Game Box 03: Tales of the Arabian Nights

The excellent Clarice Monet reading out the fabulous tales of our adventure.
The excellent Clarice Monet reading out the fabulous tales of our adventure.

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a gorgeous storytelling game. You move around a lovely board, collecting points and wealth and treasure, but mostly continuing your story. The story pours out of a massive book of tiny encounters, snippets of narrative and the occasional grand adventure – the biggest, choose your own adventure you could ask for.

The Pitch: Be a hero in your own legend — growing from a poor but deserving (or thieving) commoner into a world adventurer. There are a lot of games that try to play on that feeling, but this… does it. If you ever wanted your own fairytale — a proper one, with ups and downs — then you need to be playing this game.

Notes on Playing:

  • Winning is cool, but it’s not the point of this game. The point is a good story. I once spent the majority of a game imprisoned by a crazy sultan with hounds for advisors and his equally mad jailer. I got nothing done. And it was great. It does’t always work out that way, but with surprising frequency, frustrated goals make a fabulous game. You can also just play for the hell of the story, without adhering to the win condition.
  • I said this was a fairytale. It is — told from a non-Western point of view. The map centers on the Arabian Peninsula. That’s where the world is the safest, the map most accurate and detailed. This is so refreshingly full of flavor from the tales the game is named after. There are djinn and efrit and ghooli and piety refers to reverence for Allah – the world is there and waiting for you to step into it.
  • The storybook is massive — which is great because you have a hard time getting back to adventures you’ve already done. But it’s spiral bound. I have to stop myself from wincing every time someone is even a little careless flipping it open. That might just be me, but it’s such a lovely game that the thought of accidentally tearing one of the pages is so sad-making…
  • When you start the game, your character has a gender — but it actually functions like a sexual orientation. A few adventures rely on who your character is attracted to. My gaming group adds an extra setup step:  we declare our character’s orientation — so far we’ve stuck to being gay or straight. I think you could easily play as asexual or bisexual without batting an eyelash.

Who Should Play?

Anyone? Everyone? Okay, so it takes a while to play it. You start fairly ‘low level’, and the adventures scale as the game goes on. You need to block out a couple hours for this one. It’s also reading heavy, so it’s not great for young kids — who might be into the story, but not into reading out loud.

That aside, it’s a fairly accessible game — low barrier of entry for non-gamers and easy to explain once you get going.

Just… go play? Please. It’s so pretty. It’s such a story. You’ll love it.

If by some twisted chance, you are here reading this and haven’t watched SU&SD’s review, then go do that now. Hell, I might go rewatch it after writing this. Since it’s getting too late to play the game.

Project Box 01: Crossed Roads, First Draft

Screen Shot 2015-07-05 at 11.14.20 PM
Crossed Roads Map

A modular story is one that can be experienced in any order. Generally you’ll have a beginning point and an ending point (maybe several ending points), with a series of ‘adventures’ that can happen in any order in between. So if A is the beginning, and  X, Y and Z are possible endings, then the rest of the alphabet can show up in any order between those points.

It seems like it’s becoming a more common pattern for games, because it gives a stronger illusion of agency to the player. It’s more open world. But how does it work in writing?

When I’m editing a piece, I’ll sometimes think of it as fractal-like. A story-fractal, if you will. You can start by editing the story, the structure, the monster as a whole. Then you get into arcs and chapters. Peer closer and you’ll find that the scenes are paragraphs. Magnify it again and edit the sentences. Then look at the words and the letters that shape them.

Now, if I was working on a modular narrative for a game, I might look at the story-fractal in a chapter sort of way.

What I’ve been working on is what happens if you look at modular narrative at the sentence level of a story-fractal.

Here’s an example, built in Twine.

So I picked someone walking down a path for this first experiment, honestly because it was pretty easy — as long as nothing stops you from walking down the road, the order of events on the road doesn’t matter. I also tried the same thing with a fight sequence and with a conversation (the conversation was supposed to be a little disorienting — and with that crutch I think it worked. An interview would also be an interesting format that should work with this formula too).

From this first experiment, I expanded it into a larger story: multiple loops made of sentence modules. The loops can also be played in any order. I’m working on editing that now and will put it up when it’s done.

Challenges/Things I’m Considering:

  • I want the finished version to feel like a story. Or at least retain the satisfaction we get from experiencing a story that ‘arcs’ well. How do you build towards an ending when you don’t know which bricks came in which order?
  • How do you include the details which make good worldbuilding/setting without ever relying too heavily on past or future details?
  • How repetitive can you go without losing interest? How is repetition effective in a story like this? Is repetition effective in a story like this?

Things I want to experiment with or would like to see:

  • Other experiments with narrative told through modular sentences. If you build one on Twine or something else, let me know. I’d love to see it.
  • Can we get rid of the beginning and end points? How effective is it, and what does it do to the structure?
  • Because humans experience time as linear, no matter how modular the story is, it still gets experienced in a linear way. Is there a way to break this? How? I know it may be a super non-practical question, but I’m curious. Have a few ideas I want to try in the future.
  • Physical variants on this idea. You could have a deck of cards that did the same thing. Would that be cool? Some board games do really neat things with modular narratives. But they also usually have a social component that enhances that experience. What percentage is there in seeing (physically) that something is random?  Does that enhance the wonder of the storytelling?

What storytelling stuff are ya’ll up to?

Game Box 03: Tabletop Day 2015

international tabletop day logo

Last weekend was International Tabletop Day! Huzzah!

We went out and about and found our way to the Malted Meeple — a board game pub — and Underhill Games — our friendly neighborhood game store — for a glorious day of trying new boardgames. It was great to see how many people came out to play games.

This is what we tried:

Tash-Kalar: Arena of Legends (by Vlaada Chvátil)

I’m excited about this game — a meta board game, like a chess variant out of a fantasy novel, with schools of play, different factions, and a simple board and pieces.

You play by making patterns on a grid, giving you the opportunity to summon new pieces to the field. The instructions include a beginners variant of the game — nice simple set up, and clearly some room for scaling the difficulty and skill involved.

First run was fun, and I’d definitely play again.

Tokaido (by Antoine Bauza)

This was my favorite of the games we tried. It simulates the experience of traveling the Tokaido Road on foot — a route to Edo (old Tokyo). You choose how fast you travel and compete to see beautiful vistas, enjoy the most diverse dishes, and visit temples.

As a traveler, the concept appeals to me. This wasn’t a game about seeing great monuments, or rushing around the world. It’s actually about enjoying the journey from point A to point B, and about the tiny mundane interactions which make up the majority of what it means to travel.

Take that and add mechanics which support the experience, lovely art and the fact that, while competitive, it still allows you to play your own game. It’s a different sort of board game, and I enjoyed it a lot.

Betrayal at House on the Hill (Wizards of the Coast)

Horror themed game with a neat traitor mechanic. It was the most complex game we tried — and the instructions were clear, but were not geared towards getting you started asap.

Feel like it’ll need another run or two to get a better feel for it. The first half of the game is about building a mansion out of modular rooms and building up your character’s stats. The second half — the Haunt — gives you the win conditions, possibly a traitor, and an idea of which horror story you’re in.

There was a lot to like, but I didn’t feel like it came together in quite the way it was meant to. That might just be a first run sort of feeling — the mechanics did build a neat narrative feel.

One issue — stats are marked by a sliding marker along your character card. The markers were so loose that you basically had to just keep track of your stats in your head.

Seasons (by Régis Bonnessée, art by Naïade)

Last game we tried, and maybe the most difficult to describe, in theme terms, so let’s start with mechanics. You’re competing to gather the resources you need, and use those resources to play cards, which give you points or other effects/powers.

To be honest, when we played I totally missed that we were sorcerers battling it out — my partner told me when we finished the game. Which says two things to me: First, that the theme and mechanics didn’t really support each other. Second, in this case the theme and mechanics didn’t necessarily need to support each other, since it was still fun.

The place where the theme and mechanics were most in synch was the ‘timer’: A circle of seasons which determines the scarcity of resources and which you progress through three times for the game.

What this game really had going for it was the actual components. The dice are bulky and beautiful, with an arcane feel. The art is, by turns, adorable or gorgeous or weird. The wheel of seasons, the player cards, the palette, all really neat.

For me, this one had artifact value — I’d play again, but I’m not as intrigued as I was by some of the other games.

So. Great International Tabletop Day. Hope ya’ll played some good games. Cheers!

Game Box 02: Castle Panic

photo (5)Castle Panic (by Fireside Games) is probably the game I end up recommending the most, because it’s a good game for just about everyone. The mechanics are simple enough for a seven year old and the game is  challenging enough to keep the grown-ups engaged.  Plus it’s cooperative. And when you start feeling confident in your ability to consistently win? There’s an expansion for that.

The Pitch: Defend your castle! You start with six towers and six walls. You win if one tower remains when all the monsters are gone.

On your turn you draw cards. You use the cards to knock out as many monsters as you can. You draw more monsters and add them to the board. Still kicking? On to the next player.

Notes on Playing:

  • When introducing this game to adults, I always start by saying it’s harder than it looks. The art makes it seem like a kid’s game (which it is. It’s just a kids game that doesn’t underestimate kids). No one ever believes me, until we are scrambling to survive in turn four or five.
  • Use the Barbarian. Use your cards. You may be inclined to hoard your resources. Don’t do it — the game is cooperative and if you are precious about your hand, you’ll lose.
  • There’s an optional rule that adds a competitive element to the game: keeping score of who kills the most monsters. We never play with it. It runs very smoothly as a straight cooperative game and, especially for kids, it’s hard to subtract the rule once you’ve added it.
  • There will come a turn when you draw all the ‘extra monsters’ tokens at once. All of them. Good luck.
  • When you start winning more than losing, grab the Wizard’s Tower Expansion to check that hubris.

This is a good game for just about anyone, you don’t need to be a board gamer to pick it up and learn it. It’s also a good intro to the jargon. I forget sometimes that discard and hit points aren’t common parlance. Shows you the bubble I live in.

Game Box 01: Dead of Winter

dead of winter at set up
Sparky the stunt dog is my favorite survivor. I guess this is controversial? But he’s pretty much the best golden retriever ever.

Board games, board games, board games! When I say I play board games I get asked what I play, and since it isn’t Monopoly, the explanations can take up some time.

One of the games getting heavy rotation right now is Dead of Winter (by Plaid Hat Games). Not only is it seasonally appropriate, it has beautifully smooth mechanics and the narrative fragments come together to create different coherent stories each time.

The amount of cards, tokens, and possible actions look overwhelming — but due to the cooperative (mostly) nature of the game and the well designed player cards, the barrier for entry is pretty low.

The Pitch: You are a group of survivors during a zombie apocalypse, and you must work together to achieve a group goal and your personal goal — unless, of course, you’re the betrayer. In which case you’re going to try to destroy everything.

One thing Dead of Winter has going for it over other games with a traitor mechanic is that the odds are against having a traitor. The possibility looms over every game, but because there might not be one too, there’s less pressure to be suspicious and FIND THE TRAITOR! Also, some of the personal goals are fairly similar to betrayer goals.

Notes on playing:

  • I like it best with 4 people, but 5 is better than 3 (haven’t tried just 2). There’s less chaos and more control with 3. And the chaos is fun.
  • Yay for cooperative games. The betrayer has goals too, and it’s unlikely they’ll be trying to tank the game from the get-go. If a traitor wins, for us it’s usually been in the last or second to last round. So mostly you’ll be working together.
  • This is intense. It can be a stressful game. We’ve had a few run beautifully from the start. Occasionally. But there’s a cursed dice involved. And zombies. And treachery.
  • This game moves. Once the game gets going — and everyone’s had a chance to learn it — you aren’t sitting around much. Turns go quickly, and the cooperation means there’s some discussion of who needs to do what. Admittedly, we tend to play the shorter goals.

This is a great game — recommended for a group that has at least one midcore board gamer or an intrepid spirit, but super enjoyable for a range of gamer and non-gamer types.