Should It Stay or Should It Go: my wife and I review Tales of the Arabian Nights (Z-man Games)

I’m expanding my normal purview of talking TTRPGs to dip, once again, into the world of story-telling boardgames. A few months ago I discussed Untold: Adventures Await in some detail, and it’s actually turned into one of my more popular posts. So when my wife asked if I wanted to do a post with her about the Tales of the Arabian Nights, I said, hell yeah. 

My wife, our son Xander, and I have discovered that we’ve become an unlikely game group here in the quarantine times. We’ve been playing lots of Matt Click’s The Mecha Hack lately, and I thought it would be fun to bring out Tales of the Arabian Nights and give it a whirl as a change of pace. Xander is 7 and loves everything about storytelling, and I thought it would be fun for him to see some cool Arabian Nights-type action. (TL;DR, it was not. But now I’m getting ahead of myself.) 

Based on what I’m seeing on eBay, it looks like Tales is getting collector prices right now, so I thought this would be a timely review. (At least timely in the sense of, hey, you should know what you’re getting into if you are willing to spend collector money for it.) 

Note: Deanna, my wife, is an Associate Professor of Theater, holds an MFA in Set Design, and is more into gaming than she lets on in polite company.  

CP: So, Deanna, why don’t you tell my dear, dear Readers how we ended up owning this rather lovingly produced game? 

DZ: I teach at a small Liberal Arts college that has a Jan Term — during the month of January, the students take just one class which meets every day, and covers a whole semester’s worth of material in a month. Traditionally, these courses are about more fun or “wacky” material than your typical college class. (Other profs have offered classes like “Battle of the Beverage Titans: Coffee vs. Tea,” “The Science of Cooking,” and “Star Wars and Theology.”) I was developing a class about the intersection of narrative, authorship, and tabletop gaming, and Tales of the Arabian Nights seemed to really fit that bill.

When most people think about the intersection of narrative and board games, they go straight to games based on a piece of literature or an intellectual property. (Think Harry Potter Monopoly, or whatever.) I wanted my course to start with something familiar and then expand out into more wild ideas of what story-based gaming could be. I also knew that my students would include some folks with a lot of game experience mixed with those without any. In order to make the class accessible to everyone, I would need to ease into the idea of character-based role-playing, which can feel very exposing if you’re not used to it. 

Tales checked an awful lot of the boxes of a “transitional” game for me. Not only did it have the obvious link to literature–it’s a game based on a famous series of stories–it also has players taking on the persona of and making decisions for a character, but in a guided way: with training wheels so to speak. Finally, Tales can also accommodate up to six players at a table. That’s really important when each student in a class of 24 needs to be engaged. (Side note: if you’re going to teach a class like this, 24, with its many divisors, is an optimal number.) In any case, after playtesting, I bought 4 copies and put the game on my syllabus. 

CP: But, if I recall, there was only one little hitch… 

DZ: The students hated it. 

CP: Indeed, in a kind of a furiously bored way. 

DZ: In the moment, I didn’t really dig deeply into why, I just took the game off the syllabus the next time I taught the course. Aaaaaand that’s why we have a copy of Tales.

CP: Right. I have a thing about games earning their keep. We don’t have tons of shelf space, so dead weight usually heads off to eBay or Goodwill. With limited entertainment options this summer, I thought I would kill two birds with one stone by getting Tales out again to see what we thought of it as a family. It’s a little more grown-up than what we’ve done with Xander up to now, but I thought he’d appreciate the unfolding story, etc. As it turns out there was a problem with that. Or maybe multiple problems with that. 

Before we get into that, why don’t you break down how the game works for the folks at home. I always tell people it’s the world’s biggest parallel Choose Your Own Adventure book, but I bet someone with tenure can do better than that. 

DZ: That’s a pretty good description, actually. The primary game mechanic is this very elaborate reaction matrix with resulting numbered paragraphs, called The Book of Tales. You draw an Encounter card to see what type of person or creature you’re encountering (prince, beggar, merman, thief, etc.), roll a die to endow that character with a quality (so, a grieving prince, a mysterious beggar, an enraged merman, a stupid thief, etc.) and then decide what action you’d like to “perform” on them. The choice of action isn’t quite binary, choose-your-own-adventure style, but it’s not a total sandbox, either. There’s a list of maybe 10 or 12 actions per table (things like avoid, attack, pray, or court). The combination of adjective and action yields a result that a fellow player then cross-references in the Book of Tales (which has some 2,000+ possible paragraphs!), and then they read the relevant one out loud to you. At the end of the encounter, you’re either rewarded with story and/or destiny points (basically victory points) or some portion of your wealth, skill set, or movement gets taken away with a bad result.

And no, other than reading each other’s narrative paragraphs aloud, there is basically no player interaction. It’s strictly parallel play. There are a few cards you can swap or give away if you’re in the same map location as another player, but in practice, that’s so rare as to be basically moot. It’s a huge missed opportunity, game-design-wise.

CP: I agree that the design doesn’t care about player interaction, but then I have a hard time figuring out what the design actually does care about? I’m trying to think back to when the game was originally designed. In 1985 Tales would have really stood out as something unusual. A sweeping story-generator with so many possible twists and turns? Cool! But, and we’ve talked about this a lot, the competitive element feels tacked on. It’s got the edge-of-the-board score keeping “it’s a race!” setup, but there’s almost nothing strategic you can do to actually affect your score. It has one foot in “hey, we’re just knocking around in this picaresque world and seeing what happens,” and another in play to win. It’s hard not to feel like this is a feature of that era. “How can it be a game if there’s no winner?!?” 

DZ: That’s a key part of why this game doesn’t really work for me: I think the designers were too preoccupied with shoehorning their complicated narrative matrix into a competitive game with winning conditions. They even say in the rules that the “real” fun is in hearing the stories unspool. If that’s the case, then the mechanical heart of the game should be creating story fun, not arbitrary-seeming win conditions! It’s the fatal flaw of this game.

CP: Right, but there are other problems, too. The encounter outcomes also seem completely arbitrary in comparison to the setups that gave rise to them. For example, let’s say I encounter a beautiful princess and decide to court her. You consult the reaction matrix and read the indicated paragraph; it might say something like, “You roughly grab the princess’s wrist, and she pulls away and yells for her guards.” How is that courting? Who the hell courts like that? 

In the name of humor, or a sense of the picaresque, or a feeling about what the original Arabian Nights stories reveal about human nature, the designer has necessarily, but disappointingly, overwritten what I had in my head. In moments like that, whatever sense of agency I have goes poof, like so much genie lantern smoke. 

I guess you can rationalize it by saying, oh this is just a foible of the character you’ve chosen. Good Old Ali Baba gotta Ali Baba, but you’re still left with that unpleasant disconnect between your choice as a player, and how that shakes out in the game system. To me, that’s the real fun-killer here, that disconnect. 

DZ: Yes, in many ways arbitrariness is just an unavoidable quality of this game. Back when I taught it in the game course, my students seemed to find it especially galling that even when you try to do something noble or worthwhile (I’ll aid the destitute hag!) you’re just as likely to wind up with a negative result as a positive one. (Oh no, your house somehow catches on fire and burns to the ground. Lose 2 wealth and 1 destiny point.) Some of them wound up taking weird or cruel actions, I think out of pique. Or maybe just boredom. Piquedom. Personally, I’m not so bothered by the unpredictable narrative turns, but obviously lots of people are.

CP: At some point it occurred to me, as I’m sure it has to others, that I’m not even sure you need the game board. It’s perfectly possible to just sit in one city for round after round collecting game assets. Heck, you might even start to figure out optimal matrix choices, although there may just be too many encounter cards for that. 

In any case, the game works really damn hard to keep you from considering that possibility. You get a quest card at the beginning of the game that usually encourages you to travel the board. You don’t have to do it, but it gives you a healthy boost if you do. So if you care about winning, you’re banking some extra assets. There are also “city” encounter cards. They incentivize moving around and spending them in the target city for better and more predictable results. I think the whole game could have easily been driven off of card stacks and the many, many paragraphs. 

I guess I’m pointing out all this to say that the whole thing feels a little underbaked for a design that’s been around in one form or another for 35 years. 

DZ: I’ve actually been thinking about rules hacks that would make this game more playable, and one of my faves is making quests mandatory. They’re for sure one of the more memorable and delightful parts of the game: they promote travel around the board, lend a sense of purpose to your adventuring, and as you already mentioned, lead to collecting interesting in-game bennies and skills. And so, of course, the designers made them optional. 

CP: Yeah. It just feels like all the design energy went into creating the paragraphs/encounter matrix system. Anyway, please continue…  

DZ: So, yeah, I think making quests mandatory could make the game much more interesting. Maybe completing quests could even take the place of the tacked-on-seeming victory points. In order to win, you have to complete two quests, make it back to Baghdad, and have a wealth of at least “respectable”? Something like that?

Of course, my other favorite idea for a rules hack is doing away with “winning” at all, and making it a cooperative game.

CP: The co-op idea is intriguing. I still think you’d need some kind of end condition, or something you’re racing against to make it meaningful… maybe using the encounter deck as a timer. But what are you thinking? 

DZ: Instead of journeying around the board separately, the players could journey around together. Each individual could still have an encounter in each location, but you’re all traveling as a group. In order to win the game, the group as a whole has to complete 2x quests for x players. Then there’s some interesting negotiations that can take place about where the party as a whole will go next. “We should go to Su-Chou next, I need it for my quest!” “Well, okay, but only if I get to go through Zarandj” — you see what I’m saying. It gives the players a reason to care about what one another is doing.

Once I start going down that road, I start to get interested in thinking of ways the players could help each other out. Maybe you could spend one destiny point to give a teammate a better encounter paragraph. Or make a rule that you can avoid being arrested if your party loses two wealth collectively. Obviously, this borders on creating a whole other game — one with some meaningful player interaction: which, however, is the fun of any tabletop experience for me.

CP: I didn’t know that interaction was so important to you, but that explains why you like playing BSG so much! 

DZ: You know me well.

CP: I think there’s some promise for playing around with the rules, but are we really getting this back out to play, even with those hacks? Frankly, I think I enjoy it less each time I play it, and it’s clear you’re a little lukewarm yourself. And, for the first time, Xander went on and on about how BORED he was with a game. (I wish we had some video of that. Kids are so fucking frank. I can’t decide if it’s brutal or refreshing. I can see the commercial now: “Bored with your life? Trying having a child. It’s Brutally Refreshing!!!”) 

DZ: Xander did hate it, didn’t he? Why do you think that was?

CP: I think the whole thing felt disconnected to him. Just roaming and having arbitrary encounters does not an epic story make. Also, I think he was mirroring our kvetching and general frustration. Although, he already has his opinions; if he’d loved it, he would have been equally vocal about that. 

But speaking of opinions… what do you think? Does Tales stay on the shelf or does it get the boot? 

DZ: Ultimately, I don’t think I disliked it quite as much as you, Xander, or my students did, but I’m okay if you want to sell our copy.

CP: Gotcha. I’ll put it up on eBay in my copious free time! 

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