Tales of the Arabian Nights

(image courtesy UniversalHead @ BGG)

Before you sits a massive board game. You’ve never encountered a box so dense or a game so unique.

You would love to open the box and play the game. Turn to page 83.

You need to put on your hernia belt before lifting the box. Turn to page 15.

The sheer size of the box sends you fleeing in terror. Turn to page 102.

For those that grew up in the 80s you no doubt remember Choose Your Own Adventure books where you read a paragraph and made a decision that led you to another page in the book. They were really unique with branching paths and multiple endings, meaning you could experience a new story each time (assuming you didn’t cheat and read ahead).

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a reprint of the original by the same name from 1985. It is, in essence, a massive choose your own adventure. Players will move around a map, run into a random encounter, choose how to react and see what happens. Sometimes you’ll earn great rewards, other times you’ll have some horrible status inflicted upon you. Ultimately you want to collect story and destiny points and return to Baghdad. The first to do so wins the game.

At the start of the game, players have two main decisions to make. First, you get to choose three skills for your character. There are over a dozen to pick from and range from quick thinking and piety to storytelling, seduction and beguiling. Skills generally don’t do anything by themselves but they will give you options as you resolve events. You might pick ones that sound fun or – like me – think what type of character you imagine yourself as. For example, I might decide to be a grizzled old wizard and go with magic, enduring hardship and wisdom.

You must also decide how you want to win the game. As a reward for your encounters you’ll often earn story and/or destiny points. You need to earn 20 points to win the game but before the game begins you get to decide how you want to split those between story and destiny. So you could go for 10 and 10, or 12 story and 8 destiny… whatever you want to do.

(image courtesy betume @ BGG)

Once everyone has made their decisions the game starts. Going around the table each player moves and resolves an encounter. When you land on a spot you draw an encounter card that tells you what type thing you’ve run into, like a beggar or a witch. Then you roll a die and that gives you the adjective for that thing, so maybe you’ve encountered an imprisoned beggar or a wealthy witch. Based on what you’ve encountered you will have a list of reactions you may choose from. For example, if you find an imprisoned beggar you might have options to aid, rob, talk, avoid or attack them. Your action is referenced on a chart that tells you what paragraph from the book will be read to you.

First the reader will read aloud the start of the paragraph. Then there may be a list of outcomes that start off with various skills in bold. If the player has one of these skills they may choose to have that result read to them, otherwise you default to the “no skill” paragraph. The result is read (hopefully very dramatically) and then some rewards are given out. Typically you will earn (or possibly lose) story and destiny points, plus you may earn new skills or gain a status. There are a bunch of different statuses: some good, some bad. You could become lost (reduced movement), imprisoned (encounter a jailer each turn until you escape), envious (must always rob when given the option) or blessed (always choose the result when you roll a six-sided die) just to name a few. These statuses do all sorts of crazy things and are going to help and hurt your progress throughout the game.

Normally I don’t dive this much into the rules but in all honesty that’s really all there is to Tales of the Arabian Nights. There’s no strategy, no tactics, no real decisions to be made. You just move around the map, have encounters, choose a reaction and hope it works out! You have quests you are working on which give you reason to travel to specific cities on the map but that mostly just helps focus your movement so you aren’t wandering aimlessly the entire game. In all honesty there is not much “game” to Tales of the Arabian Nights.

(image courtesy bullseyetm @ BGG)
The experience of playing is really a lot of fun, though, and unlike anything else out there. You’ll encounter a beautiful princess and then decide how to react. Your options might include courting her, kidnapping her, robbing her or just talking to her. You might make your decision based on what type of character you are pretending to be or maybe you’ll go for the choice that you think may lead to a good result. Sometimes you’ll pick “enter” when you encounter a small artifact just because you are curious how the heck that is even possible! You can’t “play well” but making these decisions are still a lot of fun.

Then you get to see how your decision played out. The Book of Tales is 300 pages long and has something like 2600 paragraphs, each often having two or three outcomes. I really like that your skills determine how an event plays out and it’s always fun to wonder “what if.” You could choose to navigate that mystical river and when the reader asks if you have Seamanship and you respond no and get the “no skill” result, you can’t help but wonder what would’ve happened if you did! I’ve never read the actual 1001 Nights tales but from the little bit I know it certainly seems like the encounters and results in Tales of the Arabian Nights are very much in the spirit of the original tales. The paragraphs are very well written and highly entertaining, plus they just beg the reader to add in all sorts of dramatic flourishes.

I only have two small complaints with the gameplay itself. First, at the beginning you have to decide what your target story and destiny points are. There’s really no reason to deviate much from a 50/50 split, otherwise you’ll just be prolonging the game for yourself. I’ve read that others forgo that decision up front and simply play until someone reaches a combined total of 20 points. In the future I may go that route as well. Second, the game technically plays two to six players but I would never play with more than four unless your players are extremely patient. Your turns are quick and there’s nothing to be planning outside of your turn so players may grow tired of the game. I really think that the game will be best with two or three.

(image courtesy @ UniversalHead BGG)

Other than that I think the game is a lot of fun and the experience is second to none. However, I do feel that some of the components could use some work. There are over a dozen skills and over two dozen different statuses. The game comes with a bunch of cards and cardboard chits to represent all of these and there aren’t enough enough for all the players even though you aren’t supposed to be limited by the components in the game. Thankfully BoardGameGeek exists and there are some fantastic player mats out there but honestly something like that should have come with the game; I can’t imagine playing without one. Each spot on the map represents some type of terrain that may be used when resolving encounters but I found the colors hard to distinguish and the legend is a little misleading as well. Finally, the Book of Tales is a massive 300 page spiral bound book. The cover is a little flimsy and is already highly creased and bent after only a few plays plus the spiral binding keeps twisting off the ends.

These are really minor complaints in what is one of the most original games out there. As I’ve mentioned there is no strategy, no grand planning, not even any true decisions to make. You just move, deal with your encounter and hope the outcome is good. The stories that get told are highly memorable, though! One friend of mine tried to court everyone he came across and kept getting thrown in jail. Another had a precious gem taken from him and for the rest of the game had to try and steal from everyone he encountered because he was envious of their belongings. Tales of the Arabian Nights isn’t a game you will want to play too frequently as eventually you will start to repeat events. Thankfully there are 2600 paragraphs or so and with each often having different outcomes based on a couple of skills you will still find new events and encounters each time you play.

So long as you go into Tales of the Arabian Nights understanding exactly what you are in for I think you will find a lot to love. It really is a storytelling game and as such it excels. You may want to print out some player aides from Board Game Geek but with those in hand you will have one of the most unique and entertaining experiences out there.

Space Alert

(image courtesy karel_danek @ BGG)

In space, nobody can hear you scream. Apparently nobody told that to Vlaada Chvátil (designer of Space Alert) because this game is anything but silent!

Space Alert is the latest in the wave of cooperative games that have been hitting the market lately. I’ve talked about some like Battlestar Galactica, Shadows over Camelot and Pandemic but Space Alert is an entirely different beast. Players are members of a star ship, hopping to new sectors in space and dealing with (read: destroying) whatever they encounter. Space is unforgiving, though, and the crew will struggle to keep their ship in one piece!

The game takes place in two parts. Part one is the planning phase which is played out in real time to a CD soundtrack. Yes, that’s right: a CD soundtrack. Each player has a track with 12 spots where they will play action cards designating what they will be doing on that turn. The catch is that you are planning your actions out in real-time as the soundtrack barks out commands. A single mission lasts seven to ten minutes and is divided into three phases. You may only play cards on the spots that correspond to the current phase you are in, making planning even trickier. The soundtrack is going to give out commands like:

“Phase one ends in 20 seconds.”
“Data transfer.”
“Threat T+3 zone blue.”

(image courtesy fehrmeister @ BGG)

There are a variety of things that may happen but the core of the game are the threats. The ship is divided into three sections (red, white blue) and the soundtrack will announce which turn (T+3 means turn 3) a threat appears. You then draw a random card from the threat deck to see what appears in round three and what you need to do to deal with it. Then players start planning out their actions, turn by turn, to figure out what needs to be done. You are free to move your pieces around on the board to help you visualize but you are not actually doing anything in this phase, only programming your actions for each turn.

Once the mission is done, the game board is reset and the resolution phase of the game begins. You now walk through the actions and events turn-by-turn to see how well the crew’s plans work out!

It may sound simple but the game is anything but. Resource management is key and you’ll be fighting it your entire mission. The ship has a limited amount of energy and firing weapons and powering shields draws from the energy pool so you must make sure there’s enough energy in the right place at the right time. Taking down enemy ships is also often tricky as typically you need to coordinate attacks from multiple guns at once if you want to do any real damage. Threats will also attack back and you also need to plan for when they’ll be firing and what you need to do to prepare for it. Do you try and take it down before it does much damage or raise the shields to absorb the hits? Once you play the full game (there are several introductary scenarios to help you get up to speed) you’ll also have threats on board your ship to deal with, screen savers to keep from kicking in, battle bots to control and windows to look out of.

(image courtesy Meat @ BGG)

If Space Alert sounds crazy, that’s because it is. This is, without a doubt, one of the most insane board games I’ve played and I love every second of it. When you first see two CDs in the box you’ll cringe, afraid of what that could possibly lead to. Thankfully the “soundtracks” are really bare-bones audio files that mostly just have the computer voice barking out commands. There is a lot to coordinate across all players and you’ll scramble to get everything worked out and planned before the next phase begins. Failing to deal with a threat will typically either damage the ship which causes it to perform less efficiently or may cause players to delay a turn. Delaying can be very bad as all of your actions will slide down one spot to the right, meaning everything else you had planned is now one turn off from what you originally expected. Truly devistating when coordination is such an important part of the game.

I can see where some will really not care for Space Alert. It is a stressful game and requires a lot of communication amongst the group. You need to be a very assertive player; you won’t do anything unless you start planning out actions but to succeed you need to coordinate with your fellow players. You also need to be very tolerant of others’ mistakes as all it takes is one person doing the wrong thing on one turn for all your well-made plans to fall apart. Failure is always an option (and a likely one at that) in Space Alert; some may not enjoy seeing themselves or others make mistakes that cost the game for the whole group.

(image courtesy filwi @ BGG)
I love this game. The real-time planning phase is brilliant and is unlike anything else out there. Random encounters mean near-infinite replayability and when you use everything the game has to offer it is pretty much impossible to fully plan out all of your moves correctly. Sometimes you’ll look back and curse one mistimed action that cost you the game while other times nothing clicks for the group and hilarity ensues. The more you play with the same players, though, the better you’ll become at communicating efficiently and the better you will do. Each mission takes 7-10 minutes of real-time play and probably an equal amount of time to resolve. Don’t be surprised if you find yourself playing two, three or more missions back-to-back.

I wish words could do this game justice but it really needs to be experienced to appreciate. Vlaada Chvátil is quickly becoming one of my favorite game designers and I will always be up for some Space Alert.