|Tales of the Arabian Nights (2009)
|Meeple Like Us
|Medium Light [2.15]
|Player Count (recommended)
|Anthony J. Gallela, Eric Goldberg, Kevin Maroney and Zev Shlasinger
It’s rare that you find a box that makes such a concentrated, directed effort to seduce you from the start.
I mean, look at it! It’s gorgeous. It feels heavy and substantial. It’s sinuously seductive. You can all but smell the assorted exotic spices of far-away lands mingling with the heady scent of fine perfume. That box will transport you to other worlds if you let it. Unfortunately, it’s perhaps a little disingenuous in the enticements it whispers softly and sensuously into your ear. It offers you a legendary storytelling board-game. It will live up to the first part of that promise with aplomb. The ‘game’ part of it? Well…
Look, I’m no strict definitionlist when it comes to the word ‘game’. In fact, I’ve argued in academic papers that we should be as broadly accommodating of that word as we reasonably can. I’m not one of the froth-speckled keyboard warriors that spend precious hours of their lives ranting to anyone that will listen as to whether particular titles, video game or otherwise, deserve that coveted label. Even I though have to acknowledge that Tales of the Arabian Nights stretches the definition to, and perhaps beyond, the extremes of what can reasonably be borne by the term.
That’s not to say I don’t like it, because I do. Barring some problems which I will get to, I absolutely love it. I just would have been more comfortable with a different, more representative description on the box. ‘Legendary storytelling experience’, for example. That would have been fine. Game though? Well…
Oh god, let’s not worry about what Tales of the Arabian Nights isn’t, and focus instead on what it is. For a bit, at least. Tales of the Arabian Nights is a fantastic box of treasures. It’s a magic carpet that will take you to lands full of battle, mysticism, and subtle eroticism. This is a game that doesn’t shy away from embracing the sensuality of its inspirational material. Don’t get me wrong – you could play this in mixed company with only the occasional blush, but there’s a reason the box suggests a minimum playing age of fourteen.
When you open up Tales of the Arabian Nights, you’ll be surprised at how little you seem to get for how heavy a box it is. You get plenty – it just seems as if the box was maybe fraudulently weighted, perhaps with lead weights stitched into the cardboard. Don’t be fooled – your senses will deceive you. You’ll soon find out where your money went as you dig down into this chest of Arabian delights.
You get a nice, big four-fold map showing an abstracted representation of the Mediterranean, along with a significant portion of Africa and Asia. This is the theatre within which you will tell each other spell-binding stories of adventure and intrigue. You’ll venture from Baghdad into the marbled streets of Rome, from Rome to the spiral minarets of Mecca, and from Mecca to the exotic lands of Lhasa and Samarkand. And more – you’ll discover opportunities to enter Stonehenge, or the mysterious Lake of Colours, or even the ethereal plane of the Djinn.
Putting aside the map, you also get a few decks of cards. Unlike many games, these aren’t the engines that drive the experience. Instead, they’re the fuel. You feed these into the heart of Tales of the Arabian Nights, and it chews over them until wonder and magic spits out in sparkling rainbows of scintillating narrative. We’ll come back to these.
Keep digging and you’ll find dice, and tokens, and little character figures for each of the heroes and heroines you can play. You can be Aladdin, if you want to stay one step ahead of the hit-men! You can be Sinbad! You can be Ali-Baba! And you can be Scheherazade herself, weaving a thousand and one stories with yourself as the protagonist!
And eventually you’ll find the jewels at the bottom. The three books that are the beating heart of this experience. There’s a rules manual, as usual, but two other mysterious and arcane texts – the ‘reaction matrix’ and the ‘book of tales’. It’s the latter of these that contributes most significantly to the heft of the box.
The Book of Tales is a sight to behold – a 300 page tome absolutely stuffed full of treasures, perils, battles, wishes, magic, romance, eroticism, adventure, and a thousand elephants. Every one of its pages are filled with small narrative vignettes, each of which are read aloud at particular parts of the game to advance the story. This is really all Tales of the Arabian Nights is about – telling stories, together. That may not seem like much, but that’s only because I’m understating just how much adventure you get – there are 2600 independent scraps of story in the Book of Tales, and you’ll only ever scratch the surface as you play.
Tales of the Arabian Nights is a title I don’t feel very comfortable in showing you a play-through, as I often do. It’s one of the few games in which ‘spoilers’ are a real problem in explaining what makes it so wonderful. So instead I’m going to talk you through the mechanics of a single encounter, just so you can see what gameplay involves. A full game is just this, over and over again, although every single story will be different.
We each have a character token that we move around the map. As we progress through the game we accumulate story points (awarded usually for great and terrible deeds we have done) and destiny points (awarded usually for great and terrible deeds that are done to us). Each of us picks a combination total of destiny and story points to serve as our victory condition, and we’re looking to advance ourselves along these tracks before we return to Baghdad to win the game.
At the start of the game, we pick three skills that loosely define personal traits about us, or things we can do. Perhaps we know how to use weapons, or are especially pious. Maybe we know how to seduce others, or perhaps we are skilled in the ways of magic. Some of these things we have a talent for, other things we will become masterful in:
We each have a quest that we are trying to accomplish, and this is a larger, multi-step process that will involve us going to many places, doing many things, and eventually earning a substantial reward at the end. There are lots of these – perhaps we’re are seeking adventure:
Or perhaps we are looking to find lost siblings:
Each quest card comes with a set of specialisations of the rules that change not only how we go about acquiring points, but how we actually interact with the game. Each character also has wealth, which indicates how quickly they can move along the map. This too will go up and down as we adventure. When we choose to stop in a location, we draw an encounter card – and here’s where the magic begins. Let us say we have traveled far from Baghdad, and ended up spending our quiet moments in the cool, rarefied air of the mountains. We pull a card from the deck and draw this encounter:
The main text of this isn’t important – it just means that if ever we are in Bilma we can cash this card in for a roll of a die and the indicated reward. That’s great, but it’s not the story. The story is in the number at the bottom. That 49 leads us to a lookup table in the Book of Tales:
When playing, the Book of Tales and the reaction matrix are controlled by other players. We never get to see what our encounters will look like until someone begins to reads aloud. They’ll ask us to roll a die, which we do, and add whatever modifiers are appropriate based on our accumulated destiny points and where we are in the map. Some places are more magical or interesting than others, and as our legend grows we tend to encounter the more significant events that are appropriate to our station.
We roll a two, which takes us to ‘Enchanted Beast’. The J by its name indicates that this is handled by reaction matrix J. On our player board, we’ll see all the things that are sensible responses for us in that circumstance:
‘You have encountered a strange, enchanted beast’, says the player with the Book of Tales. ‘What will you do? You can pick a response from table J’
Examining the table, we say ‘I will attempt to capture this beast’. The player with the Book of Tales nods to the player with the reaction matrix. Tales works best with three players, because it means the act of handling encounters can be split between two people. If you have only two players, it’s fine but quite fiddly since one player has to keep consulting the two books at the same time.
The player with the reaction matrix looks up table J, cross-referencing it with the adjective ‘enchanted’ since it was an ‘enchanted beast’ that was rolled.
That’s going to take us to paragraph 893 in the Book of Tales. To add a little bit of spice to this we are asked to roll a second dice – this one showing only blank faces, pluses and minus symbols. We’ll add one, or subtract one, or do nothing based on the roll of that die. We roll a plus, which indicates that our paragraph will be 894. Later, when we develop master skills we might get a chance to decide for ourselves what paragraph is appropriate although we’ll never know until it’s too late whether we’ve chosen wisely or not.
The player with the book of tales then reads out the first part of the story:
‘Do you have scholarship, a protective talisman, or a golden bridle’, they ask?
‘I have scholarship!’, we reply.
‘Do you want to use it?’
At that point, they read out the text that accompanies that choice. At the end, we see the rewards that come from our actions – a destiny point, and we could choose either Wisdom or Piety as new skills. If we had them already, we could improve them to master level.
Other rewards include the accumulation of status effects – if we didn’t have the skill indicated, we would have become ensorcelled. Other rewards include treasures, wealth, and story opportunities to enter fabulous, mythical lands:
Play continues in order, with each player moving their character, making choices, and then resolving the effects until one person decides to go back to Baghdad having earned their requisite number of story and destiny points. At that point, everyone else has one more turn and then the winner is determined.
The Book of Tales, when taken in combination with the encounter cards, creates a world of choices and weird, strange events. And more besides, because encounters come in different varieties:
For the Efreet, we’ll consult different tables depending on the time of day (we progress this as we reach the ends of the encounter deck and must reshuffle) whereas the Volcano resolves differently depending on in what kind of terrain we ended our turn. If we’re on an island, we use the special event Matrix N. Otherwise we look-up the appropriate table in the usual way, and resolve the encounter.
And my word, there are a lot of encounters in here, ranging from the fantastical to the mundane. Some allow you to make follow-up decisions:
Others have branching narrative based on dice rolls:
Some statuses are wonderful:
Others are terrible:
Some stop you using certain skills. Others allow other players to make choices on your behalf. Some create new story opportunities, others change the balancing elements of the game itself. They’re all different, but they’re all interesting and create further interest through the intersectional effects they have. It’s the polar opposite of how Pathfinder works – there are few mechanics in Tales of the Arabian Nights, but huge narrative depth and nuance. At the end of a gaming session, you probably won’t have managed to explore even a twentieth of its variety. Rarely have I encountered a game with this level of bespoke narrative generosity. The only one I can really think of that comes close is the similarly excellent Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective. We’ll get to that one day. What Merchants and Marauders is to game systems, Tales of the Arabian Nights is to story.
Yes, there’s always a but.
This is a game with phenomenal richness and variety, and one where you make decisions with huge ramifications. I would say however that I don’t think you make many interesting decisions. Let’s look at what I mean with a worked example. Class, open your books to page… shit, sorry. I forgot where I was for a moment.
Let’s say we meet the Efreet from the encounter above. It’s a ‘vengeful efreet’, so we do all the appropriate lookups and get asked for our response. We look at our choices, and our skills. We’ve got weapon use – that’s nice. We’ve also got magic, because we’re basically an Arabian Gandalf. Seems like we’re in a good position here.
‘I attack it’, we say.
There’s laughter, cross-referencing, and then we wait to find out how badly we lose the fight. It’s not that we were expecting to win, but we thought a heroic failure might be rewarding in its own way. Or at the very least, it would be funny and well within the parameters of interaction we have moulded for our character.
‘Okay, do you have courtly graces?’
‘Do I have… what?’, we ask.
‘Courtly graces. Do you have it?’
‘N… no? For attacking it? Are you sure you’re reading the right passage? ’
‘Yes. You don’t have a useful skill here then. So you gain a destiny point, a story point, and you’re now a donkey so take the Beast Form status’
Or let’s say we meet a kindly Efreet and decide that our mercantile experience and master level bargaining skill will serve us in good stead. ‘I wish to bargain with it’
‘Okay, do you have enduring hardship?’
How do you meaningfully make decisions in this environment where there is often no relationship between the actions you take, the skills you choose to use, and the possible outcomes? You can’t, really. You just have to think of your skills as a handful of unidentified spices you throw into a bubbling stew of mysterious composition. It’ll have an effect, but you won’t be able to predict it and you certainly don’t know if it’s going to end up to be something you’ll want to eat.
You do get to make decisions, but you don’t really get to drive the narrative in a way that gives them real heft or consequence. They’re interesting in that something fun is going to happen. They’re not interesting in the way they would be if they permitted you demonstrate your mastery or insight into a game state. When coupled with the quests, this becomes especially frustrating. Let’s say your quest is to find a marvelous treasure. How do you make that happen?
Well, you basically wander around and wait for something to happen that results in a treasure. You can try going to places where you might find such things, but there’s no guarantee and you’re as likely to end up as an insane beggar dead on a hill as a triumphant treasure-hunter rubbing frantically on a magic lamp.
What you absolutely have to do with Tales of the Arabian Nights is adopt a different criteria for what ‘winning’ involves. The game is misleading in that it has a winning condition, but it’s better to think of it as a ‘conclusion’. The fun is in the story you are telling, and in all the hilariously awful things that happen. The enjoyment is in just how funny, or witty, or even occasionally insightful the story becomes. It’s not in accumulating the points. You don’t have a lot of control over that and the game itself is horrendously unbalanced if those systems are important to you.
To be fair, the game isn’t entirely random. If you approach the game with a generous spirit you will tend to experience good things. If you approach the game with a mean heart, you will tend to experience bad things. This is a tendency though, and it’s not a guarantee. You might give alms to a beggar only to find yourself robbed in the night. If there were a moral message at the core of the game it would be ‘I have no idea what you should do, so just do something’. Strategy doesn’t count for anything. Tactics count for less. You’re just hoping for the conjunction of events to work out in your favour at some point.
You’d think then a game with this kind of narrative core and limited ludic expression that you would at least be able to get away without a lot of rules. That’s kind of true, but it becomes less true as time goes by and as you accumulate statuses and quests and treasures. Some of these are complex. Look at what you need to keep track of if you’re on the exiled quest:
Holy crikey – this quest adds a whole pile of additional work in terms of gameplay just for you. You have to keep rolling to see if you’re caught, and if you are you end up in prison you have your own little encounter system you need to deal with until you get out. And even then, it has an intersectional complexity that it never resolves. It implies that the quest is completed when you are imprisoned, but it never clarifies if that’s true if you are imprisoned for any other event.
If you’re lucky enough to get a magic lamp, then you get a whole set of new options:
Other treasures offer similar interesting and potentially lucrative opportunities.
Some statuses block off skills and options, others change the game loop entirely, forcing you to return to your city of origin repeatedly in order to open up future encounters. Others work like the exiled quest, adding in pursuers you must roll for every turn. It’s all incredibly prissy and pernickety, and once everyone has three or four status cards they’ve accumulated every turn grinds down into a morass of checking and re-checking associated effects. It becomes a slow process of working out exactly what you are allowed to do in each encounter, and what the impact will be on ongoing conditions. Sometimes you’re just trading one burdensome problem for another of a slightly different flavour.
And then there’s the accumulation of master skills. The way these are supposed to work is that your storyteller, with the Book of Tales, looks through the three pertinent passages for an encounter (the minus, the target, and the plus) and lets you know if there are opportunities to use that skill. Then you get to decide if you want to do that. Man, that’s clunky since you need to know what skills the current player has have at master level (or ask for each) and then remember the window of passages that pertain to the encounter. All the while, you need to keep track of what status effects invalidate particular actions, since the rules state that if you permit a forbidden action to occur then you just have to let it stand.
These aren’t exactly minor quibbles – they’re actually pretty critical in terms of game structure. However, they are extremely forgivable quibbles considering just how joyful Tales of the Arabian Nights can be. You just need to meet it on common ground – give up your conception of winning and losing, and just get into the story. Laugh at the bad things, revel in the good things, and treat it like the narrative rollercoaster it is. You’ll find yourself as a participant in exciting and interesting stories that you’ll remember for a long time to come. It’s not a good game, but it is an absolutely fantastic way to spend an evening.