A Brief History of TalismanFirst, a brief history of Talisman. Although it was by no means the earliest adventure game--that accolade probably going to TSR's Dungeon! (1975)--it was the first that was really, greatly successful.
Talisman's first edition was released by Games Workshop in 1983. It was shortly thereafter followed by a better quality, but otherwise similar second edition. These games had the same core ideas: you played a unique character who you could improve by gaining Strength, Craft, and items. You tried to get enough power to make your way to the center of the board, then kill all the other players through the magical Crown of Command.
Talisman's success was probably most notable because of the fact that it was very well supplemented. First up were the Talisman Expansion Set (1986) and Talisman: The Adventure (1986). Many others expansions followed, offering up new characters, new boards, new cards, and generally new adventures.
However by the early 1990s Games Workshop had been sold by its original owners, with ownership going to miniatures manufacturer Citadel Games (through a somewhat more complicated series of shared ownerships that's beyond the scope of this article). Much of GW's focus was thus turned to Warhammer miniatures and other bigger money makers. GW tried to release Talisman in a much revised third edition (1994) which better fit the "cool" new image of the company, but that soon fizzled out.
Fast forward a decade and Games Workshop is now moving back toward the roleplaying and board game industries that they abandoned. Thus a new fourth edition of Talisman is scheduled to be fully released in a few days. It is built largely upon the second edition from over twenty years ago, without much effort to update it, and a result, Talisman now stands as a great example of how much adventure games have grown in that time.
Talisman v. Runebound
In the 1980s Talisman was the prime example of a competitive fantasy adventure game. However, while Games Workshop slumbered for the last decade, a new company usurped their adventure game crown: Fantasy Flight Games. Today FFG's Runebound is thus the prime example of a game in the same niche for competitive fantasy (as opposed to cooperative fantasy, like HeroQuest or Descent).
Thus, comparing the two games shows how the genre has changed over the years. It also offers some good fodder for what adventure game designers should be thinking about when they create.
Character Modeling: Characters in Talisman were modeled by three elements: strength, craft, and life. Conversely characters in Runebound are much more complex. They are have 3 combat stats, not 2, and each stat further has its own combat results. Characters can also have specific skills, and besides life also have fatigue.
Unlike the other elements I'll mention, I don't consider this a straight win for Runebound. There is something to be said for both simple and complex modeling, particularly for games that are seeking to appeal to different audiences.
Randomness: Every adventure game is random. Encounters are usually randomly determined, and the results of those--depending on some sort of task resolution system--are usually random as well. However Talisman really cranked that randomness up a few levels more.
First of all, movement was largely random. You rolled dice, and then you moved the appropriate number of spaces clockwise or counterclockwise around the board, meaning that you typically had two choices. Runebound offers an interesting contrast here, because again you roll dice, but a handful of Runebound dice determines what terrain you can walk on. It's the difference between randomness limiting you to but two choices and limiting you to a half-dozen or more, between whether you'll be equally limited next turn, or whether you're setting yourself up for future play.
Second, the encounters in Talisman are hugely random. You draw a card which can be anything from a wussy 1-point monster to a 7-point dragon to gold or treasure to a talisman that you need to win the game. Compare that to Runebound where instead monster power levels are differentiated by four different decks of cards, which in turn lead to appropriate levels of gold or items drawn from a separate deck.
Power Differentiation: This leads to the second way in which Runebound has dramatically grown beyond Talisman.
In Talisman there was very little differentiation between creature encounter level. Wherever you were on the board, you could encounter any monster. There were only two exceptions: a few spaces made all monster encounter harder; and some tough encounters were printed on the board instead of depending on card draw.
Compare that to Runebound where, as already noted, different levels of monster come from different decks of cards.
However I also think that Talisman has one thing to teach Runebound here: pre-printed encounters can really add to the story of a game. I'm surprised there hasn't been much of that in the newer game.
Time: One of the surprising elements in the evolution of adventure game design is that the time element hasn't changed a lot. Talisman was a 3-6 hour game, while Runebound is more like 45-60 minutes per player, which probably averages 3 or 4 hours. In my opnion, they're both too long, and it's the primary problem with Runebound.
Talisman, mind you, deals with its time issues even worse than its more recent brethren: because characters can get wiped out and restarted and because players can more easily stop leaders, you can have an endgame that goes back and forth for hours. Worse, you can end up with everyone back where they started a few hours into a game. Runebound's newer design has eliminated issues of player elimination and brutal beat-up-on-the-leader sufficiently to keep the game's length from becoming totally unbounded.
(Meanwhile Return of the Heroes has proven that adventure games can be played quickly.)
Background & Story: Neither game has really learned how to tell a meaningful story through a board game. Talisman tried to model it by the set spaces on the board telling a story as a player moved inward, while Runebound tried to model it through randomly drawn event cards and the increasing levels of monsters.
An interesting element of Talisman is that it manages to get away with a pretty straight high fantasy background. Runebound instead turns to a more unique background of dark fantasy with evil dragon lords. This seems pretty common for the more recent adventure games: they're more unique and differentiated with their backgrounds, but thus they also lose some of the easy recognizability of standard tropes.
After my recent plays of Talisman I have no doubt that Runebound is a far better game and that Talisman was greatly hurt by its refusal to be updated for 20 years of game design growth. I think the randomness and the lack of power differentiation are the biggest strikes against Talisman--unless you're specifically playing with a non-gaming crowd who doesn't want to have to think about their moves.
Not that Runebound is the greatest shakes, mind you. It suffers from long games and repetitive play, but it also shows off how much games have improved since the 1980s.
If you'd like to see my earlier adventure game articles, click on the "adventure_games" label just below.