Once upon a time

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Mike Hulsebus | Contributor


Once Upon a Time is a storytelling card game in which players are given a hand of cards and the ending to a story and are tasked with telling a story that incorporates all of their cards before ending. The game isn"t without its flaws, but the game is different and innovative enough to be a lot of fun.

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At the start of the game, players get a Happily Ever After card that is their goal for how they want the story to end. They may say things like “With the rival dead, they could get married at last“ or “And the king was delighted with such an unusual gift” and the Dark Tales expansion also adds unhappy endings like “They were buried in the same grave and the kingdom mourned them.”

Players then get a hand of cards with different words on them like “This animal can talk,” “Prison,” “Witch,” “Chef,” "Weak," and “Spell” and try to string together their cards to tell a story that ends in their happy ending after playing all of their other cards. Each time a player mentions one of the items on his cards in a separate sentence, he may play a card from his hand onto the table.”

One player starts out as the storyteller. “Once upon a time, there was an evil witch,” he might begin, playing a witch card, “and this witch had been put in jail for casting spells on children, turning them into goats!” he would then play the spell card. “The King was furious!”


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An unhappy ending card.

Mike Hulsebus | Contributor


At this point, if a different player had a King card (or Angry card for that matter), he could then play it (since it was mentioned in the story) and take over the story from where the previous player left off, trying to hijack the plot so that it ends in a way that will arrive at his Happily Ever After card. So if his ending card is "The farm was returned to its rightful heirs," he would do well to add a farm to the story as he tells it.

The main problem with the game is that it penalizes you for doing well. If I start with a hand of 5 cards and do so well that I get down to one card before being interrupted, I am likely to spend the rest of the game without hope of my card being mentioned in the story, therefore making it rather impossible for me to win. If the story takes place on an island where demonic cattle need to be cured with holy milk, I can be pretty confident that a stepmother isn’t going to come up, effectively taking me out of the game. There are specific cards designed to be used as interrupts to help this situation, but if you don"t have an interrupt, you are out of luck.

While the rules were thorough, we had to invent house rules to fix the timing of interrupt cards and also ruling that one player can’t interrupt one interrupt with another interrupt because players were gaining control over the story only to lose control before they could even play a card. We also find the game is more fun when each player gets his or her choice of two endings at the start of the game.

I hope that if Atlas Games does a third edition of the game, they will make the cards easier to read so players can hold the cards in their hands and read them at a glance. If you look closer at the image below right, you"ll notice how under the word "Chase" is hard-to-read yet important text that identifies the card as an event card. Some fans of the game have gone so far as to print their own, more legible cards.


Players may have a difficult time holding their cards in a way where they are readable at a glance.

Mike Hulsebus | Contributor


This all being said, the game is a lot of fun if you’re looking to tell a funny story rather than worry about who wins the game. The fun of Once Upon a Time is in the journey, not the competition: I’ve played games of Once Upon a Time in which two players didn’t get to play a single card but still have had a fun time being there for the story telling. The game is best played with the Dark Tales expansion, which adds a lot of fun and conflict to the game; I enjoy situations where one player tries to end the story with a happy ending and the other tries to bring misfortune down on the characters.

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In short, if you want to play a game where players must be creative and make up stories, buy this game. If you don"t, buy a different game. I think that this is definitely a game that you could play with kids that are of reading age though perhaps without certain cards in the mix. Games go by pretty quickly, and we find ourselves typically playing a few games as a transition between heavier games.

Starting today, I’m going to add one-sentence reviews from people that have played the games with me to help give a more varied look at a game:

One-Sentence Reviews

Brian: I thought I would hate this game because I"m not a story teller, but I really enjoyed playing it.

Allie: I"m not usually a hugely competitive person, but I become positively obnoxious in my attempt to work in semi-related words. It irritates the blogger <not true! -M>, but I enjoy it immensely.

Jake: This game can be good or bad, depending on the people you play it with.

Rob: Once upon a Time was a real wake up call for me: I now realize that I would make a terrible Dungeon Master.

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Anna Marie: I enjoyed trying to use all the classic fairy tale tropes in my hand while neatly avoiding everyone else"s. We were talking about our stories for the following week!

Join me next Monday for a return to our previous format in which we look at what happens when popular TV shows become board games.

Mike Hulsebus was walking along in the forest when suddenly he saw a dragon. If you have a vorpal blade to lend him, he can be reached at mikehulsebus