Note: Sorry for the hiatus!
I have to admit that Tales of the Arabian Night made me think long and hard about what makes a board game. I don’t mean what makes a good board game—with good reason, most reviews consider whether or not a game is good. With Tales of the Arabian Nights, I found myself wondering if it’s a game at all.
The definition of a “game” is surprisingly vague. The best definition I could find comes by way of Chris Crawford, computer game designer. He reasons that a game is a form of creative expression, made for money, which is interactive, has a goal, an opponent (or, more specifically, “an active agent against whom you compete”), and a way of interfering with or attacking your opponents.
I don’t think it’s a perfect definition. For one thing, I think art can be made for money (theaters and bookstores exist). Cooperative boardgames are more popular than ever, and it feels strange to say that they’re puzzles but not games.
Nonetheless, Chris Crawford brings up more points worth discussing than not, and almost all of them are worth considering when you look at a game design. Let’s keep that in mind as we look at Tales of the Arabian Nights.
Forgoing some of the functional details, on your turn, you move your character and draw a card. That card has a number, and after some dice rolling and consulting the players to your left and right, you are pointed towards a specific encounter, and are directed towards one of fifteen lists of possible responses. You pick one, role another die, and off you go—the player to your left reads a paragraph or so telling what happens to your character (wizard voices optional). You might have the option to use some skills or treasure you have at your disposal, but no promises.
When it comes to interacting with the game, the players are absolutely spoiled for choices—between six and nine for any of the encounters—or so it seems on the surface. While you have plenty of choices, they aren’t particularly meaningful. Maybe taking a noble or valiant course will, on average, yield better results than being a ruthless jerk, but there’s no way to tell until the player to your left does or does not start laughing partway through reading the passage.
In one game, I saw a woman wearing a necklace and decided that yes, I would like to use my skills in bargaining and evaluation, thank you very much. Maybe I could reveal to her the secrets of some treasure she possessed but did not fully understand, or pick up on some clues about who she was, or even just offer her a trade that would net me a juicy prophet. To everyone’s delight—and my abject horror—my character was overcome with greed and tried to snatch the jewels from her neck.
Sometimes you can’t not be a ruthless jerk.
On to goals. Before the game starts, everyone secretly chooses a number of destiny points and story points, totaling exactly twenty. The goal of the game is to reach that number of destiny points and that number of story points and return to Baghdad, at which point everyone else gets just one more turn to try and do the same.
…But the goal isn’t really all that important. Like I said, you just don’t have much grip on the board to have much control over what happens to your character—this game just happens to you, the player, whether or not your character is master of their destiny, or mastered by it.
In the end, it feels like the goals are there just so that the game will, at some point, end, and the only reason you pick your goals in secret is so that no one knows exactly when that will happen.
I can’t even pretend there’s a meaningful level of player interaction. Some decisions are yielded to the other players, but that just leads to more decisions that are inherently obvious or meaningless. Of course your opponents are going to pick the most distant spot for your quest’s destination, or ship you off to some far corner of the board, or pick a foolish response to a situation that has completely unpredictable results.
Most of the time this is a result of uncontrollable situations, like your character becoming ensorcelled. Granted, not all of them are like that—for example, if you are grief stricken, you can make another player occupying the same space grief-stricken, too, presumably as you use your sob-story to bum out everyone in earshot. This has happened exactly zero times in any game I’ve played—things just never click together.
Let’s get down to brass tacks. I was really excited about Tales of the Arabian Nights, but sometimes, you think about a topic, or read other people’s criticism, and you can start seeing the flaws, and find nothing but disappointment where once you found joy. Tales of the Arabian Nights is barely a “game,” and if it is, it’s an awful one.
And I absolutely adore it.
I can’t even pretend I wavered in my love of this game (or “game,” whatever). If you strip away the theme, the game is absolutely bonkers. There’s hardly a redeeming factor to be found. You can’t play this game well, unless you start to memorize fifteen matrices of options and thousands of possible results. Even then, the amount of randomness in this game is staggering, and it isn’t elegant in the least.
But the game isn’t about it’s mechanisms. Most games lie somewhere in the middle between the highly mechanical and the highly thematic. A game can be abstract, like Go, and have no theme at all. Others, like Tales of the Arabian Nights, don’t care at all how ugly the system is, as long as it’s an engine driving the story forward—and boy, does it.
You don’t play this game to calculate your optimal move and outplay your opponents. You play it because you want to stumble across a vengeful wizard and see what happens when you try to rob him, or travel to a volcano and try to enter it, or run into a huge whirlpool and try to drink it.
By the way, the results may not just be unpredictable—this game is absolutely unfair. In one game, I started off lost and stranded on the far side of the map. After bumbling around a while, I vanquished foes, got married, and completed quest after quest. I make my way back to Baghdad to claim victory, only to find out that my jealous siblings tried to sell me to slavers. I charmed my way out of it, but ended up on the far side of the board. Lost. Again.
But that’s okay! I lost, but this game isn’t about winning—it’s boring when everything goes right. You need to be able to enjoy the stories that come out of it, even when you’re the one being absolutely screwed.
Tales of the Arabian Nights might barely count as a game, but I don’t mind one bit. It’s allowed to bend the rules. If you’re looking for a good “game” in some proper sense of the word, it’s just not here—but if you can forgive a less strict definition, at least once in a while, this is a treasure of a game.
Or “toy” or “puzzle” or “activity.” Whatever. You know what I mean.
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