Arabia, Here We Come

Our first “Tales of the Arabian Nights” game.

Posted by Wisq on January 2, 2016

This holiday season, thanks to SU&SD’s “Top 50 Board Games Ever” list and some very blatant gift-hinting, I received a copy of the “Tales of the Arabian Nights” board game.

Last night, we got our first chance to play it. And we finished it! Barely! (Our hosts graciously put up with our loud antics until midnight, but that was their cutoff. We squeaked in with minutes to spare.)

As the most veteran (and most enthusiastic) board gamer, I ended up being something of the Game Master, doing all the reference book reading (which I think was a mistake — see below) and generally keeping the most track of what happens where. I was also portioning out the rules on an as-needed basis — they’re not that complicated on the whole, but I didn’t feel that our group had the patience to sit through a complete rules reading to start.

Since I also hadn’t had enough time to fully read the rules ahead of time, there were times where we discovered we had been omitting certain rules from our play. A lot of these were of no major consequence, but some would actually have ended the game a fair bit sooner. Still, whenever this happened, we would wait until the turn order returned to the first player, then put the “new” rule into effect, so as to be fair all around.

Personally, I spent most of the game Lost (and Wounded, and Crippled), meaning I could only move one space at a time, as compared to three or four for everyone else. My sister spent at least half the game Imprisoned, desperately trying to outwit her jailor, finally escaping … only to later be Imprisoned again. One of us ended up Enslaved (so his Destiny points went to other players) and turned into a giant ape, while another was carrying a small armoury around but was Ensorcelled, meaning other players chose where he moved. But fun was had all around, even if all the rampant misfortune started to wear a bit thin by the end.

Lessons learned

So what lessons can we take away from this first playthrough? Well, in no particular order:

#1: At least one person must completely understand the rules.

I know, this sounds obvious, but hear me out.

A lot of other game rulebooks are very explicit about what happens when. If you need to look at another section, they tell you — “resolve an encounter: see page 123”. If a later rule is going to modify the basic flow they’re teaching you right now, they tell you — “do this (unless that; see page 123)”.

This means that, if you’re in a rush to start and don’t want to drown your players in rules, you don’t really need to read the whole thing. You just read the basic turn flow, and each part tells you where to read next on an as-needed basis. They won’t tell you how to do everything, but they will tell you where to go to learn how, and when to do that.

Not so with “Tales”. My worst fuckup was that I pretty much failed to read the entire “Encounters” section (YES THAT WAS STUPID), but the earlier sections gave me just enough details that I thought I understood what we were supposed to do. I didn’t.

Read the whole rulebook. Compare those rules against the cards, and matrix lookup sheet, and the storybook. Do a few example turns. Take it slow. Do it right. It’s really not that complicated once you “get it” — it’s just not presented in a way that lends itself to a rushed start.

#2: Stick with fewer players / points for your first game.

As you add players, you increase both the length of each cycle around the table, and the overall length of the game itself. This isn’t one of those “more players = fewer turns per player = same overall length” games. If you go for five or six players, you’re giving people a lot of downtime, and making them do it for much longer.

Ideally, you should probably target three or at most four players for your first game. Only go higher if everyone is a seasoned board gamer who is okay with long delays between turns — and even then, only go for 20 points if they’re also okay with the game going fairly long.

If I could do things over last night, I would have put everyone in teams of two, with myself being the odd one out. This also helps if people have to drop out for any reason.

#3: Follow the rules re: who reads what.

The rules recommend that on your turn, you have the person on your left reading the book, and the person on your right doing the matrix lookups. Even if you think you know better, I strongly recommend you do this!

In our playthrough, I did all the story book reading, on the assumption that I’m used to reading stuff aloud in board games and we should make use of that. Plus we were still learning the rules, and the book was the most complicated part. Plus I just wanted to share it with everyone! But having done it that way, I now see all the reasons that their way makes more sense.

For starters, it gives more people things to do. Instead of passively watching, they’re actively helping other players do their turns. Although this won’t shorten a game (and might lengthen your first few ones), people won’t feel like so much time is passing if they’re busy doing stuff.

It also aids with familiarity. There’s a mechanism whereby the player may get a choice of which story to resolve, based on skills they’ve mastered. If you always read for your neighbour, you quickly learn to remember their skills and can frequently skip the “what skills do you have mastered?” question. If one person reads, they’re probably stuck asking that every single time, slowing things down.

Finally, it means you don’t end up with one person utterly dried out and almost hoarse from all the reading, yet feeling like they can’t hand it over to anyone else because that would just make things take longer — especially if you’re already taking too long because you didn’t follow the previous lesson about player count. (If my fellow players are reading this: I’m okay! Don’t feel bad! I love board gaming! Thanks for playing!)

#4: Stick with balanced victory conditions until you know more.

If you’re playing with brand new players, try to ensure they have reasonably balanced Destiny versus Story victory conditions. Unless you feel you can adequately explain what the points are, and what sorts of strategies to use to get them (I still can’t!), new players shouldn’t be aiming for massively imbalanced point totals. Yet the rules don’t give any advice on what to pick — just that they need to add up to 20.

If you want to keep things as simple as possible, you could maybe skip this whole step and give everyone 10 Destiny + 10 Story as victory conditions (assuming a 20-point game). Everyone will be balanced, and everyone will always know who’s closest to winning. It removes some surprise, but the simplicity (and brevity) may be worth it.

#5: Don’t default to random skills.

During setup, I chose to use the random skills option — it got us set up fast, I didn’t want to risk paralysing people with options, and I figured nobody would know what to pick anyway, right?

But really, in hindsight, there aren’t that many skills, and you can review the whole list on your player reference card. Plus, your initial Quest (which you do pick first) can give you a lot of clues as to what skills might be useful.

For example, I was immediately Lost and needed to get home, so I probably could’ve used (say) Wilderness Lore, Seamanship, and Luck. My sister needed to get married, so she might’ve wanted Seduction, Appearance, and Courtly Graces.

These aren’t the toughest choices to make, and any given player can always choose randomly if they really don’t know (or just can’t decide).

#6: Just go ahead and roll the dice.

As soon as you draw an Encounter card, don’t wait for your storybook person to find your matrix and tell you to roll the dice. Just roll them right after you draw the Encounter card.

Also, calculate your modifiers (destiny track + location) and add them to your dice roll ahead of time. By the time the reference book person has found your lookup table, you should already have a final number ready for them.

So far, aside from the “N” matrix stuff (which we never encountered), I’ve never seen an Encounter card that didn’t need you to roll the numbered dice. If that ever happens for you … well, you wasted a roll, no biggie. You’re not holding anything up, because you did it while other people were looking things up.

#7: Roll the white die, too.

If you don’t have any skills mastered, you should be rolling the white die at the same time you roll the blue and red. Save a few steps for your story reader.

In fact, you could probably get away with always rolling it, even if you do have mastered skills. There are some edge cases where the foreknowledge might influence your decision on whether to use your mastered skill or not, but I can’t think of any offhand, and they’re almost certainly so rare and minor that I don’t think they matter (compared to saving time on every turn).

#8: Don’t be afraid to make up house rules to deal with ambiguities.

The FAQ for this game is woefully deficient. The rulebook FAQ is just two questions, and the official(?) online FAQ is better, but not comprehensive. We didn’t even have the latter, and so we had many situations where we just had to take our best guess.

You should go into this knowing that these ambiguities will exist, and that players should try to resolve them in the way that makes for the most interesting stories, regardless of personal gain or loss. Similarly, if the majority of the group makes a rule decision in good faith, your players should all be willing to go with the group’s decision, even if they strongly oppose it or it puts them at a disadvantage.

Rules we missed

Even if you do actually read everything (UNLIKE ME), it’s still quite possible to forget or overlook some of the rules. Here’s a quick list of lesser rules that we either completely missed, or that we once read but then forgot about:

Being “Crippled” doubles your story point gains.

I would have won (and ended the game much sooner) if I’d noticed this in time to make use of it. Instead, I lost on the tiebreaker at the end.

NOT THAT I’M BITTER.

(The kicker? I lost because I had fewer statuses. Statuses I had been shedding all game because they were all negative. Statuses like Crippled. THE IRONY.)

The “Married” condition has movement restrictions.

We read these but basically forgot to enforce them. Essentially, you can’t visit (i.e. end your turn on) multiple cities in a row; if you visit a city and want to visit another, you must return “home” first (and roll the dice to see if you have kids).

Since this is so context-dependent (have you visited a city yet?), you should probably use some sort of counter to remind yourself that you can’t visit any more cities until you get home.

(I was married for a week. Then my wife died, and her customs dictated that I be buried in the same grave. Immediately. Then I dug a hole and escaped into a valley full of diamonds. And deadly snakes.)

You should probably use counters to indicate 1-use skills / 1-turn statuses.

It’s way too easy to forget to get rid of these when their time is up.

Honestly, as far as I can tell, neither limited-use skills nor limited-turn statuses are mentioned at all in the rulebook. So you’re completely on your own here. But community consensus seems to be that “1 turn” means “lasts until the end of your next turn”.

Check all your statuses when you gain a new one.

There’s plenty of statuses that cancel each other out. Sometimes the status you just received will explain this; other times, it’s up to you to notice that card X says you discard it if you ever receive card Y. There were tons of situations where we realised, several turns late, that we shouldn’t have a status any more.

Ideally, you may want to create a “status quick reference” sheet: Statuses to check before your turn, before you move, before your encounter, when drawing another status, etc.

You can’t “Court” someone of the same gender.

Sorry, I know that’s backwards thinking, but we’re talking about tales from many centuries ago. They’re a bit hard on women, too, although they admit as much in the rulebook, and they’ve tried their best to pick less sexist tales.

Strategy … ?

So here I am in a valley full of diamonds and snakes, and all the options seemed pretty dicey. I could go back the way I came — but that was logically impossible (or certainly undesirable) in my particular case, so I ignored it. I could try to hide inside an animal carcass and let a giant bird carry me to safety.

Or, I could wade into the snakes, kill them all, render the valley permanently safe, and take diamonds at my leisure. Honestly, I was laughing so much while I read that choice that we all knew I had to take it. It was just too damned audacious to pass up.

So what happened? Well, I’m not telling. But let’s just say that sometimes the “right” answer is not the one you think it is.

Honestly, we still don’t really have any solid strategic advice. Sometimes the logical approach worked best for us. You’re Imprisoned and you rolled a Foolish Jailor? Trick him! Or sometimes the most ridiculous option worked out fine too. Who knows?

Hell, I hear many people just ignore the points entirely and play until they get tired. And there’s even an official “Storytelling Variant” where you read your own paragraph in the storybook, then retell it in the most captivating and embellished way you possibly can, and get extra rewards based on votes from the other players. We’ll have to try that someday.

All this is to say … if you’re looking for tips to “win” this game, you won’t find them here. Really, so far, “Tales” is more of a random story generator to us, and victory is just incidental.

Verdict

So after all that, what do I think of “Tales”?

I think it’s a great game, with the caveat that you want a certain kind of player. They need to be gregarious and imaginative — not just playing to win, but to have a fun time and craft a fun story.

If a player is already Lost and Crippled and Wounded and they find themselves Ensorcelled on top of all that, they need to be able to laugh at their terrible misfortune. If they’re almost at their destination and they get teleported to the other side of the world, they need to shrug it off and make it part of their epic narrative.

What you don’t want is players that just feel picked-on and bitter, or that are apt to adopt an “I’m going to lose, why bother playing?” attitude. Your players need to be there for the game, not for winning.

Similarly, you probably don’t want players who are vindictive or nasty towards each other. “Tales” is a game with several “other players affect your fate” mechanics, e.g. having other players move you, or decide where your next Quest will end up.

If your fellow players are always moving you exactly opposite your destination, or always counting tiles to ensure they put those tokens as far out of reach as they can, things could quickly go from funny to just mean, especially if you’re already doing badly. Sure, everyone wants to win — but have some mercy on each other!

This is also a game that can’t abide a blatant cheater. There are too many rules for everyone to be policing everyone else at all times — and while everyone should do their best to help, you do need a certain level of good faith, sportsmanship, and honesty on every player’s part.

And finally, if you haven’t figured it out by now, “Tales” is definitely one of those modern “big story” board games — the ones that take a few hours and are often more about the journey than the outcome. These are the sorts of games where having a “winner” is really almost an afterthought. The victory conditions may provide you with a goal to keep you moving in a meaningful direction, but the real treasure is the experience, not being declared the victor.

If I had one complaint to make, it would be about the game length — it’s not that much by modern board game standards, but it’s still potentially enough to out-endure the more casual players who are used to the older, less-involved games.

But aside from that, my only real complaint is that the result rolls only go up to 12. When you’re hanging around areas that are +3/+4/+5 on the encounter roll, and it’s late in the game so you’ve got +2 from your Destiny, it’s all too common for every roll to just be “OH, TWELVE, AGAIN”. There’s only so many of those tables to roll on, and it felt like it took some of the variety out when we were constantly encountering the same sorts of late-game things — All-Powerful Efreets, Beautiful Artifacts, etc.

Will I play it again? Absolutely! But before I do that, I’ll be giving the rules a complete and thorough re-reading, applying all the changes mentioned in the errata (yes, I’ll just write directly on the game materials), and preparing quick-reference charts for the statuses and full turn order (with all contingencies). I’ll also prep a few house rules for dealing with oddities — skills associated with treasures, skills / statuses with limited uses / time and how to track that, etc.

Is this game right for your gaming group? Well, all I know is, I took a group of relatively “light” board gamers (“Risk”, “Pandemic”, etc.), ran them through a four-hour session, and everyone came out the other end having had lots of fun and thanking me for running it. Sure, they were tired and we were all trying to wrap it up ASAP — people started doing their best to help someone, anyone to win — but we were still having fun right to the end.

… Well, okay, unless they were all too polite to say otherwise. (We’re all Canadian, so it’s possible.) But at least they were still talking to me, so hey!

Give this a go.


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