The Tao of Gaming

Boardgames and lesser pursuits

Tales of the Arabian Nights

After years of hearing and hype, I bought the reprint, a nicely made, elegant dancing bear.

I’m not sure what Arabian Nights is, but a game? Pshaw.

Now, I’m willing to concede the point that the decisions you make do affect your strategy … in particular, if you study the book (or just play it often enough), you’ll know that you should Bribe a Wicked Jailer (unless you have the Piety skill), Attack a Friendly Jailer, don’t drink from a Ghostly River unless you have the mystic doodad, etc etc. But as someone who is going to play this a few times (maybe), there’s so much randomness that “good” decisions seem to payout just as well as “bad” decisions (like grovelling in front of the “All powerful” djinn instead of attacking it).

While I’m perfectly happy to study other titles, studying TotAN strikes me the way that practicing golf struck the Scots who founded the sport … cheating. So I’m left with an experience where my decisions are disconnected from my outcomes.

What really struck this home is your first decision is to allocate your victory conditions …. do you want to go for 10/10 (story and destiny points), 12/8, 20/0 or what? Once you’ve made that decision … do any of the stories ever offer you a choice of what to get? No. And you tend to get points roughly equally, picking anything lopsided seems like a sucker bet, given a binomial distribution.

(Even worse, the game liberally takes away psuedo-decisions making. Maybe it’s just bad luck, but we had several players ensorcelled, so they couldn’t control movement, or insane, so they couldn’t pick their reaction posture. Not that these choices really matter, but its the polite thing to do).

But I’ll give you one thing … that bear dances. The mechanisms work. And your character can get wounded, diseased, crippled, exiled, imprisoned, turned into a beast and defeat the obscenely rich, treasure laden king of thieves. It’s an enjoyable experience, even if its not quite a game.

I remember one article by Costikyan, where he mentioned that games require expectations. If I pick a card, I don’t expect to get the E of Battleship. If my ‘card’ could be literally anything, I have no way of making decisions. (I thought this was in “I have no words and I must design” but I couldn’t find it…).

Do I recommend Arabian Nights? Eh. It’s amusing enough, I guess. We played with five, which is too many. This is definitely a fixed fun experience. And there are few things (be it games, movies, etc) that get better when you add an empty half-hour, so taking it away can’t hurt.

As a cross between a board game, rpg, and choose your own adventure story, Arabian Nights kinda manages to pull things off. But remember, you stand amazed the bear can dance at all….

Update: Aha, found it! (Apparently it wasn’t in the updated version…)

The interface must provide the player with relevant information. And he must have enough information to be able to make a sensible decision.

That isn’t to say a player must know everything; hiding information can be very useful. It’s quite reasonable to say, “you don’t know just how strong your units are until they enter combat,” but in this case, the player must have some idea of the range of possibilities. It’s reasonable to say, “you don’t know what card you’ll get if you draw to an inside straight,” but only if the player has some idea what the odds are. If I might draw the Queen of Hearts and might draw Death and might draw the Battleship Potemkin, I have absolutely no basis on which to make a decision.

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Written by taogaming

September 26, 2009 at 5:32 pm

Posted in Reviews

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14 Responses

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  1. As much good word as I’d heard, and as amusing as the first game was, I came away disappointed for two reasons:

    – The total disconnect between reactions and appropriate skills. You might have the Bargaining &Evaluation skill, and see a merchant caravan, and choose to Bargain with them. Typically the response would be, “You approach the traders and begin to bargain, but they don’t like the sound of your accent, draw their weapons, and take your camel, stranding you in the desert. Do you have Wilderness Lore?”

    – The length, particularly how it doesn’t scale with number of players. It would be fun in short bursts, but three hours? Never again with five, that’s for sure.

    Dennis Ugolini

    September 26, 2009 at 6:30 pm

  2. My experience is that it’s true, there is a lot of randomness in the game. Sometimes you’ll choose to Bargain with a Merchant Caravan and end up needing wilderness lore. But if bargaining with a merchant caravan always ended in a good result, it wouldn’t be much of a game, would it?

    If you do something sensible, like converse with a wise priest, much of the time you will end up using a skill you would reasonably expect, like piety, scholarship, or wisdom. But, a given route frequently leads to 4 or 5 related skills: Seduction, Beguiling, Courtly Graces, Acting and Disguise, and Appearance, for example, or Scholarship, Wisdom, Storytelling, and Magic. So I think it pays to think about skill clusters rather than skills. You might think that Rob would just require Stealth and Stealing, but really it feeds into a group of skills, including Quick Thinking, Luck, maybe Bargaining and Evaluation and Weapons Use (I haven’t tried doing the Rogue thing, so I’m not as sure about those skills). That’s why it pays to be persistent. If you Rob everyone you meet, you eventually will pick up those skills. So if you focus on a few kinds of activities, you’ll flesh out a group of skills which dramatically improve your ability to deal with certain classes of encounters. But, even if you just try to Rob everyone, sometimes the results will be unexpected and open up another paths. And often enough you’ll have to deal with encounters for which you have little skill.

    I do agree, though, making you pick your victory conditions up front with no idea how to influence them or what to expect is silly. I think there is something there: certainly if you’re going the Rogue route you should favor Story, since you’re likely to end up being Scorned from time to time and that means Story instead of Destiny. Other than that I haven’t been able to figure out if there is any rhyme or reason to the awards.

    Some of the conditions feel like 80s game design. Ensorcelled is a particularly egregious one since it robs you of so much control. Pity the Ensorcelled, Insane player. Sex Changed is also terrible since you can’t win and there is no clear way to get rid of it. In contrast, some of the ones that sound bad (like Imprisoned) are not so terrible in reality. It is kind of a bummer that Imprisoned and Lost have such a narrow range of paragraphs to explore. Anyway, I think Sex Changed will get house-ruled around here, and maybe Ensorcelled as well.

    I mentioned on my blog that we were thinking about starting with 4 instead of 3 skills, which we tried last time and liked quite a bit.

    Chris Farrell

    September 27, 2009 at 2:20 am

  3. And yeah, keep the number of players to an absolute maximum of 4.

    Chris Farrell

    September 27, 2009 at 2:24 am

  4. And yeah, keep the number of players to an absolute maximum of 4.

    Chris Farrell

    September 27, 2009 at 2:24 am

  5. But if bargaining with a merchant caravan always ended in a good result, it wouldn’t be much of a game, would it?

    True, it makes a poor story.

    In thinking about it, one of my gripes is that you have no way to judge Risk and Reward. Bargaining with Merchants, as an expected (and therefore somewhat boring) action, should get a reasonable outcome but not much story/destiny. Perhaps you get wealth or some other long term thing (or a single point). Grovelling in front of the Djinn? Same thing. Attacking an All Powerful Genie? That’s a shock. Huge risk, huge reward sounds right. So for example, a – on the destiny roll leads to death or ensorcelled (which is worse, IMO). A + leads to an outcome with lots of story/destiny.

    Now, it may be that these things do work like that, but I can’t tell without examining the story book … and not once did I feel like it had happened.

    Also, regarding skills … determined is very good, impossible to lose, but takes up too much time to use. I think the Master Skills also bog things down a bit much.

    Still, the four skills at the start seems reasonable. As for Sex-Changed, perhaps letting you pay someone with magic like you can do with other curses would help. I agree that many ‘bad’ statuses aren’t really that bad. I spent 2-3 turns in prison, and another player who fulfilled his victory conditions spent around 6 turns imprisoned as well as insane. (My being Ensorcelled helped him catch up).

    Brian

    September 27, 2009 at 10:29 am

  6. But if bargaining with a merchant caravan always ended in a good result, it wouldn’t be much of a game, would it?

    True, it makes a poor story.

    In thinking about it, one of my gripes is that you have no way to judge Risk and Reward. Bargaining with Merchants, as an expected (and therefore somewhat boring) action, should get a reasonable outcome but not much story/destiny. Perhaps you get wealth or some other long term thing (or a single point). Grovelling in front of the Djinn? Same thing. Attacking an All Powerful Genie? That’s a shock. Huge risk, huge reward sounds right. So for example, a – on the destiny roll leads to death or ensorcelled (which is worse, IMO). A + leads to an outcome with lots of story/destiny.

    Now, it may be that these things do work like that, but I can’t tell without examining the story book … and not once did I feel like it had happened.

    Also, regarding skills … determined is very good, impossible to lose, but takes up too much time to use. I think the Master Skills also bog things down a bit much.

    Still, the four skills at the start seems reasonable. As for Sex-Changed, perhaps letting you pay someone with magic like you can do with other curses would help. I agree that many ‘bad’ statuses aren’t really that bad. I spent 2-3 turns in prison, and another player who fulfilled his victory conditions spent around 6 turns imprisoned as well as insane. (My being Ensorcelled helped him catch up).

    Brian

    September 27, 2009 at 10:29 am

  7. I really like the game, but. Don’t play with more than two players. When it’s not your turn, you do nothing. The amount of planning ahead is pretty limited and turns are not super fast. Even if you choose to violate this suggestion, use the 2-player rules anyway. In those, you draw two cards and choose which to encounter. That gives players many more options. In particular, it makes it a lot easier to avoid encounters when you absolutely need to get somewhere and are vulnerable.

    I suggest playing the quest rules, too. They add a feeling of direction to the game. And give you some real decisions. Don’t play the merchant game. It’s no fun.

    Four skills is too many. As you get a little practice, it’s not a bad idea to reduce the starting skill set to one or two. Hint: take Scholarship. # of skills is a pretty good way to handicap the game, too; an experienced player will clobber a newbie, so letting the newbie have Wisdom, Piety, and Scholarship and giving the expert just Scholarship gives the newbie a chance. Not much of one, but a chance.

    After a few more games, you might want to try the Studmuffin variant: http://www.jeffgoldsmith.org/games/arabian.html

    Yes, master skills are big, but they can be a bit of a curse at times.

    Yes, some of the bad statuses can be brutal, though Imprisoned isn’t that bad. Definitely play the multiple statuses optional rule, but note that if you run into a really awful combination, you are toast. Allow those players to start over. Imprisoned plus Insane, for example, equals start over. Married plus Vizier can be pretty tough, too, but the player will probably want to tough it out.

    The one benefit of the multiplayer game is that the players can easily play special cards on each other. In the two-player game, they tend not to be in the same place, because at some point, one of them wants to avoid the other, and the quests cause the players mostly to stick to one half of the board. With three or more, players run into each other pretty often. Those cards can be gamebreakers. They don’t really fit the theme of the game very well, though—“here, you be insane; I’m better now!” Huh? Since those cards are the only form of direct interaction, it really is just a race. That’s OK with me.

    JeffG

    September 28, 2009 at 10:42 am

  8. I really like the game, but. Don’t play with more than two players. When it’s not your turn, you do nothing. The amount of planning ahead is pretty limited and turns are not super fast. Even if you choose to violate this suggestion, use the 2-player rules anyway. In those, you draw two cards and choose which to encounter. That gives players many more options. In particular, it makes it a lot easier to avoid encounters when you absolutely need to get somewhere and are vulnerable.

    I suggest playing the quest rules, too. They add a feeling of direction to the game. And give you some real decisions. Don’t play the merchant game. It’s no fun.

    Four skills is too many. As you get a little practice, it’s not a bad idea to reduce the starting skill set to one or two. Hint: take Scholarship. # of skills is a pretty good way to handicap the game, too; an experienced player will clobber a newbie, so letting the newbie have Wisdom, Piety, and Scholarship and giving the expert just Scholarship gives the newbie a chance. Not much of one, but a chance.

    After a few more games, you might want to try the Studmuffin variant: http://www.jeffgoldsmith.org/games/arabian.html

    Yes, master skills are big, but they can be a bit of a curse at times.

    Yes, some of the bad statuses can be brutal, though Imprisoned isn’t that bad. Definitely play the multiple statuses optional rule, but note that if you run into a really awful combination, you are toast. Allow those players to start over. Imprisoned plus Insane, for example, equals start over. Married plus Vizier can be pretty tough, too, but the player will probably want to tough it out.

    The one benefit of the multiplayer game is that the players can easily play special cards on each other. In the two-player game, they tend not to be in the same place, because at some point, one of them wants to avoid the other, and the quests cause the players mostly to stick to one half of the board. With three or more, players run into each other pretty often. Those cards can be gamebreakers. They don’t really fit the theme of the game very well, though—“here, you be insane; I’m better now!” Huh? Since those cards are the only form of direct interaction, it really is just a race. That’s OK with me.

    JeffG

    September 28, 2009 at 10:42 am

  9. From my 1/2 play of Tales, the old version, it wasnt as much a game as a roleplaying experience.

    I only like hiding the rules of the game (in this case the efects of your actions in various situations), if the game IS the figuring out of the rules and goals of the game.
    For example, in the computer game XCom UFO defense, I played that game for a long time without having a clue how you won, or what your ultimate goals were. Its an explorative journey.

    This works much better in video games however. For board games, I would rather know the rules and be presented with interesting decisiosn where I can try to analyze the outcomes. Getting good at Tales would basically be about memorizing probability tables for every event.

    Alexfrog

    September 28, 2009 at 5:03 pm

  10. From my 1/2 play of Tales, the old version, it wasnt as much a game as a roleplaying experience.

    I only like hiding the rules of the game (in this case the efects of your actions in various situations), if the game IS the figuring out of the rules and goals of the game.
    For example, in the computer game XCom UFO defense, I played that game for a long time without having a clue how you won, or what your ultimate goals were. Its an explorative journey.

    This works much better in video games however. For board games, I would rather know the rules and be presented with interesting decisiosn where I can try to analyze the outcomes. Getting good at Tales would basically be about memorizing probability tables for every event.

    Alexfrog

    September 28, 2009 at 5:03 pm

  11. I like Tales with 3, or even 4. 4 means it’ll be a 2 hour game at least, but isn’t too bad with fast players. 3 is ideal, one person is playing, one person gets the matrix card and does any administration, one person gets the Book of Tales.

    Married + Vizier didn’t seem bad, but then the one occurrence we had put them both in the same city. It was quite powerful. It might also be changed from 1st to 2nd edition.

    frunk

    September 28, 2009 at 6:04 pm

  12. Part of the key to enjoying Tales of the Arabian Nights, obviously, is that it does do a good job of evoking the feel of the original stories. In that sense, the rules of the game are the rules of the stories – you’ll be rewarded for following those narrative rules – and as such are not really amenable to being codified, but are found in the general zen of the environment.

    As a role-player, I definitely did not find Tales to be much like a roleplaying game, and perhaps that was my advantage. Sure, you create stories through your decisions in way superficially similar to an RPG, but in an RPG, the setting is dynamic with a GM who will try to synthesize an interesting story out of your choices and the environment. In Tales, the human GM is completely absent and the world is static. You as the player take the entire burden of the storytelling which you drive by making good choices in the context of the game. Just like any other boardgame.

    It just so happens that the “rules” of the game are insanely complicated (as represented by the paragraph book) and aren’t written down. The game will be effective to the extent that you can understand the general rules of the environment from either some familiarity with the original Tales, or from getting a read on the storytelling style as you play the game.

    Chris Farrell

    September 29, 2009 at 3:22 am

  13. Part of the key to enjoying Tales of the Arabian Nights, obviously, is that it does do a good job of evoking the feel of the original stories. In that sense, the rules of the game are the rules of the stories – you’ll be rewarded for following those narrative rules – and as such are not really amenable to being codified, but are found in the general zen of the environment.

    As a role-player, I definitely did not find Tales to be much like a roleplaying game, and perhaps that was my advantage. Sure, you create stories through your decisions in way superficially similar to an RPG, but in an RPG, the setting is dynamic with a GM who will try to synthesize an interesting story out of your choices and the environment. In Tales, the human GM is completely absent and the world is static. You as the player take the entire burden of the storytelling which you drive by making good choices in the context of the game. Just like any other boardgame.

    It just so happens that the “rules” of the game are insanely complicated (as represented by the paragraph book) and aren’t written down. The game will be effective to the extent that you can understand the general rules of the environment from either some familiarity with the original Tales, or from getting a read on the storytelling style as you play the game.

    Chris Farrell

    September 29, 2009 at 3:22 am

  14. Part of the key to enjoying Tales of the Arabian Nights, obviously, is that it does do a good job of evoking the feel of the original stories. In that sense, the rules of the game are the rules of the stories – you’ll be rewarded for following those narrative rules – and as such are not really amenable to being codified, but are found in the general zen of the environment.

    As a role-player, I definitely did not find Tales to be much like a roleplaying game, and perhaps that was my advantage. Sure, you create stories through your decisions in way superficially similar to an RPG, but in an RPG, the setting is dynamic with a GM who will try to synthesize an interesting story out of your choices and the environment. In Tales, the human GM is completely absent and the world is static. You as the player take the entire burden of the storytelling which you drive by making good choices in the context of the game. Just like any other boardgame.

    It just so happens that the “rules” of the game are insanely complicated (as represented by the paragraph book) and aren’t written down. The game will be effective to the extent that you can understand the general rules of the environment from either some familiarity with the original Tales, or from getting a read on the storytelling style as you play the game.

    Chris Farrell

    September 29, 2009 at 3:22 am


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