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18 May 2014 @ 05:52 pm
Card Game Review: Once Upon a Time  
This isn't going to be a very long review, not because I didn't like the game, but just because there isn't much to explain because the game itself is very simply and mostly only a way to provide a framework and end goal to a group storytelling session.

Once Upon a Time has a deck of cards divided into two main types. One are endings, like "And so the king relented and the two were married" or "And so the village was restored to prosperity," and the other are the story elements, like "princess" or "village" or "cursed" or "a spell" or "someone is injured. Gameplay is basically telling a story and trying to steer the narrative so that you can use the cards in your hands until you have only your ending remaining, allowing you to play the ending and win. Complications come in in the form of interrupts, which let you, well, interrupt someone else's story and force them to draw a card, and that if anyone explicitly mentions a story element that you have a card for, you can play your card and seize control of the narrative.

And that's basically it for the structure. Play goes in a circle, with players telling as much of the story as they could and passing when they're running out of steam before they get called to the mat for rambling (and thus having to draw a card). Every game is maybe 5-10 minutes, though I guess it might be different depending on the number of players (we had four). The base set is highly oriented toward generic of Western European fairy tales, with noble princes and princesses, monsters, giants, thieves, treasure, and so on, and would have a hard time being adapted to any other genre. I started the last game and set it in ancient Japan, and while we were able to spin several of the cards to a more appropriate concept--the Fairy card became a fox spirit, for example, and the queen was the local daimyō's wife--if I had tried to anything with the classic Japanese trope of a conflict between one's own personal honor and the duty to one's lord, I'm pretty sure neither the concept cards nor the endings would have accommodated it.

Despite its simplicity and my usual tendency to gravitate towards creaky, baroque rulesets, I really liked Once Upon a Time. Maybe it's also the people I played it with, because much like Cards Against Humanity who wins or who loses isn't really important to the game at all, except that since only one person can play an ending card, it makes sense to call them the "winner" and it provides a reason to interrupt each other all the time and try to get your cards out of your hand. The fun comes out in watching people come up with all kinds of bizarre twists to try to spin the story toward their ending.

There was one major problem I noticed--much like a sandbox RPG, a lot of stuff gets tossed out and not followed up on. For example, during the Japanese fairy tale I mentioned above, the card I decided to start it off with was "husband and wife," and eventually the husband went off to a bamboo conference in the capital--he was a bamboo cutter, you see--and the wife set off to find her husband after he failed to return. But she never found him, because the story was steered to an ending before that happened. That kind of anticlimactic "and then they lived happily ever after no guys seriously" ending was pretty common in our run, but I'm not sure there's any way to avoid it, and games only last a few minutes so it's easy to dive into another story if the previous one was unsatisfying.

Also, it turns out that softlykarou and I already own this game, since Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff had a bunch of ads for it and she bought it thinking that it would be a good game to play with kids to help develop their social skills. We were told that it plays pretty well with two people, so we'll have to give that a try!
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