Game Review: Once Upon a Time (Second Edition)

Growing up in the age of the video game, I find myself lagging behind when it comes to tabletop and card games. That’s probably why, to this point, I’ve missed out on Once Upon a Time the fantastic card game originally released back in 1995. It is a bit of a different game as the win conditions aren’t nearly as important as the game itself, but to this point I’ve encountered few games that are better served for a large group of friends.

Once Upon A Time is a game in which the players create a story together, using cards that show typical elements from fairy tales. One player is the Storyteller, and creates a story using the ingredients on her cards. She tries to guide the plot towards her own ending. The other players try to use cards to interrupt her and become the new Storyteller. The winner is the first player to play out all her cards and end with her Happy Ever After card.

Suggested ages: 10 and up
Number of players: 3 – 6+
Playing time: 1 to 2 hours
Includes: 165 cards, rule sheet
Retail price: $24.99, available at Amazon or Warehouse 23

To a certain extent, once must enjoy storytelling and have some creative pre-disposition in order to play. The cards themselves don’t tell the story, instead they provide the direction and the players are meant to fill in the gaps. That means the game requires more active participation than others. I certainly wouldn’t count that as a negative for the game, but it does mean that some people are going to be turned off by it. If you don’t like telling stories or engaging in games of the imagination, then this probably won’t appeal to you.

The mechanics of the game are fairly simple. At the start of play, each player is given one “Happily Ever After” card and a set of the storytelling cards. The storytelling cards all contain various elements of a story ; characters, settings, events, items. Everything from weapons to weather effects, time of day and types of buildings are represented. The Happily Ever After cards are all classic endings to fairy tales and stories that we’ve been hearing since childhood. These include “the item was returned and all was well”, “And that’s how the town got its name”, etc.

The goal of the game is to play all of your storytelling cards and finish up with your Happy Ever After card. As you play cards you fill in the gaps and craft a story. The only rule is that the story has to make sense (with the other players ultimately being the judge of that), but beyond that the story can be about anything and veer in any direction.

Here’s an example of how a player might play his/her hand (with the cards in parentheses): Once upon a time there was a (woodcutter) who lived in a (cabin) in the forest. One (evening) there was a (storm) and it damaged his home. He set off in search of more wood and found a (magic lantern) which held a genie who granted him a wish. The woodcutter wished for a (wife) and a large mansion, which were granted (and they both lived happily ever after).

A simple example, but as you can see, the cards themselves don’t tell the whole story. If at any point in the game a player gets stuck or cannot continue the story, he/she draws another storytelling card and the next player becomes the Storyteller. The game continues this way until someone has been able to play their Happy Ever After card. You must continue where the previous player left off, which can cause some stories to veer off in peculiar directions.

There are other rules to the game which allow people to jump in and “steal” the story from the current player. If someone says a story element that you hold the card for (for instance if you held the “wood” card you could play it in the previous example when the player says wood) you can immediately play it and take over. There are also interruption cards which you can play once a player mentions one of the general categories of story element (setting, object, character, etc).

While the end result of the game does yield a winner, Once Upon a Time doesn’t feel like your classic competitive card game. The true entertainment and joy of playing is derived from telling a good story and in that sense a sense of compatibility and cooperation between the players arises.

Another potentially interesting use of the game is a means of teaching storytelling to students. Each hand of cards provides the framework for a potential story and playing teaches improvisation, plot structure and fosters creativity.

(photo from


  • Perfect for large groups
  • Educational applications
  • Well made cards, detailed artwork
  • Different game nearly every time you play


  • Box doesn’t provide room for expansion
  • Near impossible to make a story not based in fantasy and fairy tales

Overall: 8/10