Tales of the Arabian Nights (2009) – Accessibility Teardown

Context of Document

This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

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Version reviewed

English second edition

Introduction

Tales of the Arabian Nights is a fantastic storytelling experience but a somewhat poor game.  Nonetheless, it’s so good as an engine for creating narrative that we gave it four stars and don’t regret a single one of them.  Since it’s basically a big Choose Your Own Adventure engine, it’s going to allow us to explore some of the accessibility landscape we haven’t had a chance to look at yet.  So, hop a carpet and fly into another Arabian Night!

Colour Blindness

There are problems with the palette, as is usually the case.  While the individual player avatars are all visually distinctive, it’s also necessary to manipulate a number of tokens to represent various elements of game state such as quest locations, origin and destination.  These are identified by colour, and the palettes clash in several combinations:

Colour blind tokens

Let’s all just meet in the middle

This is also going to be an issue when it comes to tracking wealth, which is used to determine the kind of movement that a player can undertake:

Wealth

What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is… you know, I can’t really tell

Really though you can use any marker you like for these things and it won’t actually make a difference to the game.   Coins, or tokens from other boxes, will all work fine providing everyone remembers which is theirs.

There are some minor clashes too on the map, particularly when dealing with sea, grassland and island markers:

Colour Blind Map

Over hill, over vale…

Strictly speaking they have different icons for each these, but they’re difficult to see and the differences are subtle – mostly related to orientation of the gemstone symbol.  It’s not going to cause serious problems, but it is going to be somewhat annoying and may on occasion lead to an inconsistent narrative element being introduced into the game unless everyone is careful.

We’ll recommend Tales of the Arabian Nights in this category.  There are problems, but none of them will stop the game being playable.  Really they only raise their head when dealing with larger player counts.  Generally you’ll want to be wary of those anyway given how much they stretch the game-time out.

Visual Accessibility

Okay, we’ll start with the good things here before get into the big problem.   You can probably guess what it is.

There’s a reasonable amount of tactile differentiation in the tokens – destiny, origin, story and destination markers all have a unique physical profile.  While the wealth and quest markers share a form factor they’re used in very different ways.  Quest markers will be on the map, wealth markers will be on the wealth track.  So that’s nice.

Wow, that didn’t take long.  So let’s move on to the problem.

We absolutely cannot recommend Tales of the Arabian Nights to a visually impaired player, unless a number of things can be guaranteed:

  1. That you are playing with at least three players
  2. That other players are prepared to handle the reading portion of your turn for you
  3. That other players are prepared to do the status interpretation for you
  4. That other players keep track of your skills for you

Essentially, playing Tales of the Arabian Nights with visual impairments is going to consist of someone giving you a list of options and then you picking one and finding out what happens.   It is going to be even closer to a Choose Your Own Adventure game-book than it would be otherwise.  It might still be fun to take part, but you’re going to have to sacrifice a lot of what limited meaningful decision-making the game presents.

It’s probably not surprising why – there is just so much text, some of it intensely small, and much of it threaded through with intermingled flavour and gameplay information.   I mean, look at the ‘Exiled’ quest card:

Exiled card

She’s leaving home

You don’t have to have a visual impairment to find this inaccessible.  Not only is the text tiny, it’s also dense with content.   This is a subtle and nuanced quest, with subtle and nuanced game impact.  You can’t get away from that.

The reaction matrix requires you to intersect a row and a column in a tightly cropped table:

Reaction matrix

Drowning in a sea of numbers

And not only that, it will require you to do some arithmetic on that intersection based on what someone just rolled.  It’s not much arithmetic of course, but considering the fact you’re just picking out a chunk of numbers in a sea of numbers, it can be tricky if visual perception is limited.

The dense text continues into the Book of Tales:

The Book of Tales

I don’t think you can actually encounter this one in the game

Within the book you have a lot of text that needs to be read, and the outcome is written in a form of symbolic language that makes use of ornamentation to convey information.  Bold represents a treasure, and italics represent a status, and so on.  When dealing with master level skills, you’re also going to have to scan three paragraphs for a mention of that ability.  It’s is not necessarily going to be in an obvious location given the indentation of some sections.

If you can’t comfortably read a book without an assistive aid you’re not going to find this a very pleasant experience.  Even if you can, the status, treasure and quest cards add dense additional layers of game-play alterations that are dealt with in different ways in different circumstances.

The minimum of three players is important here because of the way the Book of Tales works – you have to choose your response without knowing the outcome, and if you’re reading your own tale you’re going to find that impossible to do.   Core to the game is that the person handling a story is not the person making the decisions.   That means that in a two player game it’s not going to be possible for someone else to handle the responsibilities of a visually impaired player and maintain that critical gameplay element.   That makes the game a larger chore to organise, and adds a considerable amount of additional play-time to create a minimally playable product.  An alternate would be for two players, with one acting as a kind of ‘dungeon master’ and dealing with just the story-telling.  That’s likely to be a difficult sell though if this is to be considered as part of a regular gaming activity.  It is probably quite nice though for certain situations.

We’re going to suggest that you make every effort to avoid Tales of the Arabian Nights if you are visually impaired.  We do acknowledge though you can play it with the provisos we’ve outlined above.   There are many games we’d recommend before you attempt that though.

Cognitive Accessibility

Tales of the Arabian Nights isn’t a hugely complex game, but it becomes very complicated as statuses and quests are layered together.   There isn’t a lot of synergy in this but there is a huge amount of conditionality, and cascading conditionality at that.   There’s also a fair degree of decoupling of action from outcome – when you pick up a status effect, it may be several turns before it actually starts to have gameplay impact.   That can make it difficult to remember the outcome of what you’ve done, or to properly ascertain the implications of your choices.  Statuses come and go and will lock off skills or options available, or even change the basic game-flow.   Game stories will add destinations, quests and origin markers and even the mechanics of how those work will vary from status to status and game to game.

There will be a lot to keep track of before too much time has passed.  That makes the game expensive from the perspective of both fluid intelligence and memory. The game requires a degree of numeracy too, although this isn’t especially high – it does require the ability to do arithmetic, and to be able to hold a number in mind and increment/decrement it appropriately, as well as some other acts of conditional numeracy based on treasures and wealth markers.

More than this though, this is a game that doesn’t just insist on a significant reading level, it absolutely demands it.   This means that it introduces the same accessibility issue for those with cognitive impairments as it does for those with visual impairments – if someone can’t read the Book of Tales or lookup the reaction matrix, you’re going to need a minimum of three players to properly compensate.

However, if that’s possible to arrange (or if you’re prepared to simply treat it as a refereed experience with one player acting as the storyteller) then the difficulty of supporting those with cognitive impairments drops rapidly.   All that’s needed in play is to say what you want to do in particular encounters, and then someone will tell you what happens.  It’s entirely possible to enjoy it on this level in the same way one might a old fashioned Fighting Fantasy game-book.

Tales of the Arabian Nights also introduces an interesting issue for the first time in that it does require a degree of general knowledge to properly understand what’s going on.   The book provides a glossary of terms, but it is best enjoyed with at least a smattering of some awareness of the source material.  As an example of this, the game will be throwing genies at you all the time, referring to them properly as ‘efreet’.  Knowing that’s what you’re dealing with is helpful, and since it’s such an unusual body of terminology you might well need reminded a few times as to what is what.  You’ll meet ‘Gooleh’, ‘Rocs’, ‘Dervishes’, ‘Viziers’ and more – knowing how they are treated in the canonical literature is an important part of understanding the implications of what you’re doing.  ‘Attack the haughty vizier’ is an action of considerable geopolitical aggression, for example. It’s fine if you understand that’s what you’re doing, but maybe not if you didn’t realise a vizier was an important royal advisor.

Even more important is an understanding of the general ethos of the core literature – the rules themselves state ‘Westerners who have little previous contact with Arabia or Islam may be confounded by the ethos and culture they will discover in the Book of Tales’.  Many events are nonsensical or even profoundly disturbing unless appreciated in that context.  In other words, this game requires a degree of historical and general knowledge that may not be compatible with the principles of cognitive accessibility.

As such, we don’t recommend Tales of the Arabian Nights for those with fluid intelligence impairments, although we might be able to tentatively recommend it for those with memory impairments only.  This would depend, of course, on the severity of the impairments in question.

Emotiveness

Tales of the Arabian Nights is largely an experience in story-telling in which the outcome is only loosely coupled to your actions.   You will be rewarded for unwarranted and vicious deeds.  You’ll be punished for entirely altruistic actions.  And rarely will you be able to say ‘Yeah, I expected that to happen’.  The skills you develop will flavour your encounters, but they won’t define your meaningful choices.  It’s very much a game of arbitrary fates.

Score disparities may not be numerically significant, but they can have considerable narrative weight because you can’t always engineer the circumstances to make progress in the tracks you want.   It’s largely, although not entirely, out of your control.   As such, victories can seem unearned and largely the result of luck.  Defeats can feel awfully unfair, and there’s no real way you can improve for the next time.  It’s not even a case of ‘roll better dice’ because that doesn’t actually matter much.  It’s a case of ‘I guess you better hope that Allah smiles on you’.

It’s possible for players to be eliminated, although it is very rare.  What’s far more common is for you to be deprived of agency.  The ensorcelled status for example allows another player to choose where you go on the map.  The insane status will let another player choose your reaction.  If you have both, then your turns are watching other people move you around the map and choosing that which they think will be the funniest reaction.   To be fair, this can be very funny.  It can also be infuriating if you’re not quite in the right spirit of the game.   These effects can be difficult to lose too, especially when you can’t make an effort to control what’s going on.   It’s actually something considerably crueler than player elimination, even if it it is temporary and there will be opportunities for whatever ills other players inflict upon you to be reciprocated.  It’s a kind of ‘take that’ mechanic that is unusually vicious in its potential application.  Hilarious with the right audience, but potentially extremely aggravating.

The way the game statuses work tends to create a situation of compounding failure – because you’re wounded, you can’t use an important skill, which results in you becoming crippled, which locks off another skill, which means that you become afflicted with beast form, and so on.  Again, it’s hilarious if you’re in the right mind-set.  It can be very upsetting if you’re playing to win.

As such, we don’t recommend Tales of the Arabian Nights in this category, although if you think that you could arrange a game session with everyone in the mood to just enjoy the ride, we’d recommend at least giving it a go.

Physical Accessibility

The Book of Tales is large and unwieldy.  It’s also spiral bound, and you need to flick around it a lot.  It has a tendency to stick and if you are too rough with it it’s almost certainly going to tear.  A certain degree of finesse is required to manipulate it although there would be nothing to stop someone else flipping to the right location in the book and handing it over to a physically impaired player without looking.

If that’s not an option, the game is going to be a problem – if you’re working with the Book of Tales you’ll need to look up a paragraph at the start, cross-reference (or have someone else do that if you have three players), and then flip to the appropriate paragraph.  That may in turn require you to go to another paragraph elsewhere in the book.   You really do need two hands free to do it cleanly, or a ridiculous amount of patience as you flip through a few pages at a time.  The passages too are of irregular length, and it is not necessarily obvious how far you’ll need to flip.  There’s almost always a degree of rough movement and then fine-tuning a few pages here and there.

Otherwise, there isn’t much to complain about – the map has a lot of area you’ll need to cover, but mostly all you’re doing is moving a cut-out around the board.   That’s nice, because it’s far easier to manipulate these than many other kinds of character avatar.  The only issue for those is that the plastic stands you get for these are ridiculously tight and you’ll need to do a fair bit of prying them open if you’re to insert the characters without causing damage to the cardboard.

You can pick up a fair number of cards and skills as you go along but they’re not secret.  They’re part of an open hand that everyone can see.  As such you don’t need to worry about hidden hand management.     You do need to draw cards quite often, but there’s no judgement required to do it – someone else can handle that part if it’s going to be awkward to do.

The game is otherwise an almost entirely verbal affair of telling stories, choosing responses, and telling stories about the responses.  It lends itself incredibly well to verbalisation, in other words.

We’ll recommend it in this category.

Communication

Tales of the Arabian Night is one of a vanishingly small series of games that we don’t recommend if communication impairments are at all an issue.  Even leaving aside the high reading level required, there is a considerable degree of nuance in each of the passages that will almost certainly not play well with those with hearing impairments.  The amount of clear articulation required in turn to read out stories is considerable, and the whole style of writing is very much skewed towards the fantastic and mystical.  You never encounter a situation where ‘Someone kneels in front of you’, it’s always stuff like ‘Out of nowhere, as if compelled by a dream, the genie throws himself prostrate before you!’.    You can flatten that out into something workaday and functional, but you’ll lose a lot of the atmosphere in the process.  A degree of verbal fluency will be required here.

Taking advantage of the technique we outlined above for those with visual or cognitive impairments, a version of this can be played with three players or with a dedicated storyteller.  We suspect though that the relatively exotic writing style will make following along with the story difficult.

We don’t recommend Tales of the Arabian Nights in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

I mention often in these teardowns that every game has something unique about it.  For Tales of the Arabian Nights, it’s the first time that we’ve encountered this kind of narrative choose your own adventure system on Meeple Like Us.  It’s not the only game where these issues will raises their heads, but it’s our first encounter with them.  However, that’s not really where I think Tales of the Arabian Nights is most interesting.  I think it’s in the way it treats sexuality.  I’m not even going to get into the cost of the game here, other than to say regardless of the price I think it’s worth the money.   This section is going to be all about sex, baby.

It’s quite rare in a board-game that this topic comes up because most games (other than roleplaying games) just don’t intersect at all with the politics of sexuality.   For most, sexuality is at best implied through the context of character art.  Tales however is unabashedly erotic in much of its storytelling – never pornographic or explicit, but your character gets around if you want to make those choices.  It’s very refreshing – it’s not judgemental in that respect, and manages to inject a degree of spiritual fulfillment into its sensuality.  That’s all great.  It feels like a game that treats sex seriously.

The problem is that the game is unabashedly, even regressively, hetero-normative.   It is explicit about this, including a special note in the rules:

Courting rule

It gets worse…

Look at that.  It apparently needs an exclamation mark to underline just how unacceptable it would be if the game simply assumed that homosexual advances would be equally welcomed by the characters in the tale.   More than this, it makes sure throughout that you never forget that genitals are only supposed to squish together in the Approved Fashion:

How very dare you

Let me check the approved genitalia compatibility matrix

There are a few occasions where you can seduce a member of the same sex but they are vanishingly rare.  It’s almost pathologically insistent that you be constantly on your guard against any homosexuality in your gaming experience.  Sure. you can easily argue that ‘statistically this would be sensible because mumble mumble Kinsey etc etc’ but this is a game of unfettered fantasy and storytelling.

‘Ah, but it’s the theme you talked about in the cognitive accessibility section’, you might say.  But you’re wrong!  Because look at this:

Disclaimer

See, you say that…

Tales of the Arabian Nights doesn’t get to use thematic consistency as an excuse for homophobia because it’s already explicitly stated that it has made concessions to deal with some of the more misogynist elements of historical literature.  So the anti-gay rule-set is absolutely an intentional game design choice.  It’s utterly bizarre, because absolutely nothing is gained by enforcing this restriction.   It’s not like there are branching narratives if you make an attempt to seduce someone that just isn’t interested – it’s just ‘No, you can’t do that.  It makes me uncomfortable’.  You lose absolutely nothing by ignoring this restriction, and I’d suggest you do exactly that.  The fact it’s there at all though is unnecessarily puritanical.

It’s really not on, but it gets worse because not only is the game heteronormative it is also unpleasantly transphobic.  The sex-change card is explicitly a curse, because it prohibits you from winning the game.  This, in the view of the authors of Tales of the Arabian Nights, is something sufficiently unbearable that you cannot make your peace with it, or perhaps even come to prefer it.   This is something you have to get rid of.   The sex-change status is rare, but there is a whole location in the book dedicated to the topic, and it makes use of all kinds of repellent language to describe the effect:

Sex-change 1

See, it’s funny!  You asked for an enchantment, and haha!

This sex-change status is put on you by angry djinn, evil viziers, and magic misadvenures.  And it’s always presented as something awful that you could never possibly countenance.  It even seeps into the meta-information about the game:

Sex change 2

Fear not, indeed

I mean seriously, what the hell is that?   ‘Fear not’?

It seems indicative of a larger problem of gender, once you put aside the noble sentiments in the disclaimer.  ‘We have chosen to use the masculine pronoun as the generic pronoun instead of the less elegant he/she’.  This is not just the default assumption of masculinity that we often refer to in these teardowns, it’s a default assumption laced with transphobia and presented as a mere stylistic choice.  There are many other ways gendered pronouns could have been handled.  Alternate between them, for example.

Sex Change 3

God

A horrifying transformation.  Urgh.   Sure, it’s not something I’d be personally keen on but that doesn’t justify any of this horrendously judgemental and hateful language.   It’s entirely possible to have this within the game, even as a negative effect, without being so unpleasant about it.  Remember, ‘it’s emblematic of the times’ is not an excuse when the thematic integrity has been shown to be entirely discretionary.

Sex Change 4

Raises bile in your throat. You’re raising bile in my throat, Tales.

Bile in your throat.  Seriously.  God damn you, Tales of the Arabian Nights.

The game also adopts an offensively patronizing view of disability.  The ‘Crippled’ status for example doubles the story points you receive because your accomplishments in light of your disability are so inspiring.    It is condescending and regressive.  Whenever you imply someone is inspirational for overcoming their impairments you are essentially succumbing to the ‘soft bigotry of low expectations’.   The game’s view of mental health too is absurdly reductive, for many of the same reasons as we saw in Once Upon A Time.    If you use ‘insanity’ as a gameplay system, you probably want to reconsider unless you are spectacularly sure you are treating the topic of mental health with the necessary sensitivity.

None of this ruins the game for me.  I do find it unforgivably nasty though, and I’d hope that in future prints of the game that an effort is made to recast these unpleasant entries.  Often in these sections I will say things like ‘I assume no bad will’ or such, because I know it’s very easy to accidentally inject troubling elements into this kind of content.   This is particularly true when it comes to sex and gender, where there are growing, emergent and fluid terminological systems that allow people to precisely articulate how they see themselves.  I would never judge someone for being behind the curve on what are often extremely precise identity definitions, especially when these do not yet have much traction outside of the originating communities.

I assume bad will here though, because all of this is explicitly engineered and designed to evoke disgust and fear.  As such, while it is a small element of the game, it’s a serious enough transgression to warrant the lowest score we give for this category.   I would not feel comfortable in recommending it here on any level, because of the harmful and offensive message it is sending out.  Imagine you’re a young teen, struggling with your own sexual and gender identity.  Imagine you sit down to play Tales of the Arabian Nights only to find that you are alternately a punchline, or a source of disgust in the text.  I understand these are issues that won’t be important to everyone.  I also understand that there are some people that may read this and think ‘good, that’s exactly how it should be’.  I assume though if you’ve made it this far through the teardown that you’re interested in everyone at the table feeling welcome and included, and that is something at which Tales of the Arabian Nights is singularly poor,

I feel better having got that out of my system.

Intersectional Accessibility

The largest intersectional issue here is the play-time.  The box cites two hours in length, and I think that’s true for a two player game.  If there are any more players, add an hour for each one and you’re in the right ballpark.   This is an important issue, because the compensations we’ve outlined above require a minimum of four players to handle issues of visual, cognitive and communicative accessibility.  If you want to play this game with everyone participating, expect at least a three hour game session.  It’ll be three great hours, mind – but that’s a long time to be playing.  It’s the kind of game length that is all but guaranteed to exacerbate issues of modulating discomfort.

The game scales well at all levels though, and if someone feels the need to drop out because of physical, emotional or cognitive distress then it’s relatively easy to make that happen – just stop dealing with their turns.    Except for treasures, there is nothing that they will have in their possession that is unique in the game.   There are multiple copies of each skill and status, so even if they have a number of those it won’t necessarily require redistribution back into the common supply – that permits them to later come back and play if they want.

Conclusion

I love Tales of the Arabian Nights, which is why it got four stars in our review.  I have to acknowledge though I love it despite its considerable accessibility flaws.   Games which focus on storytelling can often get by without worrying about the gameplay trappings that create inaccessibility.  Tales though has managed to trip at almost every hurdle.

Colour Blindness B
Visual Impairment E
Emotiveness D
Fluid Intelligence D
Memory C-
Physical B
Socioeconomic F
Communication D

Its most egregious failings though are not in the mechanics, but are instead in the bigoted language and moralistic restrictions on the very sensuality that the game so heartily endorses throughout.    Not only that, but even when it attempts to be positive about disabilities it ends up adopting an unpleasantly pitying tone.

Radar Chart

Tales of the Arabian Night Radar Chart

These may be non-issues for you.  They really shouldn’t be.   When you accept this kind of casual Othering, you are tacitly endorsing the message it sends.  It’s okay to like Tales of the Arabian Nights.  It’s okay to love it even, as I do.  However, an important part of that love has to be understanding where it could be doing better.  ‘Warts and all’ is a noble sentiment, but when those warts are actually harmful and serve to endorse discrimination I think we should all insist they be sliced off.   It’s a bit like that bigoted uncle that you genuinely like most of the time but wouldn’t dream of introducing to your gay friends.   Its flaws don’t make it bad, but they do make it a risky proposition for an inclusive game’s night.


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