Once Upon a Time (Atlas Games)

Designed by Richard Lambert, Andrew Rilstone, James Wallis.


Reviewed by Steffan O'Sullivan (sos@oz.plymouth.edu), November 14, 1994.

Once Upon a Time (OUaT) is a card game for all ages, from 2 to 8 players. The game components consist of a four-page rule booklet, which is roughly 50% examples, and two decks of cards. One deck of cards (the "Happy Ever After" deck) contains 36 cards, and the other (the "Once Upon a Time" deck) contains 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.

The game plays quickly - we play half a dozen games in a short evening - 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 what ending your opponent is trying to drive the story. Sample Ending cards include, "So she was reunited with her family," and "So he forgave his brother," and "But it had vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared." You can't play your Happy Ever After card untill all OUaT cards are played.

After each player has his Happy Ever After Card, they are dealt a number of OUaT cards, the number ranging from 6 cards each to 10, 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.

One person lays down a card and begins the story. 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. 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, let's say another player has the Aspect card "Evil." She can play it because you mentioned the word. You lose your turn, draw one more OUaT card, and the same story is continued by interrupter.

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. She decides to introduce a new character - a witch might be too easy for the other players to kill off. 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.

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.

The game works extremely well - it's one of the most enjoyable games in my 300+ game collection. I've played two-player and multi-player, and all were a heck of a lot of fun. 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.

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 basically be ignored in such a game, as the goal is different than with all adult gamers.

All in all, this game is highly recommended for any but the least imaginative gamer, parent, teacher, etc.

Added note: I have two house rules that I use and will share here:

First player: the first player rule in the game rules is not a very good rule. Instead, we all cut the deck, exposing a card. If it's an Interrupt card, cut again until you get a Storytelling card. Compare the first letter of the word running down the side on each card. The person with the letter closest to "A" goes first. If the first letter of two or more words are the same, compare the second letters in the words, and so on.

Drawing cards when interrupted: when you have only a card or two left and are interrupted, it can be serious trouble. You have to draw a card, but if you now have no Interrupt cards, and only obscure cards, it can be very difficult to get back in the game. To counter this, we play it that anytime you have to draw a card, you may look at it and decide if you wish to draw another. You may draw up to three cards total this way, hoping to get an Interrupt or commonly used phrase in order to regain the lead at some point. This is not unbalancing, as it carries its own drawback: more cards to get rid of before you can go out.

The Game Cabinet - editor@gamecabinet.com - Ken Tidwell