[Tuesday Night Board Games] Tales of the Arabian Nights

Luke reads from the Book of Tales while Brennan listens intently to learn his character's fate.

Brennan, the local demo representative for Z-Man Games, set up a repeat demo for Tales of the Arabian Nights this past Tuesday. I missed the first demo and, having heard it’s heavily story-oriented, thought it would be just the thing for me.

I rolled in just as the game was getting underway — we were delayed getting out of the Scuffer up the block — and cheerfully hopped into the last seat, taking the pawn and tokens for Aladdin. Everyone seemed to know how the game would play, so they were already experienced with it or I missed the rules explanation because of my tardiness. Either way, the gameplay was easy to pick up. In Tales of the Arabian Nights, everyone chooses their own win conditions, which are some combination of story and destiny points that add up to twenty. The thought amused me, and I thought about going all out for one or the other, but decided to go for a plain split, since this was my first play of the game.

After I sat down, everyone received a quest. Almost everyone but me received a kind of quest where another player scatters three markers around the map, usually at the most far-flung locations, natch. They had to visit each of those locations to gain a quest award. In my case, I had a quest of being in the same city space as another character while having more skills than they. That quest wouldn’t really work out for me, unfortunately.

Every turn, a couple things happen: you move your character along routes across a rough representation of Europe, Asia, southern Africa and some western Pacific islands. Your speed depends on wealth: those with money can move faster, up to a point. Once a character amasses an excessively large fortune, they actually slow down during land journeys, presumably make of the hassle of the entourage that grows around the fabulously rich. But in the beginning, everyone’s poor as they strike out to seek their fortune.

Once a character has moved, they draw an encounter card from the deck. Some of these picture characters like a Wizard or a Slave; others are locations, some of which the player takes as an optional destination to visit for a random reward. Depending on the kind of space a character is in, the card gives a value. This value may differ depending on the terrain — desert, mountain, forest — or type of space — city, aquatic, and so on. The number is looked up on a table of characters and places while the player rolls a d6, adding to that result any number marked on the space in question, and possibly a bonus from the destiny track, depending on how far along their marker is. The die result, plus modifiers, specifies one of twelve adjectives to apply to the person, place or thing. So the encounter may involve a Mad Wizard, or a Crafty Hag. It also tells the player which list of verbs to check for their options, of which there are about fifteen. Each list is a little bit different, as they appear to be tied to different situations — I heard G referred to as the “horribly lost” table — but the recurring elements are verbs like “Aid,” “Attack,” “Grovel,” “Hide,” “Pray” and so on. It’s not dissimilar from the old text-parsing computer games of yore. “Attack the Crafty Hag” and so on.

Once the player chooses an action, that verb and the relevant adjective are cross-referenced on a reaction matrix, which gives a particular entry in the Book of Tales, a whopping spiral-bound tome of snippets of stories drawing from and inspired by the original One Thousand and One Nights. A FUDGE-like die is rolled to modify the reaction matrix’s result, bumping it up or down by one, or maybe leaving it the same. Another player reads out the scene, which usually involves the character or thing that one drew from the deck.

Depending on whether the character has a given skill token, they’ll get one result, an award paragraph that rounds off the story. If not, they’ll get another ending. Sometimes there’s a choice involved or a die roll, which reminds me of Arkham Horror‘s encounter cards. And typically, the ending involves an award of destiny or story points, sometimes both, and maybe a condition card, stemming from how the story turned out — Aladdin gained the Determined condition after a pearl-diving expedition went awry and he almost drowned — or some treasure, if they had a really awesome encounter.

And that’s generally how the game goes. Players have encounters, sometimes have a choice to make and gain benefits or detriments, depending on how things went. I really like the content of the game, but not so much the procedures involved in reaching that content. The One Thousand and One Nights are, to me, a trippy collection of unpredictable, seemingly arbitrary rises and falls of fortune, which I can totally get into because it’s not that another player’s got it out for you, as in a game of Illuminati or Risk, say, but just the fall of the die and what skills the character happens to have at the time.

However, all the looking up and cross-referencing really put a damper on enjoying the unfolding story for me. Three tables, two die rolls and checking skill chits is a lot of work for two paragraphs of content. Compare this to Arkham Horror again, where an equivalent amount of text is available after one card draw. The difference is variety and repetition. Given the size and density of the Book of Tales and other factors affecting what stories a character experiences, it seems unlikely that one game of Tales of the Arabian Nights will be much like any other.

As everyone got into the swing of the session Tuesday night, the pace picked up. The charts and Book of Tales rotated around the table so that at any given time, one person looked up the nouns, another checked the reaction matrix, a third read from the Book of Tales and the player taking their turn handled rolling dice and checking skill chits. If everyone’s on, as it were, and paying attention to when it’s their time to participate, play moves along at a reasonable pace. But if someone gets distracted, or one of the charts isn’t actively received or held, the momentum drains away.

I dug Tales of the Arabian Nights and I’d play it again, but I don’t think board game night at the local store is the place to do so. I’d rather play a game like this at the coffee shop — which would be tricky, given how the game can sprawl as players accumulate condition cards and chits — or around the coffee table in someone’s living room. For all that I just wrote about everyone being on their game and actively participating when needed, I think this kind of game would be served by an environment where people can lean back. There’s really no need to hunch over one’s character mat or the board itself. It seems better to relax and maunder around the hemisphere, rather than plotting out one’s moves, because you never know when you’ll be magically teleported across the continent or suddenly lose movement points due to your wealth or crippling injury.

But oh, what a story you’ll tell.

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