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Circus Train
A game for 1-5 players designed by Tom Decker


“Why the hell shouldn't I run away with the circus?”
― Sara Gruen, Water for Elephants


Introduction
I've been a gamer, in the sense we like to think of it on BGG, ever since I was introduced to Ogre thirty odd years ago. At the time, Ogre was published by a really innovative game company called MetaGaming, and they made a whole bunch of games that had as their basis some really interesting ideas. Some of them were hits and some were flops, but nobody could ever say they weren't original.

Over the decades, there always seems to be at least one company that has kept up that tradition of being the company making that kind of game, and at the moment, Victory Point Games fill that niche for me. My favourites from them include Nemo's War and Moonbase Alpha (both of which I've previously reviewed) and several of the games from their States of Siege series.

One thing I've always loved are games rich with theme, so it's probably no small surprise then that my favourite games have a rich thematic backdrop. Sara Gruen's novel Water for Elephants planted the seed of an idea and Tom Decker grew it into the brilliant game that is Circus Train.

In Circus Train, you are the owner operator of a prohibition era circus, trying to make a buck and outperform your opposition as you take your Greatest Show on Earth through the midwest and eastern US.

Components
I originally became interested in Circus Train when GMT was planning to publish it through their P500 program, but when VPG bought their laser cutting table and upgraded their game production to their Gold Banner standard, they pulled it back in house and released it themselves. The tradeoff of waiting for the GMT treatment of the game vs. having the game in hand now is well worth it as the VPG Gold Banner level of components are very good indeed.

The game comes in the trademark bigger 9x12x1 box that VPG is now getting known for with the slipcase cover. I lucked out in a sense because VPG had left some copies that were destined for Origins behind at their office and made them available if you called in. I phoned in and thus got one of the "convention exclusive" editions, which comes with a little bonus acrylic circus tent that you can use as a start marker.

The game has a lot of bits, and the graphic designers and artists had a lot of fun making all the pieces different, and hey, with a laser cutting table, why not! The boxed edition comes with a mounted puzzle piece connected board, over 250 game pieces, a die, and 100 cards, plus a glossy full colour 20 page rulebook. Not to mention the paper game map, included in the Gold Banner boxed edition in addition to the mounted board. This game has a lot of stuff and just fits in the box. I think this might well be the most ambitious game, component wise, that VPG has produced to date. The laser table is clearly being put to good and ambitious use! I've used a divided container to hold the player bits external to the box as it was quite packed with the mounted board and all the baggies I had the bits in, but everything will fit back in the box without having to take apart the stand up train markers.

The counters are gorgeously thick and sturdy, and with the shapes being different gives a tactile differentiation above and beyond what the graphics and colours do. The cards are thick and well laid out, but you will want to sleeve them, especially the player cards, as they are uncoated. I've put mine in penny sleeves since there is minimal shuffling required of the destination and random event decks, and you never need to shuffle the player cards.

Image courtesy of VPG.

The board is very evocative of the era we're playing in, and there's room for everything on the map. Speaking of which, the map is really a lovely work of art and definitely helps to get players into the feel of the game. The deluxe edition comes with a mounted puzzle piece style map, and in my chats with VPG, every map is hand made because it's larger than their usual products and requires extra attention. The map depicts the northeast section of the US stretching from Omaha to Richmond and points north up to Winnipeg in the west and Montreal in the east.

On the whole, the quality level is most satisfactory.

Rules & Game Play
In Circus Train, the object at the end of the game is to have the most victory points. However, how you get there is rather open ended as there are multiple priorities you need to juggle in order to generate them.

The game is played over three distinct seasons - April-May, June-July, and August-September. Each month is broken up into four or five weeks, and at the end of each month there is scoring, and at the end of each season, a new set of news tokens comes into play.

Every player begins the game with their circus train marker in one of three Canadian cities - Montreal, Toronto, or Winnipeg. According to the designer notes, ruing prohibition most circuses started the season here in Canada so that they could stock up on booze before heading south. In addition, each circus begins with some talent. Everyone gets a clown, and their choice of any two others from the acrobats, freaks, and horses. There are also human cannonballs, big cats, and elephants available in the mix. There are also some optional special talent counters that can come into play. One thing you don't start with though is any money. Zero, zip, nada, zilch.

The game begins with every player selecting a Canadian start city and taking their player cards. Then destination cards are drawn, one at time, and a green local news tokens is drawn and placed there. Repeat until there are eight of them on the board. There is one destination card for every American city on the board. News tokens come in one of three flavours - performances for a city is wanting a circus to come to town and put on a show, bankrupt circuses who have left their talent behind to be hired by a solvent circus, and victory point counters which are awarded on the spot to whoever ends their movement on the space and represents any manner of good fortune. The bankrupt circus news tokens are immediately discarded once the talent is placed on the map, so it's possible there will be more than eight cities with something on them at the start of the game. For the game start only, there will always be as many performances on the map as there are players.

Each player will have an identical set of cards which they can use in any order they like. In the basic game there are eight cards - two basic transit cards, and one each of fast transit, rapid transit, overnight transit, overnight hire and transit, wages and transit, and hold. In the advanced game, a rest card is added to the mix. The hand management is essential to success as what you do with your cards will affect how well (and often) you might be able to perform (which earns you money) or hire talent (which will cost you money - eventually). As with any good game, there are duelling priorities and strategies that need to be weighed with every card play. Let's have a quick look at the cards to see what you can do.

Fast transit and rapid transit let you move up to five and three cities respectively. They're meant to get you to a better spot as quickly as possible.

Hold lets you stay put and gives you the option to perform if there's a performance marker where you are, to hire talent if there's someone available in your city, or to do nothing. Sometimes, doing nothing is just what you need to do.

Basic transit gives you a choice between being required to move one city, or to perform/hire is there's a performance marker/talent in your city. You have two of these.

Overnight transit gives you the option of moving up to two cities, and then in addition lets you perform/hire if there's a performance marker in your city.

Hiring talent is simple. If there's talent available, you roll a d6 and if you roll a 1-4, you get the talent. If you miss, you can just buy them outright for $10. In the advanced game, you roll against your reputation rather than 1-4.

Overnight hire and transit is one of the most interesting cards in the game. It gives you the option of moving up to two cities first, and then do a special hire. With a special hire, you can hire talent in your city as per normal, but it also gives you two other options. If you want, you can simply hire talent from the available talent counter mix for a fee of $5/10/20 (varies by season). The nasty screw your neighbour option is to hire away talent from one of your fellow players! You need to be in the same city, and you can try to hire away up to two of your opponents' talent counters. Better yet, if you succeed, and they have their overnight hire and transit card in hand, they must discard it! However, if you fail to hire away their talent… be prepared to have the card played against you! The rolls for stealing talent are the same as a standard hire, except you can't choose to buy them if you miss.

Wages and transit is the card nobody wants to play. You may move up to two cities, and then you have to pay all your talent. Clowns are cheap at $1 each, but elephants and big cats, which everyone wants to see, are $12 each. And if you can't pay your talent, they quit. In the advanced game you can choose to red light your talent, but it costs you reputation points. More on that later.

Rest (advanced game only). Stay put and do nothing. If you're in a Canadian city, take a talent counter or increase your reputation by one.

You can only play each card once, but once you have played all your cards you take them all back into your hand and start afresh. This means planning is required.

The game is broken up into 27 weeks, so you'll be playing through your hand of eight cards a little over three times (or three times in the advanced game). At the end of each week, the local news counters are replenished to the required seasonal number.

Looking at the cards, you'll notice that there are only four that allow you to perform, so it's vital to maximize your performances in order to generate money. Also, being able to perform well can increase the amount of money you earn, and this in turn will help generate victory points. However, you will want to hire some talent to improve your performance scores.

A perform action simply means you examine the performance counter in your city and this will generate a performance value. Let's look at this counter as an example.

Here the base value of the performance is 3, and if you have a clown you add 2 and if you have elephants you add 15 more. Let's say you don't have an elephant, but you do have a clown (since everyone starts with one). You would earn $5 (the value of a green performance marker), and 5 performance points (3 base, 2 for the clown). Everyone starts the game with a base of 10 performance points, so you haven't beaten your best performance score yet. You keep the performance marker.


Let's then look this situation. It's a few turns later, and this is going to be your third performance and in the interim you've managed to hire an acrobat (or maybe you had one at the start of the game) and you still have your clown. This time your performance score is going to be 12 (2 base, plus 5 each for the acrobat and clown) PLUS 5 for your two previous performances (the base values are cumulative), for a total of 17. Let's say this is your new high score for performances. This means you'll earn $5 (for a green performance) and a $10 bonus for having beaten your best previous performance, and you will also move your performance marker to 17.

If you have three (or more!) of a specific type of talent, say clowns, then your circus is famous for that particular talent type, and the performance points for that talent type are doubled. So looking back at our second example, you would have scored 17 for the basic performance (2 base, 5 for acrobats, 10 for clowns) and then 5 more for the previous performances for a total of 22.


Performance points will help you score victory points at the end of the month when scoring occurs. The person with the highest performance score will earn 7VP, the one in second place will earn 4VP and third place gets 2VP. There are some special rules for two players, and for April only in a 3+ player game, but for the sake of simplicity, I'm going to gloss over this here.

You will also earn victory points for having the most of any talent type. Let's say you have four clowns, and everyone else has less. That's worth 4VP. You can only score points for the most talent if you have at least two of the talent type. You may have the only freak amongst the competition, but the game only rewards you if you have at least two. And if someone else also has four clowns, then neither of you score for the most.

At the end of the 5 week months (May, July, and August), the player in last place on the VP track may steal one talent counter of their choice from any other player. If two or more players are tied for last, no theft takes place.

In addition to the month end scoring, at the end of each season (every second month), any green news tokens left are removed from the draw bag and replaced with the yellow markers, and the number of news markers on the board increases to 10. Yellow performance markers earn you a base of $10 instead of $5. At the end of the second season, the unused yellow markers are removed and replaced with the red ones, and the count on the board is increased to 12. Red performance markers earn a base of $20, but beware! Most of them require two weeks of time, or in game terms, two consecutive performance actions! If you don't have two performs in hand, you won't be able to complete the performance there. Also, if you're in the middle of your two week performance, it is the perfect time for an opponent to come along and hire away that key talent of yours ("I thought there were supposed to be elephants! This circus sucks!"). As noted above, there is one destination card for each city and it is reshuffled once exhausted, and if it so happens that something is already present in a city when its card comes up again, it is replaced by the new news token.

Aside from performances, you'll also run into talent from other circus trains that have gone bankrupt, leaving some sad clowns and freaks and other folks suitable for circus life behind. They are available to be hired with the hire action mentioned previously.

The one other type of news token you may encounter is a marker with a VP value on it. If you end your movement there, you collect the VP and discard the marker. It can be a handy way to get a few VP ahead on the track, but of course this means it's time you're not performing or recruiting talent, but sometimes that's the best option available at the time.

There will be six scoring rounds in the game (one per month), and at the end of the game, there are VP bonuses and penalties. You get bonuses for having the most clowns, money, and number of performances, and penalties for having no clowns or no animals (elephants, big cats, or horses). The player with the most VP is then declared the winner.

The basic game is challenging, but the game also includes some advanced rules and optional rules that allow you to mix and match your experience. I recommend the basic game for new players, but also strongly encourage people to try out the other options.

The Advanced Game
Once upon a time, rather than endless expansions, games came with advanced and/or optional rules, and Circus Train follows this classic model from yesteryear. It reminds me not a little of several of the Avalon Hill games I've played in the past (and for that matter still do) where you start with the basic rules and then as you progress through the scenarios, new units and more complex rules are added gradually.

The advanced game adds a few more options without a lot of rules overhead. First, it adds one more card to your hand (the Rest card, mentioned above), which makes planning a touch trickier since you're inserting a week between hand refreshes. However, you also then have these options available to you.

Second, it adds the reputation track. Each player starts with their reputation near the top (the 1-5 space). This means that for hiring talent purposes, you roll a 1-5 rather than the 1-4 of the basic game, but as your reputation changes, so do your odds of hiring away talent.

Replay discarded action card. You can choose to take a card you've already used and play it again but it costs you. In April-July, it costs two levels of reputation, and if you can't pay those reputation points, you can't take this action. In August-September, it costs you 4VP!

Pocketing wages. You can choose to take money instead of playing a card. You can take money in $5 increments, but each $5 you take lowers your reputation by one point. You can only do this April-July.

There are also a few rules adjustments.

When paying wages, you can choose to red light your talent (which at the time meant literally throwing them off the train) so that you don't have to pay them. In April through July every talent counter thus fired costs you a reputation point, and you can keep doing that even if your reputation is at rock bottom. However in August and September, that penalty is 3VP per talent counter.

Circus Parade. The Basic Transit card gets one additional option which is the allow the player to spend $10 in their current location to hold a parade, and who doesn't love a parade? For the $10 you can choose to either increase your reputation by one, or to earn 2VP.

Special Hire - Stealing Talent. When trying to steal talent from another player, you need to roll against your reputation, and if your rival's circus has a better reputation than yours, you have to add +1 to your die roll, making it that much harder.

Stealing talent at the end of long months. The person in last place can only steal talent from someone with a reputation value less than or equal to their own. So you can't run your circus into the ground and then steal talent from the Greatest Show On Earth (™).

Last but not least, there are some bonus VPs to be had at the end of the game for having the best reputation, and to get the bonus for the most money means you need to be at level 5 or higher on the reputation track.

Optional Rules
The optional rules come in two flavours - special talent, and random events.

The special talent are specific characters that can help your circus out. Some of them are one use only, and some of them are permanent. For example, Brakeman Bill gives you a persistent +1 to your movement. Engineer Eddie on the other hand can only be used with the advanced rules and lets you use a discarded card again for free, but then he goes into the special hire bank for someone else to hire in August-September. These extra talent counters behave exactly like other talent counters for all purposes (including being stolen), but don't have to be paid.

The random event cards add some spice to the game, and happen as part of the end of the month procedures. There will only ever be five random events per game out of a deck of 26 possible events. The random events can have a pretty big effect on play, so I would be cautious about adding them until you've had a few games under your belt. If you're keen to add them right away, it would be worthwhile to go through the deck, even if only cursorily, so that people know what kinds of things to expect. Having to pay a penalty for having a certain type of talent in hand can be a nasty surprise if you don't know it's something that could be coming. Of course, since the events are optional, there's probably no harm in taking events you don't want to see happen from the deck and only using a subset of them.

Conclusions
There's definitely a careful balancing act required of every player to maximize their own particular strengths and weaknesses against everyone else. You can't simply imitate someone else's plan because that will actually hurt both of you; a simple example is that neither of you will score points for having the most clowns if you're tied!

And yet, talent specialization isn't strictly necessary if you can keep pulling off increasingly good performances and stay ahead of everyone else on that track, earning lots of VP every month. At the same time, being ahead on the VP track all the time can leave you open to having your talent poached by the person in last place, so maybe some careful manipulation and observation can keep you just behind the leader.

Finally, having a variety of bonus and penalty point awards at the end of the game can give players options for how they want to specialize and also how to best mess with their opponents. Nothing like stealing someone's one and only clown at the end of the game and nailing them with the penalty for that!

I really like games where there are interlocking mechanisms that have ripple effects throughout the game. Here in Circus Train, you want to have good performance scores in order to generate VP, but you can only do that by having the right talent at the right place at the right time, and that means having to be careful about your hiring decisions (or lack thereof) and be mindful of performing if only to make some money because you're going to have to pay that talent eventually! You can specialize, thereby potentially earning bonus VP for having the most of various talent types, and making your performance scores higher by being famous for human cannonballs, say, thus getting perhaps fewer performances in, but getting more bang for you buck by always earning the $10 bonus for beating your previous performance scores.

There are also a lot of things to keep track of. You need to be mindful of where your opponents are relative to you (they may be close enough to come steal your key talent), which cities have come and gone from the destination deck - nothing like planning to perform in New York only to have it be pulled and replaced by a performance marker that it completely not in tune with your talent pool!

Circus Train is a truly brilliant game that will likely not get as much exposure as it should because of it being a VPG product. I'm delighted that this game is part of their catalog of games because I love what they do, but I also can't help but feel that if this game were made by one of the big publishing houses that we'd be hearing talk about when this game would be breaking into the top 100.

Yes, it's that good.


Thank you for reading this latest installment of Roger's Reviews. I've been an avid board gamer all my life and a wargamer for over thirty years. I have a strong preference for well designed games that allow players to focus on trying to make good decisions.

Among my favorites I include Twilight Struggle, the Combat Commander Series, the Musket & Pike Battle Series, Julius Caesar, Maria, EastFront, Here I Stand, Napoleon's Triumph and Unhappy King Charles!

You can subscribe to my reviews at this geeklist: [Roger's Reviews] The Complete Collection and I also encourage you to purchase this very stylish microbadge: mb
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Jason Koskey
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Very good review.

Thank you for taking the time to share this.

I was also lucky enough to obtain a "Conventions Only" edition of this awesome game. It has already created a huge buzz within my gaming group and will be one of those games that will have no problem making it to our table often.
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Scott Everts
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Great review! Glad to see this game getting more attention! thumbsup
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Alan Emrich
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Like the others, I think this is a great review.

One additional comment:

"I originally became interested in Circus Train when GMT was planning to publish it through their P500 program, but when VPG bought their laser cutting table and upgraded their game production to their Gold Banner standard, they pulled it back in house and released it themselves."

Actually, that was the "pull" factor to bring it back to VPG. There was also a "push" factor in that poor CIRCUS TRAIN had really hit a wall trying to move up on the P-500 list (I'm guessing it might not have been "wargame-y" enough?), and at 500 pre-orders, that only puts a game into GMT development. It needs to get hit about 750 pre-orders to actually be published, and that would have taken an even longer time.

So, GMT and VPG just sort of agreed that VPG would be able to get this out faster and with the new component standards do the game credit. It seems we've achieved at least that much, judging by your review.

Alan Emrich
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Stephen Harper
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I was one of the people that pre-ordered this game when offered by GMT. Now that the deluxe edition has been released by VPG, I will be ordering this as soon as next payday comes around. I can hardly wait!
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Lawrence
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I also was one of the P500 folks that was really looking forward to the GMT treatment. When that went away I was still looking forward to this game and not sure of the treatment that VPG was going to give it. I own several polybag games but have yet to own a Gold Banner product. I ordered this last week and let me say WOW. The art is fabulous, the colors of the counters are great and the detail and the thickness of the counters blow away many others. VPG's Gold Banner product is first class and I've already begun to look for more games in that line to buy.
Also I just played Circus Train last night for the first time and found a really great game as well.
Great review.
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Tom Decker
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Thanks for the review! It's been a long (and sometimes tense) journey to see the game released like this. And I agree with the comments above concerning the presentation...I am VERY happy with the art and component quality that VPG was able to provide with this version. In many ways, I feel this is a better presentation than GMT would have been able to provide.

- Tom Decker, Designer
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Great review Roger - I love this game and it was the first game I P500'd.

Need to get to Canada.
Need to get the booze.
Need to get back on the train.
Need to dump these freaks without wages.
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Adam O'Brien
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Roger, you're a jerk. I was perfectly content with my polybag paper chit 1st edition of this game. But now, thanks to your review, I have to go out and re-buy a game I already own.

Kidding about the jerk part, I was on the fence beforehand anyway. You just pushed it over the edge.
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3dicebombers wrote:
Roger, you're a jerk.

laugh

You're welcome!
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Becca Disney
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I was one of the P500's too and so glad to see this game come out in box form! I have been waiting a long time for it. It does a great job of capturing the essence of the time period, and I really enjoy the inspiration by Sara Gruen's "Water for Elephants!" It will get played often.
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Judit Szepessy
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Nice review, Roger! Could you comment on how the game plays with two and three players, and how long one game typically takes to play? What is the player count you prefer?
Thanks!
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Time depends to some extent on the kinds of players you have of course, but it seems that 90-120 minutes is about right. I've played it at every player count save with three, and the game feels different at each.

The solo game is very tough, and revolves strictly around the generation of cash. In this instance, performance points = $$, with the added twist that salaries for talent are doubled. Furthermore, the clock is unforgiving and while you have the entire board to choose from, you have to be extremely efficient in your actions.

Two players feels very good, although again there are little tweaks in the rules, such as having the top performance score only gives you 4vp, vs none for your opponent, so this way can reward talent hiring and specialization more since you can potentially earn more vp that way than strictly through performing. There is also less inclination to directly mess with your opponent, although that's partially due to the ability to keep well away from the other player relatively easily.

Four players works really well and may well be my favourite player count. There's enough on the board for everyone to have an opportunity to get food performance scores and earn money while still presenting solid opportunities to steal talent and mess with other players.

Five players is pure energy. Competition for known spots is fierce and you're constantly in one another's way. Stealing talent is a frequent occurrence as there's no way to sequester yourself well away from the others. There is always someone near you and it makes for a raucous session.
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Andy Andersen
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Another in a long series of excellent reviews.

My thanks.
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Thanks for such a great review. It really captures the experience.

I love this quote:

leroy43 wrote:
Nothing like stealing someone's one and only clown at the end of the game and nailing them with the penalty for that!
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Great Review.

I just received my copy as an anniversary preent from my wife. I was a P500 supporter as well, and was eagerly awaiting this release. After two games, it has completely delivered.

Lots of fun and I can imagine that with five players this game would get crazy with competition for performances.

The components are a huge step up from the baggy edition, and worth the wait. I'm still sleeving the cards, and using a plexi-glass cover over the board to make it lay flat.
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Thanks Roger,another great review. You're really piquing my interest in some of these VPG games.
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boisse wrote:
Thanks Roger,another great review. You're really piquing my interest in some of these VPG games.

VPG does all the really hard work. I just get to bring attention to it in my own small way.
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Great review. Agree, this game is a real gem: its become a real club
http://www.boardgamegeek.com/guild/875 favorite.
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