Review: Prophecy

ProphecyWhen I first decided to review the Z-Man Games reprint of Vlaada Chvatil’s fantasy adventure game Prophecy, my goal was to do it without any mention of Talisman.

I should give some background here.  During the early-to-mid-90’s — my high school years — most of my Saturday nights were spent hanging out in the loft at my mom’s house with my friends.  During these pizza-and-Mountain-Dew-fueled evenings, our go-to activity was playing Talisman.

Now, let’s not put too fine a point on it.  Talisman is not a very good game.  You roll a die, you move around the board, and you spend endless hours trying (often futilely) to level up your character.  The game takes so long that by the end you’re often just relieved to have it over with, win or lose.

And yet, as each of those long nights of my youth ended (often with the first rays of sunlight peeking in the window), I’d hear a familiar quote: “Same time next week?  I’ll bring the soda.”

Talisman was my first real non-family board game, and it caught me at just the right time in my life: that moment when you begin to discover the person you’re going to be, and when you realize it’s perfectly okay to be a nerd.  Because of this, I have a nostalgic attachment to Talisman that is reserved for very few other things I’ve encountered before or since.  Every few years I’ll see some of those old friends, and we’ll get together and play a session.  I don’t think any of us really cares for the game anymore, but it evokes memories that we all still cherish: the camaraderie, the inside jokes, the carefree spirit of being young.

“But Christian,” you’re probably saying.  “That was a lot of words about Talisman, considering you just said you didn’t want to mention Talisman.”

It’s impossible.  Prophecy is a direct update of Talisman, in spirit if not in name.  You’re moving around a fantasy-themed board, collecting items, building up your stats (the same stats, in fact), and eventually running a gauntlet of imposing boss monsters to collect powerful treasures and win the game.  Even the final player-versus-player battle is almost identical to obtaining the Crown of Command at the end of a Talisman game.  Because of the striking similarities, and because the elder game has obtained such a classic status, for better or worse, I can’t talk about one without referring to the other.

This game was originally described to me as “an improved Talisman, as designed by Vlaada Chvatil”.  If you’ve been reading MeepleTown for a while, you know that I am the Chief Executive Fanboy in the Cult of Vlaada.  The problem is, Prophecy suffers from a bit too much Talisman and not quite enough Vlaada.

Components – Does the game look nice? Are the bits worth the money? Do they add to the game?
Accessibility – How easy is the game to teach, or to feel like you know what you are doing?
Depth – Does the gameplay allow for deeper strategies, or does the game play itself?
Theme – Does the game give a sense of immersion? Can you imagine  the setting described in the game?
Fun – Is the game actually enjoyable? Do you find yourself smiling, laughing, or having some sense of satisfaction when it’s over?

Components: The quality of Prophecy‘s components is very hit-and-miss.  The thick game board and player cards are very nice, and there are quick reference sheets for each player that lay out the phases of a game turn.  Meanwhile, the plastic cubes used to track Health and Magic feel incredibly cheap, and the plastic stands for the character tokens are impossible to use without employing a screwdriver to pry them open.

And then there’s the art.  For a game that should be theme-heavy, the artwork is a massive disappointment.  While the cover art and card borders are attractive, the line art used for the characters and monsters ranges from mediocre to poor, with heavy, shaky lines and drab color choices.  The game board itself is the worst offender: it’s cluttered, uninspiring, and flat-out ugly.  I understand that this is a reprint of an existing game, and modifying components would have a cost attached, but it was a mistake not to commission an artist to re-draw the board for the new release.

Accessibility: Here’s another example of a missed opportunity; a reprint was a great opportunity to introduce improvements to the rulebook.  The rules are poorly laid out, and some key information (for example, what all of the “civilized” spaces do) is difficult to find.  My group ended up using player-made reference guides downloaded from BoardGameGeek rather than trying to slog through the printed rulebook.  Fortunately, Prophecy isn’t all that complex, and the game includes quick reference sheets for each player.  Once you get through the initial learning curve, it’s fairly intuitive and should be easy to teach to new players.

Depth: Here’s where Prophecy diverges a bit from its predecessor.  While Talisman uses a very basic roll-and-move system with few real decisions to be made, Prophecy tends to offer players interesting choices each turn.  Eliminating the movement rolls is my favorite change; instead, a player can decide to walk one space for free, rent a horse for one gold to move two spaces, or use one of several built-in transit options (such as ports and magic gates) scattered around the board.  One of my biggest problems with Talisman is that cards are drawn after arriving in a space; you might waste your turn encountering a broken shield or a dragon you’re not ready to face yet, but there’s no way to know until you’ve already moved.  In Prophecy, adventure cards are placed face-up on the board between turns, so players will have an idea where it might be beneficial to move.  And there’s still a level of risk and mystery — if a second card is placed on a space, it remains face-down until the first card is encountered.

I also enjoy the Ability system in Prophecy.  In addition to leveling up the primary stats of Strength and Willpower, characters earn experience points that can be spent at one of five guild spaces to buy unique abilities.  For example, one might find a skill that allows fast travel between any Forest space, or one that grants free healing if a character chooses not to move.  My only criticism here is that only two ability cards from each guild are available at any given time, and a few of the abilities are pretty lackluster.  Still, it’s one of the few truly unique distinctions that set this game apart from Talisman.

Theme: Prophecy‘s theme is a collection forgettable fantasy tropes.  You’ll run around the board killing vampires and giant spiders while collecting weapons, potions, and… *yawn* What’s that?  Sorry, I dozed off.  I feel like Prophecy‘s designer and artists missed an amazing opportunity to set this game apart with a unique setting and original content to encounter.  The charm of this type of game isn’t in the mechanics; I want to tell an interesting story with my hero as he conquers evil and discovers untold riches.  Instead, I feel like I’m playing Generic Warrior #1742 who just clubbed a Giant Rat to death with his Staff of Hitting Things.

Fun: When it comes down to it, this type of game is all about the thrill of adventure: delving into the unknown, taking risks, and coming out as a celebrated hero or a pitiable corpse.  It’s the same reason people enjoy tabletop RPG’s, and it’s an element that many adventure-themed board games struggle to capture.

I did get a taste of this excitement from Prophecy.  After a difficult, multi-turn battle with a Vampire, I was rewarded with a magic staff that augmented my character’s skills and abilities very well.  Just a few turns later, it was tragically wrenched away from me by one of the other players just as I was about to start storming the Astral Plane, where the end-game “mini-bosses” live.  Hard-fought victory and loss: the hallmarks of a great adventure.  The more mundane moments were more common, however; all too often I was forced into moving to an empty space, or give up my turn sitting in a village to heal my wounds.

The play time is also very long, running more than an hour past the box’s claim of three hours.   The primary attributes of Strength and Willpower are ultimately what allow you to win the game, but opportunities to increase these stats are relatively rare.  More often, you’ll receive experience points that can be used to buy new abilities, and most of these enhancements don’t directly aid in battle.  I understand the point of a slow build-up in the pursuit of making a game feel epic in scope.  I just felt like the run time could be an hour shorter without sacrificing any of the game’s flavor.

I guess it’s time to answer the million-dollar question: Is Prophecy better than Talisman?

The answer is a qualified “yes”.  For all its rough spots, I find Prophecy to be more engaging.  There are more interesting decisions to be made, gameplay flows better, and downtime between turns seems much shorter.

Prophecy attempts to refine the adventure board game formula with limited success.  The mechanical improvements, such as the movement options and ability system, will be appreciated by fans of the genre, while many of the same frustrations that plague similar games are present here.

This is a fine “beer and pretzels” game to play with good friends on a Saturday evening, and I hope a new generation of youngsters builds memories with Prophecy the same way I did with Talisman.  Unfortunately, the grown-up in me expects something more from my games.





2 out of 5

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