I want to talk to you about a term used to describe a certain type of board game, one which embraces sitting around a table with your mates and laughing for two hours, all while under the influence of intoxicating liquors and doctor-scaringly salty snacks. I speak of course, of ‘beer-and-pretzels’, a sub-genre of the Ameritrash school of game design that has less to do with who wins and more about the fun everyone has on the way. The cardboard editions of Talisman – and their freshly released, power armoured little brother, Relic – are pretty much the definitive beer-and-pretzels game: gloriously imbalanced, totally luck based, backstabby, treacherous, stupid and a lovely exercise in community story-telling. It is the magic of being with friends and laughing together that gives these games their joy, not their mechanics. Those mechanics are just there to give form and expression to the wonderful joy that is the company of people you love to be with.
You may now mark your scorecards with you guess of how many positive things I have to say about Talisman Prologue HD, which not only features zero multiplayer functionality, but also lacks AI to compete against.
Talisman’s core gameplay can be likened to Dungeons and Dragons aesthetic interbred with the mechanical sensibility of Snakes and Ladders. This is a game of rolling dice, moving round a track and stealing everything that isn’t nailed down. Like many of the loot crazed heroes that have populated damn near every AD&D campaign, you race around a fantasy kingdom murdering monsters, leveling up and completing missions for creepy old wizards in caves. A round consists of rolling the movement dice, picking which direction you’re traveling and then resolving the events at the location you find yourself. While classic Talisman uses this simple collection of rules and the players’ (plural) imagination to create an adventure, in Prologue this, sadly, is as deep as the game goes. Rolling a dice, reading a card and maybe rolling another dice – repeat.
In place of the sprawling, competitive fantasy slug-fest, Prologue offers five solo quests for each of the game’s ten characters, each quest introducing you to the ideas and mechanics of the game. Though the missions get progressively more challenging, every challenge can be bested simply by wasting your valuable free time grinding to level up. There’s never a sense of threat or fear that you might not complete the quest, because you can just cautiously limp away from the danger until you can get healed up. Try that in Talisman proper and you’re more often than not going to get jumped by a fellow adventurer looking to steal your boots and unicorn.
The problem here isn’t just that I’m used to playing this game with other people, the rot lies far deeper. Brace yourself… the mechanics of this app do not work precisely because of how faithfully Talisman has been reproduced. Many of the encounter cards can slow a player’s movement, make them miss a turn or transform them into a toad. If you’re up against three other players and look like you’re doing pretty well, suddenly discovering that you can’t hold all your shiny weapons because you’re two inches tall can be a bit a pain – especially when they get a murderous glint in their eyes and come haring after your piteously feeble amphibian head. Even if they don’t kill you, if they can get to the space you were transformed in, they can steal all your goodies for themselves. In Prologue, however, missing a turn is of zero consequence because every turn is your turn, and getting frogged is just an irritation as you grind those dice rolls to get back to the space you dropped your loot. All of the danger in Talisman came from the other players, without them even the iconic toad curse is just more of your time wasted.
Gameplaywise, what you’re actually paying for with Talisman Prologue is just an overly extended tutorial for the Talisman Digital Edition planned for release later this year. This is several hours of tutorials for a game that I’ve genuinely never seen take more than five minutes to explain all of the rules.
Prologue goes out of its way to capture the essence of the physical product, which is as vicious a double edged sword as you’re likely to find. When reproducing of the art of both the cards and board Prologue excels marvellously and is a great advertisement for the production values you’d expect from a Fantasy Flight published game. Unfortunately, that’s where the positives of exact reproduction end. The Fantasy Flight miniatures, cooed over by board gamers around the world for their attractiveness, just look like misshapen grey sprites in the app – their glowing borders only serving to highlight the difficulty of sculpting models a mere inch high.
In cardboard editions of games, publishers have to strike a balance when costing their product, so they can provide a reasonably priced game to the consumer in a box weighing less than an actual party of adventurers. Obviously, this restriction disappears once the physical components are converted into electrical signals, as is the case in an iPad app. The decision to retain the these odd looking unpainted miniatures just contributes to the overall feeling of apathy on the developers part – an apathy towards creating a product for anyone that does not already own and love a copy of the game.
What actually makes this sort of shoddy implementation all the more frustrating is that where Nomad Games have done their own thing, it’s smart as all hell – particularly in their use of screen real estate. Rather than attempting to render the whole of your character sheet as a separate menu screen, Prologue uncharacteristically realises that such skeuomorphism would be stupid. All of the pertinent information – stats, inventory space, followers, etc. – is tastefully arranged around the edge of screen, providing a neat little HUD.
This is a terrible, terrible app.
Avoid like the plague. Avoid like charity doorsteppers with cholera. Avoid like open sewers, abandoned funfairs and the cracks in the pavement.
I really can’t stress this enough. Talisman is supposed to be an unbalanced, cackling romp with your friends – the perfect accompaniment to beer and pretzels. Talisman will take even the slowest learners mere minutes to learn. Talisman does not require a paid for tutorial and you certainly do not need to waste your money on Prologue.
This summer Nomad Games will release the full Digital Edition of Talisman, which will feature AI opponents; online and pass-n-play multiplayer; more characters; and, hopefully, the actual game of Talisman. If Prologue had been put out as a free teaser to whet our appetite, I’d have praised it to the high heavens; but asking consumers to pay for a demo is insulting and awful business practice.