Once Upon A Time: The Storytelling Card Game
Reviewing this game isn't easy, for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because hyperbole is not a good thing to use in reviews. Nobody believes it, and it tends to arouse suspicion, even hostility, in the reader. And yet, I do seriously think this is one of the greatest games ever written.
Another problem I have with this review is that this game tends to polarise people. A small chunk of the world, like me, fall immediately and passionately in love with it, and will do anything for a game. The rest of the world just doesn't get it. Oh sure, they see that it's well designed, accomplishes some revolutionary ideas, and can be good fun on occasion, but they can never quite understand the sheer beauty of this game.
Another reason this game is difficult to describe is because it's not really a "game" at all, by strict definition. It's more about "playing" then "gaming", in the true childhood sense of the term.
Some of you might have played a game when you were younger which went like this: one person would start telling a story, and after a while, someone else would have to start exactly where the first one left off. Sometimes rules were included to say things like you couldn't hesitate too long without passing the story on, or that you only had a limited time to talk, or that whoever got some random result from a dice or whatever had to speak next. These were designed to make sure everyone got a mostly equal chance of telling the story, because that was where the fun lay, in the mixing of story-tellers. It was fun to talk, but just as fun to listen to the crazy and convoluted stories you ended up with as things got more and more jumbled and people's minds got more and more creative. Like most childhood games, it has no rules, no scoring and no losers - it is just fun.
I happened to love this game as a child, and still do, in fact. But as First Corinthians says, when I became a man, I put away childish things. Frankly, though, I've always hated that verse, as it is interpreted in games anyway. Far too often we are told that adult games have to have rules, and scoring and winners and losers, otherwise they are just silly. And we tend to judge games not on how fun the gameplay is, but on how intelligently or amusingly the rules and scoring systems are designed.
Of course, this doesn't mean our games can't be more "adult" in nature. RPGs are a perfect example of turning the childhood "game" of "let's make-believe we are knights looking for treasure and monsters" into a more adult framework, by adding a few rules to prevent squabbling, and increasing the complexity of the illusion.
This is why RPGs are so revolutionary: they allow adults to engage in the fun of long lost childhood play. And what RPGs did for "let's pretend", Once Upon a Time does for "continuous stories". And so I have no qualms about proclaiming this game of equal revolutionary genius as the concept of the RPG.
RPGs didn't start out that way; nobody sat down and said "let's combine make-believe games with wargames". RPGs had to grow into that position. Once Upon a Time, on the other hand, was designed. Like Athena, it burst forth fully grown and perfect, with no need to work the design flaws over time. Yes, I said perfect, because this game has almost no flaws. Given the brief of writing a game that was somehow half a card game and half a free-form childhood past-time, you could not conceive of a better way to achieve this. The balance struck between the two is just sheer genius. You couldn't add more rules without it losing its charm, but if you took any away, it would be too loose and free-form.
Before you get any more confused, perhaps I should explain how it all works. The object of the game is to tell a fairy tale together and have fun doing it. In a more concrete sense, the object is to use your cards to tell the story, and be the first to run out of cards. The rules, however, stress that this dynamic is really secondary to telling funny stories and having fun, and this gives a nice sense of layering. You can play the game like any card game, and concentrate more on winning, or you can play just to have fun and not care about who wins, or anywhere in between. Each group and each player will find their own balance. It is this balancing act between a "normal" card game and storytelling that allows adults to ease into the idea of such a childlike game.
There are two decks of cards that come with this game. The cards themselves are gorgeous. The texture, feel, shape and size are just right, and the painted artwork is great. Nothing particularly eye-catching and a little small, but every image is a pleasure to look upon, and perfectly representative of the card's text. The backs are particularly nice, but a little cluttered, and don't really have any identifying marks as to what part they play in the game. However, the two have significantly different background colours making the two decks very easy to tell apart.
The smaller deck of 56 cards is the Happily Ever After Deck. Each one of these cards bears an ending to a fairy tale. Fairy tales are used because their motifs are so well known and powerful they are perfect fodder for random stories, as we will see later. Endings range from standard "And they were married the next day" to the odd "And they threw their enemies down the well" to the very specific "And they ate it at the feast and it was delicious" to the delightfully ambiguous "It fit perfectly!". Each player takes one or two of these endings, and it is up to them to get the story to proceed in such a way as to be able to be finished (usually with a flourish) with the lines on this card.
The other deck of cards contain the Once Upon A Time cards, of which each player gets around five or six, depending on the number playing. These are the elements from which you must construct your story and get it to your chosen ending. There are five types of story elements - Characters (such as Witch or Prince or Wolf), Objects (Ring, Sword, Door), Places (Kingdom, Tower, Forest), Events (People Meet, A Fight, A Chase) and Aspects (Evil, Beautiful, Hidden). You might think that choosing from 110 or so cards would be limiting, but because of the strong archetypes in fairy tales, there are always plenty of options and ideas springing from each card and no game ever plays the same (running gags not withstanding).
In a strange oversight, there is no Dragon card, but some blanks are included to make up your own.
Now, you can only lay down a card when something major happens in your story involving that element. You can't simply list off that the Hero saw "a Wolf, a Sword, a Witch as he passed through the Forest" and discard four cards. A better example would be "The brave hero took up his mighty Sword and went in search of the princess. After a while he passed through a dark Forest…" and so on. And so it progresses, until you reach your last card, and then, should you be able to link to your ending without too much waffling, you play your ending, and win. Fairly simple.
What makes it interesting is that everyone else also desperately wants to get to their ending, so they keep getting control of the story and making it what they want it to be. Cries of "WHAT? The Witch killed the Princess! But she was going to marry the Woodcutter!" start echoing across the table once things get into full swing. How do players take control? Well, that's the really clever part.
The first way players can take control is not the clever way. Every time you play a card, another player may cut in by using an Interrupt Card of the same type. That is, if you play Sword, and someone has an Interrupt Item card, they can take control right there. Cleverly, Interrupt cards also have texts at the bottom which allows them to also be used as normal element cards, should you need to. So an Interrupt Item might also be a Crown, an Interrupt Character might also be a Monster.
The second way you can take control is also not the clever way. Should the speaker start hesitating, mumbling or umming a lot, or if his story goes so totally silly as to lose any sort of logical cohesion, their turn passes to the left. You have to be generous about "logical cohesion" of course, since some pretty wild leaps of coincidence and magic happen here. A good example of stupidity is a Giant who happens to be very, very Tiny (Thanks to Murray for that one!). The rules stress here that you shouldn't use this tactic to bully anyone who's floundering. This is not a game about who can shoot their mouth off the best, and everyone (if you are playing correctly) gets a fair crack of the whip.
The clever way you can take control is this: if someone mentions something in their story but don't play a card for it, you can. And since this is a fairy tale, this happens a lot. Especially with all the wonderfully open-ended Events and Aspects. For example, say the aforementioned Prince is searching for his Princess in the Forest, and you remark "but alas, he could not find her". Before you can blink, someone slaps down "Hidden" or "Lost" and bang, they're telling the story. And you were so close too! This often leads to some very funny debates about whether technically someone who is killed counts as "People Part Company".
In a nice touch, losing your turn is often a good thing because it allows you to draw a card, which might be just the thing you need to link the story back towards your ending. People will often pass to get more cards, or to get a new ending should things get too far away from their original design. At its best then, this game is an absolute mayhem of card swapping and story switching, such that soon everything is so silly you are laughing so hard you can't remember who's turn it is.
Sometimes, though, if you have two few or too many players (while two to six are possible, neither extreme works that well) or if the cards aren't falling right, it can degenerate into long dull patches broken up by cold-hearted card sharping. Generally though, if you are playing in the right spirit, this won't happen. But play in the wrong spirit, and nothing can stop the game being destroyed.
As you've read through this review, you've probably picked up quite a few possibilities for rule abuse. For example, if your Prince uses a Mace rather than a Sword, nobody is likely to cut in if you lack the Sword card (since Mace is not in the deck). Telling your story incredibly quickly will stop people from being able to play cards at all, as will deliberately avoiding florid description so you don't mention any other elements. Hassling people who hesitate will put them off and get you the story. And so on.
All these are good ways to win, but they completely destroy the nature of the game. The storytelling element disappears, and it stops being fun, except for the slight buzz of screwing your opponent over. Effectively, if you stop playing to have fun and start playing to win, the game completely breaks down and is stupid and unenjoyable. Some see this as a weakness, but I see it as the greatest strength of the game - it forces you to play nice. Some people, however, are so inured in the idea that a game means thrashing your friends into sound defeat, they just can't handle this non-competitiveness.
The game also tends to break down if people aren't prepared to tell stories properly. If people mumble "err….well there's this Prince, and he….is gonna go on a Journey" then the game will suck. Cards won't be able to be used, but more importantly, the flavour will not be present. You have to be willing to get dramatic, and let the languid prose flow. Far better to say "Once Upon a Time, there lived a Prince. His name was Josua and he was loved by all his subjects. But he was unhappy, and so one day, he decided to take a Journey".
You have to fully embrace the fairy tale spirit - princes are brave, witches are evil and everything is of legendary import. You have to think and act like a storyteller, not a game player. You have to create some sort of magical presence in the power of your stories. And you have to forget about winning and rules and just have fun as a group. You just have to let yourself go.
All this means that Once Upon A Time is a difficult game to play well. To really enjoy it, you have to completely surrender any pretensions of adulthood and think like a kid. I don't mean for a second that this is somehow going to awaken your "inner child" or is some sort of pompous pop-psychology thing. It's just that for some reason, modern society considers hunkering down on the floor and telling continuous stories till you piss yourself laughing not exactly adult behaviour. If you agree with that, then you won't get this game. If, like me, you think adulthood is far too boring for you anyhow, then buy this game and never look back. It will change your life.
(note: One of the designers, James Wallis, went on to write the mechanically similar Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and fans of Once Upon a Time are also directed towards the Baron)
Style: 4 (Classy and well done)