwed players. One player had gotten a companion early on called the Hag via an adventure card. The Hag chased away all his previous followers, and he couldn’t get any more followers. He spent about ten turns attempting to land on the Village, overshooting it as he flipped back and forth across it turn after turn, so he could rid himself of this debilitation. Oddly enough, he only reached the Village due to a global adventuring card, Blizzard, which forced everyone to move 1 square a turn for two turns.

Another example, where the middle tier is extremely egregiously random, is playing Dice with Death. To get past Death, you have to play dice with him. You’re instructed to roll 2d6 for yourself, and 2d6 for Death. If you get a higher score, you win and can continue. Otherwise you lose a health and have to try again next turn. Literally random chance of moving on. You’re just rolling two pairs of d6s and hoping that one is higher than the other. Completely asinine.

And then I finally reached the center of the board. After so many turns, being evicted to the outer loop a couple times, dealing with insanely random events. Nearly dying because my luck at playing dice with death was terrible (and my character could only hold a single fate token, which was used up, so there was no help there, either). I had a Talisman, I got to the crown, and then I sat at the top spamming a spell called “Command” until everyone else is dead. On a 1, 2, or 3 nothing happens. On a 4, 5, or 6, all other players lose 1 life. Seriously? Why even prolong the game? I was so far ahead of everyone else that there was no hope in hell anyone could ever catch up to me, and my turns had been reduced to rolling a single die.

Random starting characters, random movement, random encounters, random solutions to those encounters. Like Monopoly, there are almost no decisions to be made at all. Perhaps this game might be fun as a drinking game (though I think I’d be dead of alcohol poisoning by the end), but otherwise? Big fat pass. We even sat and discussed for a bit about how we’d try to change or tweak the game to save it, and we really couldn’t offhand. Not without radically altering the game as a whole.

Boardgamegeek has a neat breakdown of ratings. How on earth this one rates so highly with so many people is a mystery.

It was released in the 80s, and it really shows. I’d only play this game as an exercise in what not to do when making a boardgame. For some strange reason it's quite popular, and I honestly cannot fathom why. I suppose I also can't figure out for the life of me why Monopoly is so popular as well.
#BadDesign, #BoardGames


  1. I played this game with my college buddies in the '80s and thought it was bad even then! My husband, however, has an unreasonable fondness for it. In the wasteland of board games before U.S. gamers discovered German games, Talisman was about as good as it got -- and it wasn't very good.

    I absolutely sympathize with your description of the Seat of Command. We once played a game in which the person in that position couldn't quite kill everyone else, and we finally just ended it by conceding her the victory. That took about 3+ hours of tedium.

    1. Interesting. A friend of mine and I had theorized much the same thing: it was probably pretty good for a board game in the early 80s, and nostalgia is an incredibly strong emotional reaction for many people, hence the popularity.