Thursday, 21 January 2010

Tales of the Arabian Nights

Tales of the Arabian Nights is an old game republished last year. It was the game that I had mistakenly thought Once Upon A Time was when I bought the latter. Arabian Nights is the more famous game. In some ways, these two games are actually quite similar. Both are story-telling games. The biggest difference is in Once Upon A Time you are (mostly) active and in Arabian Nights you are (mostly) passive.

The Game

Think boardgame version of choose-your-own-adventure books. That's more or less the gist. Players are characters in the world of the Arabian Nights. They start the game in Baghdad, with three basic skills and a quest to fulfill. They adventure around the board encountering various people and events. They may learn new skills, acquire treasures, get cursed, become an outlaw etc. Throughout these adventures, they gaining Story Points and Destiny Points, which are needed to win the game.

A very thick Book of Tales comes with the game. When a player encounters an event (which usually happens every turn), you look up a list to determine what (or who) you encounter. Then there's a list of possible reactions you can choose from (look up another list). After choosing your reaction, your fellow player reads out your story for you, from the Book of Tales, after looking up the right paragraph based on your choice of reaction. There is some die rolling that mixes things up a bit, and sometimes some of your skills can make a difference in the outcome too.

That's basically how the game works. Pretty simple. And there's a lot of looking up to do. There are some other rules, but the game is not complex.

The Play

I played a 2-player game with Han. He suggested we use a goal of 15pts instead of 20, to make things go quicker. Also we each had 1 master skill and 2 normal skills, as opposed to 3 normal skills. I wanted to play green, as usual, but green is a woman in this game. Han played Sindad, who is blue in the game. My starting quest was to be a have a great story. Every time I scored 2 Story Points within the same turn, I'd earn 1 of 3 quest markers, and when I earned all 3 markers, I'd complete the quest. Han's starting quest was to travel to three distant cities (determined by me), so he had some destinations to aim for. I wandered around until I drew some city cards, which were like mini quests - go to the specified city to gain some benefit.

Things didn't quite work out for me. On my first turn I ran into some corrupt official who tried to frame me for a crime I didn't commit. Since I was good with weapons, I tried to attack him, but that didn't work out. I was defeated, humiliated and injured. I escaped and wasted one turn to recover, but now I was an outlaw and could never go back to that city because the people there knew my face. I tried to be a studious person. When I met a wise sage I tried to speak with him and learn from him, but the arrogant old fart got offended and told me off. I was never able to earn 2 Story Points in a turn, while Han managed to visit one quest city after another. He used a pretty crazy approach when choosing reactions, taking mostly aggressive or unusual actions. It turned out quite well for him though. He gained Destiny and Story Points steadily while I floundered, and he eventually won the game. He did have one tragic love story to tell though - he got married in a city where widows and widowers were expected to get themselves killed too if their spouses died, and his wife died a few days after their marriage (and I bet she had no life insurance). He managed to run away and returned to Baghdad.

My character, the lady in green. The story track is on the right, where you track your Story Points earned.

Left to right, top to bottom: Skills (Wisdom, Magic, both at Master Level, and Storytelling at Talent Level), a City card, a Treasure card, the supposedly secret Destiny Points and Story Points goals, a Status card (Outlawed), and a Quest card.

Han was Sinbad (left), and he was already en route back to Baghdad to claim victory.

I like the artwork of the game. It's both functional and beautiful. The Lake of Colours and Undersea Kingdom and two special Places of Power in the game. You can't enter such locations except by some special encounters. We didn't get to visit any such places during our game, but we cheated and on my last turn when I gained the rights to enter The Dusky Land, I jumped there to see what an encounter there was like. Normally I'd have to travel there by ordinary means. Nothing much happened though. I just spied on some genies doing... I don't even remember what they were doing. Maybe they had cast a spell on me... Oooh... spooky!

The Thoughts

All those reviews for Arabian Nights are right - if you want to enjoy it you need to play with the right mindset. You don't get much control about whether good or bad things happen to you. You need to just relax and enjoy the bizarre story (bizarre is good). Not that you should not be trying to win. That is still important because it gives you a sense of purpose (just like the quests and city cards do). Just be prepared that the winner is probably going to be determined by luck rather than skill. In Han's words - "a game only good for families and non-gamers". I think we played a bit hurriedly with those modifications used to shorten the game, because we were worried it might drag. It turned out, at least to me, that the game felt short.

There are many many paragraphs in the Book of Tales. However in our game I think we've encountered Strange Customs three times. Maybe it is because I tended to visit cities. It can be no fun if you start encountering the same things. I pity the game designer / developers. For every little bit that they wanted to reduce the chances of a player encountering the same thing, they had to put in a lot of effort in writing many more paragraphs. A lot of hard work had gone into this game. And still, we could encounter the same thing even in our first game, and this was a 2-player game. Maybe we were just super unlucky. Of course one way to change what you will experience is to intentionally choose some other reaction to the same encounter. But that feels a bit forced. You would be making a random choice for the sake of variety, rather than getting into character and making the choice that feels right. This can be applied to locations that you choose to have an encounter too. You can intentionally choose to have encounters at different types of locations - cities, forests, deserts, sea etc. However that feels forced. It detracts from the feeling of immersing yourself in a magical story.

We encountered a whirlpool on land. I've read that quirky things like this can happen. I don't mind it too much. I can make excuses like I happened to be crossing a lake.

Your story will be quite disjointed. It is more or less random which paragraph you get every turn. There are things that try to tie things together and give a sense of continuity - your skills, your treasures, your statuses and your quests. They do help, and in my opinion to a good extent, especially the quests. Skills are sometimes helpful and do affect the outcome of encounters, but not really all that often. E.g. my skills with weapons didn't help me when I decided to fight the evil vizier.

I have already ordered a copy of Arabian Nights, even before I played it. It is something very different from any other game I have played, and I think it will be a good game to play with my children when they are older. I can enjoy the game, but it's definitely not something that I'd play heavily. And indeed it is a good game to play with non-gamers. You can just spend 3 minutes describing the basics, skipping the rest of the rules, and start a game. You only need to teach them how to do the look-ups, Destiny and Story Points, and movement, to get a game started. All the rest can be taught during the game.

The game is probably best with 3 or 4 players. With 2, the non-active player has too much look-up work to do. With more than 4, there is probably going to be too much downtime. There is little player interaction anyway, and I don't think that's an important part of the game in the first place.

Arabian Nights is not not a game. It's just that your choices may not have much relevance to winning. Accept that, immerse yourself in the story, and you'll enjoy it.


wankongyew said...

I would imagine that this type of game would work well with young kids though, provided that the stories aren't too adult-oriented. You might need to elaborate more on what's going on and add flourishes to keep up their interest, but provided you're a good storyteller, it should be interesting.

Hiew Chok Sien said...

Yeah, I'm looking forward to when my children are old enough to be able to read the English passages by themselves. Then they can play. Hmm... actually maybe they can already play, if I let them play the game while I do all the look-ups for them and don't play myself. My older daughter (almost 5) will probably be quite thrilled. But my younger daughter (3) may not have the patience.

wankongyew said...

That's basically what we did when we played over here. Han arrived late and we had a full set of players so Han did all the looking up and reading. I can't imagine how tedious it would have been if we actually had to constantly pass the book around among six players. I agree that three to four players would be best, then everyone can keep track of everyone else's stories. Too many and it gets boring and you get too lazy to bother remembering what happened to other players.

Jessica said...

I had this game when I was a kid and I just did a search I didn't knwo if I was right with the name but I saw this picture amongst a whole lot of other arabian night pics and I was soooo excited. I LOVED this game. I would sit in my room by myself for hours playing this game!!!

Hiew Chok Sien 邱卓成 said...

A new version of this game was released just one or two years ago, and it is this version that is in the photos. It is much enhanced compared to the original version so you may want to get yourself a copy.