3 Ring Circus
Spectators line up to purchase tickets and attend dazzling 3 ring circus performances all across 19th century America. Directors of circus troupes are hiring artists and performing shows to gain fame throughout the region. The competition is tough, however! The renowned Barnum Circus is also traveling the country, enticing audiences and competing for their appreciation.
In 3 Ring Circus from Devir Games, players assemble and direct a circus, wowing audiences to earn fame points. A game of 3 Ring Circus is best for teens and adults and lasts about an hour.
Players must carefully choose between engaging (hiring) an artist or performing a show for audiences to earn money, fame, and the opportunity to recruit other artists. Through creative tableau building, players should plan the most advantageous card placement to award pedestals for future performances and earn fame points. By launching with smaller acts and building to jaw-dropping feats, players can grow their circus and meet the demands of audiences around the country.
For the first turn in the game, each player places their circus caravan on any one of the main cities available. Then, they’ll engage an artist.
In subsequent turns, players choose between two actions: engaging an artist or performing a show.
Engage an Artist
To engage an artist, players choose one card from their hand and place it into an available slot on their circus board.
Hiring artists increases pedestal count in the circus, provides end-game points, and caters to the audiences’ desires. Each artist has a value (cost) displayed in the upper left corner. Players must pay this using other money cards from their hand. They then place the new card on their board. Cards must strictly increase in value within a row, so playing a lower card pushes any higher cards right. This order demonstrates the build-up from the playful intro acts to the dramatic showstoppers that will close out the performance. When playing into a row with other cards, a card’s cost is the difference between it and the highest card in the row.
The money card deck holds basic artists with values 1-4: clowns, pets, magicians, and horse riders.
The ticket deck contains three other artist types, represented by colors: orange animals, purple acrobats, and turquoise special performers. These cards have values 5-16.
At the bottom of each card is an effect, often triggered by the card’s location in its row. This usually awards additional pedestals or end game points.
Smart card placement helps build an engine to increase the troupe’s pedestal count and improve end game scoring. However, placement also triggers bonuses, awards objective cards, and may cover movement and earnings icons, hindering future turns.
Perform a Show
To perform a show, players move to a nearby city and follow its performance guidelines, earning money cards, ticket cards, or fame points.
First, the player moves their caravan to a city or town. The number of locomotive icons visible on the player board determines their movement. Players must skip any city that has already had a performance (marked by a circus tent). They may skip any city with a caravan in place.
Small Town Performance: Each small town may only host one show in the whole game. The player who performs in that town will mark it with one of their circus tents. When performing in a small town, the player receives at least one money card from the locals. They’ll also get one additional money card from each neighboring small town that has not yet hosted a show. (The people from those towns came to watch the show too!) Players also receive a money card for each money icon visible on their player boards. Small town performances have no requirements.
Medium city performance: Before performing in medium cities, players want as many pedestals as possible to maximize their performance rewards. Medium cities also have (randomly assigned) preferences: the locals may want to see magicians or animals, for example. When performing in a medium city, catering to the city’s preferences awards additional temporary pedestals to help a circus maximize its score.
The performing player places a circus tent on a pedestal count equal to or lower than their current count, then gains the bonus next to the slot: either ticket cards or fame points. Players again collect money according to the visible icons on their player boards.
Main city performances: Each city has a random card, showing a specific artist type in the middle with supporting artists on either side. To perform in a main city, players must have at least the required artist in their circus. When performing, players earn a base score for the required artist. They’ll also get bonus points for proper placement of supporting artists adjacent to the required artist in the row. Players place a circus tent on the leftmost circle on the city and collect money according to the visible icons on their player boards.
Boost a performance: Some cards allow players to boost their performances to earn additional perks. Play these cards at the time of the performance and then discard.
Following each performance: The movement of the Barnum Circus keeps time for the game. The Barnum caravan moves each time a player performs a show. Upon reaching each large city, the game pauses to score fame points based on each player’s presence in the region. Players count their circus tents for each area and earn points by rank, with more tents scoring more.
The game ends when Barnum has traveled the outer loop of the board and returned to its starting city. Players total their end game points for performers, ticket card effects, and end game scoring cards.
The Elephant in the Room
In the rule book, the publisher acknowledges that while the circus has long been romanticized as an awe-inspiring show, the true nature of the 19th century circus was much darker. It is also noted that Mr. Barnum himself is “regarded as a shady character at the very least.”
The solo variant of 3 Ring Circus pits a player against The Spectacular Automaton Show to see which circus gains the favor of the paying public. Play is similar to the regular game rules. The performance action feels a bit clunkier though, with a variety of steps to follow.
Impressions (Stephanie Says):
Tableau building games with some engine building is one of our favorite combos in board gaming, so when we first learned about 3 Ring Circus, we were excited to get it to the table. Our 2-player games averaged 45 minutes, making it a very snappy game that felt bigger than its playtime.
The art and graphic design captivated us. The cover art feels playful and fun with a vintage color palette and design. The iconography seems a bit intense upon first glance, but it is much easier to follow after that first playthrough.
We found the game play compelling with interesting choices that satisfied us through our initial plays. Balancing decisions between engaging artists and performing was a fun puzzle. Monitoring Barnum’s movement around the board also factored into the decisions of when to take each action. More performances means Barnum moves faster and games end sooner.
The theme really came through with small town and medium city performances.
Small town performances are simply a means of earning money. That income comes from the paying audience in the town your caravan has stopped in and spectators from neighboring towns that have not yet had a circus performance.
For medium cities, the audience has specific preferences to cater to. Unfortunately, for the main cities, the theme falls apart as players instead focus on “an acrobat with a value of 12”, as an example. This didn’t detract from the game too much, but it does feel a bit lackluster. These main city performances should feel like the game’s crescendo!
While I appreciate the smaller box size of this line of Devir games, the board felt cramped and busy. After several plays this design felt more manageable, but it’s hard to overcome the initial intimidating feel.
It’s also easy to forget about moving Barnum after each performance. Instead of waiting to do this at the end of a turn, we made sure to do it at the start of our turns before performing and earning rewards.
The area majority component of the game fits well with the theme, but I often found myself forgetting about this aspect and focusing on my artist cards and performance points.
After playing through several games, we noted that sometimes we filled (or nearly filled) our player boards with cards, while in other games we only filled them halfway. Although it can help with points in the end game, filling the game board doesn’t seem necessary. It’s more important to make good decisions with card play.
Building card tableaus and developing synergies through creative card play is one of my greatest joys in board gaming. While I mostly liked 3 Ring Circus, it wouldn’t be the first choice I would pull from the shelf.
Don’t be fooled by the playful theme – this game is quite thinky and plays best with adults and teens.
You can pick up your own copy of 3 Ring Circus directly from Devir or from your friendly local game store.
Devir Games provided The Family Gamers with a complimentary copy of 3 Ring Circus for this review.
3 Ring Circus
Number of Players: 1-4
Age Range: 12+
Playtime: 60 minutes