Review: Talisman: The Horus Heresy24 May 2016 3
Review: Talisman: The Horus Heresy
Released 10 May 2016
I’ve always felt that chaos gets a bad rap in Fantasy, where it is often used as a synonym for “evil.” It’s a central conceit of Games’ Workshops Warhammer 40,000 (40k) setting that the Chaos Gods are the greatest evil in the universe, making the brutal totalitarianism of the Imperium of Man and the cult of the Emperor “good” by comparison. It wouldn’t be grimdark if the good guys weren’t almost as bad as the bad guys.
I like the 40k setting despite, not because of, the way it justifies misery and oppression. I’m more interested in nearly every other faction in the game, from the Aliens-inspired Tyrranids to the cockney-speaking prole Orks, than I am in the Imperium. Some 40k videogames, like Battlefleet Gothic: Armada, grok this, but far more bind the player to the Imperium. Horus Heresy is a “historic” subsetting in 40k, when half of the Emperor’s legions of Space Marines followed Warmaster Horus into Chaos-inspired rebellion.
You can take either side in Talisman: Horus Heresy, taking on the role of commanders who will be familiar to 40k enthusiasts (and only to 40k enthusiasts), traveling to planets that likewise will wither be deeply meaningful or mere game mechanics on their journey back to Terra where they can tip the scales in the final pitched battle between Warmaster and Emperor. Fans of the original Talisman may initially feel that Horus Heresy is little more than a reskin of the classic fantasy game, but there are some interesting new mechanics here, and the incorporation of 40k lore is pervasive enough to please both true sons of the Emperor (gender inclusive language is heresy in the Imperium of Man), and corrupt Tzeentch cultists like me.
In some ways, Talisman’s mechanics make more sense in Horus Heresy than they did in the original. Navigating the Chaos-tainted Warp (FTL travel in 40k) is a halfway decent explanation for the highly random movement in the game, and the increasingly pitched battles leading up to the final confrontation on the Vengeful Spirit hold a coherence greater than the final dash for the Crown of Command. At the same time, the quest for and use of the titular Talisman makes less sense than ever, and there are other inconsistencies that must be looked over, like there being entire solar systems that are closer Earth than Mars is, or the way that a tank can offer larger combat bonuses than a capital ship.
There are new and tweaked mechanics in Talisman: Horus Heresy, and though they were clearly made to suit this setting, I’d call them improvements. The first is that “Craft” has been split into Ranged Combat and Strategy. Strategy is only used for spellcasting (Strategems), and the new Reunion mechanic. Reunion is part of the new faction system, a big improvement on Talisman’s spotty use of character alignment.
The opposition of Loyalist and Traitor factions is written into most of the game’s encounter cards (“Dataslates”) and roughly half of the spaces on the board. Landing on a friendly stronghold presents options, landing on a hostile planet means a fight, or sometimes being on the wrong end of a massacre. Combat encounters all have a faction loyalty: as expected, you fight your enemies, but if there are any of your faction’s cards there, you have a chance to Reunite with them, gaining a permanent bonus.
An interesting and distinctly 40k competitive-cooperative dynamic emerges, as a typical game features four players, two Loyalists and two Traitors. The other player of your faction is more of a “friendly” rival than an ally, in step with the paranoia of the Imperium and the open infighting of the forces of Chaos. The obsessive detail that characterizes Games Workshop miniatures is incorporated as well, as each commander customizes the encounter deck with units from their legion, with appropriate art and slight variations in statistics.
That detail, however, is largely lost, even with the optional high-resolution images, because of the way Imperial cards are suffused with a neon blue glow and Horus’ troops with an equally vibrant red, while neutral elements of the game are a more subdued orange. This is functionally necessary for at-a-glance understanding of the board, but obscures art that was already distinguished primarily by color scheme.
All of Nomad Games’s digital ports are aesthetically pleasing and lucid enough for easy play, but Horus Heresy’s "glowing lights over the depths of space" look is both more ambitious and less successful than the high-fidelity boardgame style they went with for the original Talisman.
I fought to end the false Emperor’s reign with wild glee, then turned around and defended the Imperium with even-handed disaffection. In the end, however, I had to concede victory to the extreme randomness of the game, my bitter rival in the war between my affection for and frustration with Talisman's ruleset. To wit: in one game, playing as Ezekyle Abbadon, I was killed (losing all my progress), mutated into a pathetic Chaos Spawn, killed while a Chaos Spawn, and then experienced an unexpected apotheosis, becoming a Daemon Prince (appropriately enough for Abbadon the Despoiler)... all in half a dozen turns.
Many, many turns later, I was about to strike down the Emperor of Man when a couple of tied rolls slowed me down just enough to allow my “ally,” Kharn, to catch up to me. Pathetically mismanaged by the AI, Kharn hadn't used his special abilities or played a single Strategem all game, but he still managed to land the killing blow, relegating me to second place in a team victory. You might say that Chaos reigned supreme that day, but it was surely the berserk carnage of Khorne, not the infinitely layered designs of Tzeentch.
Existing at the unlikely intersection of Games Workshop's obsessive detail and Talisman's slapdash randomness, Talisman: Horus Heresy becomes more than just another Warhammer-branded tie in. At the same time, you almost have to be a fan of both franchises to fully appreciate it. Nomad had added so many expansions to digital Talisman that it dwarfs Horus Heresy, and there are so many ways to experience 40k digitally now that you can play almost any way you want... at least if you're willing to be a loyal lapdog of the Emperor. Faugh!