Classic Pick: Tales of the Arabian Nights

Board gaming has a bit of an obsolescence problem. Games come and go with remarkable speed, mostly because newer games are constantly improving on their predecessors. Why play Monopoly when Acquire exists? Isn’t Caverna just Agricola 2.0? Should we really sit down for five hours of Axis & Allies, or should we just spend that time on Twilight Imperium instead? Reiner Knizia has practically made a name out of doing this to himself (e.g. Battle Line replacing Schotten Totten). It’s the nature of games: owing to their unpatentable, uncopyrightable nature, designers are free to improve upon the rulesets and mechanics of older titles. This can be innocent - most deck-builders are still remarkably similar to Dominion, but this can be seen as more of a follow-the-leader situation - or it can be more malicious, as in the case of Dave Sirlin’s Flash Duel, which unapologetically stole the mechanics of Knizia’s En Garde. Regardless of designer intent, it’s common for a board game to come along and “fire” another game.

Some games, though, stand alone. Some games are so flawless, so unimpeachable, so brilliant that their imitators all look like lessers. We see this in the case of Cosmic Encounter, which has been around in since 1977, yet hasn’t been replaced by a worthy successor. Despite strong efforts, Twilight Struggle hasn’t been taken down by any other card-driven wargames. Sherlock Holmes: Consulting Detective (1981) is still the watershed for deduction games. Pathfinder has yet to stop the ever-growing D&D powerhouse.

When it comes to storytelling games, one title is the undisputed king of the hill: Tales of the Arabian Nights. In the 30+ years since its original release, nothing has come close to the remarkable beauty, creativity, and depth of Tales. It's the kind of game that has earned a permanent place on my gaming shelf no matter where I go; it has also become the single most requested game at our weekly game nights.

Tales is the kind of game where you can start as a thieving warrior out for blood, mistakenly slaughter a bachelor party, go to prison, become pious, help your jailer through some hard times, get released for good behavior, sail to Cordoba, aid a kindly old wizard who gives you a magic carpet, ride the magic carpet to the Sepulcher of Solomon, and convert an ancient demon to Islam - all within a couple hours.

Photo credit to Universal Head

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a storytelling adventure game for 1-6 players where you take on the role of one of the characters from the folk tale collection One Thousand and One Nights. For those who may be a bit rusty on ancient Arabic literature, One Thousand and One Nights is about Scheherazade, a young woman who is due to be executed in the morning by the bloodthirsty King Shahryār, her new husband. In an ingenious bid to stay alive, Scheherazade begins to tell the King a story but doesn’t finish it; the intrigued King is forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the end. As soon as she finishes, however, she starts again with a new tale - again, leaving the ending for the next night. So it goes for 1001 nights, before the King finally grants her a pardon. From One Thousand and One Nights, we get some of our most beloved folk heroes and stories - from Aladdin to Ali Baba to Sinbad (the sailor, not the washed-up comedian). The stories in the book are chock-full of adventure, intrigue, comedy, romance, tragedy, and drama.

In other words, the perfect ingredients for a game.

When you open the box, you’ll notice a few things first: one, the components are gorgeous and numerous. The game board is a colorful, surrealistic interpretation of Scheherazade’s world, with distended continents, real and fictional cities, and, intriguingly, special spots on the board with familiar names - The Cave of Wonders, the City of Brass, and Stonehenge to name a few. It also comes with wonderfully illustrated character standees, skill tokens, and dozens of point tracking bits. The second thing you’ll notice is the massive spiral bound tome emblazoned with the inviting name of the “Book of Tales.” This is the beating heart of the game, a wellspring of fun and wonder that’s exciting just to hold. The Book of Tales is like a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel on steroids. Within its 2500 paragraphs, you will fight all-powerful Djinn, aid lovesick princes, become badly lost, go to prison, get sex-changed by a mad wizard, shout a whale to death, pray your way out of a rockslide, free a genie stuck in a bottle, and maybe fulfill your destiny along the way.

You spend your turns moving around the board, trying to collect destiny and story points to win. You’re given a quest card at the beginning, which helps give the early game some structure, but beyond that, you’re free to do whatever you want. Visit Asia or Africa, sail to an island, or just spend time meandering in the desert. In Tales, there are no wrong moves; every fork in the trail is another adventure.

In an ingenious scheme to reduce downtime, the players to the left and right of you are engaged as well; after you pull an encounter card, the player on your left looks up a chart in the Book of Tales and the player on your right uses the “Reaction Matrix” to help find the right story for the Book-holder to read based on your choices. This cross-referencing can be a bit wonky at first, but over time, the awkwardness will fall away and the elegance of this system will reveal itself.

The results of your adventures can be wildly varied, thanks to the plus and minus “destiny” die. Even if two players pick the same reaction and go to the same section of the Book, they aren’t guaranteed to have the same adventure. One may have a positive result, while one could go very, very badly.

Another way that you can build your character is by gaining statuses from adventures. Statuses can be good, like blessed; some are bad, like grief-stricken; and some are a mix of both, like married or crippled. They will adjust the way you play in amazing ways; one of my favorite statuses, Insane, means that someone else gets to pick your reactions for a while. Come up against an insane, heavily armed warrior? Pick carefully, or they might just choose to rob him.

Tales can best be described as an RPG-lite. It doesn’t have a GM, the stories are finite, and the responses aren’t limitless, but it captures the feeling of building a personal story - your story - in a way that no other board game in my collection can accomplish. You walk away from every game of Tales with an adventure behind you and a feeling of accomplishment. To me, that’s priceless. When you can sit around with your friends months later and talk about the time that you narrowly escaped from the Undersea Kingdom with pockets full of their treasures or the time you bested a Djinn in one-on-one combat, you’ve created a lasting memory: your bizarre and wonderful tale of the Arabian Nights.