The following is a review of an Early Access Version of the game (October 13th 2013 build). Substantial changes may be or have been introduced by the developer before the official retail version is released in January 2014. This build, however, was reviewed with the consent of the developers.
Talisman: Digital Edition – What We Think
I grew up playing Talisman the board game (second and third editions) from Games Workshop. I purchased it when I was in my early teens and would break it out at least three to four times a year to play with my dad and brothers. Games would sprawl out for hours and negotiations between us as to whom to gang up on or support played out between our personalities and moods like a heightened, protracted game of Monopoly. So when the digital edition came up, I knew I had to be the one to cover it for IGR.
While the game endeavors to be quite faithful to the board game – perhaps too much so – what is missing from this review is the online multiplayer experience which is forthcoming. If it works as well as it does with games like Ticket to Ride or Small Worlds – two other board games that have become very successful online multiplayer titles, then Talisman will become the fuller experience it is meant to be – that is – one enjoyed between friends.
But putting that aside, I will endeavor to cover the game in earnest as what it is – an option to play a much-loved fantasy board game that has stood the test of time with AI, for the time being.
From Table Top to Desktop
Talisman Digital is an indie that made its way onto the almighty Steam cloud marketplace after being Greenlit by the community. In cases like these, it is fairly certain that the votes come because of the game’s reputation and legacy as opposed to its final implementation. When the original board game was released, critics said that games took too long to play, with an average of four hours or more.
Of course at the time of its release the German tabletop renaissance that ushered in more advanced gameplay like Settlers of Catan had yet to unfold, and D&D folk may have found the game less interesting than a larger campaign. It worked for my family because not everyone wanted to learn D&D rule sets and so it provided a happy medium.
It is difficult for me to be impartial about how it may appear to those who have never played Talisman, but I doubt that it would seem as much fun if one wasn’t somehow projecting prior experiences with the actual tabletop game onto the videogame experience.
I am not sure that I would find its rather modest graphical treatment very engaging, but on the other hand, I do appreciate seeing the old board that I once had color photocopied and mounted onto foam core, to prolong its life, before the publisher re-did the artwork and changed some of the rules for a new edition by a different publisher.
The Path to Glory
In Talisman, you select one of a variety of characters (14 in this version) that range from Druids to Assassins, each with benefits in either Strength or Craft (the game’s term for mana) and/or advantages on certain positions on the board. There are three rings, the outer ring is where most of the action happens as the various players set out to find loot, events, spells and encounters.
When you draw an encounter card from the deck, you move into combat and roll dice against (below) the stat pertaining to the encountered creature (strength or craft) to determine the winner. If you defeat it, you can collect these as “trophies” and trade them in once you have accumulated 7 or more points. For example if you defeat a creature with 4 Craft, and another with 3 in a subsequent battle, you can exchange them for an additional Craft point that you add to you character’s own. Thus do you become stronger in preparation to move into the center and then inner rings as you race towards victory by reaching the Crown of Command.
The catch is that you may not do so until you have acquired a Talisman card. This may be as easy to achieve as pulling from the adventure card deck, or by completing one of several fixed quests assigned to you by the warlock on the center ring, or a number of other ways. You can even go into combat with another player, and if you defeat them, either take a life, or if they have it, take any item from them. Including a Talisman.
A Charmed Origin
The digital edition, from Nomad Games was built with Marmalade from Ideaworks – an SDK whose underlying promise is build once, run anywhere and more telling, was originally targeted towards mobile development. Many large companies use it to develop games, but I wonder if the game was originally designed with mobile in mind and then developed from that design; the first version of Talisman I was sent was called Talisman Prologue and it was for Android and iOS. It was far less polished and enjoyable than this new “full version,” which cleans up the UI substantially, optimizes and streamline some components and will presumably add online multiplayer (but not as of this release – though a grayed-out placeholder is there on the main menu).
In the early access version I am reviewing here, there is no controller support, no Steam Big Picture support. These will be available in the official release slated for January 2014, in addition to leaderboards, online multiplayer, cloud saving and a card browser. This version does feature Steam trading cards.
I like that in this version there are quests for each class of character and later further quests to be completed along the adventure. Some of these are elective, and some are mandatory. Quests were something that emerged in expansion decks and later editions of the game, but they are in play here in the vanilla version.
Sometimes Less Is Less
As far as the technical and design elements, some of the UI seems meaningless, and other parts are not intuitive or are too bunched together. I found the text unnecessarily small and sometimes difficult to read. There is too much negative space – not because negative space is a bad thing in design, but in this case, where there are so many little things clamoring for attention, enlarging the board, graphics and information would only help embolden the presentation and make it more accessible.
I also found it took too many clicks to do most things; confirmations for everything slow the game down. I would approach it more like chess – once I take my action, is it done. If making mistakes due to not understanding what is on offer is the issue, then iterate the design further so that the flow of information is more clear from the outset. In other words, decision trees and action steps are just clunky here.
Beyond being faithful to the board game, it wouldn’t hurt to add some basic character animation for the combat sequences, and for when character pieces walk around the board. As of this release, the characters simply look like static painted game pieces that slide around. Though cards flash, and the die roll is animated, just a sprinkle of character animation, some particle effects could increase the production value and allure substantially.
Arcane in the Membrane
I would love to see the company release some of the many excellent Talisman expansions as DLC’s – I fondly remember bridging out to the Talisman City expansion where one essentially zoomed in to that spot on the original board and undertook some interesting new town adventures and an intriguing “code of conduct” ruleset and bounties as the result of breaking said codes.
I also remember the Talisman Dungeon expansion adding a ton of new items, monsters (goblins galore) and interesting characters to the mix and the added goal of reaching a treasure room before you were able to return to the main campaign. The Dungeon expansion also nerfed certain spell-casting abilities and you couldn’t ride your horse down there.
My favorite expansion was Talisman Timescape, a wild and cosmic Dr. Who-inspired set of portals to other dimensions that most definitely drew on the Warhammer 40,000 lexicon.
There is, however, a placeholder for the Reaper Expansion which was released in 2006 after the 4th edition came out, which means the others may not see the light of day, at least in their original form.
But even if these expansions could be developed, I would also like such additions to bring improvements in the UI, embellishments to the sprites, perhaps some more animation and voicework and of course, the sooner the company can roll out online multiplayer the better, as this is the real magic sauce that is missing from the original spirit of fun created by the game; watching three AI take their turns in Talisman feels a lot slower than it does in Ticket to Ride and quickly becomes an option for die-hards only.
Bring the Hammer Down
Some of my favorite things about the second and third editions were the loose links to aspects of Games Workshop’s Warhammer universe, not only in concept but in illustration. Unfortunately these editions are long out of print and hard to come by. I am not sure if there may be any existing licensing issues present now since this version of the game is based on the 4th edition rules and Fantasy Flight (also a great tabletop publisher) took over the Talisman license from Games Workshop in 2008. I did notice that there is an option to use the “Classic Rules” which is a nice bonus.
The music and sound effects are well done and add some flavor to the game, but nothing out of the ordinary. Again, some voicework attached to each character would help bring the world to life. Even some introductory animatics or cutscenes would help. Again, it is too early to tell if this might be included in the final release.
Heavy is the Head
Talisman Digital edition feels like a good foundation to build upon but not quite all that it could be. While existing fans will find it generally faithful to the original, it may be more difficult to attract new players as it does not offer enough to compete with similar titles, and without the benefit of having played the sprawling tabletop game, the diminutive graphics and slow gameplay may be off-putting.
I will note that there was a “significant update” on November 7th, 2013 since I played the game for review. Most notable among the additions in this update are Runestones that can be linked to your character across games, and an experience point system which will give a player a sense of progression and increased agency in their exploits and investment of time.
While I am happy to see these additions and think they will improve the overall game, most of my concerns are with the actual visual layout and gameplay so these added features will not impact my final score in any meaningful way.
Though I Walk Through The Valley…
If purchasing the original board game and finding friends to play with you seems daunting, then I invite you to explore the world of Talisman via this digital edition. While it is fairly spartan in what it offers, it is a fair entry into a game that kept me entertained for at least two decades and that ruleset is intrinsically available for discovery in the experience on offer here.
Also due to the fact that the version I reviewed is early access and some major features are rapidly being added in the final weeks before official launch, I am more than willing to accept that it will become a far better game all on its own. But for now I can only go on what there is, and a bullet list of promised features.
By purchasing the early access edition, you are supporting the independent developers in completing the game and will also receive a free copy of Talisman Prologue.
Watch the Talisman Digital Edition Early Access trailer: