Talon Review

Kyle & Michael

What does this rating mean?

Posted by Kyle & Michael on Feb 24, 2016



MB: Let’s go ahead and put these three words out here before we get this rolling. Star Fleet Battles. It’s notoriously complex, old school nerdy and playing it sometimes feels like more like controlling tanks by filling out tax forms than piloting spaceships in naval style engagements. It’s one of those legendary hobby games like Advanced Squad Leader that, at this point, I think more people know by its reputation than by firsthand experience. I’ve actually played a little Star Fleet Battles and the “streamlined” (I think that might be an ironic joke) Federation Commander, so when I played Jim Krohn’s Talon what floored me about it is that it really is a modernized, playable and above all else accessible distillation of the elements from those games that I liked best.

KM: Right, and that's become Jim Krohn's signature move. He took ASL and remade it as Band of Brothers, and transformed classic space civilization games like Stellar Conquest into the shorter, sleeker, and sexier Space Empires: 4X. The difficulty with sacred cows of different genres is that their design underpinnings become a kind of default for other designers to build off, and no one ever really questions decisions that designers made decades ago. Krohn's not afraid to do that, and so his games come across as both wildly innovative and also kind of obvious. Every time I play a Krohn design I just think to myself, "Why didn't anyone think of this in the past 30 years?"

In the context of Talon, the "duh moment" for me is the power curve. There aren't modifiers or tables to check for the level of power you get to access or the kinds of turns you can pull off. All the important stats for navigating your ships are written in giant dry erase marker on the ships itself, so you can glance across the board and get the information you need to control not just one ship, but your whole fleet. That alone makes Talon such a great fleet conflict game, as it really lends itself to controlling multiple ships with ease.

MB: That power curve so smoothly expresses the notion of managing multiple systems deriving power from one source. My “duh moment” was the impulse movement, where you are assigned action points and movement at different intervals based on that curve. I flipped through the rules and thought “what the hell is going on in this game”, but then it hit me that it really was just the old SFB/FedCom concept. But then I was like “where is everything else?”

I agree that it definitely succeeds at giving players that great sense of controlling multiple, complex ships but in a very logistically easy to manage format, but after playing through several scenarios and with varying sizes of fleets, I almost think that it might be cutting it too close to the quick. And this is coming from a guy who firmly believes that as things get better, they get smaller. I love minimalism; I love it when a designer gives us just what is needed and no more.

But part of the appeal of SFB and FedCom were that they were so detailed, so “nerdy” so I’m looking at Talon and there are things that just feel missing. I’m thinking about things like crew, point defense systems and greater differentiation between capital ships and fighters for example.

KM: We’re talking about design-for-cause approaches versus a design-for-effect take, and Jim Krohn is very much in the latter camp if you’ve studied any of his previous work. Ask him where crew management and point defense is, and he’ll tell you these things are there. They just happen to be rolled into the stats for turn radii, activation points, shields, and speed for each of the ships. When we’re talking about a genre where medium-sized engagements can easily hit the 3-4 hour time slot, in all honesty, I don’t want to manage those things. Let me handle the big decisions, not the minutia. Go back to Star Fleet Battles and I think you’ll find you more like the idea of that level of detail than actually playing the game.

MB: I agree with you on all points there, and like I said above it distills “the good stuff” and gets rid of the other three hours’ worth of stuff that was really awesome 20 years ago, but not so much today. It’s a modern design whereas games like SFB were more simulation-minded.

That is a good point about designing for effect, and you can definitely see that in his designs. He wants to give you that feeling of ASL or SFB, but without the paperwork so to speak. And I definitely see what you are saying about the detail being sort of built into the design- for example, communications, electronic countermeasures, jamming and those sorts of elements are all condensed into using an AP to either try to seize initiative or defend it. That’s really, really smart design work- but when we lose the nomenclature and the very setting-specific bits like that, I can’t help but wonder if we’re shaving it really, really close to the quick. There’s more to it than the micromanagement, but I do wonder if too much of that has been lost here.

KM: That’s absolutely going to be a value judgment on the part of the player, and I get that some people will want to fiddle and micromanage to their hearts’ content. The result is roughly the same; Krohn just gets there without all the fluff. Do you want to turn your ship? Turn it. Do you want to switch power to shields? Do it. The jumbo laminate counters are a thing of genius, letting you glance around the battlefield and see the status of every ship. No looking at written ship logs or squinting at tiny damage or upgrade cards from across the table. It hums.

MB: Oh yeah man, we can definitely come together on the counters- it’s a cool idea. Not necessarily a new one- I’ve been using dry erase markers on cards, counters, all kinds of components for decades. But it is a really nice way to put all of the information right there on the table. But hey, he’s got the written logs in there too if you want to kick it old school or if you are too cowardly to mark on the components of your $60 game.

But is it really the same without the detail, or are we really getting closer to a different type of game when we take out those elements?

I really like this game, don’t get me wrong, and I think it is a fantastic piece of editorial design work. But a few things keep me from just loving it, and part of it is that it feels like a very clinical reduction. It’s all there, the stuff that matters the most even if it is compacted and condensed into things like the system damage tokens and the battery recharge process, but it lacks a sense of heart. Some of it may have to do with the setting- it’s not Star Wars or Star Trek, it’s sort of generic. Not that it has to have a license to be successful, but it all just doesn’t live. It’s probably not fair to compare this relatively boring, perfunctory setting with Star Wars, but the games that have those licenses have a sort of built-in sense of investment and engagement. The only point I can think of like this, when I’m playing Talon, isn’t when I’m mentally comparing the Talon to the Klingon. It’s when I’m thinking about how the Earth fleet has Wave Motion guns. I freaking love that, because that’s from Star Blazers/Space Battleship Yamato- something I’ve loved literally all my life. But that’s a streak of color- a bit of needed detail- in a game that it is otherwise sort of drab.

KM: That's why the game's narrative over the course of the scenarios is important to follow. The pulp science fiction story is no John Carter of Mars or even Battlestar Galactica, but it's fun in a B-movie kind of way. For me, I play a scenario and I'm left wondering what happens next and where the battle occurred in the context of the greater conflict. When the Patton starcraft burns just short of docking with its crucial information on the Terran base, I feel the impact of the missiles and the sacrifice of the crew in defending Earth.

MB: It’s not for lack of trying. There is a LOT of fiction in this game, and there is an effort to couch all of this into a storyline that gives some narrative logic to some mechanical elements. But I’m just not connecting with it like you are I don’t think. I’ve not played Space Empires 4x, so maybe that is part of the issue here.

KM: The game just offers so much content: Empire War mode, Space Empires tie-ins, lifetime score tracking, and DIY scenarios that I just know before long these ships are going to be as familiar to me as YT-1300 freighters.

MB: I like the variety of play options too, but I’ve mostly stuck with single scenario play. The Empire War mode, which is a more detailed campaign game, looks really interesting in particular.

So you are going to scribble the power curve on one of these counters and you will turn to your dog and say “Chewie, we’re home?”

KM: Alright, maybe Talon doesn’t have the same emotion or impact, but it's a game that beckons us into its world rather than relying on our prior attachment to a major franchise. It's actually a common thing for me in wargames: I play something on a conflict I know nothing about, and before long I'm reading dusty Wikipedia articles on obscure battles fought in the Punic Wars. That thirst for more knowledge about the Terran vs. Talon throwdown makes me pine for expansions, even though I'm usually content with a fleshed-out base game. Now you won't catch me reading any Talon fanfics, but I think it's a more interesting setting than you give it credit for.

MB: Well, you know, I think the argument could be made that it really doesn’t need that much more fleshing out because the game is really solid as it is and despite me taking it to task for it. And there is merit to it being an “original” setting, regardless of how derivative it. But at the end of the day, the game is much more wargamey and much less cinematic than something like Star Wars Armada, and if we shift to a nuts and bolts view I think the game is mostly successful. And it requires a different approach than a miniatures-based space combat design. So some of its value, in terms of differentiation, lies more in its gameplay than what it offers in terms of detail or setting.

KM: Right, this game is cut from the same cloth as SFB, not Armada. While it emphasizes a streamlined approach, it's that kind of game: chits, hexes, counters, and the like.

MB: One thing that I had to sort of readjust to, after playing so much X-Wing and Armada (with a fleeting fling with Attack Wing), is this notion of cycling weapons power, which really kind of informs the entire design. In X-Wing, you tend to have an alpha strike and then a turnaround. In Armada, it’s all about drifting, managing velocity and yaw, and lining up for broadsides or multiple strikes from two arcs. But in this, the ranges are short and once you pull the trigger on phasers, disruptors, whatever you might be looking at several impulses- or even into next round- before you can recharge. This in turn requires you to manage the power curve, taking into account how quick you want to be able to turn or perform other actions. The first game of Talon I played, I charged in, shot everything and was like “oh yeah, this is like SFB…going to have to let these things charge up again. So the shooting game, I think, becomes somewhat more interesting because you want to maximize damage (which generally means getting in really close) but then you are looking at spending turns to get a weapons system ready again. And that makes coordinating your ship’s movements, firing arcs and attacks a key strategic concern of this game.

KM: Yes, one thing I really like about Talon is that the strategy is hard-baked into the system. It's not spread out over killer card combos from the latest wave of expansions, and it's not something that's going to tax your brain building fleets in between battles. It crashes onto your tabletop and lets you blow stuff up for a couple hours, then it's off the table and onto something else. But during those two hours, you're intensely engaged with the system. You're fighting to control your massive hulks of metal in space, watching helplessly as your damaged star cruiser lists into the enemy's firing range. You can peer a few moves into the future and just visualize that perfect shot as the impulses align perfectly.

MB: The low overhead, low density, low commitment approach is definitely a major asset in this game’s favor. I was actually kind of shocked at how lean it was in terms of components, rules, and chits. Is there any GMT game that has fewer chits barring Ivanhoe or Formula Motor Racing? It’s also easy to teach, even though the rulebook sort of throws you in the deep end, such as it is, right off the bat by laying out the impulse-based activations. But yes, definitely- this has got to be one of the most accessible and reasonably comprehensive space combat games to date.

KM: That Talon does it all without funky, pseudo-innovative double-blind objective setups or a wacky fleet-building meta is a huge plus for me. Get me into the action, and get me out. Do it with a minimum of table space, rules overhead, and fiddliness. I don't think anything in the space combat genre really holds a candle to Talon in this regard, and that means above all else, the darn thing is going to get played.

MB: You are really trying to bait me into comparing this game to Armada and X-Wing, both games I am a big fan of. If we’re going that route- and I’ve made this comparison before elsewhere- those games and Armada in particular are like Ferraris. Talon is like a high-end, very dependable Toyota with good safety ratings and sensible gas mileage. Neither is a “wrong” choice. But what I keep coming to, and something that is keeping me off a higher rating for Talon I think, is that I have access to $500 worth of Armada and about as much X-Wing. Granted, most folks do not and I’m in kind of an ideal situation with those games. But at the end of the day, I’m going to reach for those Ferrari keys over the Toyota keys in most cases. This isn’t to say that there aren’t times when the Toyota is the right car to be driving, especially if I want that low commitment, accessible experience. But in my heart, I usually want the premium experience.

KM: But in this case, driving the Ferrari takes four times as long to back out of the garage and twice as long to get to the destination (this analogy is breaking down like a '91 Lumina).

MB: With all of that said, Talon is a put-it-on-the-table-and-play design and I love that. But more than that, I love that it is working in a design space that I would not have previously associated with ease of play or accessibility. What Jim Krohn has done here, regardless of my misgivings, is really a best-in-class example of how to modernize, minimize and streamline vintage hobby game concepts.

KM: When you do compare it with those vintage games, it's difficult to overstate just how revolutionary this is. The design just sings. It's easy to play, yet coming to grips with how to handle these spacefaring vessels of destruction is a delightful challenge every time it's on the table. Throw in the ridiculous amount of content, and you can explore this game indefinitely, much like the vastness of space. Best of all, you won't need an aerospace degree to get started.