Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game

Pros: Uses your creativity to its fullest; extremely flexible
Cons: A whole deck of extra blank cards would be nice!
Rating: 5 out of 5


First published 2/18/2003

Once upon a time, years ago, I played a card game called “Once Upon a Time” (from Atlas Games) at a friend’s house. It had 112 “storytelling cards” that depicted aspects (evil, very wise, blind), characters (old man, prince, brother/sister), events (contest, people part company, a rescue), items (food, tree, crown), and places (palace, home, night). It also came with 56 “happy ending cards” such as “but it had vanished as mysteriously as it had appeared,” or “and to this day no one knows where she ran to.” And lo, there were a great many cards, and a wondrous variety of story aspects available.

With these cards the players told a story. The number of storytelling cards dealt out to each player depended upon the number of people playing, and each player received one happy ending card. One person started to tell a story, laying down cards as she worked their elements into her story. But yea, things were not so simple. Other players could interrupt; there were special “interrupt” cards that allowed them to do so, and they could also lay down a normal card if its item, aspect, character, event, or place was mentioned by the storyteller. This allowed the new player to take over the telling of the story, and the first storyteller was required to draw an extra storytelling card. The first player to play out all of her storytelling cards and end with her happy ending card won the game. But the story entire had to make sense, and the happy ending had to fit the story. So it was a fun game, yet challenging, and required creativity and imagination.

I tried to find that game for some time, with no luck. Until one day, while perusing an online game store, I decided to search for it. And yea, it was found, and I purchased my own copy.


You need at least 2 players in order to play “Once Upon a Time.” The chart that tells you how many cards to deal out to each player goes up to “6 or more players,” so as you can see game-play is very flexible. I’ve played in games of 2 and 6 players, and they were all a lot of fun! I couldn’t find an age note on the box, but the online game store I purchased the game from lists the age group as being 6 and up. Basically, as long as your child can tell a semi-coherent entertaining story, go for it. (There are modifications to the rules to make game-play easier on children; I’ll get to those in a bit.) I think that this game could make a great tool for developing your child’s creativity and imagination.

Game-play can take a while. However, if you want to shorten the game, all you have to do is deal out fewer cards to each player. So it’s customizable, to a certain extent.

The cards are of nice quality and don’t seem to damage all that easily. The contents of each card are both written and depicted. The pictures are pretty and whimsical, and the little icons that indicate which category the cards are in are colorful and easily-recognizable. (The cards also say directly which category they’re in; they’re meant to be very easy to use.)

Room for Creativity

As you can imagine, this is a fantastic game for creative people! You get to tell a story as a group, except that there is a sketchy set of rules to provide a framework. Not only are there plenty of cards provided, but there’s also a handful of blank cards (including one blank happy ending card) so that you can add to the game! I wish you could buy entire blank decks to add to it with. You could even “play” by yourself, if you wanted to use the cards as an exercise in improvisational storytelling. It could make a fantastic writer’s exercise.

There are a couple of additional rules; the small manual is very clear and easy-to-read (we only needed to read it once–the rules are that simple). The designers did a very good job of covering all the little corner-cases and confusing situations with examples and clarifications; it’s clear the game was play-tested quite well. The fact that so few examples and clarifications are needed in the first place makes it clear the game was designed well, with simple, adaptable rules that are meant to facilitate game-play–not get in its way.

Making It Easier

Some people get stage fright, or are made nervous by such activities. And children (or less imaginative people) might have trouble keeping up with other players. That’s okay–the rules provide plenty of suggestions for making this game comfortable and fun for all involved. For instance, there’s a rule that says that if the storyteller pauses for 5 seconds or starts to ramble, play passes to the left. This is followed by a note that points out that this is meant to encourage a fast-moving game and believable stories; it is not an excuse to harass younger or less articulate players. Similarly, the booklet recommends not strictly enforcing the rule that states that the happy ending must follow logically from the story when you have inexperienced or younger players. There are also a couple of suggested variations on the game at the end of the booklet:

Multiple Endings: Each player gets two happy ever after cards at the start of the game; you can win by playing either. This is recommended when first learning the game. It’s also recommended as a play-balancer when some players are more experienced than the others: you give the less experienced players the extra ending cards.

Exchanging Endings: Normally when you pass to the player on your left, you can discard a storytelling card. In this variation, you can instead discard your happy ever after card, and pick up a new one.

Alternative Start: After each hand, you can choose to let the player with the most cards left in his hand start the next round. That way, less assertive players have a chance to control the next game. (There’s a variety of normal start suggestions provided, from age-based to length of beard to cutting the deck and going alphabetically based on the first letter of the story element on the card.)

In other words, while you can play this as a fast-paced competitive game, you’re also encouraged to make it fun for all involved. It’s hard to imagine a nicer set of guidelines.

Bonus Round: Our Extra Variation

My husband and I have instituted an extra variation which we find fun, so I’ll include it here. Grab a handful of index cards (or something similar that you can write on and shuffle together). Come up with other story-styles that you might enjoy telling besides fairy-tales. You might put anything on your cards from science fiction to mystery, suspense, documentary, action movie, romance, or a universe created by your favorite author or even TV show or movie. Then, at the beginning of each round or night of play, you choose one of these. You can also shuffle the cards and pick one at random. Then tell a story that fits that genre or style.

It’s true that the cards in the basic deck might not quite fit the genre (most of them are fairly archetypal, but, for example, “princess” might not fit perfectly in a cyberpunk story). You can fix this in one of several ways:

  • Keep a list of equivalencies for cards that just don’t fit the genre.
  • “Interpret” the cards into the relevant genre as you play. (This is probably the most fun version, but does require an extra bit of creativity. You might want to nix the 5-second rule in this case, as interpreting the cards into your story could require a few extra seconds, particularly while you’re getting the hang of it.)
  • Create your own decks of cards for each genre.

As you can see, the possibilities are almost endless with a game this flexible and entertaining. You can tell beautiful fairy tales; you can also tell wild and whimsical stories. It works for a fun night with your child, your spouse, or your family, and it even works as a party game (particularly if you let people get whimsical and weird). There are few games out there that let you get as creative, and that literally let you create the game as you go. If you enjoy the beauty of fairy tales, then pick up a copy of “Once Upon a Time” today. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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