Wednesday 8 May 2013

Review - Talisman: Prologue

Today, I'm doing something a little bit different. Previously, I have reviewed physical board games that I own. Some of them have been out of production, and some of them have been new; but they have all been good old-fashioned "card and plastic" board games. However, I recently picked up an iPad for work. Of course, I started downloading board game apps for it almost straight away. I should probably see someone about this little addiction I have...

Talisman: Prologue
For iPad and Android Tablets
For 1 player (yes, you read that right)


Is that a good way to start a review? I don't know. It probably gives the game away a bit. I'll start again.


Nope. Sorry. My immense disappointment with this app makes it entirely impossible for me to even attempt to go into this review with a more upbeat opening.

I suppose it's my own fault really. After all, this is a digital version of Talisman. You know, that game where you roll a dice, move left or right a bit, draw a card, roll some more dice, and then maybe die.

That's a pretty damning description of Talisman.

I know, I'll go back in time to when I was just a wee lad, and talk about my prized copy of Talisman: Second Edition. I absolutely adored that game. It had beautiful artwork, and for a young boy, it really was a great adventure that fired the imagination. You picked one of what seemed like dozens of different characters, who all had different strengths and weaknesses, and different special powers (man, I love special powers); then you found your starting place on the board, put down your playing piece (a cardboard standee in those days - none of this fancy plastic stuff), and then you started to roll dice...

So many dice.

The board was divided into an outer ring, a middle ring, and then the centre section. The aim of the game was to move around the outer ring, buff up a bit by killing monsters and finding treasure, and then advance to the middle section. Finally, you would go into the centre of the board (using the eponymous "talisman") to claim the crown of command.

To move, you rolled a dice, and then you got to make one of your only choices in the whole game: Left or right. The decision was rarely that difficult:

"If I go left, I land in the desert, lose one life, and don't get to draw an adventure card? If I go right, I land on the fountain of strength and gain a strength point. Hmm..."

Once you landed on a space, you followed the instructions printed on the board (like The Game of Life or something). The instructions would normally tell you to draw an adventure card. The card would be a monster, a treasure, an event, or a follower. Followers travelled with you, and gave you some kind of benefit, and you could carry a limited amount of treasure which would help in certain situations. Events happened immediately, and usually did something annoying like forcing you to lose a life, all your money, a follower, or an item. Monsters would immediately fight you.

Fighting involved rolling a dice, and then adding any bonuses from items and followers. To this total you would then add your strength (if fighting a physical monster) or craft (if fighting a spirit). The monster did the same. Highest score won, and the loser lost a life.

Once you had killed monsters totalling seven strength you could cash them in for a permanent bonus to your strength. Same for craft monsters, only you got a permanent craft bonus instead.

Eventually you had enough bonuses, items, and followers to brave the inner regions of the board, and someone would win.


Other times the game would just go on so long that everyone would get thoroughly annoyed and give up.

The biggest problem with Talisman is that there were no real choices, and not very many ways in which to mitigate the swings of fate. You could be doing really well, and then you could get turned into a toad. You could be doing really badly, and then find a lance that allowed you to cut through dragons like they were goblins. Sometimes you would hit nothing but bad adventure cards, while all your opponents were constantly picking up treasure and followers. It was infuriating, it was random; but it was an experience.

I loved Talisman, but I hated it to. I loved the start of every game. I loved selecting a character, and then watching that character grow. I loved seeing my army of followers getting bigger and bigger. But it usually happened that, by the time I got about halfway through a game, I was beginning to get fed up with it.

Still, when a third edition of the game came out, with groovy plastic characters, or course I bought it. I bought it because the idea of Talisman was so much better than the game of Talisman. I never really felt like I was playing the game: I was just rolling dice and then seeing what happened. It was like an elaborate adventure story that I had no control over, and which usually had an unhappy ending.

Anyway, eventually I went to university, so I got rid of all my board games, including both editions of Talisman (with multiple expansions). It was a bad move, because most of the games I got rid of, I now hunt for on eBay, and end up paying silly amounts of money for.

I have often considered buying the current edition of Talisman, but I always stop myself. I always tell myself, "No, you really won't like it. You have other adventure games now. Good adventure games, that give you choices. Adventure games that give you characters that all feel really different from each other, and grow in interesting ways instead of just building up one of two statistics. You don't need Talisman."

You see, I love picking a hero character. I love watching that hero grow, gaining new skills and weapons. I love adventure, and the story that each game brings. I just don't think I love Talisman any more.

However, recently Talisman: Prologue was released for the iPad. An excellent excuse to pick up the game for £2.99 rather than £40.

Bearing in mind that I have always known that the game is a luck-fest, it is quite surprising just how disappointed I was with this app.

First of all, I have to say it looks beautiful. The artwork is taken from the game, and Talisman has always been a very attractive product. Unfortunately, that is pretty much where my positive comments run out.

You see, this app is for one player only. Yeah. That's right. One player.

Apparently they are rolling out a multi-player option later on. It really needs that option, because I honestly see no reason to play Talisman solo. This game has always been about the banter: Laughing as your friends turn into toads, and groaning when they find a talisman before you do. When you are sat on your own, watching random events knock you all around the (digital) board, it just doesn't seem that entertaining.

I expect the multi-player add-on will incur a fee. Frankly, I think that functionality should have been there from the start. Maybe I am just old fashioned.

The problem with being a solo experience is that the designers had to give you a reason to play. They chose to go along the lines of giving each character in the game a series of quests, which loosely hang together in a campaign that forms a story. For example, the warrior character starts off in his first quest learning how to fight with two weapons (you just pick up two weapons and fight a monster with them), in his next mission he tries to rescue a princess from bandits. Once you kill the bandits, you realise the princess has been taken by ogres, so in mission three you have to kill the ogres. This continues through all six missions.

In theory, it's a good idea. In practice, it's a problem.

It has always been the case that a game of Talisman will be as long or as short as the players want it to be. If everyone is cautious, the game will take an age. If one player really starts to race to level up, it forces everyone else to do the same thing. But if you don't have any opponents at all, you don't have any incentive to rush. You can just creep around the board, slowly building up your strength and craft until you are ready to wipe the floor with anything you meet.

The designers of the app realised this, and attempting to resolve it by making the challenges time trials. If you complete the mission in only a few turns, you get three talismans, if you take longer, you score less and less talismans. You can complete your mission and yet score no talismans at all.

Seems like a good solution, right? Wrong.

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrongity wrong wrong.

It's wrong, because the mechanics of Talisman do not allow you to win any of your missions through skill, and there is no way to skilfully complete a mission within a time limit. If you get three talismans on a mission it is because you got lucky.

As an example, consider the first mission for the troll character: He has to lose a life, use his special skill to regenerate that life, and then fight a strength nine monster. To get three talismans, you need to do all this within ten turns. Doesn't sound too hard, especially when you realise they have stacked the deck of adventure cards so that the first card you draw is always the pestilence event that forces you to lose one life.

The problem is that the troll's special regenerate ability can only be used if you roll a six for movement. On my first try at this mission, 13 turns had elapsed before I rolled the six I needed to regenerate my lost life point, by which time it was already too late to claim three talismans.

Where you land on the board each turn is determined by dice roll, so any mission that involves landing on a specific space will never be completed through skill; it will only ever be completed because you were lucky enough to roll the exact move you needed to land on that space. After bouncing backwards and forwards over the space where the two ogres were holding the princess captive for more than ten turns, I realised there was literally no fun to be had here.

Now some people will be saying, "What did you expect?" I guess that's a fair point. People have never won games of Talisman because of their tactical acumen. But for an app like this, the lack of any decision-making makes the whole thing seem so totally pointless.

There are other issues as well, but those are related to the way the app is designed. For example, rolling the dice involves touching a small dice on the screen. Using a special ability, or selecting to pick up an item, involves tapping a tiny symbol in the top corner of the screen (which is incredibly close to the button for NOT picking up the item). It's a bit clunky. Not anything that makes the game unplayable; but stuff that could have been better.

All told, I am not a happy bunny. I am sure that when the multi-player option becomes available, I will grab it, so that I can sit with my wife and play a few rounds; but I don't think even that will save this app for me. I certainly don't think it is a game that would be any fun to play remotely with people from all over the world, because you still miss out on the jokes and good humour that were such an integral part of my enjoyment of Talisman all those years ago.

Ultimately, what playing this app has made me realise is that Talisman really isn't an adventure when you don't have some friends to take the journey with you.


  1. Thanks for the (entertaining) review. I'll pass on this one!!

    1. Thanks for stopping by. I would definitely recommend passing. I don't think even the multiplayer option can save this one.

      This is definitely a game to play the traditional way, with a group of friends who don't really want to think too much about what they are doing.


Go on, leave me a comment. You know you want to.