Over the weekend, my wife and I played a couple games of Tales of the Arabian Nights. This week, I want to talk about why I think it’s my favorite board game ever.
Brief overview: Tales of the Arabian Nights is a story-based board game where players travel around a world inspired by the tales of 1001 Arabian Nights, earning points along the way. Players encounter thematically-appropriate characters, locations, and situations every turn, and choose how to interact with them based on a list of possible actions. This leads to a certain paragraph-length scene that fleshes out how the encounter went before awarding any relevant points or rewards.
That’s the bare-bones description of how it works, but today I want to share why I like it so much.
At its heart, Tales of the Arabian Nights is about stories. You could completely strip away the game mechanics, and it would still work as a neverending episodic adventure following a group of travelers figuring their way through strange and exciting encounters that grow increasingly bizarre. For example, at the end of one game my character had become a large serpent serving as a vizier with no control over his body — but still somehow commanded respect from everyone. I lost, but it was so fun it didn’t matter.
The board is kind of incidental to gameplay, mainly serving to provide some sense of movement and physical goals. Gameplay itself begins with encounters, which present players with a range of things to interact with (such as minor treasures, people like beggars or wizards, or house fires). Players then must choose an action from a provided matrix, listing interactions such as examine, fight, buy, follow, drink, etc. From there, you’re directed to a numbered paragraph in the game’s enormous Book of Tales.
This is where the story element of the game largely comes into the play. Players are also given quests that usually provide a reason to travel around the game board, but the short scenes that play out during encounters are what bring the characters to life.
It’s during these encounters that you learn exactly how the action you chose creates a story with the situation you stumbled across. Sometimes it’ll play out exactly the way you imagined. Other times, you’ll learn that the designers had something different in mind. It’s fun, maddening, and occasionally hilarious.
I particularly like the fact that these scenes’ outcomes don’t usually rely on a dice roll. Success or failure often depends on whether or not you have particular skills (like storytelling, weapon use, or courtly graces) that you choose at the beginning of the game or learn along the way. Even the bad outcomes are easier to swallow when they’re the result of simply not having the right ability, as opposed to punishing you for rolling a 2 instead of a 6.
At this point, the game may start to sound like a role-playing game — which it definitely isn’t. I think of it more as an elaborate choose-your-own-adventure, with more intricate paths that can shift based on how you shape your character. There’s always the option to roleplay your character, but there isn’t much room to customize the story just the way you want.
Another element that differentiates it from RPGs and is also another reason I enjoy it is the limited interaction with other players. Mechanically, the game boils down racing to get the most points the fastest. And there aren’t many ways for other players to get in the way. Some negative effects that can impact your character include giving other players control over your movement or which actions to take, but generally speaking the game doesn’t lend itself to competition. I’m a big fan of this gameplay choice because I think it allows everyone to best enjoy the stories being told.
But it gets even better — this isn’t the only way to play the game. On the official website, publisher Z-Man games provides three free rule variants (scroll down to the Downloads section). There’s a PvP variant, which adds rules about interacting with other players and making it a little more competitive. There’s a Storytelling variant, which encourages players to use their imaginations and embellish the story part of the game even more. And there’s even a Solitaire variant making it possible for people to play it by themselves, tweaking gameplay and victory conditions to make it more satisfying to play alone.
These variants speak to just how customizable the game is. (We’ve already instituted a couple house rules to suit our style.) Even if the story scenes remain the game’s driving force, the other components like character traits and skills lend a level of flexibility that gives players a fun range of material to create the game — and stories — they want to experience.
And really, that’s what stories are supposed to be: personal and unique. Tales of the Arabian Nights revels in that truth, giving players a new experience to play and stories to create every game. It relieves some of the pressure players might feel playing an RPG, while providing enough of a mold to tell a fun story in a world of fantasy and magic. I’d strongly recommend it to gamers looking for something more story-driven, or writers and readers interested in exploring what today’s board games are capable of accomplishing.
Sound like something up your alley? Check out its official website or get it on Amazon today!