These are golden days for the old guard. Numerous older games with a high pedigree are getting reprinted in special expensive uber-editions, complete with new art, cleaned-up rules, and fancy components. Space Hulk, Cosmic Encounter, Talisman, and Titan have all been given the re-release treatment, and all have been very well-received both by new gamers and by the already-on-board fans of the games.
Tales of the Arabian Nights is yet another re-release, this time of a 1985 game from West End Games. To say the game is a unique experience would be an understatement. It flies in the face of a lot of what a game is, and instead strives for what a game could be. Such things as winning and losing are secondary to the singular experience of weaving a tale, one that takes bizarre and exciting turns. Tales of the Arabian Nights is a game where you make choices, but their outcomes are unpredictable and often very funny.
The game is precisely what it says on the box: the famous Tales of the Arabian Nights in game form. Players take the role of famous characters like Ali Baba and Scheherezade, and they go around the board encountering magical cities, magical animals, and people of all kinds. These encounters give players a combination of Story or Destiny points. At the beginning of the game, each player sets their own goal of each kind of point. It can be any amount as long as the total is 20. In addition to points, players will gain and lose statuses, learn or master new skills, find rare treasure, and perhaps even gain entry to an elusive Place of Power.
The encounters are done through an absolutely brilliant system: the reaction matrices and the massive Book of Tales. At the end of their turn, players draw a card that points them to the Book of Tales, and they roll to find out what they are encountering (be it Strange Customs, The Valley of Dogs, or the ever-popular Wicked Vizier). Players then consult a Reaction Matrix, to select how they will respond to “the other.” Perhaps you will pray to Allah for guidance, or beat the Diseased Hag. The matrix then indicates a paragraph in the Book of Tales, and another player reads the results of your actions. This all sounds very arcane and elaborate, but the truth is that it flows very naturally.
Some have accused the game of not having any meaningful choices, and I suppose that by many definitions, it doesn’t. A player has no way of knowing how their choice will turn out. As a rule of thumb, it’s best to play towards whatever skills you have. For example, if you have Piety, praying may be a good move. There are no guarantees though. Crazy stuff will happen to you, generally without you meaning to do any of it. You may get married, become Sultan of a far off kingdom, or even get turned into an ape. If you are truly unfortunate, you may end up lost, or even imprisoned.
But if the game is random, it is also a blast to play. Even if you have no idea what you are doing, you feel like YOU are making the decision. Indeed, the biggest triumph of the design is that it takes some VERY rudimentary role-player, and packages it in an accessible package. More than any game I own, this is one to play with non-gamers. Though the board may look intimidating at first, the rules can be explained quickly, and people who would otherwise never care about a game will be drawn in and get to experience their own tale. The Book of Tales carries its weight as well; it’s written in a slightly dramatic fashion, and it lends itself to over-the-top readings.
I should also say that I find something about the game liberating. As much as I like competition and strategy, there is something to be said for a game where a dumb decision actually makes the game more enjoyable. The pressure of having to strategize or think too much aren’t an issue here. If you are trying to do those things, you have missed the point of the game. Instead, just sit back and laugh with your friends. That is, after all, the reason I play games. If the game has any flaw, it is only that it requires a certain mindset. If you can’t muster that mindset, you will not dig the game.
The production is, quite frankly, gorgeous. Some keystrokes have been spent on the board and its art direction, but I find it colorful and usable. The card illustrations are uniformly excellent. A new aspect with this edition is the placement of the numerous statuses on cards. In past editions, players had to look up what statuses did to them on a sheet. The cards make it much easier, and it also makes it easier to track multiple statuses at once. The Book of Tales is impressive. Over 2000 paragraphs are included, so the odds of finding the exact same encounter are very slim. We have found a couple of odd misprints, but that is surely understandable.
Another thing I enjoy about the game is the scaling. Some have complained that the game is virtually made of downtime with more than three players, but that’s not really true if you play with the right people. Five or six player games are fine, although they may take as long as three hours or so. If the game is still running too long for you, it’s easy enough to just play to fewer points. We have no problem just quitting the game in the middle. It’s not as if the victory conditions are anything besides a way for the game to win. The crazy nature of the game does mean that there will be inevitable dry spells, where nothing very interesting happens. Generally, that kind of thing doesn’t last to long, but it does happen. A slow game isn’t helped by someone pointing out how boring and random the game is. If you invite players who you know will point that out, you have no one to blame but yourself.
What else can be said? Tales of the Arabian Nights is a special game, one that is entirely about the experience and narrative. Playing the game with a group of non-gamers is eye-opening. They don’t care about the fact that there aren’t many “meaningful decisions” or that their strategies haven’t panned out. They only care about laughing at Ali Baba, who lost his chance to spend an “hour of bliss” with a seductive ‘eftreeteh. They pity Zumuruud, who is imprisoned in Samarkand. They clap at their own good fortune when they successfully rob a band of bloodthirsty brigands. Those are things that are bigger than a game. It’s the building of community, and that is what games could be.
For more recent reviews, you should check out my blog, The Rumpus Room.