Cost: $18.00 From: Atlas Games, P.O. Box 406, Northfield MN 55057 Players: 2+ Playing Time: 10-30 minutes Type of game: Card Complexity: 4 Skill level: 5 Reviewed by: Steffan O'Sullivan, Issue 2.2, Winter 1993
Once Upon a Time (OUaT) is a storytelling card game for all ages. The game components consist of a four-page rule booklet, which is roughly 50% examples, and two decks of cards. One deck of cards is called the "Happy Ever After" deck (36 cards), and the larger deck is the "Once Upon a Time" deck (108 cards). The card artwork, while not spectacular, is pleasant and always clear as to what is being represented. The cards are mono-color on white, which is fine, and are already separated with clean edges - no need to tear along perforations. The card stock is not quite as sturdy as playing card quality, but better than many cards found in board games.
The game plays quickly - we played half a dozen games in a short evening last night - and consists of each player contributing to a single ongoing story that all of the players are telling. The catch is that each player is trying to get the story to have a different ending!
At the start of the game, everyone is dealt a single "Happy Ever After" card, which is kept secret until the end of the game. This is the story ending each player is trying to achieve. There are enough different cards that even if you play for a while, you'll never be quite sure to what ending your opponent is trying to drive the story. In fact, we found that the more we played and got to know the deck a bit, the harder it got to tell what ending the other player had in mind! This is because we would throw in red herrings to confuse the trail. I might toss in a riddle early, for example, to make my pponents think I have the card "So the riddle was finally answered." In that game, I really had "But it had vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared." I was going to have a magical something-or-other appear regardless of whether the riddle was solved or not, but the other players kept trying to keep the riddle unsolved so I wouldn't win, wasting all their energy!
After each player has his Happy Ever After Card, he is dealt from six to ten OUaT cards (depending on the number of players). These cards are divided into two basic types (Storytelling cards & Interrupt cards) and five different groups within each type: Characters, Items, Places, Events, and Aspects (descriptive words, such as "sleeping" or "evil"). Each group is clearly marked with a symbol in the upper left corner, and the name down the left hand side, so the whole hand can be scanned quickly by card name and group type.
The one rule I don't like in the game is who starts: "Tradition dictates that this is the person with the longest beard..." I can think of a number of traditions in which women are prominent storytellers, and I don't think this rule adds anything to the game.
However, once the game starts, things get hopping quickly. As you say a sentence in the story, you lay down a card that represents something in that sentence. For example, if your goal is to have someone forgive his brother by the end of the story, you'd best introduce brothers while you have a chance. So if you have the character card "Knight", you might lay it down and say, "Once upon a time, there was a knight, ruler of all the lands around, who lived with his younger brother." You can only play one card per sentence, so you don't want to go on and on with each sentence: you can't play your Happy Ever After card until all of your OUaT cards are played. So if you also have the "Witch" card, you might then play that as you say, "One day, while riding in the forest, the knight met with an old woman in the wood - he didn't know it, but she was an evil witch."
At this point, if anyone has the Aspect card "Evil", they can play it because you mentioned it. You lose your turn, draw one more OUaT card, and the same story is continued by the interrupter. Let's assume this happens. Let's say her Happy Ever After card reads, "And she was reunited with her family." Obviously, she has to either introduce a female protagonist, or have the witch be reunited with her family. But since the witch has already been labelled as evil, she can't change that. Best to introduce a new character (though she could have the evil witch reunited with her family, mind you), so she says, playing the "Castle" card, "The witch told the knight about a castle deep in the woods, in which a beautiful princess was sleeping under an enchantment: only a brave knight could break the spell."
There are plenty of opportunities for others to interrupt here: since the Castle card is a place, if you had an "Interrupt any Place" card, you could simply play that. The player mentioned the words "sleeping", "princess", "enchantment", "brave" - if you had a card with one of those words on it, you could interrupt. And so on, until someone manages to play their last card and bring the ending around to their secret objective. You can also pass your turn, which allows you to discard a card, if you think you just can't work a Blacksmith into the story, for example.
The game works a lot better than my rather lengthy description states. I've played two-player and multi-player, and both were a heck of a lot of fun. It can get cut-throat, believe it or not - if someone has the "Death" card, you can be sure some character you've been nursing along the whole storyline will be killed off by somebody else who thinks you may need him to achieve your ending. Fortunately, in the world of fairy tales, you can always introduce a magic staff to resurrect someone... It's also one of the few games that works well with three players: it's not really possible for two players to gang up on the third, the bane of most three-player games.
There is a rule about Sillyness in the story that is essential: if someone takes the story line and turns it into something absurd, the other players can veto this, and force him to lose his turn. However, challenging someone about sillyness and not being supported by the group means you have to draw another OUaT card yourself - don't do it lightly. Of course, if everyone *wants* absurd stories, there is no need to evoke this rule! Likewise, if all players are hard-bitten garbage-minded cynics, the story can be pretty gruesome and even disgusting - but some folk consider that fun!
With children, this game is much less competitive. It can be a good tool to awaken creativity and even foster cooperation if done right. The adult in the game (parent or teacher or babysitter) can set the tone by only playing one or two cards then asking who else can continue the story, and making sure everyone contributes. Rules can be basically ignored in such a game, as the goal is different than it is with all adult players.
All in all, I'll give this an "A" rating, recommended for any but the least imaginative gamer, parent, teacher, etc.
Disclaimer: I have no connection with Atlas Games, though I met John Nephew at GenCon and thought he was a very nice guy even if he is only half my age and president of his own company already.
Notes from the editor:
Once Upon a Time really is great fun. It's simple to learn and can be played competitively or casually. The interrupt system keeps the game and story going without being intrusive. Perhaps that's Once Upon a Time's most impressive accomplishment-- the mechanics of the game are transparent enough that they don't derail the storytelling process (which, after all, is where the fun is).
There is, however, one flaw in the system. And it's kind of a biggie. Suppose you've just used your last Once Upon a Time card. Now all you have to do is wrap up the story in a way that allows you to play your Happily Ever After card. Piece of cake, right? Sure, unless you happen to mention, say, a book and someone has a Book card, or you mention a castle and someone has the Castle card-- in which case they can interrupt you. At that point, you must draw another Once Upon a Time card. If it's not an Interrupt, your chances of getting to add another word to the story are pretty much nonexistant. This has happened to me more than once, and it's really frustrating.
This problem aside, Once Upon a Time is a dandy little game. It's great as a filler between other games, or you could just as easily build an entire evening around it. When we played it a few times in a row, the stories gradually got sillier and sillier until we could hardly continue through our laughter. Of the two storytelling games reviewed here, Once Upon a Time is the better designed and more entertaining. - Peter