Thursday, May 28, 2009

Look Into My Crystal Ball...

I'm going to make a few predictions:
  • Prophecy isn't going to make it out onto the table much with my group.
  • It will make it out more often than Talisman.
  • Mike won't play it.
  • I could be wrong, I often am. Let's examine the facts.
JD and Alex came over on Tuesday night, and JD was kind enough to allow Alex and I to exercise our old-skool love of one of the most infamous board games ever, Talisman, except in this case we weren't playing Talisman but instead Prophecy. Designed by the same Czech who did Galaxy Trucker and Through The Ages, Prophecy is definitely a bit of a throwback to Talisman-type games, but in some ways better (and in some ways not quite as interesting). 

We played the Z-Man games edition, which cleans a lot of stuff up from the original, or at least so I'm informed. 

The game is played on a star-shaped board that is really a big circle scrunched up to make room for the various spaces and card decks. Unlike Talisman, where you move according to a die roll (but can go in either direction, or spend Fate points in the new edition to alter the roll), you are moving in one of four ways: moving one space in either direction, moving from Port to adjacent Port (printed on the map, about six spaces away from each other) for a gold, moving two spaces for a gold, or paying two gold to move from Magic Portal to Magic Portal (three on the board). 

The board spaces are one of four types: plains, mountain, forest, or civilized (blue). The Civilized spaces won't end up with adventure cards on them, plus they have special actions you can take on them. Some of the Civilized spaces are Guilds, where your character can spend XP to buy various Abilities that give you special mutant powers that change over the course of the game. 

Like Talisman, you have to encounter adventures in the non-civilized spaces of the board, and they come in combat and "possibility" varieties where you fight the critters first then get to use the possibility, although in Prophecy the possibility goes away after you use it (and you have to actually get some gain from it in order to use it, so you can't "heal" if you're health is already maxed, for example). Combat is almost identical to Talisman, except that if you want to force a physical battle to become a Willpower battle, you have to spend two of your Willpower points to do so, thus lowering your own starting total. The biggest difference is in how the adventures are seeded - every turn players turn over Chance cards and some of these seed the various types of spaces (mountains, plains, forests). If there are already two cards in a space, it's full up and you don't put another card there. The initial card is placed face up, so you'll always know at least one card in a space but you might not know the second.

Unlike Talisman, there are only really two "tiers" on the board, and the second tier is a set of five Astral Plane locations that can be accessed from a handful of spots on the board. You "move" to these spaces by starting in the adjacent spaces, then using your movement to attack the two guardians in the AP space, one at a time. Like in Talisman, you begin with a set amount of Health and Willpower, and want to bump it up as the game goes on in order to be able to fight these guardians, as the entire goal of the game is to collect the artifacts that they guard. Normally you need to collect four of the five artifacts to win, but we played the Weenie Short Game variant that only requires two artifacts to win, thus eliminating the whole "Final Battle" part of the game that looks a *lot* like the end of Monsters Ravage/Attack/Rampage/Sexually Compromise America.

Also unlike Talisman, the game is arranged so that as you lose Health and Willpower, those values drop as well. For example, you might start with 4 Health, but lose a fight with a Mummy, thus one of your red cubes shifts to the left of your character sheet, and now you only have 3 Health. There are lots of ways of getting this back, but sometimes it will take a little more time than you wished it to. If you are ever in a situation where you can't move a Health to the left side of your sheet, you die. There are rules for starting over, a la Talisman, but the real point is not to let yourself get into that position, and it's not hard to do. 

There is some character-based combat if you wish to engage in it, but as the losing character can choose to either lose one health or let the winner steal one item of their choice, most of the time you'll just lose the health. Going after a character before the Final Battle (when the rules change somewhat) is, in effect, allowed but not necessarily encouraged by the game. At least, unless you've used all of your health, in which case the winner can take your very cool Great Sword Of Window Washing. We had no character combat in our game at all.

Like Talisman, you build up your health and willpower over the course of the game, and there are ample opportunities to do so. Health taps out at eight for all of the characters, although we didn't have enough red cubes in the game to cover even the three of us, and you'd be hard pressed to have enough to cover five players were you nuts enough to play this game with that many. 

The characters are kind of a mixed bag. If there's one knock I have against the game, it's that the only differentiation (aside from artwork) is in your starting health and willpower, as well as which Guilds you can get abilities from for only XP (otherwise it's XP + Gold). That's it. No special abilities, no nothing. On the other hand, there aren't any Killer characters (Chaos Knight from 2nd ed Talisman, anyone?) that will zoom to a quick win. However, when playing a board game with RPG elements, it's nice to have a bit more differentiation.

Game play is pretty simple. You draw a chance card, which will generally do good things but will occasionally knock your gold down (you are encouraged to spend your resources in this game). Much of the time it will seed new adventure cards, restore health and/or willpower, put new goods in the Village or City, and add or rototill new abilities in the guilds. One particularly useful card lets you take a double turn!

Next, you decide how you'll move, noting that some spaces allow you to use a special opportunity in the space *only* if you don't move. Movement can also be used to attack the guardians in an AP space. When you get to your new space, you have to fight any monsters in the space, just like Talisman, but unlike that game you are never required to move at all if you don't wish to, and it's never randomized (a marked improvement, even with the Fate tokens in 4th ed), and you have a few options. There were a few times in our game that I didn't have much to do when I moved, but I didn't mind that so much as play was pretty brisk with very little downtime. Generally, we had lots of adventure cards in play and interesting choices of how to progress, going to various guilds to improve your abilities, buying stuff, etc. 

After you've fought off critters (and any characters, if you wish), you get to perform the Possibility of the space, whether it's associated with the space (printed on the board) or a card. Most of these are positive, although some have an optional cost (such as gaining willpower at the cost of spending health). Once you're done with that, you have to knock yourself back down to the various limits: 15 XP, 15 Gold, 7 Abilities, 7 Items. We ran into this primarily with XP and Gold, surprisingly. XP is really only useful for gaining Abilities, which sometimes are not worth the trouble to get across the board to get, and Gold was generally plentiful (and frequently spent to avoid the Economic Downturn chance card). And that's it. If you get an extra turn, it's only the move/fight/possibility part of the round. I should note that the words Turn and Round are used very specifically, and it's important to note that some things can only be used one per Turn, which you may get more than one of per Round (but rarely). 

In our game, Alex won by one turn when JD set him up by beating the Lesser Guardian in his second AP space, allowing him to beat the Greater Guardian easily. Ironically, the LG would have lowered Alex's Willpower significantly had JD not killed it, and that would have been important against the GG. My turn was next, and I'd have had a decent shot at my two baddies to take my second artifact. Game play was about 2.5 hours, which many will groan at, but I enjoyed the entire game, unlike the Talisman game Alex and I had a few months ago where I was simply never in it. In this one, I was behind in the Gaining Willpower And Strength derby, but in it when it came to gaining artifacts, which is all that really counts. We did a lot of rules lookups, which were almost all found in the rules (there's a little weirdness in organization, but once you know how things lie it's easy to find information), and played the "short" game, so I figure 3 hours with experienced players (meaning they've played for ten minutes, it's a very straightforward game) for the full game with three players. I don't know that I'd pull this out with more, certainly not with five. 

So here is my Talisman/Prophecy scorecard:
  • Components: Talisman wins. Better art, plastic sculpts for figures, wacky add-on boards, thicker card stock. Prophecy isn't terrible in this regard, just not quite as slick. 
  • Rules: Prophecy wins by a nose. Both are simple games, at least to gamers, and both are reprints that have had the rules well-vetted. The vast majority of situations are covered, but Prophecy has a special appendix that covers special situations on cards, and did it very well. 
  • RPG Elements: Tie. Characters have little to differentiate themselves in Prophecy, but you can add special abilities as you go. On the other hand, in game terms items do much the same thing, but in Prophecy there's an additional game system to make it feel a little more like you're developing your character. The varying health/willpower system in Prophecy bumps it back to a dead heat.
  • Gameplay: Prophecy, by a nose. Obviously, you have to like this sort of thing, but the non-variable movement requires more attention to looking ahead than happens most of the time with Talisman, and you have more control over it. For some reason, the turns flew by, and we seemed to have a lot of fun, perhaps because you had more information about where you were going and what you were going to face in a given space. I also suspect that Prophecy will be easier to predict game length as opposed to Talisman which could end very quickly, especially if some joker decides to make a run through the Dungeon early and gets lucky.
  • Fun Level: Prophecy by a bit more than a nose. Don't get me wrong, I love Talisman, but Prophecy seems to scratch the same itch just a bit better. The Chance deck is a little crazy, but it's also relatively small (we went through it three or four times in our game) and most things affect all players equally. The two strong elements in that deck are the extra turn and economic downturn cards, the rest are all just there to mix things up for the most part. 
At $40, the same price as a Talisman expansion, you get a pretty cool game that you can definitely play with kids, avoids the "multiplayer solitaire" feel of Runebound with more than two players, and fixes a couple of the nagging issues I have with Talisman. All in all, while I doubt many other people in my group will want to play this except as a late night game at cons or retreats, it's a fun gem that would probably be great with kids (the critters can be a little scary, but there's not as much chainmail bikini armor as in Runebound, and the art is generally of the Saturday AM Cartoon variety. 

Best of all, it's not Quest for the Dragonlords or Return of the Heroes (which is an interesting game once you get past the World's Most Insane Ruleset). Highly recommended if you want a true family game, although be aware of the length of play and that it will go up if you have more than three playing! I wouldn't even consider this game with five players. If you like Talisman, this is a no-brainer buy. And it's by that Czech guy whose name is spelled in a non-intuitive way for those of us of an Anglo persuasion! Woo hoo!

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