This week’s, slightly belated, blog post about board games (yes, I’m still doing this, sorry) is going to be a bit different from the other instalments in that’s a review of, or I suppose set of rambling and incoherent thoughts about, a game I bought less than week ago. So this is sort of the verbal equivalent of an unboxing video, in that it’s my very initial reactions to something very shiny and very new. If you’ve never bought a board game, or haven’t bought that many, you may have missed the unbelievable joy that is New Board Game Smell: that cardboardy, plasticy scent you get when a fresh new game is opened for the very first time. It’s basically the smell of anticipation. And cellophane. Chances are, in a couple of years, I’ll discover it’s also the scent of dangerously high concentrations of aromatic hydrocarbons. But, for now, that’s a risk I’m willing to take.
Anyway, the new board game in question is Tales of the Arabian Nights, which I bought for H, after we got all over-excited as a result of watching the Shut Up and Sit Down review. Also I thought it would play well with two and I’ve been looking for more games we can play when our friends aren’t around. Before I say anything else, I should probably mention that Tales of the Arabian Nights is, funnily enough, based on One Thousand and One Nights, and it does raise some slightly iffy questions about cultural appropriation. And so if, for you, an Englishman writing an article about an American game based on a set of Middle Eastern stories that haven’t always been handled well in the west is a deal breaker then that’s cool. I’m absolutely not in a position to say anything about this game’s portrayal of Islamic culture, either the real version or the mythologised version presented in the stories by which the game is inspired.
That said, here are my thoughts on the game:
There’s a problematic tendency in gaming communities to label anything a bit different or a bit experimental or, in extreme cases, anything with a woman on the front who isn’t wearing a bikini as “not a game”. This is problematic because it’s a line of rhetoric often used by mainstream (by which I tend to mean white, heterosexual cis-gendered male) gamers to shut down the contributions of, well, anyone else. Confusingly, however, there are also a couple of situations in which “not a game” can actually be used to say something quite important about what makes a game (or “not game”) distinct from other games you might have played. This might be apocryphal but the designer of the original Sim City famously suggested that his creation wasn’t a game, but a toy, the distinction here being that it was a set of things you could play around with but that it didn’t impose a specific goal or win condition on the player.
In a lot of ways, Tales of the Arabian Nights is similar. While it technically has a winners and losers and clear, objectively defined victory conditions, winning is so spectacularly far from the point that treating it as a game pretty much misses everything that makes it fun to play. And, in fact, because I like to break things up into subheadings, I might highlight this point by splitting this article into “how you win” and “what’s actually fun”, before wrapping up with the inevitable nit-picks.
How You win
Tales of the Arabian Nights, at its heart, is a glorified game of Snakes & Ladders. You move around a map, having random things happen to you and these things give you points on two tracks called, Story and Destiny. In theory, these are supposed to measure different things but I’m honestly not quite sure what. I think, nominally, Story is supposed to be things you achieve yourself and Destiny is supposed to be things that happen to you but it quite often doesn’t work out that way. Anyway, at the start of the game, every player decides in secret how many Story and how many Destiny points they want to get over the course of the game. They have to add up to 20 but that’s the only restriction. Whoever reaches their victory formula first and then gets back to Baghdad wins. You have basically no control over this.
That’s pretty much it.
What’s Actually Fun
Not to put too fine a point on it, there is no way to actually make a strategic decision about what points you will or won’t get over the course of a game of Tales of the Arabian Nights. You can’t meaningfully pursue your own victory condition or prevent other players from pursuing theirs. In a game I played earlier this morning, H attempted to screw me over by taking advantage of my character’s temporary insanity to force me into attempting to abduct a Mad Prince. As a result of my character’s actions, I was punished by the Sultan and experienced such great remorse that I was cured of my insanity, gained quite a lot of Story and Destiny points, and became both Pious and Wise.
And, broadly speaking, that’s what makes this game cool.
Every turn in Tales of the Arabian Nights you draw an encounter card. This encounter card will point you at a grid (okay, I know grids seem a bit intimidating, but bear with me here). You’ll roll a dice, and the card and the dice together will tell you what you encounter. Encounters I’ve had so far have included Bumbling Enchantresses, Wicked Princesses, Ghostly Beasts, Strange Gems, Magic Storms, Rhinoceroses, Dying Beggars, Crafty Slaves and the aforementioned Mad Prince. Once you know what you’ve encountered, you then get to decide how you react to it. You pick a reaction from another grid (yes, this game involves multiple grids, it really is a lot more fun and light-hearted than that makes it sound). So, for example, you might choose to Follow the Ghostly Beast or Attack the Rhinoceros or Court the Bumbling Enchantress or, and I admit this was a personal low, Rob the Dying Beggar.
This combination of card, dice roll, encounter, reaction and one more dice roll points you at a unique reference in the game’s Book of Tales. This is a book with over two thousand entries detailing random shit that can happen to you as you bod about fantasy Medieval Arabia. The outcomes of your adventures will change depending on the skills you have acquired during your journey, any treasures you might have collected, or any status affects you might have picked up along the way, like being Wounded or becoming Sultan.
So, basically, although there’s technically a goal and rules and a way to win, it’s really just about generating these strange, improbable stories that do an extremely good job of emulating the kind of quasi-sensical dream logic that you find in this kind of folktale. What I find really impressive about this is that the game very naturally produces these kind of anecdotes. The whole structure of One Thousand and One Nights is stories within stories within stories and, bizarrely like Lord of the Rings, people will just stop and tell you a story in the middle of basically everything. And the game actually makes you kind of do that. At the end of a game I was playing with H earlier today, we got to talking about how my character had wound up wandering Lost around Damascus. “Oh”, I said, “do you not remember. I was sailing south towards Serendib when I tried to Court a Lonely Maiden who I met on an island, but she told me such a sad story that I became Grief-Stricken for a turn, which meant I couldn’t use any of my skills. So when I encountered that Magical Storm the next turn, I thought I should try to Pray for salvation but that meant that I caught the attention of one of the Efreet who picked me up and carried me off to the other side of the world.”
For what it’s worth, I lost that game, having finally found my way out of Damascus, been picked up by a Roc, dropped off a cliff, found a Magical Gem that I gave to the Caliph, and finally wound up somewhere in Egypt, where I taught the arts of love to a Noble Princess. Honestly, after all that, I didn’t much care who won.
Observations and Nickpicks
Basically, I really, really like Tales of the Arabian Nights. We’ve played it pretty much every day since we got it because it’s just so much fun. Given how completely pointless and low-investment it is, it’s unbelievably and disproportionately exciting. The only really criticism I have, and even that isn’t much of one, is that the bit at the start where you set your victory point formula seems largely pointless. Maybe I’ve not played the game enough to understand how it works but it doesn’t really feel like you have much control over whether you get Story or Destiny points, and a lot of encounters will give you both, so the optimal victory condition is definitely 10/10. I mean, yes, there are a couple of statuses that convert one to the other or boost one and not the other, but since you have so little control over what happens to you, it’s not like you can set out to get them.
Having said that, you can argue that the pointlessness of the hidden victory point total is actually a secret strength of the game. I’ve often talked in this series about games that are good for families and, especially games that are good to play with players of a variety of ages. The nice thing about the hidden victory point total is that it essentially allows you to decide how much of a chance you want to give your opponent. If you just want to play as short a game as possible and have the best chance of winning, you pick 10/10. But if, for example, you’d rather not beat a ten year old child at a fantasy Middle Eastern adventure simulator you could set it to something more punishing. You can also fiddle with the formula in order to make a longer or shorter game if that’s the sort of thing you’re into.
While I’m talking about Tales of the Arabian Nights’s suitability as a family game I should probably mention a couple of the potentially iffy themes in it. The games stays fairly close to its source material so slaves kind of crop up a lot which may or may not be something you find unacceptable (particularly because you do get the option to buy, rob and assault them if you really want to—although I should stress that is a completely avoidable and largely suboptimal course of action). You can seduce people and, while it’s not remotely graphic, there is the aforesaid arts of love sequence and you may not want explain that to your pre-teen. It’s slightly annoyingly heteronormative in that the Court option usually has a different outcome if you’re a member of the same sex (although, not always – I did manage to marry a Crafty Sage of non-specified gender, before I accidentally burned to death on a pilgrimage). This bothers me less than it might, simply because it’s fairly clear that the only thing you don’t get is the Married status and I’m more or less okay with a game set in Medieval Arabia not including same-sex marriage, especially when all being married really does is cause you to have children. And you can definitely, Seduce, Beguile and otherwise entice people regardless of sex. The game does let you do some pretty dubious things like Robbing Beggars and Abducting Princesses (and, also, because of the vagaries of the Encounter system, some straight up difficult to parse things, like Entering a Rhinoceros) but it’s basically not anything you wouldn’t see in, well, your average fairy story or folktale. And, actually, the game seems to be fairly strongly biased towards niceness in that you tend to get much better outcomes from Aiding, Honouring and Conversing with people, than you do from Attacking, Robbing and Abducting them. My least successful play-through so far was my attempt to play, in essence, the version of Aladdin from Team Starkid’s musical, Twisted: The Untold Story of a Royal Vizier. Basically, I robbed and molested anyone I could, including abandoning a heartbroken Solider of unspecified gender in Kiev because I didn’t want to get tied down, man. I wound up Wounded, Scorned and, bizarrely, On A Pilgrimage because I’d got so screwed over that I needed to throw myself on the grace of the All Merciful.
So, yeah. Tales of the Arabian Nights. It’s genuinely kind of remarkable because it really is like playing a fairy story. You should definitely get it if you are at all interested in owning a variety of different games because there’s nothing else like it out there. If, on the other hand, you’re looking for, well, a game to play competitively against other people, this would be a terrible choice.