Once Upon a Time

Storytelling Card Game

Published by Atlas Games. Designed by Richard Lambert, Andrew Rilstone, James Wallis.
These comments copyright 1993, 1998 by Steffan O'Sullivan
This page last updated August 25, 1998

Once Upon a Time is a card game for all ages, from 2 to 8 players. The first edition 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" [OUaT] 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 second edition has more Happy Ever After Cards, better quality laminated cardstock, and color art. However, the utility of the OUaT cards has decreased - the very useful words down the side of cards has been removed, as has the symbol in the upper corner - you have to hold your hand very awkwardly to see card names and symbols with the second edition. I tend to use the first edition OUaT cards with the second edition Happy Ever After cards, myself.

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"). In the first edition, 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 the 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 the first player (you) might very well want to interrupt! The story may be going in a direction you don't want it to. But, thinking quickly, you realize it's okay - you can use the Princess as why the brothers had a falling out, to reunite them later. So the game requires you to be flexible in your plans, and draws heavily on your improvisational abilities.

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 450+ 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. I have some suggestions below.

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

Variant Rules for Once Upon a Time

Copyright 1993, 1998 by Steffan O'Sullivan

Drawing More Cards

We have a house rule: whenever you draw cards, you may draw up to three cards, one at a time, looking at each one before deciding whether or not to keep drawing. This is because it can be very hard to regain control of the story if you lose it when you get down to your last few cards - and don't have an Interrupt card!

Alternate Method to Determine Starting Storyteller

For first edition - this was incorporated into second edition rules.

Use a system to determine the starter similar to Scrabble: before shuffling the Once Upon a Time deck, cut cards. If you get an Interrupt card, cut again. Use the word down the side of the card, such as Pursuit, King, Axe, Love, etc. Compare first letters: the letter closest to A goes first. If two are tied, compare second letters, and so on.

A Variant with at Least One Adult, and at Least One Young Child

Deal out an array of 20 OUaT cards face up on the table, off to one side. (Use more for longer games or lots of children; less for a quick game. Discard any Interrupt cards dealt out - only use Storytelling cards.) Do not use the Happy Ever After cards at all in this game.

However, after the first Character card (which should be dealt into the array normally), if you come across a Character card, you name it and give it to a child as his/her special card. (This should be a hero: if it's a witch, make it a Good Witch, etc.) Each child should have one Character card by the time you're done - you may have to hunt through the deck after dealing out the 20-card array for more Character cards to make it so that each child has one. If you turn up yet another after all the children have one, however, go ahead and put it into the array normally. The adult can have a Character card, too, if desired, but it's optional.

Then the adult takes any Character card from the 20-card array and begins the story with it. Tell a little bit about this character, making them likable. Then use any of the other cards in the array to put this person in trouble. At this point, the adult then asks who can use one of the remaining cards in the array to continue the story. Don't worry about the words - let the child use the pictures in creative ways to represent things not suggested by the words.

After a child has continued the story, let any other child who wishes to add to that, do so. When the children's contributions have run dry (or are getting too carried away!), the adult should use another card, getting the character into deeper and deeper trouble. Let children have a chance to use a card after every card you play. Ask shy children if they can find something to help this poor character.

The basic object of the adult is to make the character extremely admirable, even beloved by the children if possible. The hotter the water you get them in, the greater should be the children's attempts to extricate them. The basic object of the children is to save the poor soul.

The children's special Character cards have great power - let them know that at the beginning of the game. These characters can be used to nullify an extremely dangerous situation, and they can be reused once. (No other card can be reused.) That is, if a special card is the Old Woman, for example, she can have magical powers that can completely banish some terror facing the protagonist. The child can then reclaim the Old Woman and place her back in front of him/her. But the next time the Old Woman is used, she has to stay with the other cards played into the story. These special cards are also the only card that can interrupt the teller before a sentence is finished.

The object of the game is to have the protagonist survive. The adult should time it so that he/she plays the second-to-last card, if possible. This way, the final card can be used to save the protagonist - hey, this is a fairy tale, remember! Alternately, if someone still has their special card left, the adult can use the last card to get the protagonist in trouble, and let a child triumphantly use a special card to save him/her.

The true object of the game, of course, is to stimulate creativity in children, and it succeeds admirably at this goal! Have fun!

Using the Game as an Aid with Bedtime Storytelling

This one's easy! Simply draw a few Happy Ever After cards, and choose one to be the story ending. Then deal out roughly ten OUaT cards (more or less depending on the time available). Use the cards to tell a story, culminating in the ending you've chosen. A different story every night!

Note: James Wallis has another storytelling game, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen
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