A Fresh Look at Talisman

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talisman board game analysis

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There Will Be Games

Talisman is a favorite game of mine. I play the new revised 4th edition fairly often. It is, deep down, a light fantasy adventure game that can at times be quite cutthroat. It is very much an "experience" game, and a lot of the enjoyment in the game is derived from the role-playing bits, the adventuring and exploring aspect, and in seeing what happens to you and your opponents as you each take desperate risks in this harsh world in an attempt to get ahead. It is not a game of tactics or of mathy optimization. It is a game of strategic decisions, though. FFG has done a great job with the new revised edition, not only giving the game great components, but increasing the amount of strategy in the game (especially with the expansions).  

Some may ask, "what strategic decisions are there to make in Talisman? You roll a die and draw a card and see what happens!" It is true that a single turn is usually dominated by luck; you roll a die to see what spaces you can move to and then you usually draw a card or roll the die again and simply watch what happens to you. End of turn. Within a single turn, your decisions will not usually make a difference ("should I move to the fields or to the plains?"). Occassionally you will draw a spell or have a combat with another player that will really change the course of the game, but this situation often occurs by chance, and it's often a no-brainer anyway (Mesmerism spell... should I take the guide or the warhorse?)

The actual overall strategy of the game is of the "push your luck" variety, and much more "zoomed out" than a single turn. How long do you stay in the outer region? When will you take on the sentinel, or will you try for a more indirect route into the middle region? When do you make an attempt for the crown? You must weigh the Risk vs. Rewards for every long-term decision you make OR thoughtlessly submit yourself to the whims of the deck and dice (believe me, having a strategy or plan is better than not). While individual turns are dominated by chance, if you have a goal or strategy and you play with it in mind then you will very likely do well (other people who don't think there is any strategy to the game will think you sure got lucky). Following is an overview of what I precieve to be the big decisions that every player has to make, and make wisely, in order to do well.

Risky or cautious?

Not specific to Talisman, "how much risk are you willing to take for the better rewards?" is something everyone must ask themselves when playing pretty much any game that isn't a total luckfest or a soulless optimization game. For example, you roll for movement and see that you must combat either a dragon or a garden snake; if you're only strength 5 you'll have to get lucky to beat the dragon, but if you do you'll immediatley increase your strength. The snake is almost a sure win, but it's not a very good trophy. For another example: a cautious prophetess will only use her ability (you may discard a drawn adventure card and draw another which you must encounter) if she draws something really bad, while a risky prophetess will use it much more often in the hopes of getting something better.

This is not really a point of strategy, but it's simply the way you play the game. Riskier players will find themselves more often getting the best stuff AND getting totally screwed the worst. Cautious players, on the other hand, will only be toaded once in a blue moon, but will have a hard time catching up with everyone else if they fall behind. Of course, to be able to really weigh the risks vs. rewards for any action you take, you have to know and understand the game. Know the abilities of everybody's characters, know the board spaces and know what cards are out. I'd like to add that, while a cautious play style isn't exactly wrong, you simply won't be able to keep up with your opponents if you don't take some risks.

When do you go for the Crown of Command?

This is the most important decision you have to make during a game of Talisman. The Crown is how you win the game, so to have the best chance of winning you MUST determine how strong or crafty you need to be to make it through the inner region and then GO FOR IT as soon as you can. Most of the complaints about the extreme length of the game and complaints that battles become too easy are from people who don't understand this point. Once you have a talisman and your strength or craft reaches about 10, you can make it. Riskier players like to go in with 9 or sometimes even less. If you have the gnome, map, or shovel, you can make it with even less; if you have some fate you can make it with even less! If you can go for the crown before the other players have beefed up or before they have talismans, you'll have practically won the game if you can successfully make it. When going for the crown, it usually pays to be a risky player (though sometimes it can hurt BAD, but such is the nature of Talisman).

When and how do you get to the middle region?

The realm of Talisman is divided into two main areas for adventuring: the outer region and the middle region. Everybody starts the game in the outer region, where most of the "nicer" spaces are. The middle region has a good amount nasty spaces that outright hurt you, but it has both the Warlock's Cave and the Temple (the only two board spaces that give talismans). The middle region also has some crazy good adventure card spaces, like the hidden valley and oasis. The catch is: one does not simply walk into the middle region.

High strength characters can beat the sentinel in combat when they're about ready to go for the crown, but if you can find a way into the middle region early in the game you can gain a definite advantage by drawing tons more adventure cards than other people and by visiting the temple (which gives mostly good stuff). If you really want to get in and you're not strong enough, consider buying or stealing an axe and building a raft. There are also some spells and adventure cards that will get you to the middle region but you can't rely on them coming out when you need them; when one of these cards does pop up, though, (or if you roll a 6 at the tavern) you will have to decide if it's in your best interest to take the opportunity or not. Cautious players will be less likely to, especially if they don't have a water bottle. If you are the knight or the monk, you'd be crazy NOT to go to the middle region as soon as possible (they get a bonus to praying at the temple).

Strength or Craft?

Most characters start biased towards either strength or craft, but many characters start with roughly equal values and you have to decide which way you're going to go at some point. If you get a wish granted by a fairy and you just choose to increase whichever stat is the lowest, you deserve to get killed by the Command spell. This kind of goes along with "When do you go for the Crown?"; keep the objective in mind and go for it. You need a high strength OR craft, not necessarily BOTH.

Moving to a specific space or away from one?

While choosing which way to move on any individual turn may not have any effect on anything, if you keep heading towards a specific space, you'll eventually reach it. Of course, you should expect to land on the spaces AROUND your destination as well, as it is sometimes difficult to land on the exact space you want (it's a bit easier if you're the Amazon or Sage, or if you have some fate to burn). Sometimes, you'll also want to stay away from a space or figure (DEATH, for example, or another player who will shake you down if they land on you). Sometimes you'll have to find a balance between avoiding all the spaces or players you DON'T want to land on (or have land on you), while at the same time staying nearby the spaces or players you DO want to land on. You also have to determine how much that specific space is worth to you; you may spend several turns trying to land on a specific space. If the spaces around your destination aren't at least letting you draw cards then you may be wasting your time. If you want a weapon, you may be better off drawing adventure cards rather than trying to land on the village if its nieghboring spaces are clogged full of worthless cards.

Having short-term goals like this can help direct your movement over several turns' time, and will help you get ahead in the game if your destination spaces really help you and your opponents are simply wandering aimlessly. Some common destinations include: the Village (the Thief will want to hang around here early in the game, plus anyone with the hag will want to go here), woods spaces (the Druid and Elf like these), the Temple (the Monk and Knight especially), and of course the Chapel, Graveyard, and Warlock's Cave (if you need life, fate, or a Talisman, respectively). You may not be able to pick your exact space on a given turn, but you can always pick your short-term goal or destination.

How do you spend your fate?

Fate is a great addition by FFG to the game of Talisman. For anyone reading who hasn't played the new version, fate is a resource (like gold) that you can spend to reroll a die. You can only spend 1 fate per turn and it's hard to replenish (though not as hard if you're evil). The effect of fate is to make the "Risky vs. Cautious" play styles even more pronounced. Cautious players will save their fate for when they "really need it" (at the witch or enchantress, for example). Spending fate cautiously, bad things will happen to you less. Risky players, on the other hand, will make even more daring attempts than usual; "well, I have some fate in case it goes wrong" they tell themselves. Risky players can have even more good stuff happen to them, though they will run out of fate long before the cautious players (if you run out, you become a target for all RANDOM spells). I usually see people be a bit more daring when they have lots of fate, but be more frugal with it if they only have one or two left. If the game ends and you still have a pile of unspent fate, though, you were probably TOO frugal with it. Keep your goals and objective in mind and spend your fate however you think it will help you the most.

Will you delve into the dungeon (all the way)?

The new Dungeon expansion is great! Not only does it add some real dungeon crawling to this fantasy adventure game, but it adds a lot more opportunity for strategic decision making in the game (partly because it is freely enterable at the ruins and does not need an exact movement roll). Now, instead of two main regions for adventuring (outer and middle), there are three. The Dungeon makes things much more interesting, because now it is possible to win the game and not even step foot in one of the regions; the Dungeon is purely optional, but if you DO enter it and manage to defeat the Lord of Darkness by 8 or more, you can skip the middle region altogether and most of the inner region! The Dungeon itself is a dangerous place, but you can get some really great stuff if you make it through, making it perfectly suited to the risky player. It is also great for the really crappy characters; if you run into the Dungeon as soon as the game begins, you'll either get some great stuff or you'll be ripped to shreds and get to quickly draw a new character. It's win-win!

If you do enter the Dungeon, you have to decide when to fight the Lord of Darkness (or not to fight him at all). Are you OK with just a treasure, or do you want to be sure you'll make it to the Crown? When to fight the Lord of Darkness is a tricky decision, similar to the decision of when to tackle the inner region. Beating the LoD and NOT going to the crown will mean getting spit out far from the Dungeon enterance; if you don't have enough strength or craft to make it through the inner region then you have to weigh this decision carefully. If you don't defeat the Lord of Darkness by 8 or more, you should choose your treasure wisely; each treasure is really good in its own way but not useful in every circumstance. If you don't have a talisman but you are strong or crafty enough to make it through the inner region, you may just want to take the talsiman for your treasure and go for the Crown.

In any case, you'll now have to decide whether you go through the dungeon or the inner region to try to win. The dungeon route relies heavily on combat, while the inner region relies heavily on non-combat stat checks. Plus, with all the combat-boosting stuff included in the Reaper and Dungeon expansions, beating the LoD by 8 before your'e strong enough to make it through the inner region isn't actually that hard. Multiple paths to victory are a great thing.

What I'm really trying to say is; 

I have a friend who loves to play Talisman. He has a blast. He never wins, though. He knows the rules but doesn't understand the nuances of the game. Talisman is not as skill dependant as Chess by any means, but it's far from being a total luckfest either. It's a game of risk management; you have to weigh the risks and rewards of each decision. Push your luck when you feel it's worth it. Put yourself in a position where you can benefit the most and get screwed the least from chance occurances. Know the game and know what's going on. If you just wander around letting things happen to you, you will be surprised when someone gets to the Crown of Command way before you thought they would and you get zapped with the Command spell.

All that being said, Talisman is still at its heart an "experience" game. If you have a good plan and know what you're doing, you'll probably win... but you might not; you have to take a lot of risks to get ahead in Talisman, and sometimes you get completely screwed as a result. Try to enjoy the journey, no matter how many times it kills you. Play smart, and enjoy being the "one with all the luck"!

There Will Be Games talisman board game analysis

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