Talisman has been around for thirty-eight years now, one of the elder statesmen of board gaming. It was originally designed and produced by Games Workshop, where it saw multiple editions and expansions, before getting acquired by board game giants Fantasy Flight. They’ve been keeping the expansions ticking over and, in 2014, tapped up Nomad games to produce a digital edition. Talisman: Digital Edition was originally released for PC and Steam, latterly for Switch, iOS, Android and PS4, and – last in the queue, a full seven years later – it has finally arrived on the Xbox. We won’t take it personally.
If you want to annoy a board game fan, just say that Talisman is Snakes & Ladders for adult children. Like all the best insults, it hides a kernel of truth, as it’s a board game that asks you to roll a dice, move your piece, take ‘ladders’ to the inner regions of the board, and try to avoid the ‘snakes’ of other players as they divert you away from the central region, where the game’s won.
There’s a fair bit more to it than that, of course. You start by choosing a character, and there’s an absolute ton of them. They cover all your favourite fantasy tropes, from Clerics to Wizards and Warriors, and even some left-of-the-middle inclusions like Ghouls and Trolls. Each has different attributes, as you’d expect, with Warriors and Trolls having higher ‘Strength’, while Clerics and Wizards have higher ‘Craft’ – the stat that effectively covers magical prowess. There’s also situational benefits, like the Warrior being able to hold two weapons at once, and the ghoul turning enemies into undead followers.
Then you’re dumped onto the outer region of a game board, where you roll a dice to make your move. It’s simple-as-you-like in that sense: you can choose to move clockwise or anti-clockwise, and where you land has different effects. Farms and forests might deal you an Adventure Card, which offer a mix of creatures, weapons, spells and followers. There are other spaces like Cities and Taverns, which have random effects based on a dice roll. It’s in these locations that we’ve been turned into a toad more often than we would have liked.
Talisman has an odd flow to the sixty minutes or so that it takes to play a game. For the first two-thirds, you and your opponents will be looking to buff yourselves, like competitive gym-goers, and you’ll be side-eyeing the other players to see how well they’re going. You’re trying to get your stats as high as possible, so that you have the best chance of surviving a series of trials in the end-game. Combat wins you trophies, and those trophies can be cashed in for stat boosts, while there are plenty of other items and effects from Adventure Cards that will give you similar boosts.
In the second phase of Talisman, someone will make a run for the middle of the board. That’s harder than it sounds, as there are various barriers to passage. To get to the middle region, you’ll have to defeat a particularly strong Sentinel character. Or find a Raft card that allows you to cross a river. Or teleport through a Portal card. There are dozens of ways to cross, and how you do so is down to luck, you and your character’s preferences.
Then you have to get to the inner region, which requires you to bust through a door that requires even steeper stats, as well as a Talisman item. Getting a Talisman is random, so you’ll have to rely on luck or beating it out of another player. Then it’s onto a series of trials that culminate in the Crown of Command, a tower where – on a roll of 4 or higher – you can do one damage to every player in a kind of pulse-wave, and cackle maniacally as they perish. You’ve never felt power until you’ve sat in the Crown of Command.
There’s more to it, of course, but the additional complexity comes from the cards themselves. You’ll be pausing to read cards and understand their implications every turn, and it will be some time before you comprehend the full deck.
It’s a good time to mention one of Talisman: Digital Edition’s failings. We are reasonably seasoned board game players, but – through some quirk – we’ve never had the pleasure of playing Talisman. We’ve played similar games, so we thought we’d be in good stead. Talisman: Digital Edition, however, is unfriendly to the extreme. It takes the ‘contextual tutorial’ route, letting you play first and then describe things later. In our case it just wasn’t enough: we had no idea of where we were meant to go and why, and no situational tutorial was able to help with that. The basics of moving from region to region, what the stats represent, and how to make best use of each character were never fully clear. We ended up watching a thirty-minute tutorial on YouTube.
Once we got going, though, we were golden. If they’d just told us it was Snakes & Ladders, but with some initial Dungeons & Dragons stat-boosting, we would have been much closer to comprehension. Picking some of the simpler characters, like the Thief, Warrior and Troll would have made a world of difference too.
We began to understand its little joys. The strange emphasis on jacking your character actually works really well, as you start getting traction and the game gets easier. You incrementally become a killing machine, which in turn wins you more buffs. Then you’re checking out the opposition, to see if you should be the one who sprints away from the peloton and attempts a charge for the finishing line. It’s possible to get into a doom-spiral, the exact opposite of what I mentioned, as failure after failure puts you too far behind, but most of the time things are competitive and interesting.
It’s all nicely unbalanced, too. Sometimes board games can feel like spreadsheets, perfectly tuned but without an iota of charm, yet Talisman has ridiculously overpowered benefits, and other exploits that we gleefully took advantage of. And it’s fine, as it means that turning over a card is genuinely suspenseful. There will always be a Holy Grail or Dragon that you’ll want to see when the card flips.
The first two-thirds of each game are when Talisman is at its best, but we will admit to being bewildered by the endgame. Once a player is in the Crown of Command, it effectively becomes a countdown to the end of the game. But in every one of our many games, the person who reached the Crown first was the winner, and no-one enjoys the process when they’re there. The person at the Crown has monotonous, frustrating turns where they roll the dice and hope for the 50/50 chance of doing one damage to everyone. In the meantime, the other players are clamouring to postpone death by gaining health, prolonging the whole shebang even further. We played one game where a player was healing constantly, and it took thirty-five godawful turns to finally kill them.
The caveat here is that we’re talking about the Base Game, and the default objective that comes with it. Talisman is one of those Living Card Games where you can pay microtransactions to unlock more cards, characters and objectives, so the dislike that we had for the Crown of Command can be mitigated by spending a bit of cash. There’s also a free-to-try expansion each week, so you can pay nothing and wait to see which cards become available. There’s no mix-and-matching of expansions on that path, though.
We were initially a bit sniffy about the gating of so much content, on day one of launch no less, behind microtransactions (most expansions cost £3.99), and you’d be well within your rights to be pissed about it. But in our case, the number of characters and cards in the Base set felt substantial enough for £9.99, and it’s no different from buying and expanding a physical copy of the game. We eventually shrugged and were kind of fine with it.
We weren’t so fine with the porting. There’s references to ‘tapping’ elements on the game screen, as if we were playing on a tablet, which is an indicator of how lazy the porting can be. How hard would it have been to update the text to make it Xbox-centric? The graphics aren’t as sharp as they could have been, and it’s hard to make out cards that are on the far side of the game board. A higher resolution Series X|S version would have been lovely, particularly when there’s so much going on.
The biggest crime is in the controls, however. There can be up to thirty-or-so interactive elements on the screen at once, and getting to the specific one you want is a headache. Want to see that card on a far-flung region? You’ll need to keep tapping the analogue stick in the hope that it eventually gets there. Rather than chuck in some button shortcuts, like the ability to ‘end turn’ with a single press, as games like Magic: The Gathering – Duels of the Planeswalkers have been doing for decades, Talisman: Digital Edition wants you to work for it. It’s so painful that you simply stop doing certain things. We stopped bothering to look at the items in other players’ inventories, for example. It’s just not worth it.
And did everything have to be so slooooow? Talisman: Digital Edition does benefit from knowing what others are doing, but it’s not the kind of game where you have to scrutinise every move in detail. But Talisman: Digital Edition does show every move in detail, allowing time for players to counterspell every move, among other excruciating waits. A turn can take five minutes, and it’s deadening. There are options to speed up other players, speed up the UI and even skip turns altogether (although it will take you ages to get to the skip turn button), but even that felt interminable.
As with most things, Talisman: Digital Edition is improved with friends. You can play locally in a private game, or you can play publicly. There will always be the physical-vs-digital question here: private play is more convenient on the Xbox, but it will always be better to play round a board and smack-talk each other. It should also be noted that real people are slower than AI, and you can’t increase their speeds with a button press, so a game is only as fast as its slowest member (in most cases, that was us).
After an uphill battle, we can now enjoy Talisman: Digital Edition. Initially, it didn’t want us to play, with its ‘will this do?’ tutorial, terrible controls and interminable slowness. But, after hours of persistence, we’ve found our workarounds. Like the heroes of the game, we’ve overcome multiple trials, and opened the chest to reveal a modest treasure: an esoteric, old-school little board game, half Snakes & Ladders, half Dungeons & Dragons. We might even chuck some cash down for an expansion.
You can buy Talisman: Digital Edition for £9.99 from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S