You must not allow a clown gap in Circus Train!

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You can’t very well read a description of Circus Train and not be intrigued. A boardgame about managing a circus in the 30s, during the era of the Depression and Prohibition, before circuses were weird and creepy? And it’s got trains! Who knew circuses got around on trains?

After the jump, something wicked awesome this way comes?

Circus Train is one of Victory Point Games’ gold banner releases, with better production values than their usual baggie releases and sometimes updated versions of earlier games with extra content (the superlative Dawn of the Zeds is another game in the series). I had originally hoped that Circus Train was a solitaire game, and while it technically includes a solitaire version, it’s clearly designed to be played competitively. Ideally with three to five players.

As with Dawn of the Zeds, Victory Point Games offers a basic version and an advanced version. I’m not sure this is a good idea, as the basic version is missing several important gameplay concepts, such as reputation, random events, and characters with special abilities. The stripped down version isn’t really worth playing, even as a way to share the game with more casual players. How can you play Circus Train without the possibility of Big Bertha showing up? The theming is certainly a strength for people who don’t want the usual orcs, spaceships, or Euro cubes, but this is no Ticket to Ride when it comes to an easy-to-play train game. But because the documentation presents a basic game first and then folds in the advanced rules separately and not very well, it’s a tangled mess of a manual. Victory Point would do well to just concede that the full game is the game. They could then suggest a basic version in an addendum if they want to appeal to more casual players. Who should probably just play Ticket to Ride anyway.

Circus Train is an intricate game, but it’s not necessarily complicated. The mechanics consist of drawing tiles to place on the map and then moving around the map to pick them up. Players each have a hand of nine cards representing various actions, such as moving, moving fast, performing, and hiring. On your turn, you choose a card, do its action, and discard it. Once you’ve played all nine cards, you pick them up and start again. Unfortunately, one of the cards is a wages action, in which you have to pay all your performers. You’ll have to deal with this card periodically, but you get to decide when.

You make money from performances. You get paid a fixed rate, but in the interest of victory points, you want to make more and more spectacular performances. Compare the composition of your circus train to a city’s demands. Do you have acrobats and elephants for St. Louis, or should you go to Chicago where they want clowns and human cannonballs? It depends on what you’re carrying in your train. It also depends on whether you’re trying to block another player’s train. It also depends on what cards which players have left.

One of the cards lets players lure performers away from another train, which is undramatically called the “special hire” card. It has a range of two moves, so it forces some distance between players. Who’s going to venture into someone else’s special hire range first? Because if you special hire from another train, you also force him to discard his special hire card so he can’t hit you back. This adds a gratifying sense of tactical geography when players might otherwise freely zip around from Albany to Omaha. Do you hold your special hire as a deterrent? For how long? Like the wages card, it means you have to consider carefully when you do what. There’s even a rest card that basically just leaves you to do nothing for a turn. Unless you’re in Canada, where you can pick up liquor.

Your circus’ reputation determines how difficult it is to hire new acts. You can sacrifice reputation to do an end run around some of the rules, either getting extra money or playing an action card out of your discard pile before you’ve cycled the rest of your hand. You might have to get through a few games before the reputation mechanic really comes into play, but it’s a smart system that affects recruiting, victory points, and even the special hire card.

You’ll earn a basic fee for any performance, but you maintain a highest performance score throughout the game. At the end of each month, whoever performed the most amazing circus so far gets victory points. Furthermore, the most accomplished circus train with the most of each type of act might get victory points, but only if they have more than anyone else. This leads to plenty of player competition, and it’s a key consideration when you’re luring acts away from another train. Who has the most tiger tamers and acrobats? Who has the most freaks? You and another player have the same number of elephants, so neither of you benefits until one of you pulls ahead. There’s a special victory point award at the end of the game for most clowns. Mind the clown gap!

A game lasts six months, divided into three seasons, each nine weeks long. Which coincides neatly with the nine action card in your hand. The seasons get increasingly lucrative and expensive as people demand more and more elaborate circuses over the course of the summer. It reaches a fevered pitch in August and September with spectacular but difficult two week engagements. Plan your cards carefully so you can play two performance actions in a row. Your highest performance score will thank you.

You might expect splashy color with a circus game, but Circus Train mostly opts for the sepia muting of Depression era photography. This fits perfectly with the occasional bleak gameplay, when you can’t afford to pay your elephant trainers, or when the demand for performances dries up, or when your freaks get too sick to perform, or when you’re counting on your competitor to go to Albany instead of Buffalo, but he goes to Buffalo and now you have no way to earn money this turn. A deck of 26 event cards can have drastic effects on the game, even going so far as to end it early. But you’ll only ever use five of the cards each time you play. Sometimes these events miss everyone. Sometimes they can single-handedly cost someone the game. Sometimes they mix up the action wonderfully.

Although this is obviously an improved printing run since the 2010 baggie version, it leaves something to be desired. The all-important tiles for performances have a lot of tiny icons and numbers, which means a lot of standing up and leaning over the board and leaning in closer to see if that’s a three or a two. The tiny arrows that indicate reputation on a little card feel like an afterthought. It’s a bit of a mess tracking all players’ victory points and their highest performances on the same track, which is the usual numbers around the edge of the board. Sticking the two-week engagement marker on a train is almost impossible without doing minor violence to the train piece. My copy of the game has a printing error where the artwork on the bottom left of the map doesn’t line up correctly. It’s strictly cosmetic, but it’s sloppy. I also wish Victory Point would ditch the pizza-box-in-a-sleeve packaging. What a horrible way to keep a boardgame.

But Circus Train has it where it counts. In the designer’s notes, Tom Decker references a gladiator boardgame as his inspiration, but I’ve never played anything quite like Circus Train. Certainly not in terms of the theming. But also not in terms of a game about players configuring their playing piece to adapt to a sometimes brutally random and increasingly frenzied demand on a tactically significant map. With plenty of fantastic theming to complement the design smarts, this is a boardgame I heartily recommend.

4 stars
Boardgame

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