A humorous and educational look at speech pathology.

Posts tagged ‘Tabletop’

Board Games and Speech Therapy: Once Upon a Time

Returning after a long (too long) break, I’m excited to start with more reviews – and super-excited for an announcement related to this blog next week.

If this is your first time here, you may want to go here to the “home” page. It explains a bit about what I’m hoping to accomplish with this series, and lists the games I’ve already reviewed.

This is the first review that I’ve timed to coincide with another event. Once Upon A Time, designed by Richard Lambert, Andrew Rilstone, and James Wallis and published by Atlas Games, is being covered on the board gaming YouTube show TableTop this week (for reference, two other games reviewed in this series that have been covered on TableTop include Dixit and Get Bit! – and beware, TableTop is not always school/work-safe viewing), and since it was already on the “review” list, I moved it up the list – and used the show’s timing to give myself a deadline.

Once Upon A Time

Variants/Expansions: Once Upon a Time is now in its third edition of printing, and has three expansions: Dark Tales, Enchanting Tales, and Seafaring Tales. Each of the expansions adds a slightly different theme (evil creatures and unhappy endings, enchanted princesses, and stories of the sea, respectively). I haven’t tried the expansions, but the added variety should come in handy after using the game in therapy a few times. There are also Create-Your-Own Cards if you want to add cards specific to speech therapy or to your local area.

General Overview: Once Upon A Time is a story-building game designed for two to six players of ages 8 and up. Players are dealt one Happily Ever After card, which details the ending of a fantasy-style fairy tale story, and 5-10 Once Upon A Time cards, which each contain one plot element of a fantasy/fairy tale story. One Storyteller begins to tell the fairy tale, trying to use the Characters, Items, Places, Aspects (adjectives), and Events in his or her hand to tell the story. As the Storyteller uses a plot element on his or her card, the Storyteller plays the card, trying to empty his or her hand of Once Upon a Time cards and end the game with a Happily Ever After card. The other players pay close attention to the story and the cards in their hand, because if the Storyteller uses a plot element that is on one of their cards, then the player can play his or her card and take over the story, becoming the new Storyteller.

Skill Support:

  • Story Sequencing – Once Upon A Time requires the player to connect events in a (mostly) logical fashion to form a coherent narrative.
  • Divided Attention – When a player is not the Storyteller, he or she needs to pay attention to both the cards in his or her hand and the story the Storyteller is telling, trying to find a place where the two match.
  • Imaginative Play – Because this game deals with a fantasy theme, it works well to help a student with limited imaginative play with a structure to support the development of fantasy and creativity.
  • Categorizing/Grammar – The cards are labelled with groups (Characters, Events, Places), making it easy to reinforce word categories and parts of speech while playing.
  • Expressive Vocabulary – Many of the terms used in the game may be terms that are familiar to the student from listening to fairy tales, but are terms that don’t always come up in spontaneous use. Once Upon A Time encourages students to use these terms in a slightly different context than the context in which the term was learned.


  • Easy to demonstrate: While the rules (at least the rules for the second edition of the game, which I have) aren’t spectacular at getting you playing the game quickly, the game is easy to demonstrate once you have a handle on them. This makes the game not quite out of the box, but one that takes minimal time out of a therapy session to teach.
  • Antecedent In Popular Culture: While princess movies are on the decline in popularity, there are still enough (especially with the Disney Princess franchise ramping up consumerism) that most children have encountered fantasy themes in their previous experience. Using the same themes in a therapy activity helps to reinforce the therapy skills being targeted.
  • Aligned With Common Core ELA State Standards: One of the ongoing challenges of innovation in education is that service providers are being encouraged to draw direct and indirect connections between their services and grade level content expectations, most commonly the English and Language Arts standards in the case of speech pathology. This article from Booklist describes how a number of fairy tale texts can be used to meet Common Core ELA objectives. The philosophy discussed in this article can easily be transferred to Once Upon A Time.
  • Useful With Many Age Groups: This probably isn’t a game for kindergarteners with language difficulties, but this game can be used both from students in second or third grade all the way to high school seniors, with the language expectations rising with the students’ ages and performance ability.


  • Literacy is required: While the Once Upon A Time cards use words and pictures (which is fantastic), the Happily Ever After cards only have text, requiring that the players either be literate or have assistance finishing the story.
  • Tricky Fonts. The font used on the Once Upon A Time cards for the group label (Place, Character, etc) can be difficult to read for students that are not used to script writing – or even some who are). This is greatly improved in the game’s third edition, but be aware of this if you’ve found an older copy at a thrift store or on eBay.
  • Distracting Rules. The game has a couple rules and cards that can be really distracting or confusing if a student isn’t ready to process three or four different pieces of information at a time. One such rule says that cards can only be played if its use is important to the story, but doesn’t provide great guidance as to when something would be “mentioned for no reason”. Also, there are Interrupt cards that allow players to take the story away from the Storyteller when the Storyteller plays a card of that type; these cards make for a more interesting game, but they detract from the use of the game’s theme to build of language skills.


  • Get rid of the Interrupts: Taking all the Interrupt cards out of the deck has two benefits. First, it allows you to focus more on the narrative aspect of the game without removing much gameplay. Second, it takes away the attention from the part of the card that has the most difficult to read font (if the Interrupts aren’t present, then the card’s group isn’t relevant to game mechanics).
  • Made-up Happily Ever After: For students who aren’t literate, you can get rid of the Happily Ever After cards as well, allowing a student to make up their own ending once he or she is out of cards.
  • Therapist moderation: “Ground rules” from the therapist or teacher can do a lot to prevent confusion and/or argument about when a card can be played as part of a story. I usually use two ground rules: There can only be one card played in each sentence (a rule from the rulebook), and the card played must “do something” (meaning that it must be an active rather than passive agent in the story).

Alternate Uses:

  • Social Stories: Using cards from Once Upon A Time can be used in creating social stories in a number of ways. When the student is first learning social stories, the cards can be used as visual cues for a therapist-created social story. After the student starts to gain proficiency, the clinician and student can work together, with the student creating the base story and the clinician asking questions and adding story elements as needed to guide the narrative. Finally, as the student becomes proficient in understanding the social concepts taught by the social stories, he or she can use cards from Once Upon A Time to demonstrate his or her knowledge (especially useful for students who are weak with verbal language).
  • Graphic Organizers: As students begin writing stories on their own, Once Upon A Time cards can be used as tactile graphic organizers to help the student organize his or her thoughts. One of the major challenges of traditional graphic organizers is that it can be difficult to follow characters through actions and interactions, and the ability to use these cards as something of a movable storyboard can help scaffold a student’s writing or story generation.
  • Writing Prompts: In addition to scaffolding writing in general, Once Upon A Time cards can be used to create randomized writing prompts for students who have written language objectives. Using a random Character, Item, Aspect, Place, and Event (adding another card or two as the cards call for) can create a large number of unique prompts to save students the monotony of writing and rewriting on the same prompts – and to save you the effort of continuously searching for and printing out new prompts.

In general, this is a good game for speech therapy. The rules could use some improvement, and some modifications to the game can be needed for each individual group. But if you’re not ready to make some modifications to materials to maximize their impact, what are you doing in speech therapy? 😉