I love checking out board games that are doing something new and Once Upon A Line is doing that by being the first ever scratch-off adventure game.
In Once Upon A Line, you scratch off sections of the game board in an attempt to find the words that will continue the story and lead you to more words to scratch off. I’ve never played anything like it.
Disclosure: Thank you Lucky Duck Games for sending us a prototype copy of Once Upon a Line to check out. Be aware that this is a preview and not a review. At the time I’m writing this Once Upon a Line is currently on Kickstarter. The game is not complete and what we were sent was a prototype copy of the game that only included a small portion of the final game. Everything said in this post is based on this pre-production copy, which may change with the final release. Also note this is not a paid preview, we were sent a prototype and that’s it.
What is Once Upon a Line The Butterfly’s Breath?
Once Upon a Line Butterfly’s Breath (which I’ll be referring to as Once Upon a Line going forward) is being designed by William Aubert and Dan Thouvenot. It features artwork by Bastien Boulai, Alexandre Gimbel, Adrien Gion, Romain Mottier, Vincent Ptitvinc, Leandro Di Terlizzi, and Guillaume “GYAx” Weber. It will be published in France by Perte & Fracas with an English translation and localization being done by Lucky Duck Games.
You can find Once Upon a Line (and multiple expansions for it) live right now on Kickstarter, where it was funded in under two hours and is still going strong. The base pledge, which includes the core game plus one expansion and a metal scratcher, comes in at 39€ or about $42USD, the all in pledge level is over $100 USD, and then there are various other backer levels between those.
This unique game is listed as suitable for one to five players with core scenarios taking three hours or more. The game includes a shorter half hour or so Tutorial and a one hour Prologue. All we were sent were these shorter intro scenarios, so we can’t comment on how long a full scenario really takes. The game is listed as ages fourteen plus, which seems about right based on the content we saw in the chapters we got to play through.
In Once Upon a Line, you are some kind of mystical being that takes control of one or more Heroes in a post apocalyptic future Earth. You walk these heroes through a scenario based campaign where items you collect, characters you’ve discovered, and skills you’ve unlocked, carry forward from scenario to scenario. Individual chapters feature branching paths and multiple player decision points.
The truly unique thing about this game is how you play. You explore this future earth by scratching off squares on the scenario boards the way you scratch off a lottery ticket, looking for keywords that will allow you to draw cards and advance the story. It’s unlike anything we’ve ever played before.
Normally this would be the spot in the review where I share a link to an unboxing video to show off the components. I’m not doing that here because what we received was clearly stated to be a prototype and the components do not reflect the final product.
In our prototype copy, we got three player trays, playing pieces for three heroes, two playable tutorial boards, one playable prologue board, a bunch of other unplayable mock-up boards, a scratch off tool, and the instructions.
The quality of what we got was a mixed bag. The player trays worked well and the playing pieces used to plan out your moves worked great. However, the tray for holding cards wasn’t the best and one of our tutorial boards had some kind of production issue where it was almost impossible to scratch off. One end of our scratching tool also snapped off during our second play.
The instructions were clear for the most part. They had a “translated from French” feel to them but did actually make sense. The order some of the information was presented in wasn’t what you might expect and I really hope they add an index to the finished version.
Now, remember all of these components were prototypes. Hopefully, the problems we did find won’t be issues in the final version of the game.
How to play Once Upon a Line
You start Once Upon a Line by playing through the tutorial. The instructions walk you through set up, which involves taking a player board and seeding it with straight line pieces in sizes one through five. You also place a blue zone marker in the tray which will also hold your hero card once you start playing.
You then find the scratch off board, or Grid of Destiny, for the scenario you are about to start as well as the cards associated with that scenario. You stick the cards in the card holder and flip the Grid of Destiny over. Here you will record your name (skipped for the tutorial) grab any indicating starting cards (for the tutorial this is your first Hero and their Skill Sheet) and do whatever it tells you to do on the bottom of the card.
For both the scenarios we played this involved scratching off a line on the grid spelling out our first keyword.
Story Keywords have lines at the end of the first and last letters and when you find one of those you then draw the matching card and read it and follow any instructions there. These cards will contain other keywords that you will then go searching for on the Grid of Destiny.
After the start of scenario word is found, any future scratching requires you to use up actions. Each hero can take four actions before needing to rest. To take an action you move pieces from the top of your tray into one of the four action spots and then scratch off a matching pattern on the Grid of Destiny. The basic shapes you start with are all straight lines of various lengths that can be combined for longer words but you can unlock more interesting shapes like bends, crosses, etc.
The cards will give you hints as to where to look, such as if a word is connected to another one, if it runs perpendicular to an existing word, etc. Some hints are more subtle and found in the story text itself. For example, the story may mention that something is found in the rear of the shed and this could indicate that the word you are looking for is off of the word shed and likely off of the D in shed specifically.
Without getting into details of exactly how to scratch things off, and what you can and can’t do, I will just say that you have to start your search from off of an existing word and you always have to scratch off the full shape you used for your action even if you realize you are heading the wrong way. This is because in addition to letters that are part of words you could also run into a variety of symbols, most of which are bad and can make your quest harder.
After taking four actions with a Hero they have to rest. When this happens you scratch off a square on The Line of Tragedy. This is a timer for the game that applies penalties the more you scratch off. Most of these will have you swap in one of your shapes for a smaller version but some will also lock your action spots so you have fewer moves available before having to rest. Some of the special symbols on the Grid of Destiney could also cause you to scratch off squares on The Line of Tragedy.
In addition to keywords, you can also discover power words on the grid. These let you level up your character by crossing off matching letters on your character’s Talent card. If you manage to cross off an entire word you get a new special blue action. This could be a new shape, or a way to prevent a penalty, or something else.
Sometimes when you draw a card you enter what the game calls a Challenge. To resolve a challenge you are presented with a riddle and you have to guess the right word to progress. Guessing wrong can cause you to lose points on your final score and/or advance the line of tragedy. You can also get up to two clues and may even start with some kind of hint depending on what you’ve done in the story up to that point.
While revealing words you will eventually encounter words of a different colour. Words of different colours represent different physical locations in the story. After discovering a new colour, you must travel to start revealing words of that colour. Travelling requires you to mark off a square on the line of tragedy. Interestingly, once you’ve unlocked more Heroes, different characters can be in different locations.
The game continues with you using your hero’s actions to scratch things off based on the clues you have, which will reveal new cards with more clues until you finally get to the end of the story. At that point, you will gain any rewards, record your progress and calculate a final score. You get a set of default points based on the scenario difficulty. Plus you gain bonus points for avoiding hazards while scratching, or for not using any clues during a challenge, and then lose points for any Dystopian Points you’ve collected (which can be found on the grid, on the line of tragedy, or gained during the story).
Except for the tutorial, items you’ve found, and heroes you’ve unlocked, along with their talents, carry over to the next scenario. The core game is currently listed as having six chapters after the Prologue.
Should you pick up Once Upon A Line?
I am always on the lookout for games that do something new, and you’ve got to admit that Once Upon a Line is doing something totally new. While I will admit I’ve seen scratch off bits used in previous games, I’ve never seen a game where that’s the core mechanic, which is why I agreed to do this preview.
What I didn’t expect is that we would only be getting to check out a very small portion of the game. Due to the fact that all we got were two copies of the tutorial and the ability to play the rather short prelude, I don’t have all that much I can say about this game at this point. There just wasn’t enough there to make a fair judgment.
Adding to this is the fact that the Tutorial, while great for teaching you how the game works and specifically how scratching the grid of destiny plays out, does a terrible job of showcasing this game. If I had just played the tutorial this would be a much shorter and less positive review. The game didn’t really start to show its charm until we actually sat down as a team and played through the prologue. It was only then that the neatness of this system truly started to shine.
Once Upon A Line feels very different from every other game I’ve ever played and I’ve played a lot.
If I had to compare it to other games we enjoy I would say it’s closest to a puzzle game, or an escape room in a box style game, though in this case all of the puzzles are word base. Once Upon a Line scratches the same itch as those games though, as you are using logic and deduction to figure out where to scratch next.
What impressed me the most about this is when it clicked in that the story was giving us more hints than we first thought. That was the “Oh, there it is! That’s what this game is about!” moment that made me swap from not really being interested in the full game to now considering picking it up.
One thing that did come up when playing, that I don’t think I’ve said about any board game before, is that this game is messy. While playing you are going to be doing a lot of scratching off of cards and that leads to little rolled up bits of silvery material all over your playing surface. You are going to want to play this game somewhere where you can easily clean up this kind of a mess (and you need to be very careful not to sneeze while playing — a mistake I made when playing for the first time).
Another issue with this game is that it’s not really replayable. While the Kickstarter lists recharge packs as being available, as far as I can tell the actual word grids are the same. I think it would take a long time to forget where some of the words are. Now the campaign does say there are multiple endings, so maybe there’s some merit to replaying the story, but again we didn’t get to see that part of the game.
I did like the action system. It led to some really interesting decisions. I also really enjoyed the mechanic for traveling, especially when playing with two players in the prologue where we decided to split the party. You wouldn’t think scratching off different coloured words would impart that feel of being in separate locations but somehow it worked. It felt like Sean and I were apart from each other each doing our own thing. I found that quite impressive.
Interestingly this interaction while playing two players was way more fun than I had expected. Up until that point, I had been thinking that this was a solo game that can be played mutli-player. It wasn’t until all three of us were playing, and we were working together and bouncing ideas off of each other, that it clicked in just how good Once Upon a Line is as a multiplayer experience. I can only guess that in the actual chapters, this becomes more of a thing.
Overall, while we didn’t get to experience nearly as much of Once Upon a Line as I had hoped, I ended up having fun with the game. More fun than I expected. I was surprised to learn just how well the scratch off word find mechanic worked and how rewarding it can be to figure out parts of the puzzle, especially when you did that through something revealed in the story.
While we did run into some component issues what we were playing was a prototype and I can only hope those issues will be fixed in the full production copy.
If you dig story driven games and word puzzles I think we just tried out the perfect game for you. I don’t think anything else matches those two game styles up as well as Once Upon a Line does.
If you are a roleplayer looking to get into character, this isn’t your type of story game. You don’t really get the feeling that you are playing a character in Once Upon a Line at all. While the characters have backstories, and you can level up their abilities through gameplay, each hero is really just a tool to make the word finding parts of the game easier and more interesting.
You also aren’t going to dig this game if you are looking for a fantasy dungeon crawler. This definitely isn’t that type of game (I suggest checking out our RPG in a Box episode if you’re looking for those kinds of games).
The group of players who I do think will enjoy this game are the ones that like puzzles and figuring out clues. Fans of games like Chronicles of Crime and the various escape room in a box games, like the EXIT series or the Puzzling Pursuits games, should find plenty to enjoy here.
If you love scratch tickets this could be a great board game for you. Though you do have to resist the urge to scratch off the entire board!
I personally think my mother-in-law would love this game, it’s right up her alley. As for me, I’m not completely sold. I wish I could have gotten to experience a full chapter of the game. Based on how much better the prologue was than the tutorial I think it may have won me over. I still may pick this one up, even if just to play it with my mother-in-law.
I’m really glad we got to check out Once Upon A Line. While I do wish we had gotten more to play around with, we found a lot to like in this unique game. Playing Once Upon A Line felt like a brand new tabletop experience and that alone was worth it.
What’s the last truly unique game you played? Tell us about it in the comments below!