Dice with Death artwork from the Talisman board game revised 4th edition.
As a child, I would play the popular family game The Game of Life with anyone who was willing. Most of the time I would just play the game alone, making up the rules as I went along, exploring each step of this imaginary peg-people family's life as they determined their careers, procreated and met the imaginary trials that "life" would present them. Absent were the morbid trials that real life presents many of us; deadly illness, violence, and the cut-throat brutality of business life. Sure, the game presents financial challenges, but overall, the unforgiving reality of the human condition is poorly reflected in this game, and for good reason. It is a family-friendly game, after all.
So where do we look for a gaming experience that, to some degree reflects the real struggle of mankind? One game comes to mind above all others, Talisman: The Magical Quest Game. Sure, there are other options to consider, but Talisman is a classic for a reason. Talisman is an allegory packed into a simple game of "heroes" seeking the ultimate power, the "crown of command". There is much we can learn about ourselves as human beings by playing this polarizing game. So let's do a deep dive, and unpack Talisman's life lessons.
Talisman Reminds Us That We Are Not All On The Same Level
Perhaps the most evident thing Talisman teaches us right out of the gate is that we, as individuals, are not all on the same playing field. When choosing your character (which we typically do semi-randomly), you are presented with an assortment of marvelous creatures capable of wondrous powers. The Assassin, for example, can delete anything (or anyone) they find to be bothersome. The Troll begins the game with a giant amount of strength and the ability to regenerate. And don't get me started on the Prophetess, who can literally choose her encounters at will. Then there is the Minstrel, who can play animals' favorite jams on his guitar loot thing. The Troll is the physically blessed athlete. The Prophetess is that girl (or guy) you know with the looks, that has everything go her way. And the Minstrel is the struggling musician of the game. Don't mistake my tone here, I'm not bitter or mad at life, just a realist that appreciates this game's ability to capture reality and bottle it into a gaming experience.
Some characters are just built to take on the challenges of the game better than others, with a mix of impressive physical attributes, skills, and talents. Just like life, not everyone can play basketball at a level good enough for the NBA, even if they dedicate themselves. Talisman captures this so perfectly, as it seems that the more lacking characters have to play catch up from the start, while their awesome counterparts sail to victory more easily.
Imagine the Minstrel facing the Dragon at the beginning of the game. That's like a tourist stepping off the bus and turning down the wrong street in a dangerous, unfamiliar neighborhood. Probably going to get mugged. However, a Troll might be able to handle such a challenge with his giant club (no gym membership is required). The Minstrel has to find a bear or boar or something, and play it a tune in hopes that it'll travel with him, to fight such an enemy (and still get beat on). Such is life. It's no one's fault, it's just something that is important to realize; sometimes others are just better than you. It's OK, you may be better than someone else (bless their heart). That's life, and Talisman illustrates life so poetically.
Playing less than amazing characters also exposes a silver lining in this area, as claiming victory in spite of one's limitations is, in my opinion, far more impressive than dominating something that comes easily to you. Disabled athletes never cease to amaze me, with what they can accomplish despite their physical limitations. It hits especially hard when I look at myself, cheeseburger in hand, knowing that I achieve less with my able body than they do with their disabled bodies. But I digress.
Talisman Captures Our Insatiable Lust for Power
In Talisman, the "rat race" is blatantly put on display. The outer region of the games' board represents humble beginnings, the place where ambitious, newly minted heroes learn their craft (pun intended). But as your eyes move toward the middle regions, you see far less greenery.
The middle zones feature dry, desert terrain, foreboding figures, and peril. The center of the board showcases the ultimate prize, a crown that sits atop a narrow staircase, only accessible by traveling through what can fittingly be described as hell. Is there a better picture of the climb we make in attaining prominence and position? It is almost like we are engineered to climb the ladder of success. I believe it is a part of our fallen nature; we lust for the crown. We are so quickly willing to seize the talisman (the opportunity) to break down the door of decency, to traverse hades for this prize. As we pursue this prize through the Valley of Fire, we lose ourselves, piece-by-piece. With each failure, there's the chance that we have to start over again.
What's even more interesting about this allegory is, once a player claims the crown, whether they are a Priest or a Monk, Troll or Sorceress, the game is won by blasting the other players with the command spell. Your opponents don't meet a quick death either, as it often takes several blasts to kill an opponent's character for good. So it's a slow, painful death. It's the 9-to-5 of board game experiences, can you work hard enough to make it through hell, just to wrestle the crown from your opponent to claim the power for yourself? Can you then use that power to blast anyone else who may seek your status for their own?
Don't mistake what I am saying here, I am not being critical. I'm just saying that the game is a great way of understanding the human condition. I'm not trying to inspire social change or advocate for anything with this piece. I simply want to point out the brilliance of Talisman's narrative design. We all wrestle with this concept in various areas of our lives. There is always a hierarchy that we are attempting to scale, whether it is to be the prettiest, smartest, or most "virtuous" of our lot. We are willing to destroy others in our pursuits as well; in fact, this may be our subconscious goal. At best, we want to be among those who have scaled the treacherous steps to the crown, to shine among those who laid their hands upon it. I'm not saying everyone does this, but they probably do.
Finances in Talisman
In Talisman, money (or gold) is actually valuable and can be difficult to come by. I love this about the game, as in many games like this, it seems like making bank is a breeze, and is often expected at the end of an adventure (I don't include HeroQuest in this statement). Usually, characters begin with a single gold, but this isn't always the case, and some characters' abilities lend themselves to grabbing cash more than others.
The Alchemist from the Highland expansion is a great example of a character who knows how to make bank, as he begins the adventure with 5 gold, and can essentially turn a turd into a gold nugget if he wishes to. Having played as this character, I found the game to be rather easy to excel in; I hadn't realized just how often gold comes into play.
During a play-through as the Troll, I would find myself bonking other players, shaking them down for their possessions, namely that sweet yellow cheddar. After all, they had plenty, right? I'm the ugly Troll, I should have something to compensate for that, and being "roided up", I have the muscle to take what I need. I admit that during the game, I have never felt bad for bonking weaker characters and snatching their purse, but in hindsight, it really hits home. The allegory here is clear, so maybe I should leave that for you to figure out on your own.
While gold is difficult to come by, it can be lost at a moment's notice. One bad card draw, or an opponent landing on your space to shake you down, and your pockets are empty. I'm sure most of us have had times in our lives where we get a speck of money, only to have the refrigerator break down on us, our car makes funny noises or taxes/inflation skyrocket. Talisman tells this story so well.
Life is a Series of Encounters
I don't know about you, but my life has been a series of encounters, with ups and downs liken to the rollercoaster ride presented by Talisman's encounter deck. I once began an adventure by drawing, almost in a row, 2 dragons, which left my character a bloody mess. I've played games of Talisman where I was rocketing to victory; I couldn't seem to fail a roll, and each encounter benefitted me (or at least didn't harm me), only to hit a string of bad encounters that sent me to the back of the line. Isn't life like this?
I do like how the Devil is a freakin' card in the encounter deck. You literally get a visit by the Devil himself, and if you are good, you're screwed. This is true in life as well, no good deed goes unpunished. Talisman covers all of the bases. We naturally assume that living righteously leads to only good things, but life, as the game illustrates so well, brings good and bad to those who are good or bad. That's not to say that making bad decisions doesn't come with great consequences, like taking on the Sentinel whenever you know you aren't ready or choosing to go on a space that you know you can't handle. But no one is guaranteed to go through life without blessings and curses, regardless of how you live. Maybe we should live a good life for the sake of being good? That may be too deep for an article about a board game.
So, given this, what is the best way to play Talisman? I suggest you approach Talisman like you should approach life, roll with it. Understand that you are not in full control of your destiny, and things happen. After turning 40, it seems like my body is gaining new diseases and disabilities each day. It's like drawing a card from the encounter deck, you never know what's next. Talisman has a way of making people furious when bad encounters come their way, over and over. But you have to roll with it, accept that this is what is happening and go forward. Keep going until you grab the crown you seek, or die a horrible (or comical) death.
I could go on and on about how Talisman reflects real life. I could talk about how it only takes one old hag to destroy your social life, or how no one wants a bottle of water until they are crawling through a desert. I could babble on about how mankind conquers nature and circumstances to enable them to scale the barren, lifeless steps of progress, or how being a Ninja is never a bad idea. But for now, let's meditate on what we have explored here. The next time you play Talisman, remember what I've shared with you, and don't let it prevent you from destroying all in your path to claim the ultimate prize.
(Be sure to throw a pound of sarcasm on that last line)
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Note: The views contained within this article represents the author's views alone, and may or may not represent other's views within Toy and Tee. We're all different here, and celebrate diversity of perspectives.
- Jay C. Shepherd
- Content Creator
- Jay is a graphic designer, board game enthusiast, and professional wrestling fan who loves all things 80's, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and of course, video games. He is one of the rare few that believes that one can be a Trekkie and Star Wars fan at the same time.