Circus Train is a terrific lesson in how far a good setting can take a game. It doesn’t draw on many original mechanics, but instead selects the appropriate ones for what it tries to accomplish. There’s some low-key economics, pick-up-and-deliver, and good old-fashion screwage. It shows how good design utilizes familiar tricks to do something altogether new and unique. The result is a game that is at once unexpected and familiar, and it makes me reflect that it’s too bad games like this are so rare.
Each player takes on the role of a travelling circus. The map shows the eastern half of the USA, with rail connections between the cities. Using a series of action cards, you must plan routes around the board to pick up worthwhile talent and give the crowds what they want. The board is seeded with chits with represent different things. Maybe they’ll drop talent for you to hire, or give you a few victory points. But others will represent demand for a circus. You accumulate performance points (different from victory points!) for putting on a show that matches the demand of the city. You can get bonus performance points for having specific types of talent in your show, like clowns or acrobats. The higher the performance score of a particular show, the better the show is. You get a little money for putting on performances, and for breaking your previous performance record. You’ll want as much money as you can get, because your performers aren’t going to work for free. Salaries start out manageable, but if you invest in animals like elephants and big cats, you’ll soon find that you owe a lot of money. Of course, you can choose to not pay your performers, but then they’ll quit the circus. That’s bad for you, because word gets around that you’re a cheapskate. It’ll make it that much harder to hire workers in the future.
It’s amazing how much detail the game crams into 90 minutes. I found myself filling in the little narrative flourishes in events. In my last game, one guy had to let go of his elephants and trainers before payday. I was struck by the very funny image of an elephant and a hobo bindle being left on the side of the train tracks. Some of the stranger mechanical touches are given cool thematic reasons, like the ability to rest and get a free performer in Canada. (Since it’s set in Prohibition days, booze is still legal there. I guess it makes the circus life a little more attractive.)
While we often think of circuses as being for the kids, Circus Train embraces the seedier side of life under the big top. It was inspired by the best-selling novel Water For Elephants, so that might give you an idea of the kind of game you’re playing. You can be as crooked as you like, hiring and dumping talent all over the place. It’ll make it hard to get talent, but you can use your money to bribe people to join your circus instead of paying their salaries. And if you’re a real shyster, you can try to snatch performers from competing circuses, which can rob someone of a valuable bonus just before the big show.
The most gratifying thing here is that Circus Train is a serious strategic game in a very fun wrapper. There are a lot of tough decisions that need to be made, but it does a great job of spreading them across the design so that players won’t be overwhelmed. It’s easy to play once or twice and think you have the game mostly figured out. But a couple more games will reveal some subtle depth that wasn’t immediately apparent. But new players might not ever notice it, because this game goes down smooth. It just feels like you’re running a circus, and that’s very cool. There’s also a solitaire version that plays in all of 20 minutes. It’s so fast that I found it easy to get ahead of myself in the rules. My point here is that this game has legs. There’s a lot of game there, and it’ll give you different rewards at different points in your experience. And even if you lose badly, there’s a certain satisfaction in just putting on some successful shows.
Circus Train is published by the always fascinating Victory Point Games, known for printing their games in-house and shipping them in zip-lock bags. The small print run definitely shows. The board is an 11×17 piece of paper. The cards are more like business cards than the nice linen finish gamers are used to. You’ll even have to supply your own die. And the small print run also has the unfortunate side effect of making the game just as expensive as a nicer production would be from a bigger publisher. The game plus expansion will set you back about $50. And if you’re thinking you can go without the expansion, you really can’t. It’s less an expansion than it is the second half of the game. It allows you to play with more than two people, which will ramp up the tension and nastiness considerably.
For those balking at the price or the component quality, I can only say that the game is much more immersive, strategic, and satisfying than the vast majority of games at that price. I was worried that the components would inhibit my enjoyment, but I have been swept away by the solid gameplay. It also helps that, despite the low quality of materials, the actual graphic design is both evocative and highly usable. But if you’re still on the fence, fear not. GMT Games has opened preorders for a deluxe edition of the game that will include a mounted board, thicker tokens, and all that other stuff that gamers like. I am not one to say this lightly, but I highly recommend that you shell out the money in either direction, either for the VPG version now or the GMT version later.
I do have a problem with the need to buy an expansion right out of the gate. I understand that it was done for money reasons, but the unaware gamer won’t know how important it is. I’d hate for someone to be underwhelmed because they’re playing half the design. As for the game itself, there’s a definite indie vibe to everything. Some of the rules feel like they could have been sanded away without losing much. In the final third of the game, a couple of subtle changes occur, and they’re easy to forget. That’s the kind of thing that gets better as you go, and I suspect that GMT will throw them on a player aid. As it stands now, you’ll have to spend some time juggling a couple of rulesheets to answer tiny questions that will pop up. This will definitely be gone by your third game or so.
Circus Train is a classic grower. It starts small and then reveals itself to you. I’m really rooting for the GMT version to be successful, because I think that with the right push this could be a big hit. It’s just appealing enough for casual gamers, but the experienced hobbyist will find something to keep them coming back. That kind of depth isn’t common, and it deserves to be celebrated. Maybe with a bag of popcorn.
Nate Owens is a weekly columnist for Fortress: Ameritrash. He drinks too much coffee and likes the Star Wars prequels. You can read more of his mental illness at The Rumpus Room.