Most of us have memories of fairy tales. Maybe your parents told you a story of a princess who saves a prince from a curse with her kiss, perhaps a babysitter tucked you in while recounting the exploits of a very sly fox and how he came to the lion’s court to face judgment, or maybe you just watch a lot of Disney movies. Fairy tales and fables cross cultures, and unite us across time in the delight we feel from these simple stories with familiar themes. The game Once Upon a Time by Atlas Games seeks to help us participate in the oral tradition of storytelling while we craft our own fairy tale.
Once Upon a Time is suggested for two to six players ages eight and up, but I think you could play it with a few more, and I know of one five-year-old who also enjoys this game. Once Upon a Time is a game about telling a story together as a group, and the game ends when one player has played all of their cards and guided the story to their ending.
The game begins with dealing each player a hand of cards and a single ending. These cards have things like “Princess,” “Key,” and “Long lost” printed on them along with an illustration. Each card falls into one of five types: Place, Aspect, Character, Event, and Item.
These cards are used in play to guide the story that the table creates together. The table chooses together who will be the first storyteller and that player begins to tell a story. As they tell the story they may put down any of the cards in their hand that play a significant role in the tale they’ve been telling.
For example, if I were the storyteller and I said, “The cat picked up the staff in his mouth and began to rise into the air. He had never seen the forest from so high up though he had always been one of the best climbers in his family. The staff carried him higher and higher, he could see birds, beasts, and every tree of the forest.” I could play a card that says “Cat,” “Staff,” “Forest,” or “This can fly” because these are parts of the story that are making an impact on the tale. However, I could not play a card that said “Bird,” “Beast,” or “Tree” because these were simply mentioned but did not do any heavy lifting.
Players may use elements in their story that they do not have cards for, and often this leads to much more fun play because, as the first storyteller is telling the story, the other players at the table must listen carefully for an opportunity to set down one of their cards.
In the above example, anyone at the table could play the cards I listed, as long as they played it after that element was integrated into the story, but before the storyteller laid down their next card. Doing this is called an interrupt and it means the player that interrupted is now the storyteller and must continue the narration.
There are also special cards that players may be dealt in their original hand called interrupts, these allow players to interrupt without one of their specific cards being used in the story being told. These cards instead have one of the five card types on them and may be played to interrupt the current storyteller and take on the mantle if the storyteller plays any card of the type on that interrupt card.
Each interrupt card has a description on the bottom of the card that says what it may be played as when not being used as an interrupt.
Other ways that the storyteller mantle may be passed are if the active storyteller pauses in their narration for more than five seconds, if they begin to ramble, or if their narration stops making sense for the story being told then someone else may take up the mantle.
The game ends when any player manages to play all of their cards and finishes the story by playing their ending. An ending has a statement that could serve to finish a fairy tale, and each player is given only one.
Each player is trying to guide the story to their ending, but not at the expense of the story as a whole. If a player uses the mantle of storyteller to sacrifice the story in order to be first to get to their ending the mantle will be given to another player in order to preserve the story being told.
Why Once Upon a Time Is Useful
This game helps me with my writing when I am feeling blocked. I find that gamifying the storytelling process allows me to let the story flow freely. If I want to hold onto the mantle of storyteller, I need to take chances on kernels of story that I would normally not give room to pop.
The story must continue to be told in this game, so you don’t have time to be precious. This helps to loosen me up if I’m ever not allowing myself to do a first rough draft without revising.
This game really shows the power of a vomit draft, and if I do get to a point in the game where I have no more ideas, someone else takes up the mantle and continues to tell the story.
This game helps me to explore fairy tale roots in oral storytelling. It reminds me that a part of this type of story is how it sounds out loud. It helps me break down elements of a story that I may not fully consider on their own. I find this to be especially true of the aspect cards. They inspire me to explore ways to make the mundane fantastic.
It’s an excellent game to play with children because it helps them to start to tell their own stories and to nurture their imagination. This game also encourages children to listen to each other and collaborate. It helps to deepen the appreciation that any who play it have for stories in general. It helps us to examine the familiar.
Lastly, it’s a great way to generate seeds of stories that you might take away and germinate into a fully flowering tale of your own. If you start to imagine where the story in the game could go, even if it doesn’t end up going there, you can leave this game with inspiration to tell the story you dreamt up.
Kris Hill is working on several genre fiction novels because she has difficulty sticking to writing one project at a time. In her daily life she attempts to navigate the corporate world as a data analyst. When Kris is not working, she can be found sprawled on a couch reading or running tabletop adventures for her friends. She lives in Canada’s capital city with her husband, her best friend, and four cats.