The GM for my regular Burning Wheel game wasn’t able to make it the last couple weeks. Usually those of us that can still make it will play a board game or card game or sometimes a one-shot of some RPG. So, last week one of the guys in the group brought a board game I’d never seen or hard of: Tales of the Arabian Nights. The box was pretty and just seeing the artwork made me want to play it.
Check it out:
See? I had no idea what was in the box or what the game was about (storytelling boardgame? what’s that even mean?), but having that box in front of me, I absolutely wanted to crack it open and check it out.
Here’s how it works (the short version):
You travel around the map having all sorts of different encounters (from an Encounter deck), based on a couple factors (location on map and a die roll), another player will consult the Book of Tales for you and give you more specifics. Then you choose how to react to what you encountered, based on that (as well as a roll of the “Destiny Die”) the other player turns to to a paragraph in the Book of Tales and tells you the outcome.
It’s a bit like a multi-player choose your own adventure, with some other things thrown in to make things more interesting.
So, to give an example from the above, say you draw from the encounter deck and draw a “Sage”. You then roll a die (which can be modified by a couple things). Based on that roll, the player with the Book of Tales will tell you what type of Sage. Maybe he’s a wicked sage or a powerful sage or a weak sage. Then you choose from a pre-made list of reactions — do you aid the sage? Attack him? Rob him? Avoid? That tells the player with the Book of Tales which paragraph to turn to (there’s something like 2500+ paragraphs/stories in the book). Then, on top of that, you roll the destiny die, which is either nothing, -, or +. So if your reaction puts you on, say, paragraph 465. Depending on your destiny die roll, you’ll either get a final result of 464, 465, or 466. The player with the book will read off the text.
One more thing to add more choice/chance to it is that players have skills. You start with 3 and there’s various ways to earn (or lose) more in the game. So, most paragraphs in the Book of Tales will have 2 or more results. Either one if you use no skill or if you use a listed skill (it’s not always advantageous to use your skill). So the reader will ask if you have a given listed skill. If not, they read the No skill result (not always necessarily bad). If you do have the skill, they’ll ask if you want to use it (sometimes skill-use is mandatory, which generally is bad for you). And that’s that. Play continues much the same way. The stories can have all sorts of results. Moving you towards victory, earning you skills, getting you statuses (more on that), earning you wealth, sometimes even moving you around the board.
Also, skills have two levels. By default, they’re at the “talent level”. Then if something causes you to earn a skill you already have talent level, you now get it “master level”. From now on, when someone is turning to your story paragraph, instead of rolling the destiny die to see which one of three occurs, you inform the player that you have a master skill of whatever. If that skill is used in any of the three story paragraphs, they tell you if any of the three options use that skill. If so, you can choose to do that story paragraph instead.
So, how do you win? Funnily enough, winning is probably the least interesting thing about the game. When we sat down to play it last week, my friend said “I’ll say right now that usually we don’t even care about who wins. We just keep playing until we’ve had enough fun and want to move on to something else.” I wasn’t sure how to take that, but whatever, he’s played it before. But, sure enough, he was right. Even after someone could technically have won we just kept playing. We all just wanted to see what other crazy stuff would happen to us. Sure, it’s slightly competitive, but it really wasn’t an issue, it was fun and entertaining just seeing what everyone was going through and seeing how things were turning out for them.
However, the actual win conditions have to do with two tracks on the board: Story & Destiny. As you have various encounters in the game, your tokens will move forward on those tracks. At the start of the game each player is supposed to secretly choose a number for each track (that total up to 20) and keep them face down. When they reach those two numbers, to win they have to get back to the start space (Baghdad), survive another encounter (and hope not to lose any story/destiny), then reveal their numbers and they win. Yay! And you could adjust those numbers up and down for shorter and longer games. The box says a game time of a couple hours, which seems about right. Like I said, we weren’t entirely concerned with who was winning once we started playing, so it wasn’t really clear when someone would have been able to claim victory.
There are two other mechanics in the game: Quests and Statuses. When you start the game you get a quest card, it will detail something you have to do. It may require going to some specific location (locations) or doing some other specific task (find treasure in Africa). When you meet the condition you get a reward — usually in the form of story/destiny points or sometimes a new skill. Then you draw a new quest.
Statuses are positive and negative things that effect your character. This could be something like Wounded (which prevents you from using some skills) to Blessed, which lets you state a die roll instead of rolling in some circumstances. Some of my favorite ones are Ensorcelled, which means when it comes time to move on the map another player moves you instead. And there’s also Insane, so that when it comes time to react to an encounter, another player gets to choose your reaction instead. Some statuses are permanent, some are pretty easy to get rid of, and some can take a bit of doing (and certainly luck).
I’ve played through 3 times at this point. Once last week with 3 players and twice this week with two players (we could have just kept going as one session, but our accumulation of skills/statuses was getting ridiculous, so we decided to wipe the slate clean). I had a tremendous amount of fun all three times. There’s so much in the game that creates so many branching options. Encounters, die rolls, skills, statuses, and of course player choice. And like I said there’s like 2500+ story paragraphs in the book. And even if you hit the same number twice, depending on the choice a player makes and the skills they have the result could be very different. Plus some of them have their own branching options or die rolls to add even more variety.
One last thing; the box says it’s for 2-6 players. It plays pretty quick with just two people but it’s still enjoyable. Three people is really nice, because while one person is having their turn one person has the Book of Stories and the other player has the Book of Matrixes (which is the reference for all the possible reactions). According to my friend it definitely works well with 4 people. He said he’s done it with 5 people, but it starts becoming less interesting and he can’t really imagine doing it with 6. I could easily see that’s the case. Sometimes turns can go pretty quick, but other times things just cascade and a turn can last a while and if you don’t have one of the reference books you’re not getting to participate at all. I have a feeling 3 or 4 people is definitely ideal.
I really can’t recommend this game enough. I’m glad I got introduced to it.
Unfortunately, now we come to the bad news. The game was originally released in 2009 and is currently out of print. I e-mailed Z-Man Games and they said they currently have no plans to reprint the game. So the only hope is currently the used game market. I’m lucky and was able to find a copy for a reasonable price.
This is the part where you tell me what a bastard I am for getting you interested in a game that’s no longer being made. I said the same thing to my friend that introduced the game to me, so I’m just passing along the favor.