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Once Upon a Time – A Card Game (REVIEW)

once upon a time
once upon a time
once upon a time


Players: 2-6
Playing Time: 30 minutes
Age: 8+
Publisher: Atlas Games



Overall Enjoyment

Total Score
12/ 14

User Rating
2 total ratings



Creative, Simple, Original


Rules Not Rigid

Bottom Line

I recently got a chance to try a card game that was, in so few words, different. It is called Once Upon a Time, and as it’s name suggests it is a game about fairy tales. I hadn’t heard of the game before, which is odd because it actually has quite history, being first released […]

Posted September 9, 2013 by

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I recently got a chance to try a card game that was, in so few words, different. It is called Once Upon a Time, and as it’s name suggests it is a game about fairy tales. I hadn’t heard of the game before, which is odd because it actually has quite history, being first released in 1994 by Atlas Games. The version I go to play was the Third Edition, released in 2012. Reading around about the game I see that opinion on it is rather binary; you either love it or don’t care for it at all.

The third edition game comes with 165 cards, 55 of them “ending” cards and the other 110 being “story” cards. The box they come in is around three times the size of the cards and the rule sheet is small and simple. Aesthetically it is a pleasing product with whimsical box art. The cards are standard size and possess very nice art in keeping with the theme. It would be enjoyable to just look through the cards if you are a fan of this sort of art.


Once Upon a Time cards


The game mechanics are very simple. Each player is dealt a hand of story cards and one ending card. Then, whoever starts the game (or the “story”) picks a card from his hand and, well, starts to tell a story. The point is to use the Story cards as elements in the story. So, say you have a woodcutter in your hand, you could start with saying: “Once upon a time, there was a woodcutter, walking within a misty forest…” (example card in bold). Your story mustn’t be only what’s on the cards. In fact, you can only have one card in each sentence. You have to tell a narrative, after all. The goal is to attempt to tell a story using all of your cards and that connects to whatever is on your ending card.

BUT! The real game part of the game is that other players can interrupt your story and add onto it with their cards. They can only do this by playing a card that matches something you have said. This doesn’t have to be an exact word for word, but it does have to make sense. So let’s say you have your woodcutter walking in the forest, and you try to say: “He comes across a monster…” someone can cut in with “the monster was a dragon,” and play his dragon card, and continue the story with his hand. In this way the story gets passed around the table. In order to make your cards connect, you need to add more and more detail into it, but this gives more leeway for others to interrupt if you mention something that resembles one of their cards.

What happens then is that you get a competitive AND cooperative experience, building a tale and trying to make sure it is your ending that ultimately happens. This does require some quick thinking, and it does really call for a group not prone to arguing about rules because some of the matching can get abstract.

There are many many story cards, and these are broken up into categories such as Character, Location, Event, or Aspect (which adds descriptors to the other cards). So you of course use these together with your improvisational skills to create a narrative that makes sense and connects to your ending card. This can be very difficult, especially if your ending includes elements not in your hand of cards. There are also interrupt cards. These are just like story cards, and can be used as such, but they can also be used to interrupt a card of the same type that was just played. So if someone just used a character card in his story, and you have an interrupt card that is a character, you can then discard your interrupt to take control of the narrative for free right there.

I got to play with a group of people recently along with my wife, and the two times we played were fantastic gaming experiences. I love storytelling to begin with, so bringing that into a competitive game is extremely novel for me. The people we played with were very fun players, and it was interesting to see how each reacted to what was happening in the story. We got a lot of laughs, especially when my wife turned a location (a church) into a character that gives out cursed gifts but is a pretty good person (church) at heart. Getting to tell the tale of the gift giving anthropomorphic church building was hilarious and whimsical, and I can see memorable situations such as this coming up many times in play.

I can see the game being a hit even with a non-gamer crowd, because the rules are simple and ultimately it’s a game that doesn’t take the “game” part as seriously as, say, a deep strategy game. It’s quick as well, so pulling it out for entertainment at a party is not only a good idea, it might be the height of the evening. Those who dislike abstract games (ala Dixit or Nanofictionary) because of the looseness of the rules will get very little pleasure from this game.

One last thought is that this game seems perfect for children. It gives you all the elements of the story, so letting children explore the art of storytelling in this format may make a great learning experience and a real treat for parents. I can definitely see this game being popular with families.

Ultimately I loved the game and will be endorsing it thoroughly to my friends and family and, of course, to you dear readers.

Patrick McGill

I'm an Ashland, KY native living in Lexington, KY with my beautiful wife and silly dog. I am obsessed with role playing games, and you will be too if I have anything to do with it.


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