Fantasy Flight’s Talisman 4th Edition Massive Review – Base Game, Reaper, Frostmarch, Dungeon, and the Highland

What started in 1983 as an interesting idea in board games has become one of my all time favorite games to play in that or this century.  I love Talisman (well, all but the 3rd edition).   I’ve played the 1st edition once or twice, owned everything for the 2nd edition and logged hours upon hours of play, but passed on the 3rd edition to keep playing the 2nd.  When I had to make some tough life choices, the 2nd edition headed off to Ebay and I was very sad.  Fortunately, this little company called Black Isle published the 4th edition of Talisman and sent me a copy to review.  I was ecstatic!  Then they went out of business.  Then Fantasy Flight Games swooped in to purchase the license and they’ve done a bang up job!  What follows is a review of the 4th edition revised game, with every single available expansion thrown in to the mix, as played by 6 players.

Talisman is one of those games that are just damned fun to play.  It’s simple enough that anyone who enjoys playing games can pick it up easily and enjoy the game.  Its complex enough that you can implement real strategies depending on which character you’re playing in your quest to dominate the world.  It is reminiscent of many fantasy based RPGs, yet it’s a board game.  You have characters that you play, dice to roll, and various cards to do different things to you and the other players.  It can be cut-throat and joyfully random as well.  Plus, you can get turned in to a toad, a feature I very much enjoy.  I had the chance to sit down with five other players and enjoy a massive and pleasantly lengthy game of Talisman this past weekend.  Here are the details.

Welcome to the world of Talisman

So what exactly is it that you do in this game?  It is, as I said, fairly simple.  You start off on a game board with three regions.  The outer region(where things are relatively easy), the middle region (gets tougher here), and the inner region (run screaming).   To start play, you pick one of 14 characters that come with the base game.  Your character card will tell you where you’ll start in the outer realm and then you have but two goals in this game. The first is to garner a Talisman, which you need to enter the inner region.   The second goal is to enter that region, reach the Crown of Command and then use that to rain death down on your opponents until you’ve destroyed them all and become master of the world!  MWAHAHAHA!

He did not become master of the world, mwahahaha.

Your characters each possess various traits and abilities, some are shared and some are unique to that character.  Each character has several stats – Strength, Craft, Fate, and Life.  These stats determine how well you’ll do in a fight (Strength) or a test of wills (Craft) and how many lives you can lose (usually 4) before you’re character is killed.  Fate points can be discarded to re-roll a die and hope for a better outcome.  Each character also starts with a gold piece. Gold can be used to purchase items in the game, restock Fate points,  heal lives, or any other number of things.

In the above image (click it and the others for a larger view) you can see the character I played, the Wizard.   He’s an evil bugger – there are three alignments, evil, good and neutral.  In his case, his alignment prohibited him from going into certain places or obtaining certain items.  Although by the time the photo above was taken, he’d been converted to the good alignment.  The Wizard has a high craft (5) and relatively low strength (2).   He starts with 4 lives, 3 fate and one gold.  Lives, strength and craft are each represented by colored cones, red for strength, blue for craft, and green for life.  Fate is represented by cardboard tokens and gold by, well, little plastic gold coins.  The plastic minis, which have replaced previous edition’s cardboard cutouts, are a nice touch.

Hanging out in the Graveyard at the start of the game.

To play you roll a d6 and proceed in one or the other direction around the outer realm.  When you land on a space that instructs you do draw an Adventure Card, you do so from the (now massively buff with expansions) Adventure Card deck.  Adventure cards come in a number of flavors.  Strangers, followers, enemies, events, items and of course, bags of gold.

At the start of your game, your character proceeds around the board collecting items and defeating (or being wiped across the game board by) enemies and discovering events that change the nature of play for everyone.   The adventure cards are numbered from 1 to 6 and when multiple adventure cards are drawn, are always played lowest number first.  Generally enemies come first, which you must defeat before you can get to anything good behind them.  Combat is simple and straight forward.  If I pull a wolf, with a strength of 2, another player then rolls a d6 for that wolf and adds 2 (the wolf’s strength) to the total die roll. I do the same, adding my strength to the total die roll.  Highest number wins, ties are a draw.  Craft battles work the same way.  Of course, being a wizard I also have a few spells up my highly decorative sleeves.

Spells in this game are also available in the form of cards.  They are drawn randomly from the deck by any who either start the game with them, or always have them.  You need a craft score of 3 to have 1 spell, 4 to have two spells and 6 to have three spells, the maximum number.  Spells can do any number of magical things, from turning you invisible to stealing items and followers from other players.  They’re loads of fun, except when someone uses them to steal your followers.

the dreaded Dark Cultist

So, how do you advance in this game?  Unlike standard RPGs, there are no experience points.  Instead, you work to increase your strength and craft scores through a number of methods.  Each time you defeat an enemy you retain that enemy’s adventure card as a trophy.  When you’ve stored up 7 points worth of strength or craft – that is, if you kill a creature with a strength of 4 and another with a strength of 3 you’ve got 7; then you can discard them and add one point to your own strength score.  Same goes for craft.  In addition to this there are loads of items that add to your strength and craft scores.  Also, there are magical means to increase your stats.  Some characters, such as the dreaded Dark Cultist even have abilities that allow them to do so at certain times.  That’s her up above by the way, and she eventually won the game.

Speaking of objects, each character is allowed to carry up to four objects – more if they have a special object that allows them to do so, like a horse and cart or a bag of holding.  Also, you can collect followers in your adventures.  These are folks or beasties that add to or occasionally hinder your abilities and can also give you special abilities.

There are lots of other things going on as well.  For instance, if you land on another character, you can choose to attack them and take a gold, item, follower or a life.  Other folks are also wandering around the realms, causing things to happen that can affect you as well.  Early on in our game I drew an event which caused every character to lose all of their fate counters.

Just before she wins the game

As your characters gain strength and craft, items and followers, you’ll find yourselves adventuring up to the middle realms where things get tougher but the rewards can come faster.  Eventually you’ll find yourself ready to face the challenges of the inner realm.  First you’ll need a Talisman to even enter the inner realm (there are four in the base game).  That’s an item you can’t win without.  Next, you’ll face a series of challenges designed to make it fairly hard to reach the crown of command.  Once you do though, you have a 50% chance of removing one life from one character each turn.  The person at the crown of command does this until they are either defeated by another character that also has a talisman and has made it to the inner realm, or until they win the game.

That is the essence of the game.  Now you know how to play, let’s find out what is included when you get the base set and the expansions!

The base game comes with 1 game board, 1 rulebook, 14 character cards, 104 adventure cards, 24 spell cards,  40 strength counters, 40 craft counters, 40 life counters, 30 gold coins, 36 fate tokens, 28 purchase cards, 4 talisman cards, 4 toad cards, 4 alignment cards, 18 plastic figures,  and six 6-sided dice.

The characters are (in no particular order) Troll, Warrior, Monk, Assassin, Prophetess, Minstrel, Elf, Priest, Thief, Sorceress, Druid, Ghoul, Wizard, and Dwarf.   Each character has varying stats, and each have unique abilities that allow them to do cool things.  For instance, the Warrior can roll two d6 in battle and use the higher attack, the Monk can add his craft to his strength during battle, and so on.

The game itself is gorgeously designed and has very good production value. The game board is large and looks great.  The character cards are wonderfully illustrated, the gold coins look like gold coins – it’s all good.  My only two gripes, and they are minor gripes, are that the characters are plastic rather than actual lead minis (but plastic is a damned sight better than the old folded cardboard jobs) and that the life, strength and craft cones are a bit hard to grasp.  They occasionally would *sproing* right out of a players hands, much to my cat’s delight.

This basic set has everything you need to enjoy a decent game of Talisman.  Expect to be playing with four players for about 2 – 4 hours depending on how crafty and cut-throat everyone is.  Seeing as I have a bit of a sickness when it comes to collecting all things Talisman though, let’s take a look at the expansions!

All of the Talisman collection, on a Lego table, surrounded by lesser games

I’ll start with the first expansion I purchased. The Reaper.  90 Adventure Cards, 28 Spell Cards, 12 Warlock Quest Cards, 1 Grim Reaper Miniature, and 4 additional characters and minis.

The Grim Reaper himself is an interesting element to add to the game.   Honestly I did not think I’d like it at first because there’s a chance of Death simply waltzing up and destroying a character.  But after playing with this expansion, I give it just as much love as the base game.  The Grim Reaper starts his game just outside the inner region.  When any player rolls a 1 for movement, they also get to roll the die again and move the Grim Reaper.  If the Reaper happens to land on your character lots of (generally) bad things can happen at the roll of a die.  The effects range from “It is time” where your character is just blown out of the game through “I have plans for you” where you can gain either a strength, craft, life, gold, spell, fate or teleport to any other space in that region.

The four characters this expansion adds are the Merchant, the Knight, the Sage and the Dark Cultist. Oh the Dark Cultist.  I think she’s one of the most powerful characters in this whole game.  Why?  Whenever you defeat an enemy or another character, you receive a fate, gold, life, strength, craft or spell.  As the game goes on and the characters become more powerful, winning more fights, the Dark Cultists’ powers grow almost exponentially.  It may be even a bit game balance effecting, if not countered early in the game.  And by countered, I mean taken out by the other characters.

You’ll notice that all of these expansions also come with Adventure cards, which are thrown right into the base game’s adventure deck, the same applies to the spell cards.

Next we’ll look at the Frostmarch expansion.  The Frostmarch expansion features 4 new character cards and plastic figures, 84 Adventure Cards, 20 Spell Cards, 24 Warlock Quest Cards, and 3 Alternative Ending Cards.

Here’s the first expansion I picked up that really changed how the base game was played.  To start, there are Warlock quests added to the game.  The base game actually features the Warlock in the middle region and there are a few quests you can attempt to complete in order to receive a Talisman as a reward.  With the Frostmarch expansion, these quests are given a bit more detail and gusto.  They range from sacrificing a magical item to taking the life of another player.  Anything for that Talisman!

Frostmarch comes with the Ogre Chieftan, Warlock, Necromancer, and Leprechaun characters.

Also, this expansion features the addition of alternate endings. Some of the things I enjoyed most about the 2nd edition were the alternate endings, and this expansion brought them back for me.  These are two endings that can be randomly chosen and a third that can be agreed on to use.  They sit in the center of the board in place of the Crown of Command and offer players different ways to win the game.

If agreed on, the Warlock Quests ending can be used.  Each character starts the game with 4 randomly selected Warlock quests.  The first character to complete all four and reach the Crown of Command, wins.  The two randomly drawn endings are the Crown and Scepter and the Ice Queen.

An alternate ending

With the Crown and Scepter is a variant on the standard Crown of Command, except each turn all players lose 1 life.  If there’s another player at the Crown of Command, instead of casting the Command spell, they must battle each other to the death first.  Once active, there’s also no healing allowed.

If the Ice Queen is encountered, the character reaching the crown of command must choose to attack the Ice Queen with either strength or craft.  She has 12 in both, and four lives.  If the Ice Queen is defeated, the game is one.  If she is not, everyone else get’s healed up to full and the game continues.

The Dungeon is the next expansion we’ll examine, and the one I was most eager to acquire.  I had spent many a game session delving in the Dungeon in the 2nd edition of Talisman and I was eager to see if this expansion lived up to the original.  Happily, it does!  This is the first expansion to add an entirely new playing board to the game, in addition to the base game board.  It includes 1 Dungeon Board, 128 Dungeon Cards, 20 Spell Cards, 10 Adventure Cards, 10 Treasure Cards, 5 Character Cards, and 5 Plastic Figures.

The Dungeon (near) and the Highlands (far) and an awful sweater

The dungeon is (optionally) a one way trip, and it can be very hard on your characters, in a good way.  Once you enter the dungeon, you cannot turn back and must proceed through until the end, where you’ll meet and hopefully defeat the Lord of Darkness, and grab some cool loot.   There is a change from the original game, in which with this Dungeon expansion, you can opt to turn back.  We’ve house-ruled it so that it plays like the original, but next game we’ll try it with the “oh crap run!” sissy rules and see how it plays.

When traveling through the Dungeon, you do not draw adventure cards as normally you would, but rather dungeon cards which feature all kinds of new things not normally encountered on the base game board.  At the end, if you defeat the Lord of Darkness (Strength12, Craft 12) you get to choose from one of 10 powerful treasures to take with you.  Oh, and you could also get spit out directly into the Crown of Command, so make sure you have that Talisman!

The Dungeon introduces a new game board!  This fits snugly on to the base game board right at the ruins and gives a nice way for your characters to stroll in to impending doom.  A bit to note about the new expansion board, it is large.  When added to the base game, it makes for a HUGE game board which barely fits on our dining room table.  That’s not to say it’s not worth it, it certainly is!

The Dungeon introduces the Philosopher, Amazon, Gladiator, Swashbuckler, and the Gypsy as new characters.

The last expansion I purchased was the Highland.   Here we have another board added to the base game board in a similar way as the Dungeon, and a bit of an easier trip for those characters not quite ready for the Dungeon yet.   In addition to this you get 6 new characters, three new alternate endings, around 80 Highland cards, and new adventure and spell cards.

I particularly like the three new alternate ending cards.  They’re the Battle Royale, where all characters who don’t have a Talisman lose and everyone who does gets to duke it out.  There’s also the Hand of Doom ending in which a die is rolled and bad things happen all around (my least favorite, but still fun).  Lastly, there is the Eagle King ending in which the character must defeat the Eagle King to win (Strength 12, craft 12, 4 lives).

Set up much like the Dungeon, but with the inbuilt ability to come and go, the Highlands add a bit of space to the game when a large number of folks are playing.  They also add the Challenge of defeating the Eagle King (Strength 8, Craft 8 in this permutation) to obtain some lower level magical items.  The Highland also introduces Trinkets, magical items that are small and don’t take up space as one of your four objects.  They’re fairly low powered, but as trinkets, I’d expect that.

The Highland is a place for less advanced characters to hang out. Somewhere between the outer region and the middle region it offers a good place to find encounters and treasure without the risk that comes with the Dungeon.

The Highland comes with the Sprite, Alchemist, Valkyrie, Highlander, Vampiress, and Rogue.

Simply put, I cannot recommend this game enough.  I’ve had a fantastic time playing it in groups ranging from two to six players, using some, all or none of the expansions.  Each game has its own way of playing out and always has a few surprises built in to it.

This lucky fairy wasn't so lucky for this toad.

If you enjoy the base game, I’d highly encourage taking a look at the expansions as well.  They each have their own strengths and change the way the game is played.  I’ve found that the more expansions I include, the shorter the games get.  Don’t get me wrong when I say this though, that means a four hour game drops to a three and a half hour game.  With all of the expansions, you’ll find yourself with more cards than you can count.  Somewhere north of 320 adventure cards, 32 characters, lots of spells, and quests.  It’s a board game collector’s dream.

If I had to put them in order of purchase, I’d order them thus:

  • The Dungeon:  This is the must have expansion.  Torturous fun.  A new game board doesn’t hurt either.
  • The Reaper: Adds a bit of chaos with the Grim Reaper wandering about.  With 4 new characters and a bunch of adventure cards, it works well with the base game.
  • The Highland: Again, new board! Alternate endings, 6 new characters and a whole new set of cards to play with.
  • The Frostmarch: Alternate endings and 4 new characters are good.  The extra adventure cards are fun as are the warlock quests but probably the most wishy-washy of all the expansions.

The near future will also see the release of the next expansion, The Sacred Pool, due out on November 14th.  This expansion will be similar to the Frostmarch expansion, featuring 4 new characters, new adventure cards and new alternate endings, plus neutral alignment markers.  I’ve already pre-ordered it, as my compulsion demands.

In conclusion, if you love board games and fantasy adventure, if you’re looking for a great way to spend a game night or even as a night off from your regular RPG campaign, I’d highly, highly recommend this edition of Talisman.  Well worth your time and money.

He's either pointing something out, or about to win

[tags]talisman, board games, review[/tags]

17 thoughts on “Fantasy Flight’s Talisman 4th Edition Massive Review – Base Game, Reaper, Frostmarch, Dungeon, and the Highland

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  1. Heck of a post! I think I’ve played most of or all of the expansions, and Talisman really is a great game. It really is a great way to get some of the role playing game experience in a light way, when you just aren’t up to running a full game. Also, who doesn’t like killing their friends?


  2. I absolutely love the Talisman game, regrettably, I have not had the opportunity to play all the expansions. However, I do wish to. All in all, it is a great game, the only drawback is that it costs so much to get everything for the game. All I can say is hopefully this is the final edition so that we don’t have to re-buy everything.


  3. All I want to say is that I really enjoyed your review and I’m having great fun with this game. Definitelly one of the best fantasy board games around. 🙂


  4. I just got the latest expansion, The Dragoning (or something along those lines) and it adds a bit more to the depth of the game, as it is.

    Damn, now I want to play again!


  5. Fortunately, I am going to play talisman this weekend! But I have a question. We normally don’t really know what to do with the gold coins (except from buying things) but I read above that you can use it for rebuying faith/lives? What do you charge for those? And can you use it for anything else?

    Please let me know! Thank you very much!


  6. Hi, nice review, I don’t know if you’ve realized already but the Dungeon Rules allow characters to move against the arrow directions on the board. There is no one way trip. It says… “Characters may choose to move against the arrows if they wish. However, doing so takes them farther away from the ultimate prize, and closer to the Dungeon Entrance”. I had the same doubt when I saw the arrows on the board, they are useless and confussing. But actually I think that house-ruling the game and making it a “one way trip” is a good idea, just because the Dungeon is not that hard with middle-game characters and the direct access to Crown of Command is quite easier than the normal path if you can stay as you long in the dungeon and defeat the Lord of Darkness when you are prepared.


  7. Harley,

    Thanks for the comment! I’m aware now that this is the case. We do house rule it to move only in one direction. It saves the game from becoming a dungeonfest.


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