In a shocking and uncharacteristic turn of events, I recently went and socialised with actual human beings out in the physical world.
Fear not, though; it wasn’t as fearful and distressing as it could have been, because rather than have to be ourselves the entire time (an often difficult endeavour), we decided to interact mostly in another world. Though we did chat about real-life stuff, being responsible adults and all that nonsense, the bulk of our time was spent living out the adventures of figures from One Thousand and One Nights, which we achieved by playing the rather good board game Tales of the Arabian Nights.
I’m almost entirely new to tabletop games, board games (the ones more complicated than what I suppose you’d call ‘family games’, anyway), non-video-game RPGs and all that fun stuff, so this was an introductory session for me to get to grips with the whole thing while also being out and interacting with other humans for the first time in years. I’ve had an interest in getting more into games of this type for a while now – Adventure Rules talks about them from time to time and I always find it fascinating, and I’m also getting pretty heavily into listening to/ watching play sessions of D&D et cetera – and my first session did not disappoint.
I think what I’m going to do is basically just run down how the game works, how my first session with it transpired, and what my thoughts were. I don’t have enough knowledge of the genre to be able to compare it to others or to make any sort of really intelligent analysis points, but I can certainly tell you whether I thought things worked or didn’t work.
Tales of the Arabian Nights is set loosely within the same sort of continuity, as it were, as One Thousand and One Nights (also sometimes known as the Arabian Nights, unsurprisingly), the famed collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. As you might already know, the stories within One Thousand and One Nights are framed as tales told by a woman named Scheherazade. She’s in a bit of a bind in that for various sultan-y reasons, she’s just become the latest bride of a sultan who kills each of his wives the morning after their marriage so they can never dishonour him (or something like that; I’m not particularly familiar with the Nights, I’m afraid!); her tactic to avoid death is to tell the sultan a story each night and end on a cliffhanger, so that he’ll have to keep her alive until the next day to finish the story. Whereupon, of course, she starts a new one, rinse and repeat for a thousand and one nights until he decides maybe he’ll just not kill her.
Her tactic works, and the many tales she spins throughout this period are the ones recounted in the collection. They’re a diverse bunch of tales, but include a lot of figures and ideas that have worked their way into wider mythological awareness: you’ve got Aladdin, of course, Sinbad, Ali Baba, and broader strokes like the whole genie-in-a-lamp thing and various djinn, ghouls and other fantastical beings.
In Tales of the Arabian Nights (hereafter ‘TotAN‘, if that’s alright), up to six players take on the role of a character from within one of the tales – or even of Scheherazade herself. (The game’s not exactly an adaptation of the stories, more just an adventure that uses ideas and themes from them, so Scheherazade taking part in some of the stories she was originally the teller of isn’t really an issue.) The overall goal is to travel around the board – which is designed as a map of the world with various routes between notable locations including both real cities and mythical wonderlands – having wondrous adventures to raise your ‘Destiny’ and ‘Story’ scores. The first player to reach a certain number in either or both of these wins (you can decide where to set the win threshold based on how long you want to be playing for).
I picked the character of Zumurrud, a woman from one of the more obscure stories who ends up disguising herself as a male soldier and becoming king, but it doesn’t really matter who you’re playing as for reasons that will become clear imminently. One of the first things you do is draw a ‘quest‘ card which gives you a mission to complete, along with a couple of sentences of backstory: according to my card, I yearned to escape the city and be free in nature, so my quest was to visit three woodland or mountain areas. Completing the quest rewards you with Destiny and/ or Story points (and occasionally other bonuses), so your objective starts out as simply being to complete your first quest. Along the way you’ll come across other objectives that will also carry valuable rewards, and once you complete one quest you need to return to the starting point in Babylon to pick up a new one.
The next thing to do before starting the game is to choose three skills for your character. Skills come in a variety of flavours, with things as broad as ‘luck’ and ‘wisdom’ or as specific as ‘courtly graces’ and ‘seamanship’. Since my quest was going to take me to wild lands, I chose Wilderness Lore, Enduring Hardship and Weapon Use.
With each player now in possession of a quest, a backstory of sorts, and a small selection of talents, the game can begin. You roll a die to decide who gets the first turn; that person starts in Babylon (as does everyone else, but it’s hard to fit multiple character tokens all in the same space at once) and can move a certain number of spaces. There’s no die roll to determine how far you can move; instead, your movement is determined by your wealth. You start out ‘poor’, which means you can travel three spaces on land and two on sea, but wealth is a stat that can be affected by story events and status effects, so your ability to move around the board may well increase and decrease. (In a nice touch, the really upper-end values on the wealth scale actually decrease your ability to move on land because of how hard it is to move all your possessions around.) Anyway, the first player takes their turn and moves no more than their allowance of spaces – so when you start out with a maximum of three moves, you can go only one or two if you’d like. There are several types of space that they might land on, including islands, cities, coastal paths, forest regions and, er, places of note; wherever they end up, the next part of their turn will be to draw an encounter card.
Encounters are the real meat of the game, and they’re sort of like little mini-tales from the Nights unto themselves. You might come across a beggar, or a djinn, or a whirlpool or a locked door; there are all sorts of things you might run into. The encounter card will tell you roughly what sort of adventure you’re about to have and refer you to a number (which may be affected by what type of space you’re in) in the Book of Tales.
The Book of Tales is perhaps the smartest and coolest aspect of TotAN for me. It contains over two thousand potential encounters and outcomes, and is the part where you get to do a bit of role-playing and choose-your-own-adventuring. The player to the left of the one whose turn it is holds the Book of Tales; the player to their right holds a related item called the Directory of Reaction Matrices, which we’ll get to in a moment.
The encounter card gives you a number in the Book, under which there will be another subset of more specific things (for example, the encounter card might show a wizard and refer you to number 47 in the book, and then under number 47 might be ‘Angry Wizard’, ‘Friendly Wizard’, ‘Cursed Wizard’ – or the card might show a palace, and the book will give you some things like ‘Locked Trapdoor’ or ‘Flying Creatures’ that happen to show up at the palace). You roll a die to determine which of the more specific things you come across – so let’s say I got an encounter that showed a beggar and gave me number 15 in the book. I then roll a 4 on the die: the fourth entry under number 15 is a ‘suspicious’ beggar (this die roll number may also be impacted by other factors, but I won’t go into them here). This entry (15-4) will also give me a letter, which tells me my options for reacting to the suspicious beggar. The player to my left, who’s holding the Book, looks all of this up and announces what kind of beggar I’m facing as well as what choice-determining letter I’ve got.
This is the card each player has in front of them – let’s say that for the suspicious beggar, I’m given ‘reaction matrix‘ C. This means that I can choose any of the actions under C. I might choose, for example, to ‘avoid’ the beggar, or I might decide to ‘attack’ him.
I announce my decision: I want to ‘question’ the beggar. The person to my right then refers to their copy of the reaction matrices and turns to matrix C, cross-referencing the action ‘question’ against the encounter type ‘suspicious’. This gives a number between one and two-thousand-and-something, which they announce.
The person to my left then looks up that number in the Book of Tales (in a separate section to the one they referred to previously) and reads out the scenario as it unfolds. In this case, they might read out something like:
‘A beggar approaches you on the street, holding his hands out. Something tells you that he is not all he appears to be, and so you ask him in the name of Allah who he is and what he wants. He looks around with a shifty gaze, then pulls a glittering dagger from his tattered robe and makes to strike at you.’
The Book will then specify the potential outcome(s), and this is where the skills picked at the start come into play. There’ll be an outcome if the player has no relevant skills, which in this case will probably be ‘the beggar stabs you’ or something. (You might gain the ‘crippled’ status and lose some wealth or a Destiny point.) Then there might be an outcome if the player has Weapon Use, which will allow them to fight back and defeat their foe. (The reward for this could be a Destiny or Story point, perhaps an additional skill in Enduring Hardship or something.) There might be an outcome for a player with Courtly Graces, enabling them to convince the beggar that they’re royalty and to attack them would be a grave mistake (perhaps the reward would be a treasure, if the beggar could be convinced to hand over a magical item to this princely person) – you never quite know which skills are going to come in handy. Sometimes the skill-based outcomes are actually worse than the outcome if you don’t have any skill; you just don’t know!
Based on what happens, you may gain rewards in the form of Destiny or Story points; your wealth may go up or down; you may acquire a new skill or objective; you may gain a treasure or a status effect. Status effects provide some interesting (often hilarious) buffs and debuffs, especially when accrued in combination: over the course of our game, I became crippled (lowered my movement and prevented me using the Seduction skill), accursed (I had to ask another player to roll the die for me), outlawed (if I returned to the place, I would be imprisoned), married (I couldn’t go far from my wife, which caused me to also become grief-stricken and thus unable to gain any wealth), and insane (I had to ask another player to make all my reaction choices for me)!
I may be remembering some of those wrong, but hopefully I’ve now summed up how a turn works: you move to a place, have an adventure there, use your skills (or not) and see what happens! Your adventures will shape your character’s capability over the course of the game, meaning that you can end up with a very, er, complex backstory by the time you finally make it home to Babylon.
This can go on for as long as you like, really: just pick a number of Story/ Destiny points as the winning number, and whoever manages to have the most bestest encounters, react in the smartest ways, and build up their legend will be the winner.
In our game, I ended up having to leave before a victor could be finally determined and the game could come to a true end (we’d been playing for about three and a half hours at this point, but there were six of us); I took the opportunity to bow out when my character ran across a group of bandits and, because she had both the Weapon Use skill and the Outlaw status, she decided to join them and ride off into the sunset.
The really smart thing about the game, I found, was the fact that although only one player takes their turn at a time, there are actually at least three players who get to have a role in every turn: the one making the movement and the decisions, the one reading from the Book of Tales, and the one determining the outcome using the Reaction Matrices. Throughout the game, everyone will get the chance to be storyteller, hero, and arbiter – and certain status effects may also cause other players to get involved too.
Looking back over what I’ve written, it’s taken me over two thousand words to give what I think is really quite a brief and non-comprehensive description of how play works, but in practice it felt much less complicated than that. You might have to ask a question or two when you’re starting out about the technicalities of how far you can move, that sort of thing, but when you get into an encounter it’s completely intuitive: you just have to decide how to react. I think my lack of experience with other games of this nature means that I’m having a hard time identifying what was particularly good about this game, or what wasn’t implemented well, but I would certainly recommend Tales of the Arabian Nights to anyone who loves a good story, whether you’re familiar with tabletop games or whether you’ve never sat in front of a board before. I mean, I was in the latter category, and I had a great time.