April 05, 2012

Board Game Capsule: Once Upon A Time

 Once Upon A Time @ Let's Play Green Bay!
Designed by Richard Lambert, Andrew Rilstone, James Wallis (1993)
2-4 players / 30 minutes / Ages 8+

While browsing through the game library, a volunteer named Tanner, with Gnome Games, approached us and offered to teach us Once Upon A Time.  This is an older game, but still available in print and it is decidedly much different than what we're used to.  After explaining it as a story-telling game in a fairy tale fashion, I could tell my boys were a bit unsure.  However, I brought them to the convention to experience new things, and I talked them into giving it a try.

As explained by Tanner, Once Upon A Time is a card game that provides a light structure for the players to tell a story.  The goal of the game is to guide the story towards an end that is randomly assigned to you - your version of, "They lived happily ever after."  For example, the ending I had to try and reach was, "And so true love had broken the enchantment."  In addition to your "The End" card, you are also dealt a number of cards that sort of act as plot devices that you must get rid of before you can reach your end.  These cards consist of people, places, items, aspects, or events.  Each time you say one sentence in the story, you are allowed to play one of these cards.  For example, if I had a card that read, "Sword," I could lay it down while narrating, "The prince drew his sword as he approached the dragon's lair."

You will continue to develop the story until you pass or another player steals your turn.  You might pass because you've run out of ideas to keep the story moving along (awkward mumblings and long delays will lose your turn for you) or if you'd like to conserve your cards for later use.  Another player can interrupt you and steal your turn in two ways.  First, he/she can play a special steal card that corresponds to a category that you just laid down.  In the sword example above, some one would need an "Item" category card to play as soon as I laid the sword down (which is an item).  The second way to interrupt the story is by laying down a card that just happens to match something said by the current narrator - yes, it is that completely random!  For example, I was telling a part of the story where a gnome was chasing a queen around his forest lawn and Tanner beamed with joy as he plopped down a "Chase" card!  Any time your turn ends, you draw a new plot card.  And when continuing the story at any point after another player, the only rule is that there must exist some continuity and it must make some logical sense, even if within a fantastical, fairy tale context.

It took several minutes for my boys to get warmed up and even then, they contributed only little nuggets at a time.  Despite their timidity, they generally followed the story's wacky development and contributed in sensible, even imaginative ways.  Our particular story involved standard bedtime tropes such as the queen, the prince, a wizard, a fairy, and a gnome.  We had a dark, enchanted forest, a castle, potions, and transformations.  However, we had a dash of odd creativity, as well.  On top of being ugly, our queen was first turned into a bird, but escaped a cage-trap because the bars were set too far apart, and then she eventually turned into a man (somehow).  And of course, we solved a riddle that queens only cruise the Royal Caribbean lines when journeying upon the sea.

Once Upon A Time is not a traditional game.  The rules and basic structure of play are easy enough to grasp.  The challenge is to be creative and imaginative in trying to steer a corporate story toward your personal end goal, yet still retain logical continuity within the framework that everyone else contributes to the tale.  I'm not sure that a dedicated gaming group should really take this title too seriously.  I think it is designed to create a good time and a fun experience.  Challenging narrative delays and screeching plot disruptions is certainly legitimate, but nonetheless should be light-hearted.  We played fairly loose with plot development when the boys jumped in, but still stopped them short when venturing too far from the storyline or trying to jump ahead of themselves.

Kids are typically very imaginative by nature.  This unique title is a good tool to develop that natural inclination.  Will it be a frequent and regular game brought to the table?  Probably not.  It will probably only appeal to a niche group of adult gamers, as well.  In the right social situation and with the right group of creative gamers, this could definitely provide a roaringly funny time.  But it is not a strategy game in the traditional mold of the hobby.  It will be very hit-and-miss with children, too.  My boys sort of enjoyed the experience, but it was not a game they begged me to buy afterwards.  One specific purpose for which this title might shine is in preparation for introducing your kids to role-playing games.  While Once Upon A Time is not an RPG, it will still get them to creatively think and develop narrative "in character" - and in a smaller and more focused, thus manageable, environment than what RPG's provide.

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