I just played my first full game of Tales of Arabian Nights, with my friends Chris and Pip. It’s a board game that’s very story driven: each turn you have an ‘encounter’, and choose a vague verb for how to deal with it: aid, pray, rob, follow, avoid, etc. Then another player looks up and reads out a more detailed account of what happened, and how it affects you. These chain together into a journey, and you win by accumulating Story points and Destiny ones. This was my character’s story:
I was hired by a merchant to find him a wife – in the slave markets. Chris chose where that market would be – Bantus, for its name. But on the journey there from Baghdad I encountered a doom-saying prophet, and decided to abduct him. He was the related to a prince, and the ransom really was a princely sum: that’s where it put me on the wealth track, ‘Princely’. When I reached the market, I found the perfect slave for my employer, but also fell in love with her. Since my price for delivering her to the merchant was nothing compared to my ransom riches, we married, and Bantus became our home.
Unfortunately, marriage turns out to be pretty limiting – every time I have an encounter in a city, I have to return home before I can have another. Also, everywhere I go there is a chance my furious merchant employer will catch me. A card I have could rid me of both these problems, should I wish: if I can get to Gaya and roll a 5, I can remove any of my ‘statuses’ – including marriage. Gaya is the other side of the world, though, and I can’t stop in any other cities on the way or I’d have to return home. I set off all the same.
After a long journey, I make it. But I roll a 4: instead of losing my pursuer and getting a divorce, I develop magic powers. As I ponder how to explain this to my wife on the way home, I run into a horrific creature. Since stealth is one of my skills, I hide – but the mere sight of it sends me insane. Insanity means that I cannot choose my response to anything I encounter – I have to pick another player to choose for me. And on my very next turn, the angry merchant catches up to me.
I choose Pip to pick my response, as the player most likely to be nice even when it helps an opponent. She decides that I will bargain with the Merchant. This goes badly: his agents slit my throat and leave me for dead in the desert. But a passing Dervish saves me, and I awake Crippled but with lots of Story Points and the Enduring Hardship skill. This is good because the next thing that happens to me is I get locked in a cave by a ghost, abandoned by my camel, then sucked into a black whirlpool, lose all my possessions, and drift ashore on a barrel at an island on the other side of the world.
Pip won shortly after that, but if the game had carried on I would have arrived back home in a few turns, where my wife and I would try for a baby. There’s a small chance it would be born ugly, which would leave me Grief Stricken, or it would look like the moon, making me Respected. If not, it would just generate Destiny points each time we successfully tried. Which was fine by me, I’d had enough Story.
This was a much better story than I had in my previous half-game of Arabian Nights, and maybe my favourite one I’ve seen in the game so far. So I might try to pick apart why it worked.
1. My quest involved a choice. This is pretty basic and not foreign to other games, board or digital, but it made a good starting point. On my way there I was debating which thing I would do (unrealistically, I was told in advance I would fall in love with this slave), and the surprising windfall I made on the way changed my decision.
2. The consequences of my choice affected everything from then on. I was Married, which radically changes how I’m able to play, and Pursued, which means the possibility of running into the person I screwed over will follow me everywhere.
3. Those consequences took the form of specific people, with whom I had a history. When the merchant caught me, it was completely unlike a random encounter with an angry merchant, and even unlike some other long-acquired Status coming into play. If instead of Pursued I’d been Poisoned, and it had finally kicked in then and Crippled me, that’s a much less interesting story. The drama of the moment was: oh shit, it’s that guy – the one I screwed over for my own personal gain.
4. The consequences became my quest. I did actually get given another formal ‘quest’, but it wasn’t interesting to me. My real mission became to deal with the fallout of what I’d done, and rid myself of the consequences that hounded me. That made it personal and inherently compelling.
5. The relatable nature of the consequences added flavour to my decisions. Imagine if instead of ‘Married’ I’d become ‘Cursed’, with the same rules: can’t go to two cities in a row without returning home first. The rule actually makes more sense as a curse. But my decision to go out and rid myself of it would have been automatic and less interesting: of course you want to lose a curse. But if you call it a Marriage, the fact that it turns out to be drag is kind of funny, my quest to rid myself of it is kind of dickish, I feel conflicted about it, and had I succeeded, that story event would be recognisable to us as a divorce, which has its own set of social connotations.
The game didn’t do a perfect job of capitalising on this. In Arabian Nights, every turn has something absurdly dramatic happen to you, and it often permanently scars you. These disasters-of-the-day felt like they muddied the waters of my otherwise very compelling story, because they were actually more spectacular than my little domestic drama but meant so much less to me. That bit at the end where I “get locked in a cave by a ghost, abandoned by my camel, then sucked into a black whirlpool, lose all my possessions, and drift ashore on a barrel at an island on the other side of the world” – I had trouble remembering that stuff, and might have got it wrong or in the wrong order. It was just a bunch of mad shit that had nothing to do with anything else or each other – my camel abandoned me when I was technically still locked in that cave, and in another situation that could have happened to me even at sea.
I’d like it if these in-between events were relatively minor, and the really impactful stuff was related to your Quest. And if instead of being given a new random quest when you finish the last one, they could have branching ‘sequels’. You’d only need to go a few stages with these, to cover a normal length game – if the sequel to my quest had been ‘get a divorce or have a child’, I would not have managed either by the time our game ended. And if I’d returned the slave to the merchant, perhaps she hates him and escapes, and I have a chance of running into her at each city I visit, and a choice of whether to help hide her or capture her and bring her home.