Talisman: The Horus Heresy – Reviewed

The intersection of board games and PC games is pretty much my Disneyland. To that end, Nomad Games won me over with their digital edition of Talisman: a board game that is as iconic as it is divisive among tabletop aficionados. Following the success of Talisman: Digital Edition, my foremost wish was for Nomad to develop a digital edition of Warhammer 40K: Relic, Fantasy Flight Games’ tabletop adaptation of Talisman for the Warhammer 40K universe. Because of that wish, reviewing The Horus Heresy required a conscious and persistent effort to not draw all manner of comparisons to Relic. Though the two games may be similar in subject matter, Relic is an attempt to improve on the Talisman system. The Horus Heresy is a love letter to Talisman. That last sentence should tell you whether you need to read on in this review.

The name is the thing.

Talisman: The Horus Heresy is neither an adaptation or an iteration on Talisman’s revised fourth edition. Treat it as a highly polished and beautifully executed total conversion of Talisman with a Warhammer 40K veneer. To approach the game as anything else is a folly on the part of the player.

True to Talisman’s formula, The Horus Heresy is fundamentally a game of luck and internal narrative. Rather than assuming one of Talisman’s sword and sorcery archetypes, The Horus Heresy has players take up the mantle of one of the Immortal Emperor’s loyalist or traitor primarchs. Which brings me to an obligatory paragraph on WH40K lore.

A foreknowledge of the Horus Heresy, as it relates to the iconic Space Marine chapters, the Immortal Emperor, and the Imperium of Man, is not a prerequisite for this game. The Horus Heresy will play out quite nicely for someone approaching the internal history of Warhammer 40K absent a primer or extensive foreknowledge. That said, I expect much of the art, as well as the overall tone of the game, both of which are magnificently done, will seem weird and esoteric to an outsider. Consider yourself warned.

Drawing on the internal history of WH40K in the 30th millennium, The Horus Heresy trades the conventional level grind of Talisman for the task of rebuilding a primarch’s scattered Space Marine legion. On the surface, the change is largely cosmetic. Ranged and close combat stats replace Talisman’s strength and craft scores. Troop transport starships replace pack mules. Powered armour supplants shields. Parsing the more meaningful changes to Talisman’s fundamentals requires that players dig a little deeper.

For example, the fluid nature of Talisman’s good, neutral, and evil alignments theoretically worked to facilitate player versus player combat. However, I’ve always observed a culture of Entente Cordiale in the game. Talisman only gets cutthroat, in my experience, in its mid- and late-game. The early movements are often dominated by an expectation of civility, principally due to the potential for random encounters to be spectacularly punishing on low-level characters. The Horus Heresy codifies this practice by setting the game as a struggle between loyalists and traitor forces, not individual heroes.

In a four player experience, the standard for The Horus Heresy, two players will fight for the Emperor and two will fight for Warmaster Horus. Whatever player wins the game, also produces a win for their faction. This draws clear battle lines between players, making PvP less of a free-for-all and more of a concerted, if sometimes chaotic, effort. Building upon these lines in the sand, Nomad Games spawned some novel player versus environment interactions.

No longer are encounter cards simple monsters to be slain. Almost everything has rules governing interaction with either loyalist or traitor players. Units from within a player’s legion can be assimilated on a successful roll. Allied legions remain on the board to help in future encounters – at least until they are destroyed by the opposing force or assimilated by a partner.

This change adds something new to what is otherwise Talisman’s standard and relentless push to level-up. The Horus Heresy wants players to consider the consequences of the enemy’s actions for their team. Though the math of leveling up (essentially a race to approximately level 16 ranged or melee combat) doesn’t change much from Talisman to The Horus Heresy, the internal narrative and the strategy that comes from abandoning pure self-interest makes the experience all the more unique.

No matter which side of the heresy a player stands on, the true enemy of the game remains the dice. The primacy of random chance is why The Horus Heresy is still Talisman, despite a few subtle mutations in the game’s DNA. Where Relic attempts to address this issue, The Horus Heresy embraces the small-c chaos. Fighting against bad rolls, hedging bets with a limited number of re-rolls, and hoping that the number you need finally comes up, is part of the Talisman experience; The Horus Heresy is utterly faithful to those roots. As I said at the top of the review, everything is in the name.

For Talisman aficionados, or Warhammer 40K fans interested in something new, albeit familiar, The Horus Heresy is almost certainly going to find a good home. The presence of day-one DLC might seem irksome, but the core game has more than enough depth and replay value to justify the game’s rather modest point of entry.

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