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 : Caylus

Caylus Box CoverIn Caylus, you and your opponents play the roles of builders who are tasked with building a village and castle for King Philip the Fair in the year 1289. Caylus is a fairly heavy strategy game that revolves around a worker-placement mechanic. Resource-management is also a very important part of the game. Not a game for beginners to European-style board gaming – there is virtually no luck involved, accommodates 2-5 players, and games often run between 1.5 and 2.5 hours.

Appearance: This is a tricky subject, because there are actually two main versions of this game. In the original (blue box) version of the game, the board/tile art is merely average, and the coins are cardboard tokens. In the limited edition (black box) version of the game, the art is spectacular, the colours are beautiful – albeit dark – and the metal coins are a pleasure to handle. The limited edition also comes with nice cloth/felt bags for the wooden player tokens, building tiles and resources, and coins.

Rules/Ease of Learning: As I mentioned in the introduction, Caylus is not a game for beginners. There is a lot to keep track of in this game, and it can be frustrating for new players to fall behind in the early game and stay there for two hours. That being said, the rules are not terribly complex – there are just a lot of them.

The game is played over a number of rounds (averaging around 15), with seven phases per round. Players receive income to fund their worker placements in the following phase. Workers are placed along a winding track, populated with six squares that are printed on the board, six pink tiles that are randomly distributed, and a number of blank squares that are filled when the players purchase building tiles.

Each square has an action associated with it – some produce resources (wood, stone, food, cloth, gold) or money, some change turn order, some allow you to build new tiles to place along the track. Each round, players may pay to move a ‘provost’ marker that may prevent some tiles from activating at all. Players may also acquire royal favours that allow them to advance along one of four reward tracks (victory points, money, resources, or building).

Additionally, players may place workers alongside King Philip’s castle, in order to contribute to the construction of the castle dungeon, walls, and towers. Victory points are primarily scored for purchasing building tiles and building sections of the castle. The game ends when the ‘bailiff’ marker (a companion to the ‘provost’) reaches a particular square near the end of the building track.

Gameplay: Though the rules are rather complex, it is the strategy and resource juggling that makes Caylus so difficult. Deciding when you should purchase a new building, when you should build castle pieces, and when you should just take a turn to replenish your resources and money can be a headache. You may sometimes have to decide between placing a worker on a tile that benefits you and placing a worker on a tile just to prevent an opponent from reaping its benefits.

Like some other moderate- to advanced-complexity worker-placement games (Dungeon Lords, Egizia), Caylus can be quite frustrating when you make a mistake. Building tiles execute in order, and it is possibly – even likely – that you will forget that at least once in your first few games, resulting in you wasting a worker because you don’t yet have the cloth you need to joust, or the food you need to build a castle piece. However, since the game is played over more than a dozen rounds, making a mistake like this isn’t quite as devastating as in some other games.

One thing worth mentioning is that individual players’ turns are relatively short in Caylus. Since there is a worker placement phase every round, and each player may potentially place up to six workers, this is important. In my personal experience – even when playing with players who usually take a long time analyzing their moves – the phases move relatively quickly, and players will rarely find themselves waiting a significant time before it is their move once more.

It will certainly take a few games to get the hang of Caylus, but it’s well worth the effort. Gamers who have played several resource-management or worker-placement games should be able to figure things out with a minimal amount of difficulty. With no dice or cards, the only random element in Caylus is the initial six pink tiles – and the order of those tiles does modify the gameplay a fair amount.

Conclusion: Caylus is certainly one of my personal favourites. The almost nonexistent luck element and the moderate degree of competition (as players vie for turn order and choice worker placements) combine to make a game that is quite fun overall. The game works best with four players, though it plays fairly well with three or five as well. If you’re looking for a deep strategy game that will keep you and your friends busy for a few hours, Caylus is a good bet.

Guest Review : Space Hulk Death Angel

Space Hulk : Death Angel CoverSpace Hulk: Death Angel – the Card Game is a card based iteration of the Games Workshop classic, Space Hulk. You take on the role of a Kill-team from the Blood Angels Chapter of the Adeptus Astartes (Space Marines) charged with the investigation and purging of a derelict Space Hulk. This is a highly thematic co-operative game for 1 – 6 players that can be played in about an hour.

Appearance

Death Angel is very well produced and fits nicely inside the 8” * 4” * 1.5” box. The individual Space Marine cards truly bring each marine to life and the text area on these cards is easy to read. The Genestealer cards also have fantastic art and clearly provide the information needed on them. The Terrain cards are rather generic and a bit boring, but cards with text are easy to read. The remaining cards (Location, Action, and Event) are well produced and have good art and easy to read text. The game also includes a red custom die, numbered 0-5, with a skull icon on 3 of the faces and cardboard support and squad tokens, all of which have a high production value.

Rules/Ease of Learning

Once you have a few games of Space Hulk : Death Angel under your belt, the game is fairly simple to play, but the rulebook can be a bit of a hassle to navigate, due to a dis-jointed presentation. For example, the book presents the components of a game round in summary, then in detail, followed by specific rules on how specific actions work. In short, the first few games will probably involve flipping between pages frequently. However, after a few games, the rules become pretty clear. Someone that knows the rules
of the game can easily explain how to play in 5-10 minutes.

When starting a game, the various decks are prepared and locations are seeded, based on a starting location card, which changes based on the number of players. Players then randomly select their two
man squad by drawing squad tokens. Each squad has a unique ability that is tied to the specialty of one of the marines (eg, Heavy Weapons, Close Combat) and a set of Action cards. A round in Death Angel has four phases:

  1. Choose Actions – players select an action to perform, but cannot perform the same action back-to-back. Players may discuss actions, but cannot show their cards to the other players. Once an action is chosen, it is placed face down on the table.
  2. Resolve Actions – players resolve their actions in initiative order, which is printed on the action card they selected.
  3. Genestealer Attack – any Genestealers that are engaged with a Space Marine may attack
  4. Event – the current player reads the top card in the event deck, but does not show it or read it to the other players. This player makes any choices that are identified on the card and then spawns new Genestealers, and moves them, as directed on the card.

Attacks are resolved using the die provided. When a Space Marine takes an Attack action, they roll the die and if a skull comes up, they are successful in eliminating one threat. When attacked by Genestealers, the Space Marine rolls the die and if the result is greater than the number of genestealers in the attacking swarm, then the Marine lives – but it only takes one failure to remove a marine from the game.

Marines explore the Space Hulk by travelling to the locations in the location deck. Each location has a set number of Genestealers that will spawn and once they have all spawned the Marines move to the next location. The game ends when the victory conditions on the final location are met, or all Space Marines are killed.

Gameplay

Space Hulk LayoutWhile you play as a team of superhuman Space Marines, Death Angel is not easy. Communication, tactics and a bit of luck are needed to survive. To survive a game of Death Angel players need to work together and tactically select cards, especially since you cannot play the same card back to back. The necessary teamwork combined with the different abilities of each Marine, one really feels like they are part of a well-oiled Space Marine Kill-team.

Death Angel also captures the feeling of an unrelenting horde through frequent spawning of Genestealers. At the end of each round, more Genestealers spawn – and as swarms grow larger, it becomes more difficult for a Marine to defend against them, which adds to the sense of urgency and horror of facing a foe that vastly outnumbers you.

The location deck also adds to the theme of exploration of an unknown vessel. With each location change, players will wonder if the next location will offer a reprieve, or will the onslaught ramp up? Death Angel constantly pours tension on with each die roll and card drawn.

Having played Death Angel solo and with up to four players the game seems to scale well. The obvious complaint that one could level against Death Angel is the low chance to hit with a regular attack (50% chance) for a single kill, but special abilities are quite powerful and seem to balance this out. Genestealer movement and shifting Marines after a brother falls in battle can be a little tricky – a better rulebook might set this right though.

Conclusion

Death Angel is tense, thematic, and fun. The rulebook isn’t the easiest to read, but Space Hulk : Death Angel is easy to teach once you have a few games under your belt. It’s excellent for when you only have a short period of time to play, and the action can keep eliminated players interested.

Guest Review : Dixit the Board Game

Dixit Box frontDixit is a wonderful family/party game for 3-6 players with light strategic elements, fast-paced, creative gameplay and beautiful artwork that will satisfy novice players and seasoned board game veterans of all ages. It is a game that primarily requires imagination and deduction, and maybe a little bit of telepathy. A great quick game for younger crowds or mixed age/experience groups; Dixit should only take 30-45 minutes to play.

Appearance: Dixit is absolutely gorgeous. The 84 cards that comprise the central mechanic of the game are beautifully-illustrated by artist Marie Cardouat, and are often fantastic, absurd, or downright strange. Words don’t really do the game art justice; see below for some pictures. The wooden bidding tokens handle easily, and the rabbit-shaped player tokens are a nice touch.

Setup of the game board for DIxitRules/Ease of Learning: The rules of Dixit are quite simple. Each player is dealt a hand of six cards. The active player begins by saying a word, reciting a quotation, singing a song, or even making a noise that somehow describes one of the cards. This is very open to interpretation – a player may physically describe some object in the picture, an emotion expressed by the picture, a memory they associate with the depicted events, etc. This is really only limited by the player’s imagination. Once the active player has vocalized the chosen card, each player must lay a card face-down on the table that they think best embodies the active player’s description. Often this requires some creative thinking on the part of the other players; it is rare that the word or phrase spoken by the active player will perfectly describe one of their cards as well.

The next phase of the game is bidding. The cards are shuffled and laid face-up on the table, and assigned numbers from left to right. Each player (excluding the active player) must secretly bid on the card they believe was laid by the active player. When all bids have been placed, the bidding tiles are turned face-up and scoring begins.

Scoring is the trickiest part of the rules. The active player only receives points if at least one player (but not all of them) chose the correct card. If all or none of the players chose the active player’s card, everybody but the active player scores points. This means that the active player must pick a word/phrase/etc. that is neither too specific nor too vague. Once the scoring is complete, the active player changes and a new round begins.

Dixit Score Track and Inside BoxGameplay: Though the rules are simple, the strategy is tricky enough that most new players will spend a few rounds of frustration as either nobody or everybody picks their card, denying them from scoring any points. Sometimes you are unlucky and nobody else has a card that even remotely matches the active player’s word or phrase, making it an easy choice for all. However, once players have played a few rounds, it becomes easier to find the right balance between obscurity and precision.

The gameplay in Dixit is also aided by an almost complete lack of language-dependence. Being composed almost entirely of pictures, Dixit can be played by people of varying linguistic ability – be they young children or people who speak English as a second language (though you may have to explain a word or two). I have played this game several times with people who have low to intermediate English skills, and it works very well. The flexibility of the verbal component of this game means it scales itself to the ability of the players. Clues might often be a single adjective, when playing with younger players or students. If playing with an older crowd, clues might be references to movies or song lyrics. If playing with close friends, clues could include inside jokes that might give certain players a somewhat-unfair advantage.

The above praise notwithstanding, the fantastic art and simple gameplay often steers veteran board gamers away from Dixit. It is easy to see Dixit as a game solely for families and young children, but one shouldn’t discount it entirely. Part of the amusement I derive from Dixit is trying to guess how other people think I think, and then trying to outthink them. The strategy involved is as complicated as you wish to make it.

The strategy and gameplay in Dixit depends partially on the number of players. The three player game is somewhat weak, although the rules change do change to accommodate the lower number of players, with each player (except the active player) choosing two cards instead of one. Nevertheless, the game is definitely much more enjoyable with five or six players. Because the game is played until the deck is depleted, increasing the number of players adds more depth and enjoyment to the game without appreciably increasing game length.

Dixit Card Close-UpBeing a game that relies on individual imagination, Dixit can vary wildly from group to group. Knowing one of your opponents very well often helps you make the leap of logic between the picture on the table and the word or phrase spoken by the active player. Players often have to put themselves in their opponent’s shoes to try to figure out how their minds work. Telepathy is an asset.

Conclusion: Overall, Dixit is one of the best party/family games that I’ve played in recent years. It combines imagination and creativity with deduction and mind-reading to create a game that can be enjoyed by people of all ages and skill levels. People looking for a serious, strategically complex game should steer clear, but those who want a game they could play with their children, friends, parents, and grandparents all at the same time should certainly give Dixit a chance.