The answer to your first question about Fantasy Flight’s Relic is “yes, this game is pretty much a mildly redeveloped Talisman with Warhammer 40k illustrations and text”. The answer to your second is “Yes, in some ways it’s actually better than Talisman but not quite as expansive so both are worth having on your shelf.” Thirdly, “No, it’s not any shorter so expect to spend at least three or four hours flipping cards, rolling dice at them, groaning, and laughing.”
If you’re already a Talisman or Warhammer 40k fan, that’s probably all the review you’re going to need to validate a $60 purchase but there are some important details that are worth mentioning. First off, this whole, bloody and really quite beautiful production has been overseen by John Goodenough, the FFG company man also responsible for bringing Robert Harris’ classic adventure game design into its fourth and current edition with a few respectful and now indispensible tweaks. I think he was the right man for both jobs. He gets it. “It” being what has kept the Talisman name in the minds of fun-first gamers for decades.
I won’t bore the seasoned reader with describing how the Talisman engine driving Relic works. If you’re not familiar, it’s a very long and rather capricious roll-and-move adventure game. If that doesn’t drive you away, the short version is that it’s a super-light RPG where the goal is to maneuver your way through three tiers of locations to get to a central objective while you gain levels, equipment, allies, and other helpful abilities along the way.
Mr. Goodenough has taken the core of Talisman and bumped up the complexity ever so slightly by giving characters three upgradable skills, a more robust leveling mechanic with character-specific rewards, a built-in short-term goal concept by way of mission cards, three different types of color-coded adventure cards that give players a touch more choice about what kinds of challenges they’ll face, and power cards that let you use a flat number in lieu of a die roll or as a special effect. Most importantly, there is now the sinfully tempting taint of corruption that often lures players into damnation in exchange for bloated appendages, extra arms, or other abominations of the mind, body, and soul. It’s also another way to get eliminated- get six corruption cards and you’re lost to Chaos.
Although the only PVP is handled (very well, actually) by some mission cards and certain powers rather than direct attacks, it’s a highly competitive race. You’ve got to keep up with the power curve as players move toward the center and the final, grueling gauntlet to reach the ultimate goal- which is obviously no longer the Crown of Command, but 40K-specific objectives. There’s also no longer a need to find a Talisman- instead, you get a titular Relic for completing three of your mission cards and that grants you access to the game’s final stage. As in Talisman, the strategy comes from gauging your strength and taking calculated risks. The drama comes from misgauging your chances and blowing the odds with bad die rolls. There are noticeably more choices, whether strategic or not, laced throughout the game. Many events, for example, allow players a benefit in exchange for one of those oh-so-alluring corruption cards.
The 40K material is rich, vast, and thorough. Everything from Cadian snipers to the Sisters of Battle are represented, Orks and Eldar sharing table time with Space Marine Tech Priests and Genestealers- there’s even a Space Hulk location on the board. The artwork is exquisite, the board looks amazing, and the graphic design is wonderfully baroque, as the Emperor commands. It’s a pity that FFG apparently isn’t allowed to produce full miniatures for the game and instead we get these very nicely sculpted but terribly implemented character busts of the 10 heroes.
There’s a part of me that wants to blast this game for being, effectively, a reskinned fifth edition of Talisman. There’s a part of me that wants to get angry that the really great changes that Mr. Goodenough has made aren’t in the already well-expanded Talisman product line. And there’s a part of me that bemoans the fact that I’ll helplessly buy every expansion for this game that FFG flogs.
Because ultimately I do love it- stupidly, completely, and shamelessly. Like Talisman, it feels like an irresponsible fling even though it’s a few IQ points over its progenitor, it’s the very epitome of the old school “beer and pretzels” style game. You don’t play it because it tickles your intellect, makes you feel smart, or engages you with “clever” mechanics. It’s Big Dumb Fun. But this year’s model is Big Dumb Fun carrying a Storm Bolter, and I am totally down with that.