Never Had a Game Like Me: A review of Tales of the Arabian Nights
Tales of the Arabian Nights is a game for 1-6 players, by designer Eric Goldberg and published by Z-Man Games. This is a storytelling game based on the classic collection of tales and folk stories by the same name.
Players take on the role of a legendary character such as Aladdin or Sindbad, and travel the lands encountering people, monsters and disaster, while seeking their wealth and fame. Your fate in the game depends on how you react to each obstacle.
Arabian Nights is, first and foremost, a game about adventure and stories. Each turn, you will have an encounter with a creature, person or place and it will be up to you to choose how to react to it. Your choices, skills and a little bit of luck are all that you have to help you gain points and treasure, complete quests and move closer to victory. The winner is the first person to reach 20 points and return home to Baghdad.
Before starting the game, each person will choose a character to play and will be able to customize them by also choosing some starting skills.
Each of the six characters features in the tales, but are the same except for their colour, name and picture. After selecting one, each player will take turns selecting a skill for their character to begin the game with, until everyone has chosen three different skills. These will offer advantages in appropriate encounters - for example, a character skilled in Weapon Use who choses to attack a creature may receive a better outcome than an unskilled character.
These skills can also become more powerful during the game if a player is granted it in an encounter. A master level skill increases the character's chance of having an encounter requiring the use of that skill, and therefore their chance of having a rewarding outcome.
Each player will also receive a quest card. These are long-term goals with large rewards, and require the player to complete tasks such as visiting certain locations, gaining a certain wealth level or finding a treasure. If it is completed during the game, the player will receive another quest.
Everyone will then choose a secret victory condition. To win the game, you must have 20 total points, but encounters provide two types of points - Story points and Destiny points. Each player can choose for themselves how many of each type they want to aim for, for a total of 20.
Finally, everyone places their player tokens in Baghdad, ready to set out on their adventures!
On your turn, you can first move a number of spaces by sea and/or by land depending on your wealth level (everyone begins the game poor).
Then, the heart of the game begins - you will have an encounter. Each encounter, you will reveal a card from the top of the encounter deck, determine who or what you're facing and then you will choose a reaction and be read a story paragraph from the "Book of Tales" based on your choice. There are a few steps to this process, so it's best explained with an example.
It's Aladdin's turn, and he has stopped on the city of Bilma.
He then draws an encounter card, and rolls a normal die and the "Fate" die - we'll see what these do soon. The encounter card will provide the starting paragraph number to one of the other players who is in charge of the Book of Tales. In this case, the starting paragraph depends on the type of terrain the character is standing on that turn. Aladdin is in a city, so his starting paragraph is 41.
This starting paragraph will be a list of 12 possible things that the player could encounter. To determine which of the 12 Aladdin will encounter, we add up his die roll and the number of the city he is standing on - a total of 6.
So, the person holding the Book of Tales will tell Aladdin that he has encountered an Imprisoned Princess, and that he must choose a reaction from the A list (all lists with all possible reactions are on the individual player boards).
So Aladdin has a choice of nine reactions - wanting to play it safe and avoid trouble he chooses the relatively benign option of "Converse".
Another person will be in charge of looking up the resulting paragraph using a small booklet of tables showing the paragraph that a character will be read based on their reaction to any and all possible encounters. In this case, they use Table A to look up the intersection between the reaction (Converse) and the encounter (Imprisoned) - paragraph 186. However, on the Fate die, Aladdin rolled a +, meaning that 1 is added to his final paragraph number, and he will be read paragraph 187. He could have instead rolled a - or a blank, so that there are 3 possible outcomes for each reaction.
Then, the person in charge of the Book of Tales will read out paragraph 187, and then tell Aladdin any rewards he gains or any penalties he suffers.
In this case, if Aladdin is skilled in Appearance he would gain a Destiny point and the Courtly Graces skill. If he is not skilled in Appearance, he would instead lose a Destiny point but gain a Story point.
Other possible rewards include gaining wealth levels, Treasure cards or positive statuses - becoming Respected, Determined, Beloved or even a Vizier or Sultan. Other possible penalties include losing wealth, losing points, or gaining negative statuses - becoming Wounded, Lost, Crippled, Imprisoned or many others.
Players continue taking turns like this until one of them reaches their secret victory condition and returns to Baghdad to win the game.
Tales of the Arabian Nights is one of my favourite board games. It's a joy to play every time, to the point that I'm usually disappointed when someone actually wins the game because the stories that emerge are so engaging and addictive. The game is packed with suspense, excitement, disaster and laughter because of the roleplaying aspect and the ridiculous situations your character can end up in.
The customisable characters and the feeling of progress as you gain and improve skills is a fantastic part of the game. From the outset you can start your character off with skills for a certain archetype or personality - maybe you want to play a charming swordsperson, or a wise sailor, or a magical merchant? With the range of skills available you can create so many different types of characters. You can roleplay the reactions you choose based on the character you've made and the skills you have, and the variable outcomes that the skills offer creates even more possible branches for your story. It's far from the complexity and detail that a roleplaying game such as Dungeons and Dragons offers, but it is one of the deepest and most interesting character systems that I've seen in a board game.
Another great part of the game is the mind-boggling number of highly interactive stories that the encounters and the Book of Tales provide. The book contains 2002 adventures - there are so many possibilities to explore that to run out of stories would likely take hundreds of hours of play. Arabian Nights is highly replayable and always surprising - every time I play the game I'm amazed at the effort that must have gone into creating the book, encounters and tables.
I also love Arabian Nights because it's a great social game. If you're looking for a strategy game, this isn't it - while you can make informed choices there's usually still unpredictability and no way of long-term planning - but if you like storytelling and are looking for a game that's good to play casually with friends, Arabian Nights is excellent. Everyone at the table is involved every turn, helping with the Book of Tales and the tables or just suggesting what the player should do. Listening to the stories that emerge, whether they're yours or not, is highly entertaining. The fun of the game is exploring the world that the tales create, and finding out what could happen (even if an encounter ends badly as it often does).
Finally, the production quality of the game is excellent. All of the components are well made, and still in perfect condition after years of play. The Book of Tales is not only elaborate but also well researched and true to the original stories.
I've included a question mark because there are only a couple of aspects of the game that I'll mention as potentially negative, and even those will depend on your gaming preferences and/or are easily remedied with minor tweaks.
Firstly, it is a long game (2-3 hours with 4 players) and playing with more than 4 might make it too long to play in one session. With more than 4 players, there is also a bit too much downtime between turns. It's easy to shorten the game, however, if you're finding it too long, simply by deciding on a lower point total that each player has to aim for - 10 instead of 20, for example.
As I've mentioned above, it's also not a strategy game. If you dislike thematic or story-based games, Arabian Nights probably won't be your cup of tea. If you're in the mood for a game where you can plot and plan and emerge victorious, this game isn't what you're looking for. Personally I'm not always in the mood for a storytelling game, but Arabian Nights is my first choice when I am.
The only other downside is that the encounter system is slightly complicated, just because it has a lot of steps between drawing a card and having your final paragraph read to you. If that example looked slightly overwhelming, don't panic, because the system makes a lot more sense and flows really nicely after just a couple of turns to get the hang of it. Besides, it allows for so many possible stories that it's definitely worth the effort.
I absolutely love Tales of the Arabian Nights. It's a fantastic storytelling board game that I've owned and played for years and that I still thoroughly enjoy every single time. I haven't played any other board game that matches it in terms of interactivity with the game world, and in terms of the options for character development and roleplaying. I can't recommend it enough.
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