Tales from the Fireside – Circus Circus

Coming straight at you like an episode of Carnivale (but with even more terrifying imagery), Campfire Burning presents another Tale from the Fireside. All aboard the Circus Train!

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Who likes clowns?

Anyone at all?

Of course you don’t; nobody in their right mind likes clowns. Clowns are scary. Clowns are terrifying. Clowns are so frightening there are more horror films made about evil clowns than there are about things we generally think of as being frightening, things we wouldn’t let anywhere near our children – tigers, for example. Stephen King’s It wouldn’t have been anywhere near as scary if it had been about a tiger that ate children.

Ah, but a clown, sitting in a storm drain with a bouquet of balloons bobbing against the sewer grate – of course the buh-loons float, Campfire. And when you’re down here, you’ll float too.

So, a game about clowns – and lions and freak shows and other things far less scary. I’ll forget about clowns in a minute, I promise; it’s just, they’re one of my ‘things’, and since I’ve had them capering and honking all over my gaming room table for the past week I’m feeling rather jittery right now. I need something cheerful to take my mind off big red noses and rictus grins.

What about the Depression?

Yes, the Depression. It’s the 1930s, prohibition is in full effect and the American mid-west has become a dust bowl. What a heartening thought. Millionaires dying of starvation. Entire swathes of the American populace reduced to begging for crusts. Bootlegging, speakeasies – yes, this is all far more cheerful than that clown nonsense. Some might it’s rather a dour setting for a board game but I say, so long as there aren’t any clowns involved it’s not so…

Wait. What’s that getting out of the train up there? The thing in the rainbow-striped baggy pants?

Oh no. Oh God, no.

If you’re wondering how the depression-era United States and WICKED EVIL CLOWNS OF DEATH fit together, here’s your answer: Circus Train from Victory Point Games. Circus Train is a two-player Euro-style game that has you and your opponent travelling along railroads. hiring performers, putting on shows and yes, there are clowns involved. Some might even have buh-loons.

To start with, as this is a Victory Point game the board’s made from paper, the dice are dinky things you could (but probably shouldn’t) accidentally inhale and everything fits neatly into a plastic envelope. Production values aren’t high here; all the attention to detail’s gone into the game itself. After divvying up counters and cards you and your opponent start building your basic circus troop. You begin with a clown and then choose two other circus acts to take with you on the rails. Most of the acts you might expect to see are represented here: acrobats, big cats, freak shows, that grubby circus guy with the sunken eyes who makes a pass at your missus. You can only choose from a few of these at the start of the game; the rest of the talents only come into play once you start playing.

The board represents the North-Eastern quarter of the United States stretching from Boston to Omaha and taking in three southern Canadian cities which act as possible starting positions for your train. In true Ticket to Ride style the various cities on the map are connected by railways – but it’s not the railways that are important here: it’s the cities themselves. At the start of the game you draw eight cards which determine which of the cities you can perform in and which house unemployed acts left from bankrupt circuses.

As the owner of your circus you put on shows to make money, which you can then use to hire and pay your performers’ wages. The more money you have, the more acts your circus can support. The more acts you have, the more money you can make.

Sort of.

See, the emphasis in Circus Train is all about being the biggest, the boldest, the brightest circus in town. You can put on a show anywhere and make money, but if you put on a particularly fine performance and leave the audience reeling, you could make an extra ten dollars. Which was a lot back then.

Each player has a board to keep track of their performance score and the amount of cash they’ve earned. The performance counters placed on the cities at the start of the game each have a different amount of points allotted to them: there’s a basic performance score that you get for performing no matter what, and the other scores are based on which acts the people in that city most want to see. The secret to success is keeping track of the performances that best suit your circus, and managing your moves carefully to reach as many of them as possible. More on moves later.

Having a high performance score is important. After each round of moves, the calendar advances a week; at the end of each month whoever has the biggest performance score nets victory points. These are what you’re playing for, and you and your opponent will both recklessly push your performance scores ever higher in an attempt to win them.

I say ‘recklessly’ – I mean it. The best way to get a fat performance score is to have a big circus, and to do that you’ll need to hire destitute acts found in cities across the States. Hiring an act is easy – roll a d6 and if it comes up 1-4, congratulations, you’ve just hired an elephant, a human cannonball or a clown OH GOD WHY DID YOU HIRE THE CLOWN – it’s paying their wages that’s difficult. Wages are the leaky bunghole in your ship of fools: to keep pushing your performance score higher you’ll need to scrape through each week with the bare minimum of cash, hiring talent without the means to pay it and hoping your next performance will be a good one. You can even pay ten dollars to hire an act on the spot if you can’t fast-talk them into signing a contract with a lucky dice roll. You’ll come to dread paying wages. You’ll want to get it out of the way as soon as possible while at the same time putting it off for as many turns as you can. Wages are my least favourite of the game’s moves. About which, more later.

>Hiring more than one of the same act seems at first like a waste of time. You get victory points at month’s end for having the most of any of the game’s acts in your troop, but until you reach the end of the month they’re mill wheels, syphoning off funds while not netting you any extra performance points. But as the weeks and months pass, so the game evolves. At the end of the longest months – May and July – you replace the green performance tokens on the board with yellow tokens, the yellow tokens with brown. Grass wilts and dies. America bakes and turns to dust.

And you and your circus, you’re all the working folk have left. By the time you hit August new hiring opportunities have dried up, but your circus is famous. For every three acts of a certain type you get double their usual amount of performance points. You have elephants, big cats – acts audiences go crazy over, that command huge performance point fees. You’re still scraping by money-wise – unless they get loose, those big cats won’t feed themselves – but over the course of the game each performance you give adds a few more points to your performance score. Word gets out.

People love a circus.

And at the heart of all this – yes. I’m talking about those moves now – is an incredibly simple game mechanic that drives Circus Train in a furious, dusty trail across the land.

You have seven cards. Each card says you can move a certain number of cities, or hire or perform. One says you can stay where you are and do nothing; another says you have to pay your troop’s wages. Only one says you can move and hire/perform in a single turn.

Here’s where the magic takes place: Each turn you play one of these cards, and you don’t get to play it again until you’ve played every other card in your hand. Circus Train is a hand management game. You choose where to go based on the cards in your deck, which means if you want to do well you need to plan your moves seven turns in advance. Meanwhile your opponent, the guy with the competing circus is doing exactly the same thing, so you figure out what he’s planning and head him off at the pass. Steal his audience. Steal his performers. Grab those bonus victory points way down in St. Louis and – oh crap, you just hired an elephant and you have three turns left before you have to pay everyone’s wages.

And right now you can’t afford them.

Can you make enough cash in three turns to pay the wages? Would you be better off sacking some of your acts, making the money up at the start of your next fresh hand and hoping your opponent doesn’t hire them in the meantime?

Oh, one more thing: this game, everything I’ve just mentioned? That’s the basic game.

There’s far more to Circus Train than I’ve mentioned in this review. In the advanced game you have a reputation to keep track of, that’ll help and hinder you while hiring new acts. You can spend turns in Canada where alcohol runs freely and get your audiences liquored up to boost your rep. There are special counters – Brakeman Bill and Ringmaster Roland – who’ll give you an extra move on the railroad, or make one of your acts instantly famous for more points per performance. There are event cards – I love these things – where something terrible befalls your circus at the end of the month. Your animals stampede. Your acrobat broke his neck. Your clowns got drunk and refuse to put on shows; they got into the audience – OH GOD, THEY’RE EATING THE CHILDREN.

This isn’t my kind of game – there are no orcs to kill and not enough cards to combo together – but between the escalating madness of the seasons, the constant one-up-manship of the performance score board and sweating over how best to play my cards, it won me over. Scoring and working out wages is overly fussy and it helps to have scratch paper or a calculator on hand to keep track of it; otherwise this is a deep and tactical game that’s well worth a play.

Come one, come all. Just bring a shotgun in case the clowns get into the hooch again.

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If you’re a psychologist with a specialisation in coulrophobia, please contact Campfire Burning at your leisure: campfire@littlemetaldog.com

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