Review: Talisman: The Dragon04 Oct 2017 2
Review: Talisman: The Dragon
Released 14 Sep 2017
Talisman in general fills me with nostalgia for the games of my childhood, and though it took some time to grow on me, The Dragon deluxe expansion alters the baseline game of Talisman significantly in satisfying and dangerous ways. Set in a fantasy realm wherein up to four players vie to reach and hold the illustrious Crown of Command, the game of Talisman places players on a board filled with threats and rewards, each summoned from the all-important adventure card deck. Inside this deck lay myriad monsters plucked from every sort of fable and folklore, along with followers and equipment to shape the journey.
Players circle around the realm, collecting these experiences and growing strong enough to reach the center and secure their dominion. In the expansion, however, three Dragon Lords have come a-calling; ponderous, heavy, and wrathful with desire for absolute rule. In addition to adding a dual-sided inner region, the expansion also introduces separate decks for the three lords, occasionally replacing the normal flow of encounters. Altogether it is one of the most ambitious and fulfilling Talisman expansions, managing to live up to the game's own breathless maximalism and fulfilling the promise of an epic addition to a game already rife with expansions.
Shorn of all storytelling and immersive elements, the game of Talisman is straightforward: each turn players roll a six-sided die and move the resulting number of spaces in a direction of your choosing. Along the way players will also decide when to cast their hard-won spells, upgrade their stats with monster trophies, and use a variety of abilities conferred by special characters or items. Roughly speaking, the game's stages can be broken down by region, with players circling each of the three zones and moving inward towards the more dangerous sections.
The rhythm and predictable trajectory of this journey keep the game accessible and familiar even as the sheer number of cards and effects threaten to overwhelm. If there is a unique pleasure to be found in Talisman, it is within this crushing mixture of card effects and the surprising combinations they can bring to bear. Taken in isolation, a single card is tame and uninteresting, yet as a system, the sum total soon grows chaotic. A simple fireball spell might be redirected several times, to give a relatively clear-cut example. This is where the app comes in, invisibly shuffling, distributing, randomising and calculating while simultaneously annotating the steps and events of each turn. The niftiness of this automation makes the game a breeze, tracking and manipulating hundreds of tokens and cards while presenting the most relevant bits to the player. Unfortunately, this can occasionally make for a relatively bloodless affair, abstracting the decisions and physical traces of the adventure in favour of a streamlined and friendly experience.
The Dragon's expansion restores some of the game's visceral pleasures, thankfully. Varthax, Cadorus and Gripilus, the three Dragon Lords, each have stories and personalities which map rather neatly onto the existing fantasy archetypes of Warrior, Rogue and Mage. Varthax is honourable but hot-blooded, Cadorus cunning but distracted by greed, and Gripilus a powerful but corrupt conduit of mystical energies. At the start of each turn, a scale will be drawn and placed on the matching Lord's card. If any card reaches three scales, the corresponding Lord becomes King, taking the crown and resetting their scale count to zero. Whenever one of the dragons becomes King, one of its scales goes on the board and will route future encounters on that space to the respective Lord's deck.
Essentially, as the game progresses, the board becomes carved into swathes of territory claimed by the dragons, so the gameplay mirrors the thematic explanation. If a player defeats a creature summoned by the scales, they collect a scale which in turn gives a combat bonus down the road against the respective Lord. It is not just the scope of this expansion's changes which I find so engaging, but rather the quality and strategy they produce while simultaneously adding another layer to Talisman's kitchen-sink fantasy world. In fact, 'Dragon' perhaps shines best digitally, since fans have roundly (and rightly) dinged this expansion for the amount of fiddliness and book-keeping it added to each turn.
Talisman is an epic game, if only in terms of the feats of endurance and stream of table-talk it inspires. This is to say that epics are very much about monumental duration and oral history, which develop their own kind of logic and meaning as they go on and on. In all honesty, the game's decisions are rather mundane, yet through sheer combination and duration, something altogether different and special emerges from the game's entirety. I do have to dial back my unstinting praise a bit, though, because the game's core elements might be irredeemable no matter what to some. So be forewarned: much of how the game parcels out outcomes is decided by dice, or else dispensed by the equally fickle decks of cards.
The word 'adventure' translates here as a loss of player control, of being subject to the events and vagaries of the game. If this is disqualifying for you, then so be it, but if you can summon enough interest and curiosity to stick with it a while, the game will reward you in turn. Because I rarely get a chance to play it in-person anymore, it was a pleasant surprise to find the app conjures much of Talisman's appeal in a flexible and accessible format. Similarly, I am happy to report that one of my favourite expansions is every bit as fun to play on a tablet.