Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Once Upon a Time there was a card game . . .

I don’t get much chance to post about games, either of the video or tabletop variety.  Sometimes it’s an equipment issue and sometimes it’s a “having enough players” issue.  However, I managed to bring up the award-winning tabletop card game Once Upon a Time (no relation to the ABC television show) to the fellow members of my storytelling group once and they seemed intrigued.  So, we set up a time during our February meeting to play.
I figured this would, if nothing else, be a great gimmick for a review.  I got a group of professional storytellers to play a storytelling game.  Sounds interesting, right?  However, that might not be the case.  I’ll explain further in a minute.

Okay, so the group assembled consisted of myself, Sandy Schuman, Bonnie Mion, Eric Randall and Gil Payette.  You may be able to get to know more about them by clicking over to the Story Circle of the Capital District home page. 

The way the game goes is that everyone is dealt a hand of cards.  These cards contain different types like Characters, Places, Aspects, Objects and Events.
Everyone is also dealt one ending card.
The object of the game is to tell a shared story, using up the cards in your hand and weave the story towards the ending card you’ve been dealt.  Along the way, if you stumble in telling the story, or you have in your hand something they mention, or if you have a special Interrupt story card you can interrupt the story and take over as the new storyteller.  People are not bound to the cards in their hand but they have to use them all to win.  Also, story cards have to be used for things that are major parts of the story and not things mentioned in passing.  There are also some other rules that are meant to legislate the course of the game.

Now, it didn’t seem like we made it through a single hand before it seemed like someone wanted to change the rules of the game.  We also had one player who always tried to finish the game in one turn and sometimes managed to do so, even if the end result was a bit of a stretch.

Now, why is this?  Why did there seem to be such discontent over the design of a game that has won at least five awards?  Well, I think it’s because I miscalculated how much fun the potential gimmick of my review was going to be in practice.  Basically, Once Upon a Time is a storytelling card game that’s designed for regular people and not storytellers.  The ability of one of our members to end a game in a single turn may have attested to that.  The skill level of some of us was beyond what the game was designed for.  Also, elements of the game that were probably included intentionally for fun didn’t go over as well with the players assembled.  For example, the stories in the game had a tendency of shifting in different directions rather radically or even randomly.  Things that were very important at the beginning of the story suddenly disappeared in later turns.  While this element may have been considered fun and potentially humorous to regular players, it kind of rankled a group of professional storytellers.  For people who are used to carefully crafting the stories they tell, I’m not sure they could see the appeal of telling stories that frequently went off the rails.

So, we kept trying to change the rules.  First we tried it with fewer cards.  Then we tried it with our hands showing.  And a couple other variations until we had to get the actual meeting underway.

I don’t wish to paint this as a bad game because I can see the appeal in its design.  However, I will say that it’s probably not for everyone.  You have to accept the randomness built into it and that there won’t be one coherent through line for the story you tell.  I’d definitely try playing it again with a less experienced group of storytellers and see how that goes before passing judgement.

Before I go, I would like to point everyone to the show Tabletop featuring Wil Wheaton that made me aware of this game.  I’d also like to point you towards some other tabletop games that feature fairy tale themes.  Ones like Winter Tales, Fairy Tale Gloom, Dark Tales, Tales of the Arabian Nights and Scary Tales.  I would also like to point out some games for younger players like Iello’s Tales and Games series.  There are also some games that draw on legends like Sheriff of Nottingham and Shadows over Camelot.  Whatever your gaming group, it looks like there may be a story-inspired game out there for you.


  1. I played this gamebot with a official supporters and with a group of friends a few years back at a board game convention. My friends and I quicklyagreed that it is an inferior version of "Aye, Dark Overlord" (not saying that it is an intentional knock-off, just that it is very similar). In "Aye, Dark Overlord", the players take the rule of stereotypical dumb minions that once again have have failed at a plan and now try to put the blame on each other, the game master is the "Dark Overlord". THere are plot cards that includesettingsor objects tha need to be included in the storyy and action cards that playrs can use to either make another player continue the story oe to intervene with the story of the player whose turn it is. If the story of a player or "minion" is logicically inconsistent, he earns an "Evil Eye" from the Overlord (represented by a card). A player whogot 3 Evil Eye cards is found to be the one to blame foor the failure of the mission and looses the game.

    The reason I like this game over Once Upon A Time is that a) there is a definite authority who decides whether a story makes sense or not, while in Once Upon A Time there are often squabbles about that which slow down the game and take away the fun

    b) The story frequently taking different turns and even fully changing direction, which in Once Upon A Time can destroy the immersion, here is explained by the back story that a couple of not to bright creatures are coming up with obvious lies.

    c) The sandardfairy tale tropes which can lead to similar stories being told over and over if the game is played a coupe of times in a row (probably not a problem for your professional story teller friends, but for average players) are intermingled with gag cards like "watersoluble sword" which forces players to get creative. Iirc there are also more cards in general in "Aye, Dark Overlord"

    d) The "politics" of the game, the backstabbingg, forming alliances, turning on your allies a couple of turns later etc... add a different layer of game play which can really spice up the game. (Of course this means it is not suitedfor every group and people who are quick too be offended or aren't able to seperate their real life issues from the game will likely not enjoy it, but "Once Upon A time, like I said, can encourage fightig too)

    All in all "Once Upon A Time" is fun for a brief game or two, but once you gain experience, the game becomes too easy to beat (Like being able to finish the game in one or two turns, as you mentioned) and in my opinion it would have done better as a collaborative game with playersbeing more actively encouraged to help out each other in order to make a good story, so the derailing is kept in check (that also would have made it more different from "Aye, Dark Overlord")

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