Emma returns with a two-fer, kicking ass and taking notes on AEG’s Romance of the Nine Empires and Tales of the Arabian Nights from Z-Man Games. One comes out really well! The other… less so.
It’s funny how synchronicity creeps up in you sometimes. In the past few weeks, I’ve played two games involving lots of words and slightly ambiguous mechanics that see you thrust into a sprawling fantasy world of dense backstory and frequent anachronism, where you must not only fight your friends, but seek glory and adventure in order to win. The main difference is, one of them was good.
First up, Romance of the Nine Empires (R9E from here on out, since that is a surprisingly long name to type) is the new (ish) CCG-but-not from AEG, and clearly takes a lot from their other foray into the CCG market, Legend of the Five Rings (hereafter L5R, or “you know, the one that isn’t Magic”). “Newish, Emma?” you say, “It clearly says ‘15th Anniversary Edition’ on the box!” You’re right, but stop talking to my reviews. It’s weird. The truth is, this is a game based on a game in a film based on a game based on L5R, and comes bundled with all the fictional backstory it got in the film, a long-running tale of tournaments and aliens and time-displaced soldiers that lets the first edition of the physical game simultaneously be the 15th anniversary. Now, if you think this sounds needlessly convoluted and confusing, you’re basically right – the game’s (enormous) rulebook sticks to the made-up history throughout apart from one small paragraph, making any sane player wonder if there’s an older, entry-level version of the game available.
While this conceit isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker in itself (I play Risk Legacy, I love alternate history), it starts to really grate when it gets in the way of the rules – for example, in the tiny paragraph explaining ability keywords (a vital piece of information hinted at nowhere else), it states that while most keywords have no in-game meaning (fair enough), some have game-changing effects not mentioned on the cards (sigh) and some are only included to ensure compatibility with the Second Edition of the game (an edition which, I hasten to remind you, does not exist). Around this point, you start to wonder if the designers were just deliberately messing with their players, and that impression grows as you start trying to learn the game. As I touched upon earlier, the rulebook is unhelpfully written at best, but the game also comes with a simplified ‘Read This First!” booklet, designed to get you set up and playing in minutes. Allegedly. It swiftly becomes clear that this actually means ‘play a dozen fractions of an actual game over the next few days of your life while you slowly wonder why you ever decided to play this game’. And I’m not exaggerating (much): not only does the quickstart booklet contain frequent references back to the rulebook, its official stance on learning the game is that players should play five training games in a row, introducing new cards and new rules each time. And I tried to do this, I really did.
And you know how far I got? Half a game.
We started playing with the best will in the world, but the rulebook was beginning to put us off within the first turn. And then we got to the combat rules, and after a solid half-hour of staring at the rulebook, willing it to reform into actual sentences and explain what the hell “declaring immunity” actually meant, the seven decks of cards, two rulebooks at 83 billion tiny tokens were back in the box and on a train headed for Siberia. (We really need to find a new way to dispose of bad games, this is getting expensive.)
The other game was…well, it wasn’t R9E, which is a massive advantage to begin with. Instead, it was the 2nd edition of Z-Man’s polarising Tales of the Arabian Nights, and, as you can probably guess if you read my introduction and can count to two, I liked it. In fact, I would go further than that – it’s easily one of my top 10 games ever. In Arabian Nights, you play characters from the titular collection of stories, ranging from the well-known (Aladdin, Sinbad) to the well-known-but-not-in-a-cartoon (Ali Baba, Scheherazade) to the ‘who?’ (Zumurrud, Ma’aruf), who travel around a beautifully-illustrated map of Asia, Africa and Europe, getting into scrapes and hoping to be the first to collect their target of Story and Destiny points (earned by getting into scrapier scrapes) before returning to Baghdad. On your turn, you move somewhere according to your wealth, draw an Encounter card to see what you’ve met, roll a dice to tell something else about it, choose what you’re going to do to/with/for/around/in response to it (hint: Drink is always the correct answer), and the person on your right with the massive set of cross-referencing tables will translate all of this into a number, which he passes to the person on your left, who reads the corresponding story segment from the Book of Tales, usually describing why what you just did was a terrible idea and giving you a range of statuses and effects, from ‘Blessed’ and ‘Magic Lamp’ to ‘Accursed’, ‘Sex-Changed’ or ‘Imprisoned’ (the latter set being far more likely). Then the next person takes their go.
If you’re thinking this sounds massively simplistic, lacking in agency, and generally a lot like old-school Choose Your Own Adventure books, you’re pretty much right on all counts. However, all of these seeming flaws are converted into fantastic qualities by the crux of the game, the Book of Tales. You start to get an idea of the book’s main attributes when you pick up the game box and are reminded that paper is actually slightly more dense than wood (seriously, that thing weighs a ton), and then you open it and are confronted by a book roughly the size of your house, but containing a lot more adventure and personality. In this edition, there are over 2600 (!) entries, ensuring a different game experience every time, and that’s definitely the right word for them – experiences. I would lay a decent amount of money that, with any game you enjoy, every counter and token has been imbued with backstory and personality by the end, and Arabian Nights takes that idea and runs with it from the start. For example, in my last game, my very first move included me throwing a man into a fire on board a ship and spending the rest of the game trying to evade the law in Adrianople (a state of affairs oddly similar to getting married in this game). Sure, you just run around the board watching weird stuff happen to you, with comparatively little effect on the outcome (largely because you chose completely the wrong skills at the start – no matter what you chose, they were wrong), and that’s simultaneously the game’s greatest flaw as a ‘game’ and its biggest feature as an experience. Hardcore gamers might balk, but if the idea of getting a few friends together to go on surprising adventures and laugh/weep/swear at your horrible, horrible luck appeals to you, you need to play this game.
Romance of the Nine Empires was designed by Mark Wooton and released by AEG in 2013 (not 1998). A new expansion, Arcane Fire, has just been released. Meanwhile, Z-Man Games’ Tales of the Arabian Nights is an Anthony J. Gallela (amongst others) design which was first put out in 2009. We leave it to you to decide which one you’d prefer!