How 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…