You can find our accessibility teardown here.
I’ve brought you a special present.
That’s right, it’s a book. When I was your age, television was called books. And this is a special book. It was the book my father used to read to me when I was sick. And I used to read it to your father. And today, I’m going to read it to you.
Are you kidding? Fencing, fighting, torture, revenge, giants, monsters, chases, escapes, true love, miracles…
Your vote of confidence is overwhelming. All right. “Once Upon A Time”, published by Atlas Games. Chapter one….
Once upon a time, there were between two and six players. Each of these players were dealt a hand of cards. Most of these cards were story cards, but one was an ending card. One player began as the storyteller, and stared to weave a tale making use of the story elements present on the cards in their hand.
“Once upon a time’, began the storyteller, ‘there was a great and fearsome giant. ‘
As he referenced the giant, he got rid of the card from his hand. The giant now existed in the story. The tale that was being communally built would need to make sense in relation to the creature that was just conjured into existence. When a player had no cards left in their hand, they won the round – but the last card they played must be their special ending card. It was their job to shape the story in a way that allowed for the ending be sensibly played in a manner that was narratively satisfying and coherent.
The storyteller’s ending card was ‘it just shows that stepmothers aren’t always what they seem’. He was a fair distance from being able to make that a satisfactory ending. So far, it was just a story about a giant. Was he a good giant? A bad giant? Or is he a she? That was up to our storytellers.
The storyteller, who’s name was Michael, continued. ‘This giant was known throughout the land, for he was the son of the King of the Giants.’
Michael could have played down his Prince card there, but he decided instead to keep it in reserve. Just because someone owned a card, it didn’t mean it had to be played. And likewise, just because someone might not possess a card it did not mean they couldn’t use it in a story. Michael had set a trap for other players, allowing himself to regain control of a story should he lose it. And how could he lose control? Well…
‘One day, the Giant Prince decided to leave his father’s kingdom, for they had mightily quarreled…’
‘Quarreled!’, yelled another player, laying down her ‘arguing’ card. Her name was Pauline, and she was a mean and cruel lady and known throughout the world for her abusive treatment of Michael.
With that, Pauline callously took control of the story from our hero, Michael. Michael grumbled, for not only did he lose the storyteller role, he also needed to draw a new card from the deck. His story had gotten more complicated to complete, with the addition of a ‘guard’ that he’d need to work into the tale somehow.
Pauline had to be respectful of everything that had happened before. Now though she got to weave the tale in a way that would make it harmonious with her ending, which was ‘And they remained blind for the rest of their days for their wickedness and falsehood’.
(Editorial aside: God, I know. We’ll get to the grotesque ableism that occasionally raises its head through the game in the teardown. For now, let’s just pretend it didn’t happen)
The thing is, there were now two players building the story, and they both wanted the story to head in different directions. Not only that, both players had story elements that they needed to introduce – every card made the flow of the story more complicated to control. You could only play a card if was a significant element, and part of the story . ‘He saw a dragon flying overhead, and then went about his day’ would not have been a valid play. If you wanted a dragon, it had to interact with the narrative in some way, shape or form. You could think of the cards as the illustrations in the book that would be written of your story – they’d only be valid if they’d make sense to accompany the text. You’d be surprised how difficult it could be to string together a coherent story in such a way that it arrived at a conclusion of your making.
‘So, right, this king, right, he was very wise’, said Pauline as they continued the tale. She played down her wisdom card. ‘And his wisdom had revealed to him that what was really…’
‘Hang on’, said Michael, as he played down his blind card.
A player could take control of the story by matching a narrative beat of an opponent to a card in their hand. Cards could, and should, be interpreted reasonably broadly – the words didn’t matter, the spirit behind them did. However, some cards were possessed of more abrupt interrupt mechanics – the ‘blind’ aspect was an interrupt that allowed someone to take control whenever anyone else played an aspect, such as ‘wise’.
‘God damn it’, said Pauline, as Michael regained control of the story.
‘The wisdom of the king allowed him to see to the heart of the matter – that the prince needed to be let free to pursue his own life. So he sent the prince on a journey, to know himself and to hopefully find true love with a beautiful princess of the elves…’
It might have seemed like interruptions were limited to the intersections in the flow of the story, and that taking command once you’d lost it would be very difficult. Once Upon A Time though was a very clever game, and you could subtly influence and prime the story in particular directions. Let us consider how Michael cleverly mentioned the son of the king, and has reinforced that initial story element by repeatedly using the word ‘prince’. He was very clever. And wise. And handsome.
If Michael could get everyone into the habit of referring to the giant as ‘the prince’, then he could play his ‘prince’ card to reclaim control of the story at any time that was useful. Or, he could prepare the ground for likely future story directions. That beautiful princess too was a trap, since Michael also possessed the ‘beautiful’ card. Her existence created branches of the story that would funnel careless storytellers in a useful direction. You could even be more subtle about it – perhaps the purpose of this journey was for the prince (see, even I’m doing it) to encounter a dangerous creature. In such circumstances, it’s likely that someone else may claim that the prince was ‘frightened’, which would permit control to be claimed once more.
‘Uh’, says the third player. ‘Falling in love with an elf princess?’. Let’s call her Jasmine.
Jasmine’s ending card was ‘So they changed places and everything was back to normal’, which could have been a nightmare to pull off. It would require not only a swapping of roles and responsibilities at some point in the story, but at a logical point for it to be swapped back, and ideally with the ending conferring some satisfying moral lesson.
Wait, just wait.
‘So, knowing that he was to marry the princess of the elves, the prince sets off into the forest. He finds a great and magic tree, and knocks upon the side to speak to whatever faerie may be found within’
Michael could have interrupted here at the mention of the prince. But this was a game of biding your time as much as it was a game of having narrative control. The more cards you possessed, the more freedom you had to direct the story. When there were fewer cards, and a more involved tale, it became much harder to regain sustained initiative. Early sparring over the storyteller role was quick and frantic. In the later stage, it became much harder to pull off effectively.
There were other ways, you see, in which you could lose control of the story. If you got stuck, and couldn’t think of how to progress the story, any player could challenge and take control. If the storyteller contradicted anything that had come before, they could be challenged. If the giant suddenly tried to marry the queen of the ogres out of nowhere, anyone could challenge and say ‘No, that’s inconsistent’.
If you rambled on and on without progressing the story (usually interpreted as not having played a card for a while), you could be challenged. If you lapsed into what the instructions termed as ‘silliness’, you could be challenged. Or if you played cards just to play them, without integrating them into the story, you could be challenged.
You needed to have at least an approximate idea of the story based on the cards you had, and then you needed to be able to react to the twists and turns it took as others weaved their vision for the tale. All the while, you had to plot as to how to take control because only the storyteller could play down the final ending,
Looking at her hand, Jasmine decided that she was going to have to take the initiative if she was to introduce an Ealingesque comedy of errors into the story.
‘After a few moments, a grumpy gnome emerges from a knothole in the tree. It fixes the prince with a beady eye and says, ‘What the hell do you want? It’s three in the morning.’
‘I come to seek the elf princess’ hand in marriage, says the giant, and I need to know where to find her’.
‘Ah yes’, says the gnome, ‘there is a well in the depths of the forest. If you cast a coin into its depths, you will be able to meet her majesty. But be warned…’
‘Thanks, grumpy gnome!’, exclaims the prince. He finds the well, and throws a coin down into its murky depth as he wishes for the princess to show herself. A few seconds later, and the giant falls into a deathless slumber for a thousand slow aeons. Elves do not obey the calendars of mortal folk, and her highness has little time for over-eager suitors’
‘Uh’, says Michael.
‘What?’, says Pauline.
‘Meanwhile, in a city in another part of the world, a great contest is being held by the Duke, to find the greatest champion in all the land…’
That was fine! You could do that! If you could pull it off, you could have stories within stories, or end one tale and segue into another. Some may have cried foul, but it’s not like you’ve just ended the giant’s story. You could pick it up again after a thousand aeons, if you wanted. But for now everyone, having mapped out an approximate path to victory, had to frantically reassess the cards in their hand. All the narrative traps Michael had laid were useless now. Pauline’s untold story of mountain dragons and fraught escapes seemed like it was going to be pretty difficult to bring about. Everything had changed, and now Jasmine could take advantage of everyone else’s uncertainty and confusion. Remember, if you interrupted you’d better be able to keep the story going.
‘Except, it was not the Duke! For he had been imprisoned by his scheming brother in a plot to take over the Duchy’
‘The duke was exceptionally ugly, and was only ever seen in public with an iron mask over his face. It was easy for his brother to masquerade as the duke since no-one outside the family knew what he looked like. He used this to take advantage of his privilege and power’
Both of the other players were now frantically flipping through their cards, keeping track of this story, and the last one, and looking for how they could either control this tale or revert back to the previous. Or they could look for ways to create their own story within a story within a story! Why not introduce a dream into the Giant Prince’s storyline, and weave between the two new tales? All of that was perfectly fair. Pauline caught the playing of an aspect though, and played her interrupt.
Playing an interrupt as an interrupt didn’t require you to integrate the story element, it just let you assume the storyteller role. Jasmine, having gotten her hand down to four cards, now had to draw a replacement. It was a swamp. Maybe she would have been better keeping the story set in the forest.
‘So this duke, right’, said Pauline, ‘He was greatly enraged by his capture, and had long believed you should never have a dungeon you did not know how to get out of. In the dead of night, he removed a hidden stone that contained a hidden key, and escaped’
‘He had been a great soldier once – a hero of the people. He had fought campaigns across the land, and knew the mountains like the back of his hand. So that was where he fled, to raise and train an army of guerrillas ‘
‘Uh, I challenge’, said Michael. ‘An army of gorillas? That’s stupid. That’s silly.’
‘No, jackass. Guerrillas. With a U’, replied Pauline.
‘God, no. REVOLUTIONARIES. How is that?’
‘Oh, right. Carry on’
‘His revolutionaries cause great trouble for his usurping brother…’
‘Brother!’, said Michael, playing down his brother card.
Pauline stopped talking and drew a ‘trap’ from the deck. That seemed like it could be useful.
‘His brother was deathly afraid of apes, so…’, Michael began as he played down his ‘frightened’ card.
‘Wait, what?’, said Pauline.
‘Uh?’, inquired Jasmine.
‘Apes. You know, gorillas. They’re apes. Maybe you think they’re monkeys, but they’re not’
‘Okay, I challenge’, said Pauline.
‘Seconded’, said Jasmine.
‘I don’t know what’s happening’, moaned Michael. He was clever and handsome, but also pretty whiny.
‘The duke in the mountains’, continued Pauline with a nasty side glance at Michael, ‘spends his time causing trouble for his usurping brother.’
‘The fake duke attempts to capture him, but he is too well hidden in the dark and secret places of the mountains’
‘And one day, he sets his grand plan in motion. He places a great and powerful trap in the highest recesses of the peaks ‘
‘This trap was not one for the false duke, but for the fearsome dragon that has long plagued the countryside from its lair in the high aeries’
The other two players saw the dwindling hand of cards that Pauline would have to play, but the story had taken a branch they couldn’t meaningfully influence. They had spent their interrupts too freely, and Pauline had been too canny. A good player could make out the rough shapes of the stories that other people were trying to tell, and actively steer away from dangerous territory.
‘The dragon blunders into the trap, and its roars and growls shake the landscape. After the beast quietens, the Duke comes to it. ‘I will free you, noble beast’, he says, ‘If you will take me to my brother and allow me to put an end to his false reign’
‘How can I get there?’, grumbles the fearsome creature. ‘I am trapped in this contraption of yours.’
‘I will free you’, says the Duke, ‘And then I will sit astride your back as you fly us to my Duchy’
‘Oh no’, Michael and Jasmine intoned in unison.
‘They fly back to the city, where the usurping brother rides out to meet them. The dragon breathes a wreath of blinding flame, which cooks some of the conspirators in their armour, and blinds the rest…’
‘And they remained blind for the rest of their days for their wickedness and falsehood’, said Pauline, as she laid the card down and won the round.
‘What the hell was the moral of that story’, asked Michael.
‘Uh… that being blind is a just punishment for usurping rightful control of a duchy?’, suggested Jasmine.
‘I’m not sure I like that’, muttered Michael. ‘But that was awesome. Let’s go again!’
New hands are dealt out.
‘Once upon a time…’
Let’s talk about how completely great Once Upon A Time is. Or rather, how great it can be – it’s a social game, so the composition and disposition of your friends is going to have a giant impact on how much fun it is to play. This is not a game you should be playing to win. This is a game you should be playing to enjoy. It’s a cliché but it is very much the journey, and not the destination, that makes Once Upon a Time so special. You can, I suppose, play out each of your cards in rapid succession without technically breaking any rules. You’d be the worst kind of fairy tale monster if you did that. If you feel as if play must be constrained by rules, and that unstructured fun cannot be worth the time invested, this is probably not something you should consider.
Everyone else – get it. It’s great. First of all, it is mind-bendingly simple. You can explain the rules in thirty seconds and then everyone is able to play. It is astoundingly open to cleverness, and staggeringly good for enabling collaborative creativity.
It’s funny – oh god, it is so funny. And it can be dark. Cards Against Humanity has nothing on the inherent bleakness and horror of your average child-friendly fairy tale. You’ll be weaving stories of grotesque abuse and hurt and sadness with a casual disregard for your protagonists, just because it’s convenient for your ending. If it would suit your purpose to have a dragon incinerate an entire kingdom in a fiery genocide, you’ll do it. And you’ll be laughing about it, because you are inherently a horrible person.
For a game that has so much openness, it’s also surprisingly tight. The different ending cards create fantastic tension between players, and are really what makes it a game rather than just a mediated storytelling session. Everyone is tugging the story in a different direction and you need to work out on the fly where the points of maximum narrative pressure are and where they’re likely to be in the future. You need to plot out multiple potential branches of a story, and where they are likely to be heading, and then bet on which branch is going to give you the best opportunity to gain control and keep it.
As with most card games, you need to keep some juice in reserve. There’s no point jumping in every time you can if all that’s going to happen is that you’ll fumble your lines and lose control. Each time you are stripped of your storyteller status you are laden with yet another card you need to integrate into your story.
The cards themselves are very nice, with lovely pictures in the middle that you can admire while waiting for the story to wheel around in your favour. They cover a broad range of territory, but they do draw very deeply from the ‘fantasy stereotype’ well.
No, we’re not playing any more. You can’t interrupt me now.
As a result, there’s only a limited amount of defined space in the storytelling possibility landscape. The same themes, schemes and people will come around again and again, and after a while it’ll become increasingly difficult to exercise real creativity. That’s true though only if you’re playing with the same group of people regularly. As with games such as Dixit, there is a certain degree to which you’ll want to mix up player composition to ensure fresh play. Each of the cards though represent only a narrative beat, and as such you’re free to string them along in whatever patterns and with whatever complexity you like. Turning that into narrative gold requires the alchemy of directed imagination, and that in turn needs the fuel of sustained novelty. There are expansion packs which will inject a great deal of new story-telling nuance, but sometimes you just need to play it with different people.
Games like this do put a lot of pressure on people to be entertaining – everyone takes their turn at storytelling (assuming they are proactive in taking control of the story), and from that point – you’re on! Much of the stress though is removed by the fact that you’re telling a story constrained by both story elements and an ending card while the tale is being pulled in multiple competing directions by several people. After all, you can’t be expected to create a work of great, satisfying fiction under those circumstances. You’re just riding a wild story and trying to hold on. Laughter and fun comes from the absurdity of juxtaposition and the escalation of complexity that comes with sustained and incremental storytelling. It doesn’t come from your inability to keep people enthralled.
It can be frustrating to be locked out of participation, and it is entirely possible that a bad draw of cards may stop you being able to interrupt a story in progress. More often though, if you get locked out of the story it’s because you were too quick to interrupt earlier, or didn’t appropriately create enough of your own traps for the future. Once Upon A Time is a game where downtime isn’t really a big problem – just enjoy the story, and laugh along with the ridiculous narrative being created in front of you. You’ll get to be part of the construction in the next round.
I absolutely adore Once Upon A Time, and it’s one of the few games I’d actually advocate in education. I have nothing to back up my assumptions here other than fifteen years of teaching experience. I suspect it is probably an outstanding teaching tool in the areas of foreign languages, creative writing, and public speaking. It teaches collaboration, tactical and strategic thinking, active listening, and it does it all in an utterly charming way that people will go out of their way to experience.
Once Upon a Time is SO GOOD, and you should own it. The end. And now I think you outta go to sleep.
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