Guest Review : Tales of the Arabian Nights

Tales of the Arabian Nights CoverHow many board games provide an experience entirely unlike any other?

Very few, it must be said. Many new board games have clear ancestors, and an experienced hobbyist is able to describe most new games by describing their mechanisms and where they’ve been seen before. “It is a worker-placement game like Caylus,” he might say of one new title, “but with area-majority competition like in El Grande and a card-drafting mechanism similar to that of Notre Dame.”

This is difficult to do with Tales of the Arabian Nights. It is mostly in its own genre, a competitive experience game with a strong storytelling aspect and a challenge resolution system similar to Choose Your Own Adventure books. And while the game has a long list of issues one can objectively raise, the experience it provides for players of the right mindset can more than make up for its shortcomings.

In Tales of the Arabian Nights, each player assumes the role of a famous protagonist of Arabian legend — Ali Baba, Sindbad, Scheherazade, Aladdin, Zumurrud or Ma’aruf — and will travel the lands beyond Arabia seeking adventure. The winner is the player who can first fulfill his Destiny and Story point requirements, chosen secretly at the start, and be the first to return to the starting point of Baghdad.

To begin, each player selects a character, receives a random quest, and chooses three starting traits that define their aptitudes (such as Storytelling, Luck, and Piety). They receive a player aid and a cardboard stand-up pawn which starts on the board in Baghdad. On a player’s turn, he will move a number of spaces (determined by his current wealth level) in any direction he chooses, usually in a direction that helps him complete his quest. The space he ends movement on will have a value between zero and six, which represents how exotic the location is — the value is highest for remote locations far from Arabia.

Then the player draws the top card from the encounter deck. These could be locations, or people, or monsters, or mini-quests to visit a certain city, but all will have a number on the bottom which corresponds to a look-up table. The player rolls a die and adds to this the value of the current location, and a neighbour finds the exact nature of the encounter in the look-up table. For example, the card may show a wizard, and the roll determines the trait of the wizard — angry, tricky, insane, etc.

At this point, the player makes a decision on what action to take. The player aid gives a list of several possible reactions, such as Converse, Attack, Steal, Hide or others. The player simply chooses one, then another look-up table will give yet another number, which corresponds to one of over 2000 paragraphs in the massive Book of Tales. One final die roll may add or subtract one from this number, so making the same choice multiple times in the same situation does not guarantee the same result. Finally, another player reads out the paragraph, describing the results of the player’s actions and any rewards or penalties they receive. Having a particular trait will often change the result, usually (but not always) for the better; however, the traits often do not correspond to the action chosen. For example, choosing the Rob action does not mean that the Stealth & Stealing trait will help you.

Besides the brief story told, the encounter will also change the player’s state. This will almost always result in receiving Destiny and Story points, bringing the player closer to his goal, but can also include a change in wealth (affecting movement), the acquisition of new or more effective traits, treasures so rare that you touch the treasure deck maybe one game out of six, and statuses that both help and hinder… usually the latter.

You can go insane, become mind-controlled, enslaved, pursued by someone who wants you dead, envious, lovesick, crippled, lost, even sex-changed. Over the course of the game, you could have all of these happen to you. While there is humour in terrible luck, it can be hard to keep track of how all these conditions affect your turn and how one can be rid of them, and a player who gets many of these will have difficulty achieving victory. I prefer using a variant included in the rulebook that limits each player to one status each — gaining a new status replaces an existing. This makes it easy to lose conditions that cripple your chances of winning.

The game is playable from two to six players, but note that there is a great deal of downtime — individual turns are long, and the randomness makes useless any attempts to strategize between turns. With game length typically at 40 minutes per player, a game with the full player count of six will seem interminable. I recommend four players at the most, with two or three being ideal. The game’s length and downtime are major drawbacks, to be sure, but if the player count is kept small and players take an interest in each other’s encounters, it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

The fun in the game comes in having random experiences and having a shared laugh at the results. Like other experience games, enjoyment depends largely on the group one plays with. The goal is to experience the world and have a story to tell at the end, and a bad story can be more memorable than a good one. You’ll want to play with people who can laugh at their misfortune and not get hung up on
winning or losing.

This is an absolute must, since it is not possible to play the game “better” than someone else. The encounters and their results are completely random, and choosing the perceived “best” action for one’s traits (such as choosing Attack when one has Swordsmanship) does not seem to increase your odds of having a successful result. The winner will be the one with the most good fortune during the course of the game, so do not play this game with very competitive players or sore losers.

There are many “flaws” one can objectively raise, and they are even qualities that I cannot stand in some other games, such as long playtime, excessive downtime, inability to plan ahead, and the complete randomness of the results of one’s choices. And yet, to me, this is one of the most engaging games in my collection. The encounters in the game have unexpected, even unbelievable, results, and my game group is quick to share in laughing with, or at, a player’s (mis)fortune.

The artwork in the game is remarkable, some of the best in my collection, and is incredibly evocative of the theme. The theme itself is very approachable, as well, and I’ve found even players who turn their noses up at typical “swords and sorcery” settings will get into the experience of exploring this accessible fantasy world. People who have read the original stories will get an extra level of enjoyment out of the game, but even if you haven’t, the presentation and writing quality makes it easy to picture yourself in the story. And what a story! While there isn’t an arc that builds over the game, and is instead a random series of unrelated events, the writing is of such quality, and the topics themselves so fascinating, that you feel as one imagines the characters would feel, as if swept away to an unexplored, magical land where anything can happen.

I play Tales of the Arabian Nights only occasionally, and am quick to turn it down in many situations — such as at a table with five or more players, or with people I don’t feel are of the right mindset — but if the conditions are just right, this is one of my favourite games to pull out. Though I wouldn’t recommend it to everyone, I heartily recommend it for those seeking out a unique, approachable and memorable fantasy story experience. In this genre, as small as it is, it is the very best.

Say, did I ever tell you of the time I encountered a mystical efreet? It is a fascinating tale, and it begins with a bargain I struck with a lovesick enchantress…

Guest Review : 7 Wonders

7 Wonders Game CoverIn this hobby, German-style games often fall under two broad categories:  the complex games for serious hobbyists, and the light, fast and fun games made for families and more social gaming groups. Occasionally, a Eurogame comes out that defies easy categorization.  7 Wonders is neither a typical “gamer’s game” nor a “gateway game”.  It is best described as a “filler for gamers”, and is perhaps the best of this small genre.

7 Wonders comes with three decks of large cards, seven double-sided player boards (each depicting one of the wonders of the ancient world), a scoring pad, and cardboard tokens representing coins and the victory points you may acquire during play.  Each player chooses (or is given randomly) one side of one of the player boards, and receives three coins to start.  The game takes place over three rounds, with a different deck shuffled and distributed evenly to all players at the start of each round.

Each card will grant you a benefit if played, either immediately or at the end of the game, and most have requirements, in the form of resources or previously played cards.  Players will choose one card and place the remainder on the table next to their neighbours; when all players have done so, they each simultaneously reveal the card they’ve selected and decide what they would like to do with it:

  • They may play the card face-up to their play area, if they meet the requirements of the card, and get the card’s benefit for future turns.
  • They may play the card face-down to their play area to help build their Wonder, if they meet the requirements of that stage of construction.
  • They may discard the card and gain 3 coins.

If a card is played and the resource requirements cannot be met, the player may give money (which cannot be refused) to a neighbour in exchange for a one-time use of that player’s resources.  Otherwise the card must be discarded for money.

Players then pick up the cards placed next to them by their other neighbour, and play continues, but now each player has a new set of cards to choose from.  Players continue to choose cards and pass to their neighbours until players are down to one card each, which is discarded unplayed.  This is the completion of one round; a full game consists of three rounds, each using a deck of cards with progressively increased benefits and requirements.  A full three
rounds will take between 30 and 50 minutes, depending on player experience.

There are many different benefits that can be obtained from the cards.  Brown and grey Resource cards help you meet the requirements of cards played later, and may be a source of money if your neighbours need that resource.  Yellow Commerce cards often award money or grant discounts for the purchase of neighbours’ resources.  Blue Civic cards
directly score you points at the end of the game.  Green Science cards display one of three symbols and score you points if you can complete sets.  Red Military cards increase your military strength, which you compare with your left and right neighbours at the end of each round — the player with a larger military will take points away from a
neighbour whose military is smaller. Purple Guild cards will score large bonuses based on a variety of endgame situations.  As well, the successful completion of each of the two-to-four stages of your Wonder will also grant points or a unique way to break the normal rules of the game to your benefit.

For such a short game, there are seemingly many paths to victory.  The key to success is to watch what the players to your immediate left and right are doing, so you can deny them the cards they need and so you can stake out a non-competing path to collecting victory points.  For example, if the player to your left is collecting green Science cards, you will likely want to keep from passing him the cards he needs to score big points — but what do you do with these cards?  You can build them yourself, but the player to your right may deny you the cards you need to make this a winning strategy for you.  The direction that cards are passed around the table changes each round, complicating matters.

7 Wonders Game Board

Even in such a short game, it is possible to change strategies mid-game, and in fact this may be necessary.  If your neighbour builds up his military, do you follow suit?  To not do so means he will take your points easily each round — but trying to prevent this can quickly lead to an arms race in which both of you waste precious turns.  So at some point, you should give in, let the player take points from you, and concentrate on getting points by other means. Deciding when you’ve reached that point, however, is not trivial.

While experienced gamers will welcome the different paths to victory, they would be wrong to conclude this is a very deep game.  I would suggest the game has breadth, not depth — it is difficult to strategize, as your play turn-to-turn is subject to the wildly varied cards you are given — but this does mean that there is a large tactical game space to explore, and trying different combinations can be great fun.  Like Dominion, the game is also easily expandable to increase the breadth and tactical possibilities even further; in fact, the first expansion, Leaders, is available now.

The game is easy to teach… to a gamer; however, it can be hard for a beginner to work through.  There’s a lot to take in, and it’s difficult to explain the language-independent pictographs on the cards during play because turns are simultaneous and much information is hidden.  For people who have played many medium-weight German-style games (think Stone Age and that level of complexity), learning should not be difficult at all, and once learned, the game flows extremely quickly.  It works great as an end-of-night closer.

The only real gameplay drawbacks for hobbyists are its limited depth and that there is no interaction at all with players beyond your immediate left and right.  So for any player count greater than three, there are going to be opponents whose success you will not be able to meaningfully affect, which might be slightly frustrating for players used to greater control.  Also note that card quality is disappointing and does not hold up well over repeated plays — expect to replace your copy before too long if it proves popular in your group.

However, this could be the best “filler for gamers” ever published. Few German-style games play up to seven people within thirty minutes and yet be thoroughly engaging, with important decisions to be made at every moment.  The game scales amazingly well over the entire player range (ignoring the clumsy two-player variant) and is a surprisingly unique filler enjoyable for hobbyists of all experience levels beyond novice.  As such, this game is strongly recommended for game enthusiasts.  Your game group needs a copy of this.

Guest Review : Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries

Ticket to Ride : Nordic Countries box cover
Ticket to Ride : Nordic Countries box cover

Ticket to Ride hardly needs an introduction. The family strategy board game has won numerous awards around the world, including by far the most important, the Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year in Germany), and is enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of families all over the world. As is natural for a game that has had so much success, a number of spin-offs have been published to offer long-time fans greater variety.

Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries is a stand-alone game specifically designed for two or three players only, and due to its focus, is better than the original game for those numbers. The game introduces several new concepts and challenges to overcome.

In all variations of Ticket to Ride, the goal is to score the most points by claiming train routes on the board and completing secret objectives assigned at the beginning of the game. The board depicts a map showing dozens of cities, and routes connecting nearby cities to each other. Players are given several goals each to join two
non-adjacent cities on the board via a connected network of train routes; bonus points can be scored at the end if successful, while those points are subtracted if not. This is an element of risk if the player chooses to obtain additional goals during the game.

Players can connect adjacent cities by playing train cards. There are eight colours of cards, plus a wild (depicted as a locomotive), and a route will typically require a number of a specific colour of train card in order to claim it. Most player turns consist of drawing face-up cards (or blind from the draw deck) or playing these cards to claim routes. Once claimed, a route cannot be connected by another player — which can cause frustration for those who hoped to make that same connection!

There are two ways to play Ticket to Ride. Many families will concentrate on their own secret goals and only claim the routes they need; if such claims cause problems for other players, this is accidental. However, some people who are more competitive and confrontational may deliberately claim a route they do not need if they believe another player will need it. The game works great either way, but to avoid frustration for casual players, I recommend discussion and agreement before the game on what sort of experience you wish to have.

The game is however very simple and is otherwise very, very suitable for families. While the original game is excellent for four or five players, a lot of the challenge comes from the crowded board and the interference (accidental or otherwise) caused by other players, so the game loses something when played with fewer participants. Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries is an alternative experience for those who wish to have a more challenging Ticket to Ride experience with smaller player numbers.

The Nordic Countries board depicts cities in northern Europe, in the countries of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia. The experience is similar to the original game, but introduces some additional challenges:

  • Wild cards can only be used on special routes, of which there are two types: tunnels and ferries. One can now not play these on regular routes.
  • Tunnels are special routes that may need more cards than required for a normal route. A player declares her attempt to build a tunnel of a colour, then draws three cards blind from the draw pile. For every card of the same colour (or wilds), the player must play additional cards (or wilds) from her hand beyond the original cost. If she is unable to, her turn is forfeit, though she can try again on a later turn.
  • Ferries are special routes. For each locomotive depicted on the route, the player claiming the route must play a locomotive (wild) card. For each of the remaining spaces, the player must play either a matching colour card, or a wild card, or any three cards.
  • Many of the more valuable secret-goal cards require building into the far north, where the few connecting routes are more difficult special routes.

The game is very recognizable as Ticket to Ride, but the additions give it its own character. The special routes are more difficult to claim, certainly, but because of the change that wild cards are not usable for most routes, now even the basic routes are tougher to complete. If you wish to complete a basic orange route, for example, you absolutely need orange cards, and woe to you if you need this route and are unable to draw any. It actually gives an advantage to card counters — to have an idea of how many orange cards have already been drawn and so to know whether more will be easy to find.

The western coast of Norway and the extreme north of the map are simply brutal to work in. It would be a challenge for one player to work in this area, but if two are competing there to complete their goals, one or both are going to lose many points at the end. Because of this, Nordic Countries is a very unforgiving game, and final scores between players can differ wildly.

Compared to the original, Nordic Countries has rules exceptions which are difficult to teach and remember. You can only use wild cards on tunnels and ferries, but any three cards will also work as a wild — but only for ferries. Wilds cannot be used for basic routes, except for one particularly long route, but here (and only here) you can substitute four cards as a wild, not the three as with the ferries. This is not a game one should teach new players — for that you should stick with the original game.

For experienced “Riders”, though, the restrictions make the game more tense and cutthroat, and for like-minded players, this is very welcome. The original game is one I will happily pull out for new and casual gamers, but Nordic Countries is my preferred choice for small groups already familiar with the game. The increased difficulty makes the game more engaging and adds many important decisions to consider.

Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries is not a game for casual players new to the Ticket To Ride series. For hobbyists, experienced Ticket to Ride players looking for a greater challenge, and those wanting a better experience than the original for two or three players, however, this is a game I can safely recommend. It is a great way to play Ticket to Ride in an all new way.