The game begins with each player receiving five plot device cards, each with a basic fairy tale element. These can be anything from treasure, to magic, to general concepts like “two people fall in love.” These cards are how you will shape the story going forward. One player starts the story by saying “Once upon a time,” and begins the fairy tale however they want while incorporating their story elements. For example, it could begin with a princess escaping her castle attempting to save her kingdom from an evil wizard. But if the current narrator mentions a story element that you have on one of your cards, they lose control of the story, draw another story card, and you take over starting from where they left off. They also lose control if they can’t think of anything to say, contradict the story, or say something that the other players agree doesn’t make any sense. There are also “interrupt cards” that allow you to stop the narrator and change an element of the story they were talking about to something else, and you then take over the narration.
You might take over the story, following the princess on her journey to save her kingdom from the evil wizard, and during your turn tell the other players the princess met a giant talking bird while passing through a forest, and you then set down your bird and your forest cards. This back and forth between players continues on, each time weaving and changing the story in ways no one can predict.
Throughout each turn, players will try to tug the story in different directions trying to set up all the elements they need to complete their own ending. Let’s say the ending card you have is, “and the kingdom rejoiced at the end of the tyrant's reign,” so by the end of the game you need to have the princess save the kingdom and have a big, happy ending. But here’s the problem: since your last turn, the other players have blown up the kingdom, turned the princess into a mouse, and trapped her in a well. To make things worse, the story element cards you have to use before you can win are “boat,” “cook,” and “this can fly.” So now what are you supposed to do?
However, the game does have some problems that can ruin the fun, the biggest issue being it requires a lot of player-to-player policing—especially with people who are new to the game. Sometimes when you are introducing people to Once Upon a Time they will struggle to grasp that the point of the game isn’t necessarily to win but to tell a story with your friends, and they’ll try to quickly burn through their cards and finish the game as fast as possible. For instance, there is technically nothing in the rulebook that stops you from taking your hand of cards and saying “Once upon a time there was a princess, who lived in a castle, and there was a dragon who wanted to take her crown, so she threw the dragon down a well, and the village was saved.” The issue here is this misunderstanding isn’t always the players fault. When you have a game like this with loose rules and a condition for winning that is always within reach, it can be hard to just shut off the competitive part of your brain, especially while trying to push your own story forward.
Another issue that I have run into with the game happens after you or your group has played the game more than a few times together in recent succession. Players will start to remember what cards are in the deck, allowing them to avoid story elements that could result in somebody playing that card and taking over the story. For example, if one of the players is clearly trying to get you to admit that the characters of your story are in a cave, you could instead say they are in an underwater wildlife sanctuary. This element results in some funny plot twists due to somebody panicking to think of something abstract, and while the interrupt cards are there to help prevent this, it can ultimately hurt the game. The best way to get around this issue is to either pick up the Blank Card Expansion or make your own blank cards. Before the game, pass around a few to the other players and let them write whatever they want, then mix the new cards into the deck. You can remove them after the game or leave them in forever. This will not only make your rounds more surprising and funny but also continually add variety. There are also multiple expansions for the game that add new types of cards right into the deck: Dark Tales, which adds more dark fantasy elements to the story, or Seafaring Tales, which adds more water-based plot devices.
Despite these issues, the game is still one of the best table top experiences I’ve found, especially for the more creative gamers. Once Upon A Time is a hilarious, stressful, simple, confusing, weird game that is unlike anything else I have ever played before. It has some issues, but quite frankly, they all revolve entirely around the people who happen to be playing the game, not the game itself. When you play this game with a group of people and everyone starts laughing and scheming, you are all creating an unforgettable, shared story that nobody will ever understand but you and them. I cannot recommend Once Upon a Time highly enough.