Thursday, July 30, 2009

Tales of the Arabian Nights Out Of The Box

The other West End Games title to be republished in the past couple of weeks is the classic Tales of the Arabian Nights. I freely admit that I never played the original - I suspect it requires a pretty specific type of player to enjoy it, and when my own gaming renaissance began in 1998 there were too many new games to try out. I'm glad there's a new copy that I hope to play very soon.

First up is the components. Wow, talk about an update. Like RAF, TotAN used perforated cards with black and white clip art on them at best. The map was actually pretty nice for the era, although not mounted in the Avalon Hill sense, with a nice painted feel to it. The Book of Tales was a standard folded/stapled 8.5"x11" rulebook, and the counters were all of the wargame variety (although WEG tended to use an unfinished stock that wore very quickly). In all, it doesn't hold up well to 2009 standards, but the game sells for quite a bit on the 'Bay.

The new game outweighs the old by, oh, a factor of about 5. Maybe 10. It's a very heavy game.

First up is the map, which is mounted on heavy card like most modern FFG games, and has a very slick finish which I could see being an issue in certain lighting conditions (much as poster frames are). The art is of a very high standard, the first company I've seen that is giving FFG a run for their money in terms of finish. The spaces have their numbers in jewels, and there are numerous pieces of art for the various Important Locations as well as for incidental art. It's gorgeous and about 1/3rd the weight you get in the box.

Next up is the chart of response matrixes, the ones where you have to make a decision of how to respond to a given situation. These are on a folding piece of very heavy card that is also very glossy, which is less of a problem than the map. I like glossy for things that will get handled frequently, and this will definitely get handled frequently. Compared to the old "pull out section" of regular paper, this is a vast improvement. The old version requires lamination to survive.

The rules are very streamlined, perhaps to the point where some information is kind of missing. For example, with Quests there is no indication that you can dump a quest voluntarily, although it's alluded to in the two short paragraphs in a sidebar that cover that part of the game. There is also no FAQ on interactions between the various skills and statuses you get over the course of the game, which I could see would be nice. Given the rather open-ended nature of the game as more of an experience, I don't have too much of a problem with this. The original designer's notes are included, but it would have been nice to see what was changed in the game and why for the new edition.

The Book of Tales is now spiral bound, and is another 1/3rd of the weight of the game. This thing is dense. I'm hearing that some of the charts in it make more sense printed out as they're referenced so frequently, and I'm a bit concerned about carpal tunnel syndrome from holding this thing up. I mean, I got a bit of RSI from reading one of Colleen McCullough's Rome books recently. This isn't quite *that* heavy, but it's a lot bigger in the height/width dimensions. Most of the above is in jest, it's clearly an improvement over the older edition.

The cards are, of course, now of heavier stock and have lost the perforations (and are much more colorful). There are four copies of each Status in card form, which you'll want to group together (you get four decks of statuses, each alphabetical, which is OK if you're playing with four people, but not so much with five). There are also cards for Quests, Treasure, and Encounters, all of which are very colorful and have much improved art.

The counters are typical Eurostyle, and nice and glossy. Oddly, there is an entire sheet of markers you use solely to denote what your Story and Destiny point goals are. On my first read through the rules, I couldn't figure out what these were for, as your ongoing totals are kept track of on the board. It would have been better, IMHO, to have simply included six small glossy score boards and a marker, a la Show Manager, rather than throw in what is a somewhat problematic set of counters that it's hard to find storage for with the form in the box. It's a little crazy, and not a terribly workable solution, but if that's the dumbest thing Zev did in developing the game, I'm OK with that.

The other markers are very nice, and fairly large. There are 2" discs that identify your color that go on your play mat, 3" discs to denote time of day, large character figures that have stands, and a sheet of skills that I strongly recommend you keep separated with a standard wargaming counter tray - you'll need about 18 slots or more. The skill markers flip over to denote "master" status in a skill, which is also denoted by a more elaborate background symbol and a different color, so it's easy to see these at a distance.

Game play appears to be pretty close to the original - you secretly spend 20 points between Story and Destiny as your goal for winning, which in my mind is more or less a complete crap shoot unless you're very familiar with the game and know the distribution of points of different types. For those who *have* memorized the Book of Tales (and good luck with that), the system now works a little differently, or so I suspect.

When you get to the Reaction Matrix that gives you a paragraph number, you don't go straight to that specific paragraph. Instead, you first determine if any of the player's skills match up with any of the conditions in the target paragraph as well as the paragraphs above and below it, and if so the player may choose to go straight to that paragraph. If they choose not to, or if there is no match, then the player rolls a die similar to those found in the Fudge RPG system. If they get a +, they get the paragraph below the target, and if a - they get the paragraph above (it's based on numbers, of course, I use "above" and "below" to refer to the position of the paragraph on the page rather than to the numbering system). The reader then tells them the conditions that match up with skills, and assuming one isn't mandatory if the player has that skill, the player can choose which one to experience and the usual stuff happens as in the base game. In all, I expect this will extend the life of the game for those who play frequently, and is almost certainly what accounts for the much larger Book.

To be clear, this game was never for rules lawyers, or for those who need every condition spelled out, or even for those who want to play competitively. The game by it's very nature rejects those premises, and wargamers who *must* have every possible situation spelled out are not going to enjoy this game, nor are nuskool RPGers (I'm thinking 4th Ed D&D here) and CCGers. However, if you like oldskool or indy RPGs where the DM kind of made the game up as you went along using the ruleset as a framework, it's going to be a much more interesting experience.

The rules mention that the two "alternate" rule systems from the original game are not included in the box, you are directed to the website to get them. However, they were not online as I write this. You will want three experienced storytellers to play that particular variant, at least you did if you played the original, and I have no idea how they're going to reproduce the economic element from the Trader version of the game - that had lots of arrow counters and other components to simulate trade routes and supply and demand. Since I can't see what the new alt versions are, I'm unable to comment further.

I should also mention that the box itself is gorgeous. It's very heavy card (think Command and Colors: Ancients) with a largely matte finish except for the three scenic depictions on the cover, which are glossy. It's a very nice effect that's spoiled a bit on the shelf due to shrink wrap, but it will be very handsome if you choose to make it the centerpiece of a gaming display. It's also a very large box, about the size of the recent Age of Conan - halfway between a square Kosmos box and the double-sized Starcraft or Descent box.

I expect to get a game in very soon and will give a report at that time. Even though I feel very strongly about tight rules in wargames and most euros, I do recognize that this isn't that type of game and am ready to just have fun playing instead of being competitive. Should be a hoot.

1 comment:

Simon said...

Thanks for the overview. I've got this one on order... can't wait to try it!