Bringing Board Games News, Reviews, and Goodness to the Interwebs.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Once Upon a Time - More Structured Storytelling than a Competitive Game


Most games can be categorized one way or another.  There are competitive vs. cooperative games.  "Ameritrash" vs. "Euro" games.  Deeply strategic vs. lighter fun.  But, occasionally a game comes along that defies the usual descriptions and just is what it is.  Once Upon a Time is that kind of game.  This is less of a competitive endeavor than a structured means of facilitating a group story telling session.

The Basics:  In Once Upon a Time, the players are called to tell a story.  Each is dealt a number of cards depending on players.  Then, one person just starts telling the story.  All the stories are fantasy themed.  Evil step-mothers, brave travelers, far away kingdoms, beautiful princesses, and enchanted objects are likely to feature strongly in any of the tales.  The cards and the game don't exist so much to determine a winner, as they do to assist in telling a good story.

In addition to their regular cards, each person also gets an ending card which is a single sentence.  "And it fit perfectly," would be a typical ending.  The goal is to use the cards in your hand to get to that ending.  Each person's ending is different, so each tale teller will twist the events more toward their own end. 

The first player starts the story.  Each time the player says a sentence, he can play down one card if that card's title was included in his sentence.  Once he plays all of his cards, he can finish the story with his ending (if appropriate as judged by the other players).  However, any player can jump in and take over the storytelling when one of two things happen.  If the current storyteller happens to mention something in another player's hand, that player can play it and interrupt the story.  They become the new storyteller and pick the tale up exactly where it left off.  They can now change the direction of the tale towards their own ending.

The second way is with special interrupt cards that allow another player to take over the story when the storyteller plays cards of a certain type.  Either way, the new storyteller cannot go back and change events.  He can only move the story forward in the way he desires. 

The storyteller doesn't have to play a card to tell his story, either.  Maybe he wants the tale to take place in a distant and aging castle.  He can simply say so even if he doesn't have those other cards.  While that does risk another player jumping in with a "castle" or "old" card, it also allows the storyteller to craft the tale he wants.

Components: 4 of 5.  The components are all cards.  They are a good size and easy to shuffle.  They are on good stock and will withstand numerous plays.  However, their new glossy sheen does seem to wear away fairly quickly. 

Strategy/Luck Balance: NA.  There is an element of luck in this game.  On one memorable play, I was stuck with the "Wolf" card trying to break in to another player's tale.  The odds of him saying anything about a wolf were nil.  However, there really isn't a "strategy" element per se.  Instead, it's all about the player's imagination and how he can craft the story towards his ending while keeping the continuity of what came before going.  So, strategy is limited only by imagination. 

Mechanics: 3.5 of 5.  Overall, the rules are fairly elegant.  All of the cards are there to support the story.  However, I had to subtract points for a glaring mechanical error.  As noted above, if a player is stuck with one random card that is unlikely to be mentioned in the story, they are pretty much out of luck through the end of the game.  To fix this, my group developed a variant where any player, at any time, may draw two cards.  Doing so gives the player additional chances to interrupt, but also make sure they tell much more story before they can simply 'go out' and end the game. 

Replayability: 5 of 5.   The replayability of this game is immense.  Every time the story is different and are guided by the random draw of the cards.  Different endings encourage different versions.  After multiple plays, I've never had the same experience twice, but always had a good time. 

Spite: 0.5 of 5.   Spite is not encouraged in this game.  While you can interrupt a player, you always interrupt the current speaking player.  And it's always a good thing to interrupt when you can.  The half point here is for the possibility, however counterproductive and against the spirit of the game, that a player saves all his or her interrupt cards to use on another specific player.

Overall: 4.5 of 5.  This is a wonderful gem of a game.  It forces players to use imagination and encourages what could be termed Karaoke storytelling.  Everyone has a good time and there is always laughter around the table.  The sole negative is making sure you have the right group.  Those who are easily intimidated by sharing their ideas will not find much fun in this game.  And, enter it with the mindset that the group will be telling a story.  If someone tries solely to win it, the essential charm of Once Upon a Time will vanish.

You can pick the game up from Boards and Bits here.

Or from FunAgain here.


  1. I think my sister (Gardella on the blog) would love this game, I may have to get it for her for Christmas! Shhh, don't tell. (She's not usually involved with the twitter, so I think I'm safe)

    Girls Are Geeks

  2. I'd highly recommend it. Those geeks that have been steeped in fantasy tales since childhood will have a blast.

  3. I bought this game just a week ago and I already love it! We still have a few problems with rules, because it usualy hapennds that someone just keeps on telling a story without acually playing anything, or before playing Happy Ever After card, but still it is so much fun!