Review: Talisman: Horus Heresy - Prospero24 Nov 2016 1
Review: Talisman: Horus Heresy - Prospero
Released 20 Oct 2016
Although I’ve found it necessary to pretend otherwise on a surprising number of occasions, I have an above average familiarity with Warhammer 40k lore, maybe not enough to win a free pitcher of beer at Games Workshop pub trivia night, but I’m definitely up there. So I was surprised to find myself back on the old Lexicanum to figure out exactly what went down on Prospero to warrant an expansion to Nomad Games’ flashy 2016 release, Talisman: Horus Heresy.
Well it turns out the Emperor of Mankind put Magnus and his Thousand Suns Space Marine Legion on double-secret probation for Imperium conduct violations and overfamiliarity with the Warp.
The God-Emperor secretly sent Wolf King and general killjoy, Leman Russ, to the Thousand Suns’ home planet of Prospero to revoke their charter, resulting in the rollicking shenanigans the grim darkness of the far future has always been known for. Animal House analogies aside, this period of 40k “history” is pretty well fleshed out, with an ongoing series of novels (currently up to at least Volume 40) and a separate board game specifically about the events on Prospero. I can see why they’d choose this narrow slice of the overall Horus Heresy story to hone in on in a game where one of the selling points is that you can play both sides; the bad guys (Thousand Suns) were caught up in circumstances beyond their control and the good guys (Space Wolves) were being dicks. It’s about as morally gray as things get in the battle between Space Jesus and the Chaos Gods.
If Prospero were a tabletop expansion, I’d describe it as “big box,” which is to say it includes a board extension in addition to new cards and characters. However, while Talisman: Horus Heresy is clearly based on Fantasy Flight Games’ Relic, it’s not nearly the direct port that Nomad Games original Talisman: Digital Edition is, and the Prospero expansion material is not found in either of the two available expansions for the tabletop game as far as I know. What you’re getting for your $3.99 (at time of writing) is two new Space Wolf warlords, two new Thousand Suns Warlords and one Librarian that swings both ways. Each warlord comes with unique cards (“dataslates”) that will be shuffled into the encounter deck when they’re involved in the game and represent their personal entourage and thematic events. Since psykers are a big theme of this expansion, a new set of incantations will replace the stratagem deck for the librarian characters. Prospero itself is represented as a new 3x3 board you access from the Prospero traitor world on the outer ring of the original map.
There’s a bit less content in this expansion than in a comparable expansion for Talisman: Digital Edition, The City Expansion Pack, for instance, but it feels like a lot less because of how it’s doled out. Many new cards won’t end up in your game unless you’re taking specific characters, and while this may be the right choice thematically, it doesn’t have the same punch when it comes to adding variety to individual games. This expansion is also missing something I feel is necessary for any Talisman add-on, an alternate victory condition. The original victory condition for Talisman is pretty atrocious (spend an indeterminate number of turns making coin tosses until all other player characters are dead – may the generic fantasy gods help you if one of your opponents chose the regenerating Troll), and Horus Heresy improves on this a bit, but it’s still a slog (succeed at 5 challenging combat checks in a row, starting over with each failure). Taking all the existing content for Talisman there are plenty of options for tweaking the game end to your liking, but nothing, yet for Horus Heresy. I rushed to the center square of the new Prospero board hoping that it represented an alternate path to victory, but you’re actual reward for taking the scenic route is pretty minor. Talisman: Horus Heresy might be the only game I’ve rage quit even when my victory was a mathematical certainty.
Unless you’re playing local or online multiplayer (and you better bring friends because the public servers are pretty sparsely populated) victory is basically a mathematical certainty. The AI was never good, but there’s no hope of the computer opponent using new characters effectively. In one game, the computer kept throwing itself at this enemy, one which allowed the players to engage in melee or ranged combat, and it selected the combat it had worse stats in every time. You need to use AI players if you want the full Horus Heresy, semi-cooperative team play experience when no human players are available, but you shouldn’t expect a satisfying victory.
Prospero does nothing to address my main complaint about Talisman: Horus Heresy, and in fact exacerbates the core problem. This goes back to my intro, to my time spent hyperlinking my way through the story of the sack of Prospero. The great strength of Talisman, and what I believe has made it an enduring tabletop presence for over three decades is the emergent story. Oftentimes, the more a tabletop adventure game tries to tell the story it wants to tell, the more spectacularly it fails, but by dumping out a toy-box of fantasy tropes and taking advantage of the human urge to find familiar patterns, Talisman becomes a veritable generator of memorable moments. Talisman: Horus Heresy gets in its own way constantly. Every dataslate and encounter is prefaced with a dense paragraph of flavor text, while the image may mean little. Much of the equipment is represented by meaningless schematic drawings, and I found myself having to scroll down the item description until I found the pertinent information “+1 close combat.” In Talisman, I might flip over a card and immediately be presented with a sword, “sword,” it says “+1 to your strength during battle.” Later, I might flip over a new sword, this one is called “cataclysm blade” and it’s on fire, I bet it does more than +1 damage.
Players will either be familiar enough with the story told in the Prospero expansion that they might enjoy being an active participant, or they’ll be as lost as I was. For the first group, there are better gaming experiences with mechanics more suited to the subject matter than a roll-and-move adventure game. For the latter group, you might as well go read the book, because Prospero is not interested in enlightening you. Or maybe just go read the iOS gamebook, Legacy of Dorn: Herald of Oblivion, which is an excellent case study in staying accessible and true to your source material. Look, the Space Wolves are awesome, I get it, and if you’re an absolute Adeptus Astarte fanboy this might be a worthwhile purchase, but I don’t think the gameplay tweaks presented in Prospero are worth the outlay of Apple store credits nor are they enough to rescue Talisman: Horus Heresy from the fate of being Jeb Bush to Talisman: Digital Edition’s George W. Please clap.