Review: Talisman: The Harbinger21 Dec 2017 1
Review: Talisman: The Harbinger
Released 14 Dec 2017
The Harbinger expansion brings signs, wonders and terrors to the world of Talisman. Lest you think this small box expansion's apocalyptic theme is just for show, know this: the Harbinger sets a doomsday clock ticking down as its stack of sevenfold omens depletes until the world ends and all players lose. The shift in risk assessment between 'reach the win condition first' and 'win before x' reshapes the whole game and this change alone is enough to merit the expansion's ticket price. But Harbinger does not stop there: it adds eschatological monsters, cursed objects, and terrain cards to the mix. While it does not play nicely with the full suite of Talisman add-ons, the Harbinger represents some of the game's best ideas to date, packed tidily into a rather compact card set.
During game setup, one of four possible Omens is selected and placed alongside the play area. The four possible ends of the world, according to Talisman's soothsayer, are Armageddon, The Rise of the Dead, The Shattered World, and The Stars Align. Each of these begins with a descriptive prophecy card which sets the stage for the other seven Omen cards in their respective sets, which are revealed sequentially during the game and have unique effects, both one-time and ongoing, when first uncovered. Together, the sets work like scenarios, offering a mixture of additional powers and drawbacks while simultaneously placing a Sword of Damocles above each player's head.
How does this end-time begin? Well-before the end-game, because the Harbinger appears on the board immediately once anyone draws an event card from the Adventure deck, after which this prophet of ill tidings will stay in that character's original region of the board and force future encounters there to be drawn from his own deck. The 75 cards in the Harbinger deck aren't all bad news, per se, nor are they a step up in difficulty, strictly speaking, but they do ratchet up the tension considerably. Demons, devils and angels abound, along with altars of vice, biblical plagues, and artefacts of dubious provenance.
The four horsemen represent the most dangerous monsters, for when they are met in battle but undefeated, all players globally lose stats or cards. Almost a full ten percent of this special deck are cards which simply flip the next Omen card over, thereby advancing the end of days and temporarily spiriting the Harbinger off the board until the next event card is drawn. The Harbinger comes and goes throughout the game, appearing for a spell with fire and brimstone and disappearing once the Omen stack is depleting by one. This uneven rhythm, the switching between normal and dire decks, it all combines to create a new kind of Talisman experience which is as pressurized as it is epic.
Even without the headliners, the other cards are individually impressive and distinctive. The plague cards have each player roll a die, then cause effects on the lowest rollers. Cursed objects and followers are like bad pennies: once you encounter them they must be taken into inventory, and cannot voluntarily be disposed of, even when over the item cap. To offset this, the cursed items offer powerful yet narrow effects, like in the case of the Forbidden Tome, which refills the full allotment of spells each turn but also reduces life and fate by one for each spell carried. The monsters are not stronger than average, but usually have twists or unusual conditions, some of which force players to give Strength, Craft or healing to other players, for example. Lastly, the terrain cards represent the cataclysmic reformation of the very earth, replacing spaces normal printed instruction for the rest of the game.
The cards are cohesive not just thematically but also mechanically, doing an excellent job of conveying Harbinger's central atmosphere of desperation and corruption. Power at any cost, which might not normally be pursued at all if time weren't so clearly running out. The artwork is vivid, and the cards clustered in groups that speak to the expansion's unified vision. To be fair, it is one of ineluctable disaster, and might thus be off-putting to those Talisman players who prefer a more scenic, ambulatory marathon experience.
The expansion is technically a small-box expansion, meaning that it does not add any new map areas to explore and carries a small physical footprint for the tabletop game. These distinctions carry less weight digitally, and so I would personally say Harbinger's outsize influence on gameplay makes it every bit as 'big' an expansion as The Dragon or any of the region expansions. It should be played with a few other small expansions, and perhaps one or two corner Regions, tops. Anything further just muddles the water, because while Talisman normally thrives on diversity, the Harbinger makes extra content and completionist hoarding a moot point.
Having never before played this expansion, I was pleasantly surprised and refreshed by the quality of innovation the designers heaped on this expansion. Yes, it streamlines the central formula and sacrifices some of the old touchstones of the game's design in the process. This is precisely what makes it such a positive upheaval, such a nice change of pace for an old, storied game. I was equally dubious when embarking on the first go-around with the app since it had officially fallen under the Asmodee banner. Aside from a slight prompting to create an official Asmodee login account, and a time-sensitive free expansion trial offer, the app is the same as it ever was. The jokes about our new infernal (Asmodeus?) overlords and the rapidly (apocalyptically?) reshaping digital publishing landscape practically write themselves, but in all seriousness, Talisman will likely continue to see a brisk pace of quality, well-tested digital expansions thanks to its new custodians. In short, Harbinger represents a new kind of Talisman which should satisfy those seeking a thrill or radical gear shift. Settle in for a wild ride.