Monday, July 20, 2009

Review: Tales of the Arabian Nights

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. I am also a role-player at heart and I also have a soft-spot in my heart for the Arabian Tales settings. I have watched the old Sinbad movies when I was a kid and I have run an extensive D&D campaign set in the Al-Qadim setting. I've seen Disney's Aladdin more times that I would have chosen to on my own, but apparently two-year olds love to watch the same movies over and over and over and over again regardless of their Daddy's wants. And finally, I have never fallen down a well, but do have sympathy for those who have.

The Overview:

A beautiful (and sturdy) box.

What is inside the heavy box.

Tales of the Arabian Nights describes itself as a paragraph-based board game set in land of mysterious and magical Arabian Tales. This description is somewhat accurate, but I think it would be better described by calling itself a "paragraph-based story-telling game" that has a board. Even that might be a little off, but this game does not really have an existing category to place it in. I would say that it is somewhere in between the large gap between a Choose-You-Own-Adventure book and tabletop roleplaying.

But anyhow, the game play is simple and easy to understand. Players are moving along a map trying to gain a set amount of Story Points and Destiny Points in order to win. Each player picks how many of each point type they need, provided the combined total of required Story Points and Destiny Points totals 20. You get Story and Destiny points by having encounters. Once you have your preset number of each kind of points, you race back to Baghdad to be the first to return with your points to win.

A player's actual turn is very simple. They can move their character on the map a number of spaces (by land or sea) based on their Wealth level. They may end in mountains, in the desert, in a forest, on an island, on the sea or in city. When they end their movement, they draw an Encounter Card. The card will tell the player which paragraph chart to reference based on their location type and another player will read it to them. The player will them have to choose a reaction to have to a minimal description of the encounter. Based on the reaction, the other player will then turn to the encounter paragraph they chose (which can be modified by a Destiny Die, which means you may read one paragraph higher or lower than the original one directed to) and read it to the player and resolve the effects listed at the end of the encounter.

That's the basics. It is a really easy game to learn.

The Theme:

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a game based around theme. It has a storytelling theme, so the encounters and such are very befitting to the theme and story of the setting. From a Western’s view, I think that they have done a very good job of capturing the feel of the old Arabian tales and legends in the encounters that you have.

To add to the roleplaying feel and aspect of the game, you have a character that you play. Each character begins with knowing three skills (which can affect your encounters). You can gain and lose skills as the game goes on, making your character better-rounded and more likely to get beneficial results from encounters. Your wealth levels rise and fall based on encounters and you can gain treasures that vary from useful to fabulous. Also, as a result of encounters you can gain or lose statuses that affect your character. Some of these statuses can be helpful, such as Respected or Sultan or Married, or harmful, such as Accursed or Grief-Stricken or Wounded.

Learning the Game:

It is quite an easy game to learn. Reread the Overview section and you'll get the rules down pat. It will take a few turns to get the pattern down, but it is easy to catch on to. It takes a couple of turns to get used to the pattern of grabbing what book to look up either a paragraph, a reaction or the encounter, but that's about as complex as it gets.

The Components:

As is the case with most Z-Man games, the components are outstanding. Arguably, there are more bits than are necessary (We really could have just written down how many Story and Destiny points we needed on a piece of scrap paper, instead of using something like 120 little counters, but then again, my two-year old really enjoyed popping them all out for me).

Lots of bits... But really, isn't writing them down on scrap paper a lot easier to keep track of and save room and production?

The map is beautiful and is very functional and easy to figure out routes and movements. The character stand-ups might be a little too large for the map, but everyone scatters to the four corners of Arabia pretty quickly, so you don’t have to worry too often about people bunching up in locations except for the start in Baghdad.

A very beautiful map with well defined routes.

The rules are printed in full color in 20 pages with beautiful examples and pictures throughout. Everything is also very well written. The Book of Tales, which is where you read the encounters from, is a 300 page black and white spiral-bound book. It serves its purpose and function well, but the only thing I would have suggested was having a separate small book that had the initial paragraphs (1-121) on it. These are the first you turn to, and then you refer to the reaction matrix, and then flip to the encounter back in the book, making a lot of extra flipping from the front of the Book of Tales to the middle or end of it throughout the game. It’s not a huge hassle, but I could see it being just a little more convenient and I may just copy and print out the first few pages to use like this myself to see if it really helps or not.

A very heavy Book of Tales.

Playing the Game:

I am a hardcore tabletop roleplayer. Our campaigns now can go many sessions without combat as we develop characters and get into interaction and politics in our games, using the open sandbox setting of RPGs to change and create our worlds naturally and fluidly as story dictates. Story has become the most important thing in our games and the freedom to interact with it, change it or ignore it as seen fit is what I enjoy the most about our games.

If someone would have told me that after 25 years of playing roleplaying games that I would be impressed with a glorified Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story, I would have scoffed at them and gone back to trying to justify the invention of 12-sided dice.

However, I would have been wrong.

This game is fun. Lots of fun.

There is not much of a game here in the sense of the word "game". But it is really about the story that you are telling. They can be exciting, funny, tragic, ridiculous, or fantastic, but I have found that they have all been very entertaining. This is a game that can be played solo (perhaps more intricate solo-play rules will be posted online at some point), but these stories are meant to be shared and enjoyed with other players. Much like Arkham Horror can be played solo, I think this game is made to be a social story-telling experience and if played alone, it turns into a more mechanical game with very simple gameplay that is not that impressive (just like AH). But play it with others and you have someone to laugh with when the unexpected happens.

You will find that a lot of encounters will give you Story or Destiny Points even if they are "bad" encounters. Some will cause you to lose points, but they are much less common. In fact, after a little while, you will realize exactly how random this game is. You cannot go into it with a heavy strategy in mind. Instead, you need to sit back, relax and enjoy the show that is being put on. You will like it much more.

And take the time to appreciate the stories being told by the other players' characters. That is what this game is about: creating a fantastic narrative that is entertaining and worth listening to. Armed with that foreknowledge, you will enjoy the games much, much more.

Don't sweat when fate turns against you. Understand that the game is random and a die roll and a decision don’t always end up like you think it might. In my first game I was Imprisoned, Insane, Grief-Stricken, Envious, Accursed and On a Pilgrimage all at the same time. My character, Aladdin, had a hard time of fate that game, but I enjoyed the story that was told by it and laughed more with the game's story than I had at any other game in a while. It was a lot of fun, even losing as dramatically as I had (though despite my horrible fate, I still had 9 Story Points and 9 Destiny Points at the end of the game, so I still had a chance of technically "winning" against my wife, whose character had a Princely Wealth, Treasures in hand, was Married and had nothing but good fortune... So don’t go by logic and trying to win or lose. Enjoy the stories).

Now, that being said, there are a few things that are a little more difficult to grasp about gameplay. After determining your encounter paragraph, you may be presented with someone telling you that your encounter a Rock Slide. Looking up Reaction Maxtrix F, you see that the available reactions are to Pray, Avoid, Wait, Cry Out, Drink, Examine, Travel or Hide. You are not given any more information on those reactions. So you might blink and think, "Drink the rock slide?" The thing is, in choosing the reaction, you have to understand that the story is abstract at this point. You have nothing else to go on that those one or two word reactions to a two word encounter description. This lends to a more random kind of game. So, had you decided to Drink the Rock Slide, you would find out that it may mean that you escaped the rock slide by moving into a cave where another traveler is there and offers you a drink of water... or you may find out that townsfolk blame you for the rockslide because they believe you caused it with magic with accursed water.

That being said, accept the randomness of the game and see what happens.

Also, some situations may occur that are not expressly outlined on how to react to them in the game. For example, your character may be Married, but then you encounter something that changes your sex. The rules do not expressly explain what to do in this situation, but I actually find that charming and forgivable. It is a roleplaying game at heart, so let the player decide. Is the marriage discarded? Or do you have an understanding (or perhaps curious) partner and you work things out and remain married? You’ll find many inconsistencies like this one throughout the game. None of them are game-breakers and all of them are more fun to resolve "in character" and in the spirit of the story.


The game involves a lot of reading. You have to look up and read paragraphs to other players. This starts to get time consuming. It seems that the sweet spot for this game is three players. More than that, it will drag and start to show downtime. Two works well, but I think three players will cycle the cards quicker and give more interaction.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. That being said, I went out of my way to get this game because I thought she would like it. I thought I would as well, but I really knew that she would. It turns out that I was right. It is a great game that is fun and entertaining and takes a small scratch out of our true roleplaying game itch. I also can't wait for my daughter to get a little older to introduce her to this style of game before breaking her into a true roleplaying game experience.

The Pros:

*Excellent components
*Easy to learn gameplay
*Roleplaying Light and it scratches that RPG itch between sessions
*Fun, free-spirited game that can tell a good story
*A good social experience
*A good game for non-gamers who are into stories or this theme

The Cons:

*Not a traditional game and missing game elements
*Not for the competitive
*Randomness is a huge factor in the game
*Only minor amounts of interaction


Tales of the Arabian Nights is a beautiful game that, despite being very niche, will most likely entertain many who would not normally go for a game like this. The key is that you need the right attitude to play. With that, you will enjoy your story and find that it is a fun, social time with a group of friends each looking to tell their own stories.


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