I still remember my first trip to a ‘fancy’ ice cream shop with my family, you know the ones that advertise thirty-something flavors or some such. It was not often that we splurged like that, especially when we could just hop in the station wagon down to the Demon Drive-In and get some inexpensive soft serve vanilla ice cream instead. With seven kids to feed, a trip to a place like Baskin Robbins or even Dairy Queen would be prohibitively expensive.
That first time we went, though, stands out in my mind for one reason. I scanned all the flavors. I thought about my choice. And then?
I picked vanilla.
My dad was apoplectic: “With all these flavors, you pick vanilla?” My response was something about just wanting something safe and familiar. I didn’t want to waste my trip to the ice cream shop and not 100% enjoy the experience.
But you know what? Now that I’m older, I realize that my dad was right. I should’ve tried mint chocolate chip or baseball nut or some exotic flavor-of-the-month. Even if my choice turned out terrible, there would have been plenty of time to rectify that decision. His gentle last words as we left the shop stuck in my brain: “Why don’t you try something different next time?”
When Lucky Duck Games approached us about playing a preview copy of their newest Kickstarter project, and I read the details, I realized right then and there that my dad was whispering in my ear even though he passed away in 2013. I had three campaign games on my shelf that I have not finished. I’ve got some other adventure games that I’d love to play again. I have plenty of safe and familiar games to explore.
But as I scanned my shelf of opportunity, there was Dad’s voice in my head. “With all these flavors, you pick vanilla?” All right, not this time, Dad.
Once Upon A Line: The Butterfly’s Breath (“Once Upon A Line” or “OUAL”) is an innovative adventure game from the minds of Perte & Fracas, the French board game design studio that brought us RagnaRok Star a few years back. William Aubert and Dan Thouvenot are both artists and designers, and judging by their small oeuvre, they think differently than other gamers.
Case in point: RagnaRok Star combined a thin but interesting Viking theme overlaid with a ridiculous yet funny rock band setting. It mixed set collection with programming, too. It was truly a gumbo of game mechanisms and artwork that we only saw in prototype form. (The game is near impossible to get in the States, but there’s a lot of French videos if you want to check it out.) But what we did see, the important thing that stood out even in the rough prototype copy, was that there were very few games in my collection like RagnaRok Star. It was sort of a cross between Broom Service and RoboRally and a set collecting card game, a unique mixture of styles. I gave them some kudos for being different, for sure.
And now, Aubert and Thouvenot are back, with help from artist Alexandre Gimbel and a host of other artists. They have purportedly been working non-stop for two years on something different, they say. I think they are right. It is certainly unique!
In Once Upon A Line, the players cooperatively experience an adventure as the Zephyrhymes, all powerful gods who are worried that the humans on Earth below are on an apocalyptic path to destruction. Each player on their turn takes on the role of one of the “talented beings” at their beck and call to maintain the balance of the universe.
In other words, we take turns using various heroes and their abilities to save the world. Tension? Check!
So what is so different? I’m staring at a shelf right behind my crokinole table chock full of adventure games, games like Robin Hood and Sleepy Hollow and Jaws of the Lion. All great games! But all of these games, as different as they are, follow the same format of explore a place, take on baddies and move to the next place.
Once Upon A Line has to me a lineage that is more closely related to Destinies, another game from Lucky Duck Games, even though superficially one would think they have nothing in common. No, there is no app to use. No, they did not give us any maps to explore. You won’t find miniatures in Once Upon A Line as far as I can tell. So where am I going with this comparison? The relationship between the two is more in the nature of the emerging story line.
In Destinies, the advance comes from the app itself, which tells us a story about our characters and their interaction with the world. In Once Upon A Line, we use a strange but very familiar tool: words. Not words as in incantations like at Hogwarts or descriptions like in Dungeons & Dragons. Actual puzzle words.
Let me explain. The krewe of players has a central board — in the tutorial, just one small one but in the prologue and five chapters that come with the game, very large boards — that has a beautiful landscape on it divided into many, many small grid boxes. Those boxes upon close inspection aren’t for moving pieces around or even writing. Instead, they are scratch off boxes, akin to a lottery ticket.
That was interesting bit number one for sure. We will look for keywords in the storyline that we can build off of the main word that starts each board. For a visual representation, think for yourself the New York Times crossword puzzle for starters, but if it had a freedom of showing only one word and no others on a blank grid. And no “up” or “down” clues, either.
It’s tough to talk about the mechanisms in the game other than that brief description because these are just the tools one would use — like maps and dice — to experience the adventure. The heart of this game is in the story. We don’t want to spoil any of the fun of the small tease we were provided — and we have no idea what’s in the main chapters of the game, since we were only provided the short tutorial and prologue — but suffice it to say that each board will start with a word that we can use to build other words off of that word.
Let’s take the word GUMBO for instance. That is certainly NOT one of the words in the game, at least not so far, but it is a good example to use. Looking at that word, I can use one of five action blocks in various sizes from one space to five to place at the start or end of GUMBO, or better yet, to cross through GUMBO or build off of the top or bottom of the word.
How would I know where to start? If we made up a fictional adventure story about two college friends heading to Mamou Mardi Gras and finding a time portal to 1973, the story would ostensibly give us some hints. Let’s say that a character tells me that it would be nice if we had some Viande Boucanée in the gumbo, some ‘smoked MEAT.’ I know by the keyword that somewhere on the board is the word MEAT, and I see an “M” in the middle of GUMBO. I’ll grab the three box action tile, put it in the exhaust bin, and scratch off those boxes one at a time.
Here’s where the tension builds. We have a limited time to complete the story, because there is a timer on the main board. Each time we refresh our action cubes or hit certain dead ends, we’ll have to reveal more of the timer. It’s a simple act of scanning the board to find places to fit words, but I’m assuming that it will get tougher and tougher as we sift and sort through all the puzzle elements of the emerging storyline.
Of course, none of these tricks would be any good without that strong storyline. Sure, what Aubert and Thouvenot have developed is a clever system (and I’m not just saying this because with names like that, they could have been my classmates in Evangeline Parish), but systems in games like this need a mortar with which we can build the experience.
I’ve enjoyed the storyline that we’ve seen so far. A pandemic has struck Earth — sound familiar? — and havoc has been wreaked. Insects are huge and are part of everyday landscape, both in good and bad ways. We’ll meet a cast of interesting characters as we push the humans to …. well, we’ll just have to find out together what happens next, won’t we?
Once Upon A Line is an intriguing blend of a fresh story plus innovative mechanisms. I can’t say I have seen anything quite like it, and I’m looking forward to seeing what else Aubert and Thouvenot have up their sleeves with this system. It seems like a perfect game for solo players or couples to play on game night.
If any of this sounds like it is up your alley as much as it was ours, you can click here on the preview page for more details and to be notified when the Kickstarter goes live (planned for January 17th, 2023).
Before I forget, I long ago moved past vanilla ice cream. Now, when I go to ice cream shops States-side, I’m all about the pecan praline. When I’m in France or Italy or Spain, I’ll have that fresh pistachio gelato, merci bien. Sometimes I even choose a very unfamiliar flavor. And every time I pick a flavor that I have never tried before, I silently salute the best dad in the universe. It’ll be ten years on March 3 since we lost you, Dad, but your life lessons will always be with us.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A complimentary copy of the Kickstarter prototype was provided by the publisher. All pictures show prototype components. The project is subject to change, additions, and alterations.
Photographs courtesy of Lucky Duck Games and Perte & Fracas.