Table of Contents
|Once Upon a Time: The Storytelling Card Game (1993)
|Meeple Like Us
|Player Count (recommended)
|Richard Lambert, Andrew Rilstone and James Wallis
- 01/08/2016: Added a response from Atlas games into the section on socioeconomic accessibility.
- 30/08/2016: Found this interesting and insightful comment on the teardown from one of the game designers.
We love Once Upon A Time. You can probably guess that from the 4.5 stars it got in our enthusiastic review. It’s clever, it’s funny, and it offers endless opportunities to be creative with your friends. What’s not to like? I mean, aside from us but I’m sure people can make up their own minds with regards to our charm, or otherwise.
Well, let’s find out.
Once Upon a Time there was a website, and it looked into the accessibility of tabletop games…
It gets a mostly clean bill of health here. The artwork, as you can imagine, suffers a bit when viewed through a colour-blind palette but there is nothing that is only differentiated by colour.
Each of the different kinds of cards has an icon that indicates what they are – these are characters, things, places, aspects and events. These are colour coded, but they also have unique symbols. The only problem here is that they can be quite difficult to make out at a distance. When checking to see what kind of card was just played you might be leaking game information that you have a particular kind of interrupt you’re eager to utilise.
Otherwise fine. We strongly recommend Once Upon A Time in this category.
Once Upon a Time is entirely a card game, and so we encounter the usual visual accessibility issues that are associated with such. Since the cards have no tactility that indicates their contents, those dealing with total blindness will be unable to play in any meaningful sense. The game requires too much evaluation of limited opportunities, and too much cross-referencing of one card against another in an attempt to construct narrative dyads. That’s just a fancy way of saying ‘A storytelling element that uses two cards’, such as ‘Giant and frightened’ or ‘Sword and Prince’. Combinations of those cards can create reasonably transferable packages of storytelling that you can profitably include in the stories that emerge. They requires the ability to re-evaluate these dyads as story elements change, and that needs a good understanding of what’s in your hand and what’s in play.
You’re also responding to the story that others tell, and when they use a narrative beat that you have a card for, you need to be able to identify it and play it reasonably quickly. An accommodating group may be willing to offer leeway with this, but it can have game impact if you reveal a chunk of your story only to have someone say a few seconds later ‘Sorry, I interrupt’.
For those with more moderate visual impairments, the text on the cards is reasonably large and well contrasted, but presented in an obtusely inaccessible font. Certain letters will be difficult to differentiate, such as P and D, G and C, or even B and S. It’s obvious from the context of the rest of the word which letter is should be, but still an example of ornamentation that interferes with accessibility.
The hands that you play with are hidden, although each player will be discarding to a common area of the table (probably). You’ll need to be able to keep track of the story based on what is being played, but the assumption is that this is a game where people will be narrating aloud the story they are creating. As such, while it may create a burden on memory, you should be able to hold the narrative in mind without the visual aid of the cards.
We’re prepared to offer a recommendation for Once Upon A Time for those with minor to moderate visual impairments. Those with more substantial impairments should stay away.
It may seem from these teardowns that complexity of rules is a causal factor in cognitive accessibility. That’s true, to an extent, but Once Upon A Time illustrates that it’s a more nuanced situation.
There aren’t many games that are less complex than Once Upon A Time, and most of those are going to be explicitly aimed at children. I would have no hesitation in suggesting it, based on only its ruleset, to almost any category of cognitive impairment.
And yet, it’s not getting out of this section with a recommendation. At least, not for the game that you buy.
It’s odd how few of the typical boxes it ticks here. It doesn’t have much of a required reading level (and even that can be obviated with reference to the pictures). Game state is incredibly simple. There’s no synergy of rules. No scoring in the traditional sense. No need for general knowledge or awareness of trivia. None of that. All it does is require people to tell stories.
It’s not even the story-telling aspect that makes it such a cognitively expensive task, it’s the extent to which multitasking is required and the burden that the collaborative creativity exercise places on memory. This what you need to keep track of in a game of Once Upon A Time:
- The end goal you’re trying to bring around
- How your current cards can be played in a way that is compatible with the current story
- Whether or not your opponent is making use of a narrative beat on which you can interrupt
- The story as it has previously been told
- The story as it’s unfolding
- The narrative branches the story has previously taken, and how you might be able to flip between parallel story-threads
- How you can chain the cards in your hand together to meet a storytelling objective
This isn’t even taking account the strategic considerations of laying traps and predicting opponent story goals. That is a lot of cognitive burden. Simply remembering the story itself makes it largely inaccessible to those with memory impairments, because while the story cards are played out and visible they don’t actually help with the nuance of the tale. They represent only game-play data, not narrative data. Remember, you can lose control of the game for many reasons, and these include contradicting previous story elements, fumbling the tale, and rambling. It’s difficult enough to tell a coherent tale that flows logically without trying to do it with memory or fluid intelligence impairments.
That’s not to say there isn’t a great game in here for those with cognitive accessibility issues. It’s just going to need you to make it yourself with house rules. I’d recommend a co-operative variant somewhere in this area:
- A single ending card is shared between all players
- No complex branching of stories is permitted,
- Everyone takes a turn and plays a card
- The goal is for everyone to have played all their cards by the end
This would eliminate most of the cognitive burden by removing the competitive element, the complex branches, and a number of the more expensive multi-tasking elements. It would also remove most of the fun of the narrative tug-of-war at the game’s core. What it would retain though is a meaningful core of creativity within constraints, and one that I think would be generally accessible to those with moderate to severe cognitive impairments.
The game out of the box, we don’t recommend at all. However, with some experimentation I think you could meaningfully construct an accessible variant that would still be reasonably fun and funny for everyone involved.
It can be frustrating to be interrupted in the middle of a good story, and to potentially be locked out of winning because the story doesn’t meander anywhere in the vicinity of your cards. For those that focus primarily on the mechanics of the game rather than its spirit, it’s not actually likely to be a very satisfying experience. If you’re determined to win, you can probably get rid of your hand within a minute. It won’t be at all satisfying, and if one of the players prohibited from participating has issues that must be considered in this category it might even be angering.
It’s not a game where everyone gets an equal chance to play, and that can lead to people feeling left out of the fun. Game rounds are not particularly long – between five to ten minutes, I would estimate. The luck of the draw is important though – it’s unlikely you’ll draw a bad hand, but you can easily draw a hand with few opportunities for meaningful intersection with the stories your opponents are telling. Special interrupt cards, or unforced errors, are the only way in these circumstances where you can hope to get a chance to participate in the storytelling.
That said though, this is absolutely not a game you should treat as a competition. It’s not a co-operative game, but it is a collaborative experience. The ebb and flow of storytelling roles should emphasise that it’s as much about enjoying a story as it is about shaping it. To an extent, all games are highly dependent on group composition. Some games are more dependent than others though, and we’d rate Once Upon A Time in that category.
As a natural consequence of the inherent darkness of fairy tales, you will also tend to find some stories veer into extremely unpleasant territory if anyone takes the time to really contemplate the implications. I’ve been part of stories that have involved child brides, murdering wolves, children being orphaned, and the real Adult Fears of abandonment, loneliness, and losing a child.
These themes are not actually particularly expressed in the cards, but they come out as a result of the common mythic archetypes the game invokes. The fairy tales we tell are often full of disturbingly regressive morality and grotesque imagery. We’re primed to lean into those common cultural conventions. I wouldn’t use that as a reason to avoid Once Upon A Time, but I would advise that you bear it in mind if these kind of themes are likely to be upsetting.
Regardless of these cautionary notes, we do strongly recommend Once Upon A Time in this category. There’s just so much fun and joy to be had in the inherently nonsensical and yet coherent tales that you’ll create that it’s very easy to look past the few minor worries I have expressed. Even the interruption mechanics are presented in the rules with a great degree of positive good humour. It’s not ‘YOU’RE WRONG’. This is how the rule is presented:
‘Most groups shout “too long” or “No! Silly!” at the top of their voices when a Storyteller needs to be challenged’
In other words, the rules suggest you turn it into a bit of a pantomime, which keeps the good cheer ticking over reasonably well even in the potential contentious circumstance of usurping a storyteller.
Once Upon a Time is entirely a card game, and all the accessibility issues that would come with that can be solved with the usual brace of card-holders we tend to recommend here. There are no other tokens at all used during play.
The hand you have is secret, but it’s also a game where the expectation is that you’ll be able to fully communicate your intention. You might have to indicate cards, but you have to narrate what they mean anyway. As such, it lends itself easily to play as a fully verbal experience.
We strongly recommend it in this category.
This is a problem area. While the game does not insist upon a reading level, it does insist upon a certain level of fluent conversational communication. There’s no particular reason that it needs to be verbal, but it does have to be something everyone involved can work with.
There is a considerable degree of explaining that comes with playing cards – you need to link it into what’s just happened, and tell the story ahead to what happens as a result. In Dixit, you can get by with a word or a short phrase. In Once Upon A Time, you need to be able to reasonably fluidly tell at least part of a story. True, it doesn’t have to be a deep, clever or interesting story, but that may not matter.
Those who have taken on the storyteller role will find themselves, at least temporarily, the centre of attention. Those with phonological or articulation disorders may find that this triggers stress and stress exacerbates underlying problems.
Those that find this kind of scenario stressful will also lose out on the compensatory regime of preparation. The story they were planning to deliver will become irrelevant rapidly as the game goes on, and so a certain degree of being able to ‘wing it’ will save the day. Sometimes you need to start talking without a clear plan as to how the sentences are going to end, and that’s a lot of fun for some people. It’s less fun for others.
We can’t recommend Once Upon A Time in this category.
Stories are incredibly powerful. We are shaped throughout our lives by that fact. Advertising, politics, education, even our own personal dramas are all hugely influenced by the stories we construct and are told. Stories encapsulate complex state dependent data in a way that has a high degree of ‘stickyness’ with an extremely low degree of transference friction. They can inspire people to love, they can drive people to kill. We are immersed in a thousand different narratives every day.
Once Upon A Time contains some cards that trouble me deeply because of that observation. There are hardly any of them, and they are easily removed from the deck, but when present they can have a powerfully corrosive impact on the way in which we talk about certain issues.
And of course:
First of all, the use of the word ‘crazy’ is absurdly, offensively reductive. It flattens all nuance, and turns a complex spectrum of intersecting conditions into a simple label that can be ascribed and then just as easily wiped away. ‘The Prince’s madness was cured’, is an example of that. It puts forward a dangerously simplistic portrayal of mental health. This is usually something where you can just roll your eyes and move on. It’s dangerous here though because we are building narratives around that reductive portrayal. In the process, we’re reinforcing inaccurate cultural suppositions and prejudices about the topic. Mental health needs sensitive and respectful handling. It doesn’t get it here.
And then there’s the ending card for blindness. The implication, not even hidden, is that blindness is a punishment for wickedness. Similarly for the beggar card, which contains the distilled dismissiveness of a generation of conservative voices – that poverty is an earned condition. That people can deserve to be on the shittiest end of an unfair socioeconomic structure.
Even in the process of talking about ‘cures’ for some impairments we enter tricky territory. Have you ever heard of Deaf Culture? You should take a few moments to look into it if you haven’t. When you’ve built an identity and community around a particular aspect of yourself, any wide-spread and external attempt to ‘cure’ can be difficult to differentiate from cultural genocide. The word ‘cure’ itself is laden with pejorative assumptions.
None of this is to say you can’t tell meaningful, resonant and truthful stories about these topics. That depends extremely heavily on the ability of an entire group of people to approach the topic with sensitivity and avoid the easy catharsis of a punchline. In my experience, most people simply don’t have the exposure to the topic to do that easily. Even well-meaning souls, much like myself, can easily lapse into dismissive or dehumanizing terminology. Throughout these teardowns I intentionally adopt a linguistic principle called ‘people-first language’. So, not ‘impaired people’, but ‘people with impairments’. The use of the word ’impairment’ is one that I have found less emotionally charged than ‘disability’, because people do not have disabilities. Societal conventions are disabling.
That kind of conscious choice of language is important, but there are many, many people, including those with impairments, that would take issue with both of these approaches. Society tip-toes around linguistic conventions. We adopt euphemisms such as ‘differently abled’ or ‘handicapable’. I find those painfully patronising. Others will say the same of my approach. You’re never going to find something that works for everyone.
I have a PhD in accessibility, and I can’t tell you the right way to talk sensitively about these issues in all situations. I have written and published papers on this and adjacent topics. I’ve given conference talks on accessibility and impairment. What are the chances that a random group of your friends at a table will do better at treating this issue sensitively? I can’t guarantee myself to approach it correctly.
The words we use are important, because within them are embedded cultural expectations and prejudices. Their use, in context, within Once Upon A Time is problematic.
I reiterate that this is a vanishingly small minority of the cards, and I ascribe zero malice to their presence. But they do bother me because they reinforce unhelpful cultural attitudes. I’d recommend that you play with them removed from the decks.
Once Upon A Time is also aggressively white. It is reasonably inclusive in terms of gender balance, but there are hardly any examples of protagonists that aren’t drawn from the peculiarly Germanic conventions of fairy-tale fiction.
And when it tries something a little bit different, the results are dangerously close to grotesque ethnic parody. I won’t say which group I think is being parodied with the Wicked card, but I will say that it leapt out at me instantly and without prompting. I guess you can argue that says more about me than it does about the card, and you might be right.
What it does have in its favour though is an excellent price-point and fantastic scalability. At an RRP of £20, and support for between two and six players, you’re paying approximately £3.33 per player. You’ll have enough fun at any player-count to be able to justify the purchase. The negative messages regarding mental health and impairment bother me a lot, but you can easily remove them from the box. OR! You can use them as discussion points for post-game discussion.
We do recommend Once Upon A time in this category, but with a few caveats.
Atlas Games were kind enough to tweet a response to this section, which I’ll put here:
We’re aware of these critiques, but there’s a good explanation. OUAT is exclusively Western European folklore
The rules for the game depend on story structure, themes, and endings in that cultural context. While we’d love to do an Arabian Nights version, for instance, the nesting tales completely break our rules. It would need to be an entirely different game. In the meantime, we balanced for gender and class in OUAT3e. I’m happy to answer any further questions about editorial decisions for this game.
We really appreciate this breakdown. As a disabled person, making inclusive, accessible games is a personal priority.
I can also address the issue of ableist language as a thing that also stems from that very dated rhetoric.
For our part, we certainly accept the importance of thematic integrity, and we understand and accept the position expressed here. As we started above, we read zero malice into what is overall an extremely likeable game. However, we do hold that ‘alienation for valid reasons’ is still alienation, and it still creates the potential sociological inaccessibilities we outlined above. But we also think Atlas Games are a class act for responding seriously to an issue they could so easily have ignored.
Your hand of cards is set by the number of players. With two players, you’ll have a hand of eight story cards and an ending card. With six, you’ll have five story cards and an ending card. The cards have the standard ‘poker deck’ form factor, and as such you’ll be able to comfortably fit them into a pair of card holders. Mostly, your hand gets smaller over time – you’ll need to spend a card to interrupt in most circumstances, and if you are interrupted in turn you draw another one. There are occasions then that your hand will grow (for example, if you gain control through challenges and then are interrupted) but they are relatively rare. As such, the intersectional issues associated with hidden hand management with visual and physical accessibility are not significantly different from the individual accessibility issues.
There is a large degree of multi-tasking involved, which is extremely cognitively expensive. However, this multitasking does not extend to physical interaction – you’re not doing multiple things at once, you’re thinking about multiple things. The intersectional issues associated with physical and cognitive accessibility also do not apply here.
There are some time-constraints involved in the game, but these are social constructs. It’s for the group to decide to what extent they are willing to be permissive with regards to rambling, prevaricating, or time between a card being played and an interrupt. Those with cognitive and physical impairments often find time-constraints challenging, and this is going to be true here. It’s also true with the categorical intersection with visual impairment, because there is an extent to which you’ll need to hunt through your hand in order to play the correct card. Some tolerance here will be required for stress-free play.
One significant intersectional issue here is that of memory and visual impairment. The cards that are played to mark out the narrative beats are a reminder, of sorts, of the progression of the story. If they are not available for easy perusal it is going to increase the memory burden of what is already a burdensome game. This might be enough to push a game from being ‘accessible enough’ into ‘not playable’.
The length of any individual story in Once Upon A Time is not long. Perhaps between five and ten minutes, although as usual you’ll need to factor in the time considerations of other accessibility compensations. There’s no need for continuity of player numbers between hands, or even within hands. As long as there are at least two players, it’s easy enough to drop out of play without impacting on the rest of the game. The short play and set-up time though means that not only can you fit it around any modulating severity of distress, but you can even play it around intermittent periods of relative comfort. There aren’t many games that are quite so ‘plug in and play’ around symptom curves.
Simple, but not simplistic. Complex, but not complicated. Once Upon a Time is an interesting beast from an accessibility perspective.
It is rather counter-intuitive how low it rates for cognitive accessibility, but a consequence of the competitive story-telling that’s core to the game. We do recommend a less cognitively expensive variant in our discussion above, but it would have a significant impact on the richness of play.
Its need for players to communicate sometimes complex story-telling nuance is its other key area of inaccessibility. We assume in these teardowns that communication between those in a group of people is largely a solved problem, but for that we focus on games where you are communicating intention, or relatively self-contained chunks of information. The ability to creatively express yourself within constraints is an entirely different challenge, and one that we’ve taken into account in our grade.
Aside from some reductive over-simplification in its portrayal of mental health and physical impairment, it comes out of this exercise rather well. That’s good news, because at 4.5 stars we think it’s a title that absolutely everyone should have on their shelves. Buy it, love it, and live happily ever after with it.
A Disclaimer About Teardowns
Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.
Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.
Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.