Once upon a time, in a city that was labeled with the number 2

Imagination, story, writing, narrating: these are all words that describe my earliest loves. My aspirations as a child were three-fold. I wanted to be a father, contortionist, and writer. I’ve abandoned any progress on the first two, but the last one still piques my interest and has seen me pursue interests from creative writing to theater to gaming.

This weekend my collegiate friend, Cap’n Perkins, flew to Chicago and stayed with me. The impetus for his flying up here was a concert by Robert Pollard’s side project Boston Spaceships, but we spent the rest of the three days together gaming and talking about gaming. One game I had purchased some time ago but never actually played (they litter my shelves with their piteous mewing) was a card game by the name Once Upon a Time. It labels itself as a storytelling card game.

Reading over the rules, Perkins and I set to playing, drawing the appropriate number of cards. Our first game had an ogre who captured a troupe of children seeking to lead a rebellion against his tyrannous ways. A beggar, intrigued by the food that was used to lure these children, followed them and saw heaps of treasure lost in a moat of crocodiles; his new goal was to save the children so they could steal the treasure for him. We introduced some more secondary characters and the story progressed, eventually ending with order being restored and an errant ogre mage roaming the world at large.

Our second play was… weird. Somehow, both Perkins and I neglected our Happy Ever After (and with the introduction of the darker expansion pack, some not so happy ever after) cards, the card you have to play to win the game after ridding yourself of all the other cards. These other cards are your locations, characters, items, aspects, and events. One is not restricted to these cards to tell the narrative, but mentioning them allows their ridding from one’s hand.

So, our second play had the Cap’n and I telling a narrative and forgetting our individual goals toward which we should have been steering the story. Both being fans of works by such esoteric minds as Moore and Morrison, our story steered quickly into the surreal and we found ourselves lost in a story with some Cthulian elements alongside a treatment of the perception of time and dreams. We eventually stopped for our own sanity’s sake, because the only way to win at that point would have required hours of play or a cheap deus ex machina, with which neither of us would have been satisfied.

The game works, and brilliantly. It encourages cooperation rather than just competition. Sure, there is a goal and someone has to win, but the rules clearly state out one important principal: don’t be an ass for the sake of being an ass. It also points out some of the rules are merely suggestions, mix and match to your personal tastes.

The Cap’n and I tell stories very well together. Our collective knowledge of pulp, humor, and character development in stories alongside critical theory means we often catch up on each others’ points and just feed the fuel of creativity. We’ve played Dungeons and Dragons campaigns where our characters spent the majority of the time just playing a role and being themselves. No dice rolling, no looking at our character sheets; we just enjoyed the thought of bringing forward a story to entertain ourselves and our fellow players and friends.

This game feeds that desire that we felt with our D&D gaming group. There is no need to keep score, no peripherals, no sheets over which one needs to fret (as someone who plays mages, I usually have the most pieces of paper in front of me). Because it uses the title Once Upon a Time, it is very much taking from the tradition of faery tales and fantasy settings. There are broad archetypes which one can easily use in any way one sees fit (such as the class conscious, aspiring, and devious beggar I concocted). The strategy to telling the story begs other players to become a communal story telling font and interrupt or pass on the torch when the realization strikes that one simply has to pause and regroup.

There is no age recommendation for this game, and it’s easy to see why. As long as one can string together coherent sentences extemporaneously (this is a game I won’t be playing with Governor Palin) and can tell a story that is consistent with what has passed before, with the cards as a guidance, there is a game to be had. We only played between ourselves, but it also is a game that would vastly change with more agents. The core mechanic changes when adding more players; suddenly more cards are introduced, the story becomes more complex as it doesn’t just bat back and forth, and there is more time to contemplate with fewer cards in one’s hands.

As for the stories one can produce? Our second play did reveal one component that we did not realize initially, both being prone to lots of abstract thought. The game encourages very concrete, event oriented storytelling. This reminds me very much of a videogame. Our second dream had a farmhand who shucked his duties, fell asleep beside a river, and was lost in his own dreams, being sent on a quest by an elderly man there to travel up to the future or down to the past on a particular staircase. Playing our cards became an interesting challenge, but more importantly, we did not introduce as many concrete elements, meaning both our Happy Ever Afters became far distant goals.

In other words, this could be turned into an interesting theater game.

I’ll revisit this game once more upon further experimentation. However, I’ll spend the rest of the week discussing other events of the week, including: Zombies!!!, Super Smash Brothers Brawl (Cap’n Perkins’s first interaction with the Wii), and impressions of the media surrounding Dead Space.


About Denis Farr

Writer interested in intersectionality, games, comics, nerdy stuff in general, theater, and how it all mixes. Graduate of Wabash College, with studies in Theater, English, German, and Gender Studies.
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3 Responses to Once upon a time, in a city that was labeled with the number 2

  1. Chris Lepine says:

    Wow.. you’ve got me convinced. This sounds as close to a real roleplaying experience (at least the way that my group plays) as it gets. I’m going to order a copy this week so my partner and I can play together.

  2. I’m also tempted to order a copy.I’m rather interested in your thoughts on the media surrounding Dead Space as I’m been contemplating a post on that topic myself.

  3. Denis Farr says:

    @Chris: Hope you enjoy it! It’s not pure roleplaying, as you don’t get your own personal character (though it’s a premise with which you could certainly toy) and everyone is telling one story and wresting the control from other players. That was its appeal to me, however.@Justin: I think I’ll cover it next, then. Thankfully I had no particular order in which I had to cover these.

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