Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Review: Circus Train and Circus Train Expansion Kit

This is a review of both Circus Train and Circus Train Expansion Kit. Also, there is a Basic and Advanced game option available, but I've only played the Advanced game.

My biases first: I am a big fan of theme in games and do not mind reaching through piles of chits if the theme and game play is good enough. While I do favor confrontation, chits, bits and polished pieces of AT games, there are still a large number of Euros that I'll build my farm on or attend auctions at and be quite content at the end of my experience. Also, I'm not really a huge circus fan, though I do have a three-year old daughter, so I do have a growing experience with them nonetheless. While I am not afraid of clowns, seeing them up close and out of a circus setting does still seem somewhat unsettling to me. And finally, I have never had dreams of anyone with trees tattooed on their chest and back.

The Overview:

Circus Train's front cover. At this point, it does not come in a box, however, but rather a large zip-lock bag. 

Circus Train (and the Circus Train Expansion Kit) puts each player in charge of their own small circus train while it tries to grow in size and reputation through six months during the US's Prohibition. Players move and perform based off of their hand of action cards, which are only replenished once they have played all of their cards, while at the same time trying to manage their circus's economies in order to pay for all of their talent to try to become the Greatest Show on Earth.

The game is for 1-5 players and play time varies on how many players you have. A solo game played by an experienced player will take about a half hour (or a bit less), while a game with five players may take up to two hours. I would give as a rule of thumb that a 2-player game will take about 40-60 minutes and every player you add after that adds about 20 minutes to the ultimate play time. Of course, these times are for players familiar with the game, as the card driven mechanic may cause some analysis paralysis for newer players who are unfamiliar at how to plan to play out their cards.

Each player has their own set of Action Cards that they will use throughout the game. Every circus begins with a total of three talent counters in their circus (these represent the acts that the circuses have under their employ). One of the counters is a Clown Act and the other two are chosen from Freak Shows, Horse Shows or Acrobats. Once everyone's starting talents are chosen the board is set up. After the board is set up, each player chooses one of the three starting locations in Canada (more than one circus can begin in a city).

Board set up is the same at the beginning of every week of the game. Cards are drawn from the City Deck to put a Performance Counter on the city drawn. In April and May, 8 cities will be stocked with counters. In June and July, 10 cities will be stocked and 12 cities will be stocked in August and September. If, at the start of the week, there are fewer than that number of cities with counters on them, you draw up until you reach that amount. Also, the counters drawn from different stacks depending on which month it is. April and May draw from a different set than June and July which draw differently from August and September.

There are 4 different types of counters that can be drawn and placed in a city. Performance Demand counters show cities that are looking for a circus to come to their town and perform. The counter also lists the bonus performance points that a circus will receive if they meet that city's current demand preferences (for example, a Performance Demand counter may be worth 2 Performance Score points, but also be worth 5 extra points if the circus has Acrobats in it and an additional 10 points if they have a Human Cannonball). Victory Point counters give a number of victory points to the player that ends their turn in that city. This represents acquisitions that the circus is able to make by stopping in that town. Bankrupt Circus counters represent other circuses that have gone out of business leaving talent in that city that is looking to be hired. A Bankrupt Circus counter will list a few talent counters that are then placed onto the city and can be hired into a player's circus if they stop there and play a hire action. These counters place 2 or 3 talent counters that are listed on the Bankrupt Circus counter. Special Counters represent unique characters who can join a circus and add a special ability to that circus, such as moving 1 extra space per movement action, being able to bill your Clown or Acrobats as "Famous", or discard to increase your Reputation.

Each player plays and resolves an Action Card in player order. Cards let you take a number of different kinds of actions.

Movement Actions state up to how much distance your train can cover during that week. If the distance on the card states you can move up to three cities, well, you follow the rail tracks and can move that distance, ending your turn in the new city. Moving into a city does not allow you to do anything else, but if you end your movement on a Victory Point counter, you collect it and get the points, or if you end your movement on a Special Counter, you can try to hire them as a "free" Hire Action.

Perform Actions let you put on a show at a city with a Performance Demand counter on it. Performance Demand counters state what kind of acts the city is looking for, and you tally up the points of all of the talents that you match. If you happen to have 3 or more of one type of talent, you can bill them as "Famous" and receive twice the amount of Performance Score from that act. So if the counter lists that a circus with Acrobats with worth 7 points, if yours are "Famous", they are worth 14 points for you. When you perform a show, you claim the counter and add up the totals to get a Performance Score. If that score is higher than your previous highest Performance Score, you mark your new high. If it is not, then you leave your Performance Score at its current amount. You also collect an amount of money for the performance, depending on the month (earlier months pay less). However, if the performance is your new highest Performance Score, you get a bonus $10.

Hire Actions let you try to get new talent into your circus if there are talent counters in the city you are in. Each city has a Reputation level that shows how well respected the circus is among performers and therefore how easy it is for them to recruit talent. Starting Reputation for each circus is 1-5, which means that on the roll of a six-sided die, the talent will join your circus on a roll of 1-5. Reputation can move up and down in the game. Failing to pay talent or outright red-lighting talent (which is a polite way of saying, tossing them off the back of your moving circus train) lowers your reputation and makes talent less likely to join your circus.

Rest Action is a card that means the player does nothing that turn. However, if it is played while the circus is in Canada, the player can recruit more Clowns or Acrobats or increase their circus's reputation (as the circus stocks up on legal Canadian booze, making the talent happy and more likely that new talent will join).

Paying Wage isn't a direct action, but is part of one of the movement cards. It allows you to move two spaces, but then you need to pay wages for each talent counter that your circus has. If you cannot pay for them, you must let them go (which decreases your Reputation).

Special Hire is an action available in the expansion and is only for games with 3 or more players. It can be used as a normal Hire Action, or it can be used to hire talent directly from the bank (price paid is dependent upon the month). However, if you are in the same city as another circus, you can use your Special Hire Action to try to steal 1 or 2 talent counters from the circus that you are in the same city as.

Planning on how and when to play these cards is crucial. Once you play a card it is discarded and you do not draw it back up into your hand again until you have played each of your cards. A player who has planned poorly can find himself stuck paying wages when he does not have enough money to cover his talent or may be forced to take a Rest Action outside of Canada, essentially wasting a week with no gain for it or he may even end up in a city ready and waiting to watch a show, but with no cards left in his hand to actually hold a performance. There are also some actions that can be taken instead of playing a card as well. You can play a card from your discard pile to get you out of a poorly planned hand or to take an opportunity, but it is costly (it costs a player 2 Reputation points to do this in the first 4 months and costs you 4 Victory Points in the last 2 months). You can also opt to Collect Money instead of playing a card (April through July only), but you lose 1 Reputation level for every $5 you collect.

After everyone has played their card, the week ends and an Event Card is drawn and resolved. The board is set up again (by replenishing to the correct number of tiles) and play continues. However, if it is the end of the month, the first player token passes to the left and a scoring round takes place. Whoever has the most of a type of talent counter gets Victory Points equal to the number of that kind of talent they have. Points are then awarded for whomever currently has the highest Performance Score. And if it is the end of a 5-week month (May, July and August), whoever has the fewest Victory Points can try to steal a talent from another circus that does not have a higher Reputation than his circus.

If it is the end of September, final scoring takes place, and the circus with the most clowns, most performances, highest Reputation and most money gets bonus Victory Points, while any circus with no Clowns or no animal acts loses points. Whoever has the most amount of Victory Points wins the game.

The Theme:

Circus Train was inspired by the book "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen. I have not read the book, but playing this game has really made me want to read it (I'm planning on spending my Barnes & Nobles gift card that's been sitting in my wallet on it). The game is really interesting, and while it does carry the basic feel of having to manage the talent and economy of a circus, I've discovered a whole lot of interesting things from real life circuses from that time that has made the book appeal to me.

One of the basic mechanics of the game is hand management since cards are not playable again until you've played every card. This indirectly represents the problems of managing and planning out your circus's season, while at the same time being wary of other circuses that might slip into a city before you and satisfy their entertainment needs for the season, leaving it a place that will not be worth staying in.

Ultimately, the game does a good job of making you feel like you are managing a business that requires variety, income, funds and planned movements. There is a certain tightness and tenseness of this that gets even greater when there are more players and you are competing with more circuses for what starts to seem like more elusive Performance Demand tiles.

Learning the Game:

The rules are well presented in a 6-page 8.5" x 11" rules booklet that covers the Basic Game, Advanced Game and Solitaire Game. The expansion kit includes another 2 pages of rules that describes the changes for 3 or more players, as well as some of the Special Counters that are included in it.

The game has a Basic and Advanced version in it. The Basic rules makes Reputation a fixed number for hiring and does not allow play from the Discard Pile or collecting money from the bank as well as excluding a few other options. Ultimately, the Advanced rules are not that much more difficult and really give the game a richer variety and makes it more interesting.

The game rules will probably be referred to a few times during the first couple of plays and the organization for finding everything is sufficient, but not great. However, after a play or two, everything in the game really becomes intuitive and there is little need to refer to the rules anymore.

There are a few things that I do not fully understand in the ultimate presentation. Since the Advanced Game isn't too much more complex than the Basic Game, I wonder why the Basic Game was included as an option. All it does is make finding the rules for the Advanced Game a little more complex since they are just added at the end and if you need to refer to a rule during game play, you need to first look up the rule, then look up to see if that was one of the rules changed in the Advanced Game.

Also, the expansion makes the game playable for 3 or more players and offers a few more options. But really, it doesn't change the rules much and it should have been included in the main game and not as an expansion.

The Components:

The Circus Train map. 

One of the Circus Train counter sheets.

Example of one of the Player Action cards. 

Scoring cards for each player, it records your Best Performance Score and your current money. 

The components come from a small production company and are not really polished. The counters are sturdy enough, but need to be clipped and the cards are thin and small and are printed on the cards, but threaten to smear or run if there is too much moisture on them. They can be sleeved, I suppose, but I do hate sleeved cards. The map is paper and the fold can be a little difficult and cause sliding of the counters if a sheet of Plexiglas is not laid down on it. If you have a sheet of Plexiglas, then the fact that the board isn't mounted on anything sturdier is less of a problem.

So, anyway, the components are about what you would expect from a small publisher. I would love to see the game purchased by a large publisher who would put it out with more sturdy components, but for what they are, everything as it stands now is fairly functional.

Tracking the money and Best Performance score on the same track is a little annoying, and I'll probably steal some paper money from another game to make it a little more manageable. Also, I found the Victory Point track on the map a little annoying, but don't mind the track that was included in the expansion.

Still, the game play is strong enough for me to look past the components while I secretly hope that the game gets snatched up and released by a bigger publisher.

Playing the Game:

Game play comes down to managing your hand of cards efficiently, while at the same time trying to maintain enough talent to score big with your circus while not hiring too much talent that you go broke. Add in a number of other circuses all competing for the shows on the map and you realize how cutthroat running a circus in that era really was.

There are enough rules and options to try to recall that my first couple of games had me double-checking and referencing the rules throughout. However, this sufficiently diminished in my second game and was practically non-existent by my third game.

There are different paths to gain points as well. In my last game, I was boldly putting on big shows and far out-weighed my opponents with my Best Performances and I grabbed a lot of points early from that. Another player took a lot of cheap talent and was collecting a lot of Victory Points from having the most talent and would just put on enough performances to barely pay off his performers and spend the rest of his time picking up Victory Point counters. Another player tried a hybrid approach, and put on some significant performances, but also collected enough talent to garner her some points for having the most of that type (though hers were more expensive, she was also getting more money from more performances).

However, for those thinking that a game about circuses is going to be happy and fun, be warned: it is a brutal, cutthroat business where people steal your talent and rush to cities to empty the wallets of the rubes, er, patrons, right before you roll into town. There is a lot of brutal interaction and that is part of what makes this game great.


The base game plays 1-2 players. The expansion increases that number to 1-5 players. The solitaire game is actually pretty entertaining. It is a challenging game and much like figuring out puzzle as you need to maximize your movements and you are really only playing against your own efficiency. The two player game is a bit more interesting, but stealing talent is limited and interaction is often limited as you may find that you and your opponent have different talents in your circuses and therefore are not really competing for the same shows that often. However, once you hit three players, the game gets nasty. And I mean that in a good way.

With three players, circuses start to overlap more in talent and you start to realize that the map is a lot smaller than it seemed in the solo and 2 player games. Players start to steal talent outright from one another and you are competing for the Performance Demands out on the map. As you add more players, that competition becomes even more fierce and dirty.

Does the Wife Like It?:

The most important category. I play games without her, but she's an integral part of my core gaming group and my most frequent game partner. She was a little put off by the theme. She just didn't think that managing a circus was going to be that much fun. Her tastes tend to run from games such as Runebound and Dune to Pandemic and Hanging Gardens, so she's kind of all over the map on what she may or may not enjoy. After playing a 2-player game, I think she gained a grudging respect for it. Our first game with 3+ players didn't do much more to win her over any more, however. Ultimately, I think it comes down to the theme. She just doesn't get into the idea of running a circus. I look beyond that and see a game of managing a business in a very cutthroat industry and revel in the harsh, dirty business that takes place. But for her, I suppose, it's tough to feel that way when you are hiring oodles of clowns.

Another friend of mine also had a similar hesitation from the theme. I think playing the game won him over more than my wife, however. But still, you will have some players who cannot look past the clowns and completely miss the fact that the Prohibition-era circuses ran during a very cutthroat and dirty time and the game really does represent that well.

The Pros:

*Good, tense game play that requires planning from your hand of cards as well as making sure that you can pay for your talent.
*The game gets better with more players.
*Despite the circus theme, the game can be brutal (but also too unforgiving, see Cons).
*Solitaire game is solid, if not as interesting as multi-player.
*Lots of opportunity for player interaction.
*Random chit draws and random cities create a lot of variety for replay.
*Different means of gathering points gives different strategic options to a player.
*Get to pretend that you are Samson and when you have to red-light talent, you can always just say that it was Management's decision.

The Cons:

*Components are functional, but still leave something to be desired.
*Circus theme will turn off some who would probably love the game.
*The game should have ditched the Basic Rules to make the Advanced Rules more clear and should be available as one full game, rather than making the expansion pretty much a necessity.
*More players makes for more interaction, but also adds chaos (more counters are resolved each turn, so more are drawn each turn).
*The game can be unforgiving, especially with more players. If players steal the performances around your circus and you are forced to play your Wage Card and have to drop too much talent, your Reputation will drop to the point where it may be too difficult to really effectively recover.
*No cootch talent shows.
*You cannot divert your circus to try to track down Harry Scudder and there are no Brother Justin Event Cards.


Circus Train is a great game that is surprisingly brutal for what one might expect when they start a game with a Clown. The Advanced Game's rules are complicated a bit by the inclusion of the Basic rules (intended to make it easier), but ultimately it doesn't take much to get them to a fluid understanding. The game plays well enough as a solitaire game, but really shines with more players. That being said, the game does not play with more players unless the expansion kit is purchased. Despite the circus theme, the game really is a great, tight game that relies on strong strategic planning with a bit of luck that your opponents don't steal your shows or talent while hoping for a little bit of luck that the right show demand will pop up near your location. The production values of the game might not be the greatest, but it is fully functional and does not detract from the interesting game play and options. The game gives a lot of options and paths to victory, while at the same time gives plenty of opportunity to cripple an opponent's circus. It truly is a great game that needs to be picked up and reissued to clean it up a little bit, but also to include the expansion kit as one package. If you are going to purchase this game, make sure you also pick up the expansion kit to get the complete game.


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