Behind the Z - Love at First Matrix: Closing the Final Chapter on Tales 3rd Edition

A look to the future of the beloved Tales of the Arabian Nights from studio head, Steve Kimball, and game designer, Eric Goldberg.

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Today we continue our Behind the Z series to give you a peek behind the studio curtain. Z-Man's Head of Studio Steve Kimball recounts his experiences with the narrative classic Tales of the Arabian Nights before introducing Eric Goldberg, game designer and venerable tabletop guru, to reminisce about the game’s inception and its future. Take it away!

STEVE: As an aspiring young reader, I was smitten by gamebooks. I would scour the elementary school library shelves for every single Choose Your Own Adventure title on offer, consuming each one in a successive binge-reading spree that would make any parent proud. While reading, to save pivotal decision points so I could eventually go back and explore every branching path, I used all 10 digits (and somehow managed to still hold the book, of course). So, when I stumbled across Tales of the Arabian Nights for the first time, it was love at first matrix.

As you play Tales of Arabian Nights you'll come across characters and events that will challenge you. You could be caught in a Magical Storm, and need to decide what action to take, such as Drink! You'll use the many matrices to make your choice and discover different narrative branches.

Memorable Moments

STEVE: It all happened during my college days while working at Boardgame Revolution (Orem, Utah, USA). Every Saturday I'd do tent sales near the local university, and since I had been away from the hobby for years, I began playing as many new games as I could get my hands on. Not only did this satisfy the rabid creative frenzy that engulfed me as I delved deep into the newly discovered world of modern tabletop games, but it helped me stay current with all the new European games Rio Grande and Z-Man (at the time) were importing.

When Tales hit the table, I was blown away. Compared to the handheld paperbacks of my youth, Tales’ scope and variety of encounters was simply staggering. I was impressed how it kept all players involved by sharing responsibilities for the matrix and that oh-so-hefty paragraph book. During that session I encountered a magical storm while roaming the mountains, and thinking myself ever so clever, chose the verb “Drink.” Well, guess what happens when you drink an arcane tempest? After having the result of my reckless decision read to me and resigning myself to my befallen fate, I cast my eyes at the box lid resting just inches away, which seemed to mockingly glare back at me as if to say “Who’s clever now?” Touché, Mr. Goldberg. Touché.

When I took the helm at Z-Man, I was thrilled to finally meet the brilliant mind behind this narrative masterpiece. Of course, I eventually acquired my own copy of the game, breaking it out to play with my kids. They were extremely young, so it amounted to them making simple decisions and me serving as narrator. Even that most basic of interactions with my kids created memories of “playing games with Dad,” and to this day they both fondly remember that one playthrough and have asked to play it again on multiple occasions.

These are just a couple of my own experiences with this beloved game. Tales of the Arabian Nights has been gracing gamers’ tables for nearly four decades, forging epic memorable moments ranging from seriously surprising to amusingly obvious. When I took the helm at Z-Man, I was thrilled to finally meet the brilliant mind behind this narrative masterpiece, and for any who have met Eric, you’ll know what I mean when I say I wasn’t disappointed.

In truth, by periodic email correspondence alone, Eric has become one of my favorite industry friendships. It was he who taught me to “loosen my tie” a bit in my communication. Somehow, he managed to balance professionalism with humor, allowing his dry wit to bleed over into his informal writ. And on top of the positive, amusing interaction, he always left me in a better state than he found me. This made the sudden arrival of a new Goldberg email in my inbox an ever-exciting occurrence, and I’d open each of them with a smile, eager to read how Eric was going to inject some always-welcomed levity into my workday.

Today I pay tribute to the game's storied history by passing the mic to Eric so that you, dear reader, can bask in the full Goldberg experience for yourself.

The Journey of a Thousand Tales Began with a Single Step...

ERIC: In the beginning—an opening line borrowed with reverence from one of the most famous collection of stories in human history—there was the cornerstone of a computer game. At inception, I developed the first iteration of the Tales of the Arabian Nights board game on an Apple IIe microcomputer. While that prototype demonstrated the interactive narrative’s strength, it was a lonely journey. What was vitally missing was sharing your triumphs and misfortunes with others, which naturally led to switching from digital to analog.

The cornerstone of the aforementioned cornerstone manifested in the encounter charts in the game, which delivers the extraordinary range of characters populating the tales. A distinctive feature of the cast of the original folktales is that they come from almost all walks of life: our protagonists are as often tailors, fishermen, mendicants (more commonly known in this century as beggars), Christian brokers, Jewish physicians, and barbers as they are the great and powerful. These characters often serve as props in service of a good story, and they reprise that role in support of the Tales of the Arabian Nights narrative gameplay.

The other elements of a tale include the actions that precipitate a good story, the setting or geographical place, and the thrust or moral of the plot. And thus, the game design assembled the building blocks of the great majority of the individual tales.

The Innovation of an Interactive Narrative

ERIC: These building blocks were poured into a framework that, at the time, was an evolution in story-based and storytelling games. The modern branching narrative achieved popular notice with Edward Packard's Choose Your Own Adventure books, which were first published at the tail end of the 1970s. The most distinctive innovation for Tales, which was recognized with a Game Design Guild Select Award in 1985, was a highly replayable story.These gave the reader a modest set of choices in reading through a story, and then used the template across over 100 books.

Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone next picked up the interactive narrative torch in the early 1980s with the Fighting Fantasy books, which added game stats and mechanics to vary the outcomes of plot developments and endings. Similarly to the CYOA series, fresh content and stories were delivered by a succession of new books.

The years shortly before first publication of Tales of the Arabian Nights were a period of considerable innovation for interactive narrative. Another inspiration for the game, though not an antecedent, was the play Tamara, which was an art project in concept and in its setting: the actors move separately and together through a number of different rooms, and members of the audience decide the structure of the play they experience by choosing which actor or actors to follow from scene to scene.

The most distinctive innovation for Tales, which was recognized with a Game Design Guild Select Award in 1985, was a highly replayable story. It's not 'infinitely replayable', as grandiloquently claimed (and, alas, repeated by me in a rush of exuberance), but several decades and many, many playings show that the current edition provides enough variety and distinctive stories to reward 20 playings at minimum.

How It Became 1001 Tales

ERIC: When considering the stories to go along with the building blocks of the gameplay, two things came to mind: Arthurian legends and 1001 Nights. Both story cycles had strong and overlapping claims to become the setting for the first "Tales" game: a breadth of stories; a large cast of characters, featuring iconic heroes who over time had transcended the stories that made them famous; and widespread familiarity.

A deciding factor was the looser structure of the tales of the 1001 Nights, which is my candidate for the greatest collection of 'shaggy dog' stories. At the outset of the design process, it wasn't certain just how replayable a storytelling game could be, nor how satisfying thousands of storylets that had to be written would be.

Further, the 1001 Nights had the virtue that, while most people could be assumed to recognize the three most famous heroes and their back stories, most of the tales would not be familiar to the majority of the audience. At the time, I was interested in the flexibility with the original material this lack of familiarity permitted; fortunately, early development demonstrated that we didn't need to take liberties with the tales, and so the published game hews closely to 1001 Nights.

In contrast, several of the most famous parts of the Arthurian cycle are highly structured, with both the grail quest and the death of Arthur as central themes that channel the narrative for the full collection of stories. As it turns out, there's more fluidity and opportunity for story development in the Arthurian cycle than was apparent to me at the time; with the benefit of three editions of Tales of the Arabian Nights, it's now clear that the system would've developed quite well—if differently in several respects unique to the King Arthur legend—with Camelot as a first departure point.

Publishing with Z-Man

ERIC: Unlike the Z-Man edition, the original Tales of the Arabian Nights had relatively modest sales (in, to be sure, the smaller board game market of the later 1980s). The beautiful French edition published by Gallimard sold more than twice the number of copies to an audience that's less than one-fifteenth the size of the English-speaking population; there was another run at a computer game in the early 1990s; and then the 2nd edition was published in 1999 only in German by Editions Erlkonig. (For which the quest system was developed and spectacular deaths introduced.)

The early 2000s saw several publishers bid to bring the game back into print for the English language, but it was not until Zev Shlasinger (the founder, and “capital Z,” of Z-Man Games) expressed a strong desire to do an improved version with high production values that we prepared to re-introduce the game. It helped considerably that the game's strengths and distinctiveness had built up its reputation over time; that Kevin Maroney and Zev ensured that the 1100+ new paragraphs were polished to the level of the original prose in the Book of Tales; and that Peter Gifford's sympathetic art direction married to those high production standards delivered a “coffee table game.”

This third edition then had the good fortune in its journey to perennial status to have two subsequent publishers with respect and liking for the backlist title they inherited: first Sophie Gravel of F2Z Entertainment and then back to Z-Man Games under Steve Kimball. Which brings us full circle to today as Z-Man winds down its publishing tenure with Tales.

A Fond Farewell

STEVE: Over the years Eric and I jammed on ideas for improving the eventual next iteration of Tales. Recently, Eric desired to forge ahead with his plans, and since my fellow Z-Folk's had their hands full with existing commitments to new and established product lines, we both realized that our collaboration was nearing its end. Throughout the entire process, Eric has continued to be a consummate professional, completely understanding of our studio’s goals from his publishing days at West End Games. That empathy has made the prospect of winding down Tales fairly seamless, and it makes this final chapter such a fitting one—but not without a surprise twist…

As COVID’s disruption continued through 2020, I heard that Eric’s plans to reboot Tales with another publisher fell through due to creative differences late in the development process. As I watched from afar, Tales continued to languish out of stock—which wasn’t good for the game or the players hungry to track down a copy. Even though our deal had formally ended, I wanted to do right by Eric and this cherished game, so I reached out to propose one last hurrah: a limited quantity final English printing as a sendoff for this edition of the game and a launchpad for the next. Fortunately, for all of us, Eric graciously accepted my offer.

So, I am pleased to announce that the final English print run of this edition of Tales of the Arabian Nights will be made available exclusively through our webstore to ensure that those who want to secure a copy can do so by pre-ordering the game starting today while supplies last. This English-only printing will release June 11. If there is excess supply, we plan to partner with an online retailer to take the remaining stock to tide things over until Eric’s new iteration sees the light of day. If you are in an English-speaking country outside the US, limited quantities are going through standard distribution channels.

Eric, I join with my fellow TotAN fans to tell you we’ll all be eagerly and impatiently waiting to see what lies in store in the next incarnation of the Tales series. Do be kind and don’t leave us hanging for too long!