W. Eric Martin
[I wrote a decent number of game previews prior to SPIEL '17 — twelve in October 2017 and ten in September — but I played far more games than that, and further previews were thwarted only due to a lack of time. So many things to do ahead of SPIEL! Not content to throw that experience away, I'll run a series of postviews over the next couple of weeks. Sure, some people acquired these games at SPIEL '17, but they'll still be new to most people, so let's have a look! —WEM]
What do obsessive types like to do with their wooden bits when playing a game? Stack them, arrange them, make sculptures of them, create dioramas with them, catapult them into empty glasses — all sorts of activities that distract them from the serious business of playing a game, which perhaps is what inspired designer Cédric Millet to decide to make a game out of such activities.
The resulting publication — Meeple Circus from French publisher Matagot — gives you a juicy hot pile of wooden bits that certain parties will want to obsess over and press their eyeballs against.
As for the game in the box — for there is indeed a game inside — you draft these wooden bits over three rounds and use them to perform "circus acts" to gain applause, a.k.a. points, at the end of each round. Which acts, you might ask? The acts visible at the top of the four decks of act cards, with each deck focusing on a particular type of scoring action, such as one or more acrobats doing something with a ball, or an acrobat interacting with an animal performer (either an elephant or a horse).
At the start of a round, players take turns drafting twice: once from a set of round-specific cards and once from six face-up tiles; the game includes 18 such tiles, and with six available each round, you (and the designer) know that all of the featured items will be available at some point during the game. The round-specific tiles give you a set of objects in the first round, a guest star who scores in a very particular way in the second round, and a performative act in the third round.
You can draft either item first, but you then must draft the other type of item second. You keep all the bits as the game progresses, giving you more and more things to do in your circus ring once it becomes time to perform.
Draft set-up in round one for three players
After drafting your bits, you put on the circus music — yes, really — whether online or through the Meeple Circus app, then build whatever seems best to you in the two minutes that follows, racing against everyone else since the first two players to finish can grab bonus applause.
Once everyone has finished or time has run out, you score points for being quick, for completing the depicted acts, for using your guest star properly, for performing feats in the third round (more details on that below), and for using your acrobats properly. Blue acrobats are beginners, so they need to stand on the ground to score, while yellow regular acrobats must be off the ground and red daredevils score based on how high off the ground they are.
You score after each of the three rounds, then whoever has accumulated the most applause wins.
Performances at the end of round two
I've played [Meeple Circus twice with three players on a demo copy from Matagot, and one group raved, while the other couldn't wait for the show to pack up and leave town.
The challenge with this design is that it's taking what's essentially a solitaire activity and atempting to transform it into a shared experience — yet much of the action remains solitaire. Yes, you're drafting from a shared pool of resources, but in general you can always take something that's going to score in some manner. If you miss out on the horse, you can take a plank; if someone takes the plank, you can use a ball. You might have items that you want to get, mostly for aesthetic reasons, but not getting them doesn't keep you from scoring.
Guest stars available in round two; cards are double-sided with two ways to score
Much of the fun of a building/stacking game like Junk Art, Jenga, or Make 'n' Break comes from watching others do stuff. You want to watch them fail because it means you have a better chance of winning — and when they do pull off some feat that you thought couldn't be done, you have the joy of watching that amazing thing happen in front of you, with you sharing in their joy despite it lowering your odds for victory. They did something cool — neat!
In Meeple Circus, all of the stacking takes place simultaneously, so you start the timer, put your head down, then see what others have done only after you're finished. Sure, sometimes you hear curses, complaints, and crashes during the building round, but if you take your eyes off your own work, you risk disaster yourself.
This tendency toward solitaire building makes the performative feats in round three mostly pointless. These feats might require you to circle the ring with your animals prior to adding them to an act, or do a drumroll on the table with one hand while adding certain pieces to your ring with the other. As you're doing these things, you realize that no one is paying attention to you, so you feel foolish. Why am I bothering? I'll just take the highest-valued feat tile because the details don't matter.
Updated Nov. 10 to add: I'm a dope. As Dustin pointed out in the comments below, the third round is not played simultaneously, but one player at a time, starting with whoever has the fewest points. You do get to put on a show for everyone else. I had read the rulebook at least three times and hadn't noticed that detail, so the paragraph above is based on my incorrect playings of the game. I'll need to give the game another go with the correct ending performance to see how that compares to my previous experience. —end update—
Some of the feats available for drafting in round three
As for the act cards on display, they aren't as interesting as they could be because they're mostly the same throughout the game. Whoever has the fewest points at the end of rounds one and two removes one act of their choice, replacing it with the next one in that same deck — but the acts in each deck mostly use the same components in a slightly different arrangement, and since only one of the four is changed, if you made something and scored in round one, you can likely make it again in rounds two and three to score again. Having new acts each round would force you to figure out new ways to put your bits together, keeping the later rounds from feeling like repetitions of the first.
Four different scoring cards
I get why the game includes this rule for changing act cards. You want to give the player in a last place some ability to affect what scores in order to give them a chance to catch up, but you can replace an act that allows you to score with a plank only with a different act that scores with a plank, so I'm not sure what's gained. (At the same time, you want to keep all of these types of goals available so that people don't feel like they've wasted a draft pick taking something that turns out to be worthless later.)
In the end, the secret to success with Meeple Circus seems like the secret to success for a real circus: Know your audience, and make sure you're delivering what they want. Some folks are happy to build stuff and marvel at what they've built; some are not.