Talisman has been around for over 30 years, a boardgame in which you must navigate the rings of the board in order to pass through the Valley of Fire and find a Talisman. This titular talisman will allow its owner to pass into the inner ring of the board and reach the Crown of Command to win the game. Nomad Games is no stranger to Talisman, having released the digital version of the boardgame on Steam back in 2014, and it’s no stranger to Games Workshop either, with its Warhammer 40,000: Kill Team game on PC and Xbox 360 in 2014 also.
The next step was to combine both Warhammer 40K and Talisman, and so Talisman: The Horus Heresy was born. The fantasy heroes of the original game are instead replaced by the characters of the Horus Heresy storyline from Warhammer 40K lore. This whole story revolves around Horus and the Emperor, a lot of demons and deception, all wrapped up in a tasty bundle of betrayal, told through a series of licensed novels – hence the lack of story spoilers here.
You may be wondering why you would want a digital boardgame, especially one based on a Games Workshop franchise that has already blessed us with an abundance of quality games like the Dawn of War series and Space Hulk, both of which give players a taste of war between the various factions of the 40K universe. The simple answer would be to say that The Horus Heresy offers a wonderful, local (and online) multiplayer experience for up to four players, and its simple gameplay offers an oddly relaxed approach to galactic warfare. Think Monopoly, only the Top Hat and the Iron are firing barrages of missiles at one another.
Another thing that sets The Horus Heresy apart from many other boardgames, digital and physical, is its co-operative aspect. With four players (or a combination of players and AI) given a choice of starting characters to choose from, with further character packs available to buy separately, although at nearly £3 each for just two characters per pack, they feel a bit overpriced for anyone other than diehard Games Workshop fans. The characters available within the game are more than enough and don’t really offer much of a different play experience, so buying extra seems unnecessary, but they are split between the faction loyal to the Emperor and the faction loyal to Horus. This means that you play two-versus-two and although only one player can win outright, it does offer the ability to team up and aid each other, especially if it becomes obvious that one player is in a stronger position than the other.
The gameplay itself is at once simple and incredibly complex. You roll dice and move around the board, with every space holding an event of some description. These events range from battling enemy units, navigating maelstroms, recruiting new units for your fleet, all the way to instant loss of resolve (the game’s measure of health) for landing in an enemy-controlled system, or even a mixture of several outcomes. Each player has a Stratagem unique to their character, that can be used before rolling the dice in order to teleport to another space or steal units from another player, to name a couple. Each player also has numbers to display stats for close combat, ranged combat, fate (used to re-roll dice), etc. that can be upgraded via experience gathered in battle. This sort of thing is where it becomes more complex, especially as you need to upgrade your combat abilities in order to face the Emperor or Horus for the final battle, depending on which side you chose during the character selection.
Battles within the game are decided via a number of things, from traditional dice rolling to the combat stats of the individual units and even the added stats of extra units acquired during play. It’s even possible for a character’s stats to be so high that the enemy cannot possibly roll a number high enough to fight back, which gives the player the option to ‘annihilate’ their enemy and kill them in one hit. Unfortunately this works both ways, meaning you can forego a dice roll if there’s no way you can win, forfeiting a resolve point. If you lose all resolve points you drop all current items on the space you died and are sent back to your starting position, adding an extra layer of tension to the game, especially when battling other players.
The board is colourful and nicely designed, looking like a galactic map you might see in Star Wars or Mass Effect, or the official Games Workshop artwork itself, of course. Planets and orange swirly things in space (ten cool points if you get that reference) are all detailed enough but there is very little animation on offer, aside from missiles streaking from one portrait to another during a battle. Considering there are digital boardgames like Armello and Warhammer Quest that are animated extremely well, it seems a shame that The Horus Heresy is almost entirely still. This doesn’t mean that the presentation is poor, as the lack of animation is made up for by some stellar character portrait artwork and the gameplay is accompanied by a fantastic, epic soundtrack. Battles feel intense as a result and explosive booms add extra weight to an otherwise static affair.
Game length is nothing to scoff at, with games running at around 1-2 hours minimum. AI speed can be increased and camera movement can be sped up to keep things moving at a steady pace, but none of this will reduce the game time by any significant degree. Most boardgames tend to last a while so this is nothing new, but videogames usually rely on brevity these days, meaning games like Talisman: The Horus Heresy will not appeal to many of today’s gamers. The good news? The game automatically saves your progress, should you quit, allowing you to resume your game at a later date. This game length does feel a little much as you head into the final stages, often dragging out the last battle to the point that it becomes anticlimactic. This whimpering ending is not helped by the protracted quest for a talisman earlier on, especially as it isn’t really made clear how to earn a talisman in the first place. It’s simple enough once you discover how, but the quest given isn’t always straight forward and usually requires landing on a specific tile – this can take many, many turns if the dice feel particularly salty.
Taking an existing boardgame and adapting it for another franchise is difficult, but Nomad Games pulls it off well enough. Talisman: The Horus Heresy is a game best suited to Warhammer 40K fans for sure, but regular gamers wanting a fun boardgame experience on their PC could do a hell of a lot worse than this.
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