Buzzworthiness: Tales of the Arabian Nights

This week’s review is of an older game whose 2009 reprint brought a whole new audience to the system:

image by BGG user UniversalHead
image by BGG user UniversalHead
image by BGG user henk.rolleman
image by BGG user henk.rolleman

Tales of the Arabian Nights was originally published in 1985, and was designed by Eric Goldberg.  The game was reprinted in 2009 by Z-Man Games.  It’s for 1-6 players, and takes two hours to play (playing times can vary significantly depending on the group and target scores).  The theme of the game centers around creating stories, having adventures in the style of the stories in 1001 Arabian Nights.  It falls into the nebulous storytelling genre of games, which means it’s really more of an experience than a deep strategic experience.

Z-Man’s edition of TOTAN comes with a ton of stuff – I’m pretty sure it’s the heaviest game I own in terms of actual weight.  There are 112 status cards, 19 Quest cards, 30 Treasure cards, 55 Encounter cards, 58 Story counters, 59 Destiny counters, 60 skill markers, 18 quest markers, 6 player markers (gender reversible), 3 Time of Day tokens, 30 character tokens, a board, 6 reference tiles, 2 normal 6-sided dice, 1 6-sided Destiny Die, 6 character standups with stands, a reaction matrix booklet, and the Book of Tales (which makes up most of the weight).

At the beginning of the game, each player takes a character and places it in Baghdad.  They also get the character tokens (Player Marker, Wealth, Quest, Destination, Origin, Story, and Destiny).  Each player will then select a goal for the game in Story and Destiny.  This is accomplished by taking Story and Destiny tokens that add up to 20 (or some other number depending on the length of game you want).  So if your goal is 12 Story, you’d also take 8 Destiny.  Each player also gets a quest (I like to give everyone two at the start so you can choose one since some of them are real bummers to start out with).  You’ll also choose three different skills at the Talent level (there are 18 different ones).  You’ll also need to determine the time of day (morning, midday, or night).

On your turn, pass the Book of Tales to the player on your left.  The player on your right will have the reaction matrix.  You will then move according to your wealth (which gives you certain numbers you can move by land and sea), followed by an encounter with the space you land on.  Encounters are had by drawing the top card of the encounter deck.  There are three types of encounters.

  • CHARACTER ENCOUNTERS: You’ll encounter a character, which will give you three numbers, one under each time of day.  In the Book of Tales, go to the indicated paragraph for the time of day.
  • CITY ENCOUNTERS: These cards are kept, and you can roll for a reward if you ever land on the city indicated.  For now, you go to the paragraph listed at the bottom of the card.
  • TERRAIN ENCOUNTERS: For these, check the icon of the space you are on and compare it to the card.  You’ll either go to a paragraph in the book, or to letter N in the reaction matrix (meaning you’re encountering the thing on the card).

If you end up going to a paragraph in the book, you’ll get 12 options.  You’ll then roll a die and add the number of the space you’re on (and possibly more as you advance your character).  Whoever has the book compares the result to the book, and tells you what you encounter and the letter of the matrix you can use to give your response.  You’ll pick a response, and the player with the matrix will tell you another paragraph number.  You’ll then roll the Destiny Die and add one to that number (+), subtract one (-), or use the same number (blank).

You’ll then hear what happens in your encounter.  Generally, the reader will read some flavor text, then will ask you if you have certain skills.  If you do, you can choose whether or not you want to use them (hint – you usually do), then will either read the section for the skill you use or the no skill line.  These will generally give you some sort of reward in story and/or destiny, and may give you a status (which can be good or very very bad), a treasure, or a new skill (or the ability to level up an existing score).

And this continues until one player who has met his or her goal and has one final successful encounter in Baghdad.  All other players get one more turn, and then anyone who made it to Baghdad meeting their goal wins.

COMPONENTS: TOTAN is a pretty attractive game.  The board is big map of the northern part of the eastern hemisphere (showing Europe, Asia, and the northern part of Africa).  On the map, solid blue lines indicate sea routes while dotted brown lines indicate land routes.  Everything is separated very nicely, and it’s easy to tell what’s connected to what (though there is at least one missing connection in my edition – don’t know if that was corrected in reprints).

The Book of Tales is probably the most striking component of the game – it’s a 300 page spiral-bound book that is very sturdy and hasn’t fallen apart on me yet.  The reaction matrix is only a four page booklet, and is pretty well laid out.  The cards are all nice quality, and there are a ton of little counters, which you may or may not need from game to game.  I would go so far as to say that if you are the type of person who complains about “fiddliness” in games, you may want to avoid TOTAN.  But for the rest of us who don’t mind, I think the amount of stuff is pretty appropriate.

The only other comment I have about the components is that this is a very text-heavy game.  There are a few icons on different locations around the board, but the cards and Book of Tales are all language dependent.  So, if you aren’t an English speaker, you’re going to need a translation.

THEME: This game is all theme.  It is theme in a box.  As a storytelling game, it has to be thematic, otherwise what kind of story would you tell?  “I pushed my piece three spaces, drew a card, and followed the instructions in the book.”  With the theme, your turn plays out like “I rode to Alexandria where I encountered a Blind Man and gave him a coin.  He pronounced that good luck and fortune would follow me all of my days…and that night, I found the Thunderbolt Sword which would make me unconquerable in battle.”

The theme here is very rich.  You may encounter the same thing on your journeys, but you can always make different choices and change things up every time.  The feeling is always of a character in the Arabian Nights, and the theme is evident even in the names of the different places you’ll travel to.

MECHANICS: Because the game is very thematic, the mechanics suffer somewhat.  There’s not a whole lot going on outside of the story, and you’re relying on luck many times.  TOTAN often gets compared to a Choose Your Own Adventure game, and it’s easy to see that.  The use of the Book of Tales can be a little confusing as you get used to the paragraph system.  Movement is determined by your wealth level – for example, at Poor, you can move a total of three spaces, no more than two of which can be by sea.  As a contrast, the Princely wealth level allows you to move up to five space, no more than three of which can be by land.

One of my favorite mechanics in the game is the Quests.  At the beginning, you have a goal that does not have to be accomplished.  However, it gives you a direction and something to work for, rather than just randomly wandering the land.  There’s nothing to prevent you from randomly wandering the land, but I like the Quest idea.  I appreciate games that give you a unique objective at the beginning of the game (the 7 Wonders Leaders expansion did this very well, and games like Lords of Waterdeep do it as well).  It helps you in figuring out an opening strategy, even though it very well may be smashed to pieces by the time you get to the end of the game.

The game is very free-form, with lots of rule ambiguities.  You may find yourself using house rules, or just playing the way that feels the most fun.  In our games, we have introduced what we call the Monopoly rule.  We played once where someone went into prison near the beginning of the game and just could not get out until near the end.  So now we play that you can’t be imprisoned longer than three turns.  If you haven’t gotten out by the end of the third turn, you can pay a story or destiny point to lose the status.  This type of house rule is perfectly within the spirit of the game – you’re telling stories, and the game is really what you make it.

STRATEGY LEVEL: As mentioned, this game is probably 80% luck.  However, I won’t suggest that it’s all luck as you are making choices throughout.  You choose where to go, you choose a reaction, and sometimes you choose which skill to use.  You can play a character and choose based on who you are, and a lot of times, that helps.  However, the game is nearly impossible to predict and your best-laid plans may get crushed.  You cannot go into this game wanting to win.  You have to go into it ready to enjoy the ride.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is not a complicated game.  There’s a lot of stuff, and it seems like there are a lot of rules, but it’s really not difficult to wrap your head around.  I’ve found that the biggest stumbling block for new players is the process of choosing your goal at the beginning of the game.  It’s a weird thing to get your head around, especially not knowing if story or destiny is easier to get (it’s pretty much a toss up, though I think destiny might be slightly easier).  What I usually tell people is to keep them mostly even and don’t worry about it – the game is not about winning or losing.  Story and destiny just give you a point to head for Baghdad and the end of the game.

I’ve had success introducing this to players of varying levels of gaming experience, and most people have had a great time.  It may be a turn-off for people who like deep strategy games, and the game may be a little to adult for children.  However, I do think the game has wide-ranging accessibility.

REPLAYABILITY: With over 2000 paragraphs in the Book of Tales, this game becomes very replayable.  Add in different skills, quests, and types of encounters, and the replayablility becomes really high.  TOTAN is a game that rewards repeated plays, not with experience, but with varied tales and new ways to encounter different situations.  It is certainly possible that the game will become stale and redundant, but it hasn’t happened to me yet.  I suppose expansions could add more quests, but the game is pretty much complete in the base box.

SCALABILITY: TOTAN is a 2-6 player game with an official solitaire variant.  However, I would recommend NOT playing with more than 4.  It’s mostly a solo game, with some interaction thrown in through some of the statuses and quests.  On your turn, hree players at a time will have something to do (you and the players to your right and left), but that leaves anyone else to just watch.  And while the storytelling is entertaining, I’d much rather be doing something.  Some turns can last a while, particularly is multiple encounters come up.  I’d say 3 is the sweet spot, but 4 is OK too.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  This game is a classic, and people have enjoyed it for years.  It’s engrossing, it’s thematic, and it’s a lot of fun.  I’d suggest this for anyone who is a fan of storytelling games, and even anyone who is a fan of storytelling games in general.  Big thumbs up.

That’s my third review of the year.  Still on pace for 50.  Thanks for reading!

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