I don’t know if they’re still a thing, but I used to enjoy “Choose Your Own Adventure” books. When I was young there was something novel about interacting with your media. Time replaced this with text-based video games, and now story-based video games. In this review, we go back in time and look at a board game from an age before I was reading those books. Heck, from an age before I was even born!
Name: Tales of the Arabian Nights
Publisher: Z-Man Games
Designers: Anthony J. Gallela, Eric Goldberg, Kevin Maroney, Zev Shlasinger
Artists: Peter Gifford, Dan Harding
Tales of the Arabian Nights is a role-playing lite game taking players on a mystical adventure where they might meet the woman of their dreams, get jailed for stealing bread, or get turned into a gorilla by a humble street magician. Whatever happens you’ll be competing to get Destiny and Story points, with the winner being the one who collects the right combination of both.
Beginning in Baghdad, each player is given a quest to complete, and little money to do it – the Amazing Race of the 1700’s. These quests include returning to Baghdad after exile, finding a lover for a wealthy merchant, and defeating other players in a contest of champions. Ultimately, they form your character’s motivation of why they left their cosy home to journey out into the world.
On your travels, your character will accumulate wealth, treasures, statuses, and skills. Wealth determines how far you can travel, treasures usually help you in some way, and skills and statuses are semi-permanent effects that manipulate your character’s turn.
Once you’ve moved and landed on a space you then perform a complicated ritual involving tables, cards, dice, naked dancing, and a choice. After figuring it all out, you use the Book of Tales to find what fate had in store for your character. Included are 2600 different short paragraphs describing the actions, consequences and circumstances that befall your hero or heroine.
This book and how it works is astonishing, and you must respect the craftsmanship that went into it. Twenty years on and few games have dared replicate the intricate nature of how it works, mainly due the amount of time and effort needed.
There are a lot of variables that go into selecting which paragraph applies to your character, but it boils down to this: the spot on the board you land on is the where, the encounter card you draw is the who, and the action you perform is the what and how.
These actions are where you’ll have the most fun in the game. For instance, you’ll be addressed by a Bloodthirsty Barber, who may or may not be Sweeney Todd, and you’ll have the choice of: honouring, attacking, avoiding, aiding, robbing, following, questioning, or praying to this murderous cutter of hair. Of course, you’re hoping to get into the meat pie business, so you’ll honour your senior in hopes of learning some tricks of the trade. Then this happens:
You come across a band of barbers engaged in a raucous celebration of a recent raid. The wine flows steady and the sounds of their merriment echo across the valley floor. “Why the celebration, friends?” you inquire. The barbers tell you of their brazen daylight raid on a corrupt merchant who, through unconscionable usury, had drained the poor of both their dignity and their earnings.
Moved by their conviction, you offer to represent the gang as emissary to the common folk, to spread the word of the barber’s heroic deeds in your travels. The gang honours you with a toast and with recitation of an oath of acceptance and respect.
You gain 2 destiny points, 2 story points and the status Respected.
In this example, I had the choice between using No Skill, or the Courtly Graces skill. I chose the latter, but the former would have netted me 2 destiny points, 1 story point, and the Bargaining and Evaluation skill instead.
This gives you a taste of what the game offers. Not only how your adventure plays out, but also how points, skills, statuses, and treasures are delivered. It is completely random. The fallout of this is that sometimes your story doesn’t make as much sense as it should, and any strategy beyond heading in the right direction isn’t needed. Additionally, skills you learn don’t appear in the book as often as they should, so while your character grows throughout the game, you never feel that growth because you never use the skills you learn.
However, this game is the Whose Line is it Anyway of board games, where everything is made up and the points don’t matter. Because like Whose Line, winning isn’t the point of the game, having a good time is – and that depends on how much you enjoy the random light-hearted story telling.
Otherwise, the design of the game is good, but dated. The rules could be streamlined as there’s a lot of exceptions, and special rules which don’t occur often enough to remember. Forcing you to break your immersion to dive back into the rulebook. While at larger player counts it’s difficult keeping track of what’s happening to whom. Changing it from four or five cohesive stories to a small hodgepodge series of disjointed nuggets of storytelling.
Unfortunately, I have a hard time immersing myself into literature at the best of times. So, it’s no surprise to me that this choppy ride through the Arabian Desert fell flat. The book is an incredibly cool idea and is executed exquisitely, but the downside of stripping the board game of any form of strategy, or meaningful decision making is too big for me to ignore. To the point where I think that unless you’re playing with family, or young ones, you’re better off taking the leap and getting a full-fledged role-playing game.
Weird outcome to this review as I really enjoy Eldritch Horror – another story based game – so I’m surprised this one fell so flat! What’s your favourite story based game?