Hello, and welcome to my review of Circus Train (2nd edition). Here is roughly how the review you’re about to read is laid out, and what you should expect from it. “Getting to know Circus Train” chronicles my exploration of the game, step by step from the moment it gets into my hands. In other words, you are tagging along the review process as it happens. First impressions concerns itself with the thrills of unboxing a new game, handling the components, looking at the art, and sometimes figuring out how the hell all of this is supposed to go back in the box without throwing out the insert. Reading the rules covers the experience of the rules from the rulebook. How easy is it to learn? Does it sound like fun? Around what mechanics will the meaningful decisions happen, from the looks of it? Actual play is all about hitting the table, and seeing if the promise of the components and the rulebook are fulfilled – whether or not the theme feels pasted on, how much of the game’s dynamic is emergent and how much could be figured out right away from the rulebook... that kind of stuff. Finally, The Bottom Line is where I try to recap the above and where I share a little bit of my thoughts on the game in hindsight.
The review you’re about to read has been written from a comp copy provided by the publisher. No meeples were harmed during the making of this review.
As a final disclaimer, I’d like to point out that this is only my fourth board game review, although I have some reviewing experience in another subset of the gaming hobby. I tried to come up with a structure and point of view that made my review relevant despite the hordes of reviews already out there – hopefully I’ve succeeded. Whether I have or haven’t, however, I’d love to get honest feedback so I can get better.
Victory Point Games offers two packaging formats for their games – boxed or bagged. The review copy I was sent was the bagged version. I knew ahead of time what version I was being sent, and my “gamer’s OCD” left me with a constant sense of dread that the game would be shipped in a padded enveloppe – and carelessly stuffed in my mailbox. You can imagine my relief when I received the game in a proper box, big enough to be unstuffable. Every single component of the bagged version was in mint state. In other words, if you don’t care about having a game box, know that the bagged version is not any less shipping-proof.
Looking at the components themselves, the first thing you notice is the board, which comes in two halves and is made out of paper. This is a bit shocking at first, but eventually one comes to peace with it. Storing back the board safely in the original bag is a challenge, but it’s easy to come up with other storing methods, like using a twin-pocket portfolio.
The game uses a lot of cards, which are made of slightly below average card stock quality. The cards feel like they should be okay if you’re careful when shuffling, but kids, non-gamers, and other people prone to barbarian-like shuffling should be kept away at all times. The art on the cards, on the other hand, is squarely above average. Each card type manages to be distinct in style while remaining visually coherent with the others. But, more importantly, each image is steeped in the theme of the game and the era in which it is taking place. This, combined with the board which has a similar if less impressive style, really contributes to "taking you there".
Tons of cardboard chits are used in the game, both for resource tokens and player pawns, which are assembled standees. The art on the chits and pawns is coherent with the rest of the game, and they are made of thick cardstock. One needs to be careful when punching them out initially, however, as they are prone to a little bit of tearing. They also leave behind a moderate amount of soot due to the laser-cutting process used by Victory Point Games, but the amount is negligible and easily solved by washing your hands afterwards.
As a final note, it should be noted that the "bagged" version of the game requires you to provide a six-sided die. As such, it’s not playable out of the box... but if you’re reading this, chances are you have one lying around somewhere.
READING THE RULES
Digging into the rulebook, it’s obvious that the game is committed to pushing the theme forward. The rules themselves are mostly clear, but could stand to be a bit better organised. There are a lot of minute rules which makes the game feel like it will be fiddly both in its set-up and in its upkeep during play (scoring, updating the board, etc.), and those rules can be hard to find in the rulebook. These issues could’ve been solved with a solid player aid reference card; however, pieces of information are missing on those cards, and others are expressed so briefly that they’ll mean something only to someone already comfortable with the rules.
All this complexity is a bit of a paradox, because the active part of play itself is fairly straight-forward: pick an action card, execute it, discard it, and pick back up all of your action cards once you’ve used all of them. These action cards revolve mostly around moving your circus across America, hiring new talents, and putting on shows. The best way to get the gist of Circus Train is to look at it as a pick-up and delivery game where your resources (in this case, talent) aren’t spent whenever you deliver – instead, you pay them a salary, which means you’ll need make sure that only talents who are actually worth it stay on your payroll. Another significant difference with the usual pick-up and delivery tropes is that victory points are not a measure of how rich you are at the end, but of how famous you are. You will need to make sure your circus brings in enough money to grow and stay afloat, but also make sure that your circus uses its money to put on shows that will make you more famous. This said, the game’s meaningful decisions still center on hiring talent (pick up), moving around (n’), and putting on shows (delievery), keeping it within that genre despite the variations it showcases.
Aside from the main “body” of the game presented above, Circus Train offers a variety of options which can be bolted on or off: an easier variant (less accounting), an advanced variant (tougher choices), optional rules (elements that add a stronger theme but add more randomness to the game), and a solitaire variant (which can use any of the options above, but raises a couple of rules ambiguities). This, combined with a copious amount of designer notes at the end of the rulebook, gives Circus Train a distinct “assemble your own circus game” quality that’s exciting in the same way a box of Lego blocks with no instructions can be. You know exactly what the pieces are, you have a general sense of how you need to put them together to have something cohesive, but what kind of construct you will come up with is entirely up to you.
In play, the components are functional but the rules are not without a couple of kinks. The way information is organized within the rulebook and the incomplete play aid cards can slow down the game, especially if you’ve bolted on optional parts. On the other hand, the paper board, which I was initially worried about, turned out to be no issue at all. A pleasant surprise was how useful the shape of the various cardboard chits turned out to be – they mirrored the iconography of the game and made it very simple to sort out which icon referred to which resource.
Gameplay-wise, Circus Trains unfolds exactly as you would expect from reading the rulebook. The theme comes across loud and clear, and stays present during the whole experience. The game moves at a very brisk pace, and the action selection mechanism offers interesting choices at every corner. It should be pointed out that there’s more randomness in the game than I initially intuited from reading the rules. Although various options allow you to tone up or down the randomness, it’s still an integral part of the game. As such, even though the meaningful choices in the game are squarely within the realm of optimisation, that optimisation unfolds amidst a system of mechanisms which may or may not favor you.
Maybe as a way to make up for the randomness, Circus Train has a catch-up mechanism. However, it can be somewhat vicious, as you mess up someone else’s game plans in the process – potentially in a king-making way. This said, the “advanced game” add-on strongly limits the way the catch-up mechanism can be used, thus negating the kingmaker issue. It’s an interesting design feature, because the type of player who will be drawn to the advanced game is roughly the same type of player who will be bothered by king-making. Your guess is as good as mine as to whether this was done on purpose or if it is simply a by-product of coherent design.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The rulebook has a section that states “there’s some Ameritrash in my Euro”, and that’s exactly right. The game is an hybrid in the purest sense – not simply an ameritrash game with some euro-style mechanism thrown in or vice-versa. When combining two things that usually cater to different tastes, there is always a risk that you will please no one. Circus Train tries to sidestep this issue cleverly through the sheer amount of options provided as a way to customize your experience. This said, even though it’s largely customizable in terms of mechanisms, thematically the game has a strong coherence that remains intact no matter how you customize it.
If you expect a game – provided that you picked it right – to wow you right out of the box, you should most likely avoid Circus Train because it won’t do that. However, if you’re drawn to the circus theme, if you’re a fan of pick-up and delivery games and are looking for a set of slightly different choices to toy around with, or if you’re excited by the DIY-vibe of Circus Train, then it’s well worth looking into this game that clashes – in a refreshing way – with how games are marketed today.