[Tuesday Night Board Games] Quest for the Talisman

Mega City Carcassonne completed, thanks to Cedric.

Tonight at Quarterstaff, I got two games in. The first was intended as a “quick” game of Carcassonne while we waited for other folks to turn up. To that end, we declared there wouldn’t be any farmers. Unfortunately, that was more than counteracted by the unknown number of expansions mixed in with the store’s copy of the game. In addition to enough extra river tiles for a whole second branch, the store copy also has bits from Inns & Cathedrals, Traders & Builders and King & Scout, if not more.

Thanks at least in part to players not tying up meeples in farming, it turned out to be a city-intensive game. The megalopolis you see to the right came about of at least four of the five players working to either score points, screw others over by making the thing difficult to complete or just see how big we could get the thing — which was my own goal.

It was touch and go for a while as the tile bag emptied out and all the pieces we needed to finish the city were pulled by players more interested in maximizing their own scores than just fooling around. Cedric drew the final tile to complete the city and placed it, despite having only two meeples of his own in the city. Without really thinking about it, I wound up with a majority on the feature, mostly due to placing my pieces on cities that at the time seemed separate, but eventually became part of the urban sprawl. The thing was worth 130 plus points in the end, I think. It doesn’t seem fair to claim it as a personal best though, because we were mostly just fooling around. I was, anyway.

By the time we finished that “short” game, another group had blown through an entire play of Ticket to Ride: Europe, which surprised me when I looked up from the table. Next to us, Brennan was drawing Sascha, John and Nonnie into a demo of Megacorps while the usual suspects clustered together for another round of Le Havre. Luke pounced on Nonnie’s vintage copy of Talisman — printed 1985, going by the copyright on the box — and I eagerly followed along. Until tonight, I had only heard other peoples’ reactions to the quest game, usually polarized into camps of “simple and boring” to “flavorful and fun.” So I was eager to have some experiences of my own to draw on in making an opinion.

Luke and Alicia survey their characters' progress in the outer region of Talisman.

Talisman is about each player having their own character, as one does in this adventure-oriented games, and guiding them through obstacles and combat in order to become more experienced and powerful, eventually passing through three regions on the board, a series of nested rectangular tracks, to eventually reach and try to control the Crown of Command, attacking other players at a distance and, by extension, forcing them into close combat for control of the crown.

But all that’s in the endgame. The beginning of the game is all about traveling along the outer track of the board, having adventure encounters and building up the resources of one’s character. I drew the Sorceress, an evil spellcaster with a talent for beguiling other characters and helping herself to their stuff. Most of the game I spent just wandering along that outer ring, content to explore and discover whatever the adventure deck had to offer. My sorceress accrued a motley retinue of followers, including a maiden, a prince, an alchemist, a mercenary and an unicorn, of all things. Not bad for a scrofulous hag.

It seemed like we were going to spend the whole evening puttering around in the outer region, scrounging for monsters and treasure to build up our characters’ abilities, when Matt’s troll was abruptly transported into the middle region. That, plus the advancing clock, kicked us into endgame play, by the looks of things. Alicia and Luke quickly brought their dwarf and thief, respectively, into the middle region in short order, fairly weighted down with useful bits of gear. I dawdled, still not feeling particularly secure about my sorceress’ abilities — though really, with Craft 9, she was ready to hit the middle region, at least — and not realizing there was more than two ways into the middle region. One of the difficulties to the Talisman board is going back and forth, hoping for a roll of the right number to land you where you want to go. Once I started trying to catch up with everyone else, I just couldn’t land on a relevant space.

Luke made a break for the inner track and the Crown of Command, while Alicia tried to follow suit. Whereas Luke made progress towards the Valley of Fire, Alicia’s dwarf wound up getting right back out the Portal of Power. Matt’s troll continued to stir up trouble looking for dragons to fight. At the time, I couldn’t see myself not only getting into the middle region, but also finding a talisman to gain access to the inner region in a span of time to make any sort of stand for the Crown of Command.

The thief revels in victory as he compels lesser adventurers to kneel or know agony.

After Luke spent a few turns zapping people with the Crown and it became clear nobody else was up for the arduous trek to wrest it from his grasp, we decided to call it. It was a good session and I enjoyed the game, but I can empathize with people who put Talisman down for not presenting many choices — in the end, you go left or you go right — and dragging on.

One thing that caught my attention during the game was the conflict between a narrative-oriented game like Talisman and the player mindset of pushing for maximization of options. Riffling through the deck of characters to find the “best” and then protesting the one just drawn is no good at all and can’t they draw again bothers me as going against the spirit of a game where it’s mostly about what happens on the journey, rather than accumulating the most victory points or whatever.

I can’t say it’s not wholly about winning, but in Talisman, like Arkham Horror, much of what I find interesting about the game lies in what happens to who and how ridiculous it can become, like how the enchantress turned Alicia’s dwarf into a toad, and Luke’s thief just happened to stumble across the mess of treasure she dropped all over the ground. The rise and fall of fortune, particularly couched in the narrative provided by adventure cards, I find more engaging than the actual outcome of the game. Who won or lost usually fades from the memory. The ignominies and triumphs along the way are what stick out in my mind.

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