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.


Scalability:

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


Overall:

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.


8/10

Monday, July 13, 2009

Gameplay: Make Love, Not War

I recently received a copy of War on Terror, which seemed like it was going to be a fun game for my core group of wonks and gamers who love to talk about world politics and circumstances. My wife and I were planning on heading down to see a couple of our friends over the weekend, so it seemed like there was a good chance that we would be able to get it to the table and see how it went over with our group (usually we favor more "in-depth" and "serious" games, so this one was going to be a bit of a risk).

Now, my wife is one of our core gamers, but she isn't as into world politics as the rest of us are. Also, she hates learning new games. Once learned, she can appreciate and enjoy most of the games in our collection. However, that first game is always a little rough with her. So, since I would be bringing out a new game with our group, I figured I would try to get my wife to agree to a trial game of War on Terror before the weekend; this way I could learn the game mechanics to better explain it when we play with the group and my wife will be past the initial learning curve phase and would enjoy the experience more when we played with everyone.

Reluctantly, she agreed. She put our daughter to bed while I opened up the box and started to go through the components and flip through the rules. Usually, I like to read through and possibly place a game solo to understand it before explaining it to anyone, even my wife in a 2-player test run, but it was not a complex game; although the rules did not seem the most well-written. I knew the game would be better with more players, but this was just a play through to learn the mechanics.

My wife came down after our daughter only asked for one story, so I hadn't gotten too far into the rules. With a sigh, she sat down at the table. This was not going to be an easy sell.

I began by describing the components to her. My wife saw the bags of sorted bits and immediately interrupted to ask if she could be pink. I explained to her which were the Pink Empire's villages, towns and cities. She seemed a bit content at the moment by getting to play pink, which is a rare option in games, especially war games.

I set up the oil counters on the board and explained what the numbers meant. I told her that they are numbered from 2 to 12 with some blanks. I explained that the number was not how much oil they were worth, but rather if that number was rolled on two six-sided dice at the end of the turn, then the countries with matching numbers would produce oil. So, I told her, that I reasoned that the mid-value numbers would technically be more valuable territories because rolling two six-sided dice get more mid-ranged results according to a bell-curve since there are more combination of pips possible that will result in numbers in that range. My wife's eyes glazed over a bit.

I realized I was losing her already and moved away from the math geek talk and continued explaining the game. I continued to explain the rules, but pointed out that a number of the rules and exceptions are not listed in the rules, but are rather explained on the cards in the two decks. Her lips pulled into a small, but terse frown at that.

I started to explain the "War" action, which is a basic action in the game. However, it is not explained in the rules, so I started to dig through the cards to find a War Card. I explained it a little more, but then realized that I should also reference the Card Appendix booklet to finish explaining it. I caught the small disapproving roll of my wife's eyes as I could not explain an action without finding and referencing a card and then having the look up that card in the appendix.

My wife was barely holding on as I was really learning the rules at the same time as her instead of being able to give a polished presentation. I jumped ahead and wanted to get us into the action, so she would be a little more entertained and we could finish learning through the first play. So we set up our initial villages, collected our starting money and drew our Empire cards. I told my wife that she could refer to the card index if she had any questions on her cards or I could try to help her if she didn't mind me looking at the card to answer a question. She grumbled something as she went through her cards, but never reached for the card index. Either that meant she understood her cards, or was fed up enough that she just would not play cards that she didn't know what they did.

I told her that I would go first and talk through my first turn's actions and give a little rationale behind my first moves to help her get a better idea about her turn. She blinked and looked up at me and asked, "How does the game end?"

I paused, I hadn't gotten that far. I flipped through the rules and went to the "Winning the Game" section of the rules. I read the Empire Victory conditions to her. I referred her to the chart of how many Liberation Points were needed on the reference card. I then started to explain the continent points and pointed out the reference diagram on the board. She sighed, but grasped it.

Then I explained the Terrorist Victory conditions, pointing out that she should be aware of them even if she wasn't a terrorist, so that she would know how to stop a terrorist player from winning.

Finally, I read the victory condition listed as World Peace. I read it aloud to her, "In the event that the board is completely free of terrorist units, all remaining Empires may agree on 'World Peace'. In this case, remaining Empires share a victory and can give themselves a well-earned pat on the back for being so nice and possessing the wise understanding that this is a 'war' no one can win."

My wife looked at the board, then up to me, "There aren't any terrorist units on the board."

I nodded, "Yeah, we just started. As Empires take their turns, we can place them out there."

She nodded, "Yeah, but there aren't any out there now. Want to declare 'World Peace' with me, then we can go upstairs and fool around?"

I looked at the board for a moment, though it did not take me too long to weigh my options, "Alright. I'll start cleaning up and meet you upstairs in a minute."

My wife smiled, "Good game."

"Uh, yeah. Good game."

Monday, July 6, 2009

Review: Innsmouth Horror

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 also a big fan of Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos, even to the point where I've eschewed tabletop RPGs and boardgames to don costumes and get involved in some Cthulhu Live LARPs at cons. Arkham Horror is also one of my favorite games and it sees a fair amount of game play with my core group (all of whom are also Lovecraft fans who, save for one, have also been known to LARP the mythos as well).


The Overview:

I will assume that you are familiar with Arkham Horror at this point, so this review will just focus on what the expansion brings to the game. Innsmouth Horror is a "big box" expansion for Arkham Horror. The expansion adds the city of Innsmouth as a region that can be traveled to in order to continue exploring the mysteries of Arkham. Innsmouth adds a number of dangers that fit into the theme of the Lovecraft Story, "The Shadow of Innsmouth". The expansion also expands on the backgrounds of all of the existing character from the base set and the expansions, giving them more personal dangers to manage and maintain while trying to stop the Ancient One.

So far, out of all of the expansions that have come out for Arkham Horror, this one best acknowledges the previous expansions and provides components compatible for the expansions' rules and at the same time does not needlessly water down item decks with unnecessary items.


The Theme:

Arkham Horror is already steeped in theme and this expansion adds to it in a number of ways. Now "The Shadow Over Innsmouth" isn't one of my favorite Lovecraft stories, but the elements of the tale that are brought into the game work exceedingly well. Innsmouth, for the most part, feels like a city that is already corrupted by a greater evil. Some of the encounters seem a little light compared to the elements in the original story, but working the risk of being arrested into moving around town adds to the theme of oppression.

Also introduced on the Innsmouth board is the Deep Ones Rising track. There are six spaces the Deep Ones Rising side of the track and six spaces on the Feds Raid Innsmouth side of the track. Whenever a gate does not open because of an elder sign on its location or from an investigator’s ability, a token is added to the track. Also, the Innsmouth board has vortexes on it similar to the Dunwich Horror expansion. If a monster moves into a vortex, a token is added to the track. If all six tokens are added, the Ancient One immediately awakens and the final battle begins. However, during their Upkeep, any investigator in an Innsmouth neighborhood can spend 1 or more of their Clue tokens to place a clue token on the Feds Raid Innsmouth side of the track. Once the sixth token is placed, Feds raid Innsmouth and all of the Deep Ones Rising tokens are removed. They can be added again, but it at least slows down the advance.

Perhaps one of the best additions to theme, however, is the Personal Story cards that are introduced in this expansion. Each character from the base game and each of the expansions is given a Personal Story, which expands on the character's background and history and further expands on their reasons for being in Arkham. Each story is different and character specific. Besides just the flavor story, the Personal Story cards have a Pass or Fail trigger on the card and you have the chance to resolve only one of the outcomes. The Pass triggers vary from "If you have 3 or more Gate Trophies" to "You may spend X amount of Clue Tokens at X location" to "If you are Blessed". However, the Fail trigger acts as the timer, meaning you have to achieve the Pass trigger before the Fail trigger comes up. Fail triggers vary from "If the Terror Level reaches X" or "If you are knocked unconscious or driven insane" or "If there are X amount of Doom Tokens on the Ancient One". Whichever result occurs first is the one you resolve. Achieving the Pass trigger means something good happens, and depending on the character, it varies in strength and power. However, if the Fail trigger is achieved usually a penalty occurs to the character, often times brutal, but sometimes manageable, depending on the character.

The effect of the Personal Stories, however, is not just a game effect and stat boost or penalty. The stories give flavor and a bit of roleplaying background to the characters you are playing. The other effect, however, is that you find yourself more attached to the character. Sometimes you make decisions to try to pass your story instead of doing the optimal move to stop the Ancient One. This is very thematic and makes the decisions personal. You may find yourself so close to recovering your lost sister, but the Fail trigger is one hand. The other investigators are urging you to ignore the personal story and jump into a gate to close it to try to stave off the Ancient One from awakening. So, do you sacrifice your sister and all you've set up to save her for the greater good? Or do you risk it and save her, but risking the destruction of the city in the process? It's harder to jump in and sacrifice characters now. The Personal Stories help in attaching you to the process of the story and makes the characters a little more real.


Learning the Game:

This is an expansion to Arkham Horror and there are very little rule additions here. The Personal Stories are a very easy mechanic to learn (especially for those who are familiar with Android, which uses the same mechanic). The Deeps Ones Rising Track is easy to understand, but can be easily forgotten in the first couple of games.


The Components:

The expansion introduces the same quality components as in all of the Arkham Horror series. Specific components for the Ancient Ones and Deep Rising Track are included as well as expanding on a number of existing components. What that means is that besides introducing an additional board to the game, Innsmouth Horror also adds the following:
*A New Expansion Board for the city of Innsmouth
*16 New Investigators
*8 New Ancient Ones (plus the corresponding Ancient One Plot Cards)
*2 New Heralds
*42 Innsmouth Location Cards (for 8 New Locations in 3 New Neighborhoods)
*36 Arkham Location Cards (for the Original 26 Locations in the Original 9 Neighborhoods)
*36 Mythos Cards
*26 Gate Cards (though no new Otherworld Locations are introduced)
*48 Sets of Personal Stories Cards (2 for each character from the base and all expansions)
*32 New Monster Markers (5 Ancient One related markers not added to the cup, 2 Mask Monsters, 5 Markers of Monsters introduced in older sets (4 kinds), and 20 Markers for new Monsters (7 kinds)


Playing the Game:

The additions to Arkham Horror mechanic-wise are minimal and easy to manage. However, what this expansion adds is theme.

It is very amazing how much the Personal Stories have added a life to old characters that we have not touched in ages. However, the rest of the game feels the touch of Innsmouth.

I strongly suggest that to really enjoy the game that you remove most of the components of the previous expansions, including the monsters (this gets a better ratio of Aquatic monsters into the mix). One of the ongoing issues with the expansions of AH is that adding too much waters down the experience of each of the expansions, killing a lot of the theme. I've also taken out all of the Arkham Encounter cards from each of the expansions as well. We've kept the Dunwich Horror and Kingsport Horror items and spells in the decks, but have removed almost everything else from those expansions (except for characters, Ancient Ones, Injury and Madness cards and the Ancient One Plot Cards).

Once you find the mix for you (again, I strongly suggest that you consider less is better), you will find the theme and pressure of the Innsmouth experience very strong and very fulfilling.

I also suggest not reading through the Personal Stories until you have the characters in play. Then, only read the first card. Only take and read the Pass/Fail effects after you’'ve achieved one of them. This way, you don’t know if you are sacrificing a lot for a small gain, or inadvertently crippling your character's abilities by not heeding the story close enough.


Scalability:

Innsmouth Horror keeps the same scalability of the base game. While some expansions (such as Kingsport Horror) tend to favor large groups, Innsmouth fits most ranges. My wife and I have played with one investigator each and found it to be a good fit. And we have played with a total of four players with one investigator each and found no problems in the scalability. Innsmouth does not require one player spending all of his time up there as Kingsport did. The only issue that I found that Innsmouth suffers from with fewer investigators is that eventually sneak checks are required to move around in Innsmouth or else the investigator will be arrested. The problem that this poses is that with a smaller assortment of active investigators, you had better plan ahead to make sure that at least one of them has a good sneak skill. Otherwise, Innsmouth will be too brutal in the second half of the game.


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, Arkham Horror is one of her favorite games (probably in her top three). Innsmouth Horror has revitalized our AH play more than any other expansion that has come out previously. Whenever we would sit down to play, she would usually grab one of her two favorite characters (Rita Young or Daisy Walker) and never think of playing anyone else. Now, she’s taken a new character in each game, curiously uncovering their personal stories and finding a whole new experience with otherwise forgotten and unused characters.


The Pros:

*The most thematic expansion to date.
*More location cards, making them more variable.
*Adds a lot without watering down the base games equipment cards any further.
*Personal Stories revitalizes old characters, balancing some of the "unbalanced" characters by the effects and costs of their stories.
*Consistently good components.
*New mechanics introduced are easy, flowing, seem natural and are easy to track (unlike portals in Kingsport Horror).
*New Mythos Cards only have gate bursts in Innsmouth, creating a threat and a natural reason to keep going there.


The Cons:

*Requires expansion and deck management to really get a good experience.
*More bits in an already bit heavy game.


Overall:

Innsmouth Horror is a must have expansion for a great game. I almost wish that it game with another set of Injury and Madness cards so that I could fully endorse this expansion as the first one to get instead of Dunwich Horror (really, Injury and Madness cards are all but necessary fixes in the game, but are found in just the one expansion). No other big box expansion has done as a good job of keeping a consistent theme and feel throughout. Even though we still spend most of our time on the Arkham board instead of the Innsmouth board in game, the theme and presence of Innsmouth is strongly felt. Innsmouth Horror is our group's favorite expansion and it is one that is necessary for any fan of Arkham Horror.

However, if you are looking for your first expansion for AH, Dunwich Horror has some key game fixes. If you feel that the base game is a bit broken, grab this game. But if you think it plays fine, but want more theme, grab Innsmouth Horror and make Dunwich your second grab.



9/10