The key to the treasure is the treasure.
Seeing as Rio Grande plans to release Zirkus Flohcati in English fairly soon, it seems like a good time to re-assess this elegant and clever game from Reiner Knizia. This review, however, refers only to the German version of the game, published in a small card box by Amigo.
Rules. The full rules are available on BGG, so here’s just a quick outline. Players draw cards from a deck consisting of ten suits numbered zero to seven and a few special action cards. On a turn, a player may flip up as many cards as she likes, and may take any single one of those cards or any card already flipped up in the display – so long as she doesn’t turn up a card of the same suit. If she does, she drops the new card onto the discard pile and forfeits the right to take a card that turn. Anytime a player acquires three cards of the same number, she may choose to display them as a “trio,” which counts for ten points. The game ends when the deck is exhausted or a player chooses to call a “gala show” (worth ten points) because she has cards from all ten suits. Players add up the numbers on the highest cards in their hand of each suit, plus ten points for each trio or gala show. Highest score wins.
The Cards. The theme of Zirkus Flohcati is ostensibly directing a flea circus, and the cards display amusing cartoonish fleas performing stunts. But the theme is irrelevant to the gameplay. The quality of the cards is excellent; like other Amigo decks, they are textured and glossy. Also, it’s worth noting that the suits are easily distinguishable – not only do they have different art, but the colors of each suit are also very distinctive (not an easy task for ten suits). There is some German on the cards, but it doesn’t really affect gameplay. The few special action cards in the deck need translation, however, so unless everyone at the table knows German, it’s important to keep the rules handy for when a special action card shows up.
The Feel of the Game. What makes Zirkus Flohcati so intriguing is the number and interest of the decisions to be made in such a short and simple game. On your turn, you may only: (1) take a card from the pool; or (2) turn over cards from the deck until you find one you like or you uncover a suit already displayed. But this simple decision-process is rife with considerations. Generally, the pool will be filled with lower-value cards which, when collected, make excellent fodder for trios. But by taking them, you do little to aid your collection of high value cards in the ten suits, and only marginally help yourself towards presenting a gala show. On the other hand, if you do take a card from the pool, you’ll get a known quantity and need not risk losing your turn. On the other hand, it takes three turns to collect a trio, and others might compete against you for those low-value cards in the display. On the other hand, maybe you need a few more high-value cards to fill out your hand before someone calls a gala show. On the other hand, every time you turn over a new card, the probability of losing your turn increases…. In short, there’s a very high density of decision-making packed into a very small set of options.
The considerations involved make the decision-making fun and meaningful. But because you’re playing probabilities and your options are so limited, there’s little opportunity for analysis paralysis. Turns are super-quick, and the game takes only 10-15 minutes. Moreover, for a “dig through the deck” game, it’s fairly interactive because there’s a shared pool of cards to draw from, and it’s relatively important to have a sense of what goals other players are pursuing. Finally, the rules are simple and elegant. All of this makes the game a super filler – light, fun, and very accessible to non-gamers.
Moreover, the “press your luck” quality of the game is not stressful or agonizing. The stakes on any given turn aren’t that high, so it doesn’t lock you out of the game to miss a few turns, and, in any case, the game moves really, really fast. The result is that a person losing their opportunity to take a card simply yelps “d’oh!” and looks forward to another turn 20 seconds later.
What are the downsides? There are a few, but to me, they’re largely inconsequential. First, for some, the theme of directing a flea circus won’t appeal. Second, the theme is completely irrelevant to the gameplay. And third, there is a significant degree of luck. Although the decisions you make are meaningful and will affect your score, you can play a perfect game and still lose due to the luck of the draw. Also, there are a few special action cards that add a touch more luck because they allow players to snag cards from other players. Chess players beware.
Overall. I consider this game a complete success for what it tries to achieve. It took me two years to move this game from my shelf to the game table – largely because the theme had me unenthused – but I was extremely impressed with how fun and engaging the gameplay turned out to be. For those who like light card games, it’s probably an essential purchase.