Once Upon A Time is a storytelling card game. The aim of the game is to use all the story element cards provided to you and finish with the Happy Ending as described in your Happy Ending card. This is a favorite of my gaming group because of the potential for hilarity, the quick game play (normally) and lack of competitiveness.
Appearance: Good. The card stock is fine, the packaging is nice and sturdy and the actual images fit the theme well. Most seem to be drawn from classic children’s story tales, with the same look and feel. Nothing spectacular but nothing that draws away from the theme either.
Rules / Ease of Learning: 5-10 minutes for the basic rules. The rules are relatively simple to learn – you have story element cards that are dealt to you (varies per number of players) and a Happy Ending card that is your goal. Story elements come in 6 forms – characters, aspects, items, places, events and interrupts. You then tell your story, trying to weave the story elements into your story while not allowing other players to play their story element cards into your story. Your goal is to finish your story with your ‘Happy Ending’ but cannot introduce any new elements to the story when you have played your last card.
Two major rules dominate the game – significance of an element and pauses. Each story element you introduce via a card must be significant. If a story began with a Prince walking pass a forest, the Prince would be an important story element. The forest would not since he is not interacting with it. The game calls for the story to be passed to the next player if the storyteller pauses for more than 5 seconds. As will be discussed below, this is really a flexible rule.
Actual Gameplay – Once Upon A Time is a lot of fun to play. The rules are relatively simple and straightforward, though it has taken us a few rounds to really get the ‘feel’ for it. Probably the most common question is – is this specific card playable now as an interrupt? It seems simple enough, but there are cards in the deck that are quite close to one another in meaning – Spell, Curse, Enchantment. If someone says that the Princess has been Enchanted, is your ‘Spell’ element card playable? What if they had said cursed?
All in all, our view is that the rules here are based more on consensus than anything hard and fast. Thus far, we’ve never had any major complaints and as a friend pointed out – this is really not a competitive game.
Game balance is relatively good. The main element of luck is the initial draw of cards which can seriously affect a player’s turn. Some cards like Poison, Giant, Fairy, Sea just aren’t going to be mentioned that often or at all unless you are in control. So their worth as ‘interrupt’ cards are limited. Also, some Happy Endings are really hard to get to, though this can obviously change depending on the kind of story being told.
One problem that we found is that players who are interrupted when they have played most of their cards can be in a real bind to get into the game. If a ‘bad’ story element card is drawn after the interrupt, it can often be a case of the player waiting in vain for his chance to interrupt.
Lastly, strategic depth. There are obvious elements of strategy (when to interrupt, when to go with a story) but it is in the end a very tactical game. You need to base your decisions on where the story is going at any one moment, more ‘going with the flow’ than long term planning. After all, it’s hard to plan for a gay Prince or cursed sheep that transform into swords.
Actual game-play can vary between 5 minutes to 15 minutes. Generally we find it takes between 7-10 minutes for each hand, though some games can just go around forever as players find themselves unable to get to their ‘Happy Endings’.
Conclusion: As we mentioned earlier, Once Upon A Time is a mainstay. It’s a fun, quick game that involves everyone – if nothing more than in the hilarity. We’ve found ourselves, more than once, just listening to a story being told and forgetting to play our cards. It’s also highly non-competitive (at least, the way we’ve played it). A great game for the family and any mildly creative group.