John Goodenough

John Goodenough has a remarkable pedigree in the gaming world with several design credits under his belt – Runebound, Tide of Iron and World Of Warcraft: The Board Game to name a few. He’s even contributed artwork to several other titles from Fantasy Flight Games.

He has now been unleashed on the world of Talisman with the recently released Revised Fourth Edition and The Reaper, an expansion which adds a whole bunch of new cards along with an interesting new danger in the form of the Grim Reaper!

John has kindly agreed to answer some questions for Talisman Island about the new edition and has given a small glimpse into the whys and wherefores of the new design choices that were made for the game.

So, to get straight into it –

What is different in the Revised Fourth Edition of Talisman and why were those changes made?

Most of the changes to Talisman Revised 4th Edition fall into two categories: rules clarifications and game components.

Rule Clarifications – The first step during development of the Revised 4th Edition was to refine the rules and eliminate ambiguities that have lingered through the previous versions. Many of the old game terms were defined to clear up any confusion and some additional terms were introduced for further distinction and clarity. One example is how the term “Weapon” is now defined. Characters have always been limited to using one weapon during attacks (with the Warrior being a special exception, of course). However, previous editions never indicated which Objects counted as weapons. Obviously the Sword and Axe were considered weapons, but some items like the Gauntlet of Might and Crystal of Power were rather ambiguous. To clear up any confusion, the keyword Weapon has been added to appropriate Objects. Some rules regarding the nuances of encounters and evading have also been changed. These are reviewed in greater detail when we discuss fate in a later question.

Game Components – Most of the components in the game received a facelift, and in some cases, a complete makeover.

Characters – Character figures have finally evolved from their two dimensional prison to their full three dimensional glory. The other perk of using plastic miniatures is that players will never again have to worry about their character card slipping off its base.

Cards – All of the Adventure, Spell, Purchase, Talisman, and Alignment cards in Talisman Revised 4th Edition were resized to fit FFG’s standard card stock. However, an even larger change involves the new card back designs. In order to facilitate the internationalization of Talisman in ten different languages (and counting), the card backs could not feature any text.

Besides reformatting card templates, the most significant change to the Adventure deck was a small adjustment to the ratio of Enemies that fight with Craft. Previous editions had far more creatures in the game that attacked with Strength. The few creatures that attacked with Craft had fairly high values, making it extremely difficult for weaker characters to gain enough trophies to increase their Craft. In the meantime, characters seemed to accumulate gold faster than they could spend it. The solution to both of these issues was to replace a few Bags of Gold cards with more low level Craft using Enemies. Now players have greater opportunities to fight Enemies with an equal level of Craft, leading to more gradual and consistent character progression.

Strength, Craft, and Life Counters

The counters from the Black Industries edition featured different values that ranged from one to four. The numbers on the counters were not only hard to read, but sorting through a bag of counters to find one with the correct value was a hassle. The colored cones used in Talisman 3rd Edition seemed like a more practical solution, so we acquired the production mold from the good folks at Games Workshop. The cones are easy to identify by their values and can stack to save on table space.

Box Insert – With a little foresight, the plastic box insert was designed to accommodate future expansions. That way players can fit everything into one box for better organization and easier transport. Even these small details help enhance the quality and enjoyment of the game.

Dice – The game dice may be a fairly minor component, but even these received a close look on how to improve their quality. The dice in the Revised 4th Edition feature an engraved Talisman symbol instead of printing the the Talisman icon directly on the die face, ensuring that the symbol will not wear off over repeated plays.

Fate – Fate is a new component that is discussed in greater detail below.

What is Fate and can you go into the reasons for adding the new attribute?

There is an article that I wrote for FFG’s Talisman page called The Vagaries of Fate which covers how fate works and its impact on the game.

What I would like to do here is discuss the development of fate in greater detail, as well as some of the decisions that were made along the way. By gaining a better understanding of the development process, readers may see how fate enriches the playing experience and adds to the long term health of the game.

If you look at Talisman from a designer’s point of view, there is light side and dark side to the game, with each side being opposite in nature. The light side of Talisman is a character progression game where characters get stronger to defeat greater challenges, which helps them become stronger to defeat even greater challenges, etc. The dark side of Talisman is a setback game with encounters that strip away your hard earned gold, Followers, Objects, Strength, Craft, and even life points. Having your character killed by a fire breathing dragon is just one of the many dangers that a character must deal with. Other players can also hinder your progress with powerful special abilities and nefarious Spells. And let’s not forget about the devastating yet hilarious effects that turn your character into a slimy little Toad!

Both the light and dark side of Talisman are essential, and you can’t have one without the other. The trick is to maintain a balance so that the two opposing sides complement, not overwhelm, each other. If players progress too easily or rapidly, then the game feels less challenging and the reward of winning less satisfying. On the other hand, if players suffer too many setbacks then the game seems futile and players get discouraged.

For the most part, fate gives players an advantage (although I have seen capricious use of fate turn overconfident players into Toads more often than not). The effect is that Talisman leans slightly towards the light side of character progression. However, if we look at fate in the big picture, you will find that a few rule changes also tip the game towards the dark side. These rules changes not only make the game more dangerous and exciting, but also help maintain the balance of Talisman’s light and dark sides.

The most significant of these changes revolves around the rules for evading. In previous editions, characters could evade just about anything including the Hag, Imp, and Raiders. The Revised 4th Edition rules only allow characters to evade creatures (opponents that attack with Strength or Craft) and other characters. This change was also made in order to make the rules for evading as clear as possible, eliminating instances prone to misinterpretation. Some of the most common rules debates arose from what encounters could or could not be evaded. If a character can evade the Leper, why can’t the Pestilence card also be evaded? Now these types of disputes should be eliminated, or at least greatly reduced.

Another change to the rules is that characters must encounter Stranger and Place cards and may not simply ignore them. I find that the one of the most interesting aspects of Talisman is the story that unravels as players resolve encounters. As the game progresses, each player tells an epic tale with their character. Landing on a space only to do nothing creates an intermission in the story, and is just plain boring for everyone. Whether the outcome is good or bad, I want players to explore something new and face different challenges each turn. “Doing nothing” is the least desirable outcome, which is why this option was largely removed from the game.

I should point out that while players must resolve Stranger and Place encounters, fate grants them even more options and choices on how they react to the challenges. Let’s use the Witch for this example. You are down to only one fate and your movement roll will place your character on the Witch – who might turn you into a Toad – or the Desert space which will cost you a life. You cannot evade the Witch, but you do have the option to spend your last fate to reroll the movement die in hopes of avoiding her space and the Desert in the first place. Then again, perhaps it would be best to land on the Witch instead of rerolling your movement and hope that fate can save you if the encounter goes poorly. Maybe you’ll even get lucky and roll a favorable result. But why is the player sitting across the table looking so smug at your dilemma? Is he holding the dreaded Random Spell and just waiting for you to spend your last fate before casting it on you? Would using up your last fate leave you vulnerable to attack, since the Warrior is only a couple spaces away? How long will it take before you have an opportunity to gain more fate tokens? Can you really hold out that long?

As you can see, players are still faced with many intense decisions, adding to the excitement of each encounter. Just remember that fate is a limited resource and makes no promise that it will reward you with the roll you desire most!

So what does all of this mean for the future of Talisman? Whenever a new component or rule adds to the light side of Talisman, the balance will be maintained, and something will be added to the dark side. Upcoming expansions will introduce additional opportunities to gain fate – as well as other bonuses – but an equal amount of dark encounters will be added to the mix. In fact, FFG’s third Talisman expansion alone will feature more “Toadarific” encounters than all of the 2nd Edition expansions combined!

To my mind, the upgrade pack is a little bit of an oddity. You can theoretically upgrade ANY copy of Talisman using it, plus there is the pricing of it. Basically if you check out the full game and the Upgrade, it costs $40 for a board, a full rulebook and some tokens. Why is that?

The Upgrade Pack is the most cost-efficient solution for players who can’t afford to purchase the complete Revised 4th Edition. When you compare the price of the Upgrade Pack with the complete Revised 4th Edition there are many factors to take into consideration. Gamers often overlook these simply because they don’t know what happens on the production side of the gaming industry.

Including the game board in the Upgrade Pack for example, would have a tremendous impact on the cost of the product as well as creating other production and distribution obstacles. The game board alone is a very expensive component. It also measures 11”x11” even when it is folded, so the box size would have to be increased to the same format as the original game.

The current box for the Upgrade Pack is expendable and not as durable as the box from the base game, which is the trade-off for it being much more affordable. The increase in box size to fit the game board is not only more expensive in terms of components, but it also means that fewer packs will fit into a shipping container. Combine this with the increased weight of the heavy game board, and the shipping costs skyrocket. A box insert would also have to be included in each pack so that the heavy game board does not crush the miniatures. Since players are going to put the Upgrade Pack components in with the base game, the large box cover and box insert will be tossed out anyway, literally throwing money away.

It is reasonable to wonder why the game board, plastic cones, a sticker sheet, or some other bit was not included in the Upgrade Pack. However, you also have to realize that there are many production issues attributed to every component.

With that in mind, should I upgrade, or should I buy the game again?

I think it really depends on how often you are going to play the game. If you are a casual gamer and plan on dusting off your copy of Talisman only a couple times a year, then perhaps the Upgrade Pack may be the right choice for you.

If you are an avid fan and Talisman hits your gaming table on a regular basis, then I recommend purchasing the complete Revised 4th Edition instead of the Upgrade Pack. While the new edition is more expensive than the Upgrade Pack, I believe it pays off in the long run with frequent plays.

How do you go about balancing the hundreds of cards within the game? How much playtesting goes on within FFG to make sure everything works as it should?

The playtesting process usually goes through four different stages:

1. Number Crunching – During the first stage of development, I compile three spreadsheets. One form is a complete card list that organizes the cards by type. This allows me to maintain the correct ratio of card types and make sure characters are gaining the right amount of rich stuff (Objects, gold, and Followers) compared to the amount of Enemies they have to fight.

Another spreadsheet is created to list each Enemy in the card set with their Strength and Craft values. Once the data is entered, the spreadsheet automatically shows the total amount of Strength and Craft in the set and calculates the average Strength and Craft value that characters will encounter. This tool is used to balance the power levels of Enemies and gives me a quick reference to how challenging the expansion will be. Spells are also categorized on this spreadsheet by type, in order to maintain a balanced ratio of offensive and defensive powers.

All of the data mentioned above is then compiled onto a master spreadsheet, so I can see how all of the expansions fit together and affect the game as a whole. The master spreadsheet is used to represent the game in a big picture perspective, and is vital for the long term planning that determines which features will be focused on in each expansion.

One thing to note is that making spreadsheets and calculating averages are useful tools, but they are limited because they only take into account what is known. Listening to your intuition can be just as important to help predict future issues, like the fluctuation of card ratios in future expansions for example. If a character’s stats add up correctly on paper but still feel unbalanced during playtests, chances are that your intuition is correct and the character needs adjusting.

2. Stress Testing – The next stage of development is stress testing each card and new mechanic. This process involves comparing cards with all of the other cards in the set and base game. Sometimes the interaction between two different abilities can create undesirable interactions or complexity and stress testing is the most efficient way to catch these problems. Another goal during this stage is to spot any ambiguous rules or loopholes that players might try to exploit.

3. Fun Factor – The goal of this stage is to play the prototype with as many people as possible to see their reactions to game. At this point it is extremely important to use playtesters that give you a brutally honest response as opposed to polite, “that was nice” feedback. The advantage that Talisman has over a brand new game is that there are many experienced players that have detailed knowledge of previous editions. This generally results in more detailed feedback and greater insights. It is also very important to play with groups that have never played Talisman before in order to get a fresh perspective. Finding gamers that have never played Talisman before is a considerable challenge, and a testament to its growing popularity!

Most of the bugs and errors should be fixed at this point, which allows you to focus on seeing how players respond to the game. Are they having fun? What makes them frustrated? When are they not having fun? One of the biggest tools a designer can have is being able to read gamers’ expressions and accurately judge their reaction to the game.

4. Editing – This is when our in-house editors step in to help fix typos and clarify wording on the cards.

There is one additional step that I take with games such as Talisman – games with multiple expansions. This is sort of like peering into a crystal ball and foreseeing future design possibilities. Essentially, this step is a preemptive playtest to judge how the current design will affect the game in the long run. If time allows, I plot out the key elements and new game mechanics for each upcoming expansion. Knowing what lies ahead in the future gives me greater control to move the game in a direction that offers the most exciting possibilities. If each expansion represents a piece of a puzzle, being able to put the pieces together and form a complete picture is the most powerful design tool of them all.

What can we expect in the future for Talisman?

The Reaper expansion is the first expansion and should be available. The expansion after that introduces new characters, cards, and even more surprises. We will be running a special teaser promotion here at Talisman Island so stay tuned for more info.

Are there any interesting tales about cards included in The Reaper and how they came about?

The Black Unicorn is based on a theme of light and dark encounters, which may carry over to other cards in upcoming expansions. The idea is to have hostile versions of encounters that are based on friendly cards from the base game. If you defeat the hostile version, it turns into the friendly counterpart. The Black Unicorn for example, is a hostile Enemy. However, if you win the psychic combat you can keep it as a Follower that works just like the Unicorn in the base game. You can, of course, simply keep the Black Unicorn as a trophy like any other killed Enemy.

One of the Followers is named after my baby girl (one of the perks of being a game designer).

The Lord of the Pit evolved from an idea of having cards placed in the Inner Region to make the spaces more challenging. In the first draft of the card, the Lord of the Pit was placed on the Pit Fiends space, increasing the Strength of the minions players had to fight there. This proved to slow the game down considerably so his ability was changed. I still like the idea of cards appearing in the Inner Region to add an additional challenge, so they may show up in a future expansion.

A coworker’s nickname inspired the title of one of the Adventure Cards.

The Hearth Rune was influenced by countless hours playing World of Warcraft. I designed over 1,000 cards for the World of Warcraft boardgame and its expansions so some of my favorite card concepts were carried over to the world of Talisman. Being able to teleport back to the safety of your home was a neat ability that works well in both games.

Many of the cards in Talisman are based on classic fantasy and mythology icons. Like the original designer Bob Harris, I try to pay homage to the books, movies, and comic books that were influential in expanding my fascination with fantasy worlds. One of the cards from the next Talisman expansion for example, features a golden owl inspired by Bubo from the Clash of the Titans film. I also introduce a few new creatures and personalities to the mix so that Talisman can have a unique identity of its own.

How do you feel that your involvement with Runebound has impacted the development of Talisman?

Working on other adventure games allows you to cross-pollinate ideas. A concept used in a Runebound expansion for example, might inspire several new ideas for Talisman cards.

Even though Runebound and Talisman are both adventure games, they create different playing experiences and each game scratches a very different itch. Working on different games in the same genre imposes additional challenges as well. As a designer, I must stay grounded and focused on the elements that separate each game. The danger is having the design become too heavily influenced by previously published concepts, which results in the two games merging together to form a twisted hybrid. A common consequence results in stripping away the unique flavor of both designs, and ultimately makes the game feel like it has an identity crisis. To prevent this, I create a virtual boundary of theme and mechanics that defines where Runebound ends and Talisman begins. As long as this boundary is maintained, you can pull inspiration from one game and use it in the other without changing the core gaming experience.

Will you be making any FFG site exclusive content to come for Talisman, as has been done for games like Tannhäuser and Arkham Horror?

Absolutely! I am currently working on new cards that will be posted on FFG’s Talisman page. Players can then print these cards out to use in their games. The first exclusive web content will add even more variation to The Reaper expansion.

Do you see any spinoffs coming from the Talisman World?

I certainly hope so. I think Talisman is far too big of a world to be contained solely in a boardgame format, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens!

As a way to finish off the feature I’d like to recount a little tale which relates to the question above about the stories behind some of the cards in the Reaper expansion.

Visitors to Talisman Island may have perused the “Lost Files” section, which has information about a few cards and characters that never made into the various incarnations of Talisman. One of the entries shows a card from Talisman’s prototype, Necromancer, that I had a particular soft spot for. The Bull was only an Enemy Animal with a Strength of 3, but hey, at least the Minstrel could have something else to charm!

When we were asked to give some input into the expansion by Black Industries (which was still called Death and Glory at the time), I mentioned that it would be fitting if one of Bob’s original creations was put back into the game. It was agreed to include the card and I’m pleased to say that in the editing of the Death and Glory material when it was changed to The Reaper, the Bull still made it through!