Meeple Circus

meep

Roll up roll up! Welcome to the Meeple Circus! You’ve just invested in a fledgling circus business – with two fresh acrobats to start you off it’s time to recruit some new talent and put on a show. After a few practice performances and rounds of recruitment, your company will perform before a tent full of spectators. If you satisfy the audience’s highly specific tastes, you might receive the greatest applause (and thus be crowned the most successful circus manager).

2-5 Players | 45 Minutes | Designed by Cédric Millet

I find the name ‘Meeple Circus‘ quite an interesting cultural evolution in boardgaming. Just a few years ago I would have scoffed or cringed at the use of such a niche word in a game title. Now it’s 2018 – ‘Meeple’ is in the Oxford English Dictionary and if you’ve played a modern boardgame you’ve almost certainly heard the term used. I think the name does a perfect job of describing the experience you are in for with this game.

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The Strongman lifts a staggering two elephants!

How does it work?

Meeple Circus is played over three rounds. The first two rounds are described as ‘practices’ while the final round is the main event. Despite this, the applause (points) from all rounds are counted towards the final score in the game.

At the beginning of each round, players draft new acrobats, animals and objects to add to their circus company. In round one, options are limited to standard acrobats, animals and objects. A set of scoring cards describe which configurations of the performers and objects will receive points in this round (e.g. a acrobat balancing on a ball, or an elephant balanced on a beam). The round starts and players build their acrobats and animals into a performance that attempts to satisfy as many of the scoring conditions as possible. Once every one is done (or the time runs out), scoring takes place.

In round two, players will draft some more standard pieces plus a guest star. Guest stars could be something like a strongman or a tiger, which give bonus points for fulfilling special conditions. In the final round (in which players no longer play simultaneously but perform one by one), players draft from a variety of interesting and sometimes ludicrous ‘distractions’ that they will need to abide by while executing their performance. These can be things like ‘announce each acrobat as they enter the ring’ or ‘honk your nose every time an animal is placed’.

The added aspect of having the other players watch as you ‘perform for real’ in the final round builds suspense and is very entertaining for everyone involved. The game has a companion app that includes soundtracks for each round. The soundtracks act as a timer for the game, and in round three, some of the roles involve audio prompts from the soundtrack. After three rounds of play, the player with the highest applause (score) is deemed the one true ringmaster!

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Acrobats, animals, objects and guest stars!

What do I think?

I find Meeple Circus a really interesting game because it presents three distinct facets in its gameplay. There is the obvious dexterity component of the game where you build your circus act. In addition to that, there is the minor strategy component of drafting a good range of pieces such that you can satisfy multiple or duplicate scoring criteria, even if they change. Finally, there is the strategy and planning aspect of mentally building your performance before the round starts. I think this is the most important factor in doing well at the game. When we play, we generally don’t leave time for planning, and physically arranging your pieces before the play starts is frowned upon. Therefore, players who can build a mental model of their circus act and plan scoring combos will have an advantage when building begins. They will be able to quickly construct a high scoring arrangement without trial and error, and score some bonus points for finishing early.

The Good Stuff

  • Meeple Circus is a great implementation of a dexterity game that adds some more ‘gamey’ elements, providing a more engaging experience.
  • Physical skill is required but is somewhat mitigated. Impressive crazy things can be built, but you can also pick up decent amounts of points by targeting scoring cards with isolated performances.
  • Perfect theming! Simple and straightforward rules that take minutes to explain and all make perfect sense with the circus theme.
  • Obvious thought has gone into making the pieces functional as well as iconic. The meeples and animals are all redesigned from the standard shapes to allow for better stacking – all pieces feature unit heights and flat / parallel surfaces.
  • The balancing system works well (player in last place gets to choose new scoring conditions). When we play, we house rule drafting in reverse score order after the first round which assists balancing.
  • The app has a bunch of content (various sound tracks) that are all well produced and add a lot of character to the gameplay.

The Bad Stuff

  • The draft can leave some players unable to score big points because they lack required pieces for scoring conditions.
  • The meeples are regular sized (and all the other pieces equivalent scale). This can be a little bit small for bigger hands, but appropriately adds to the dexterity challenge aspect of the game.
  • I can’t tell if the cardboard base is an evil genius addition. I generally dislike it because it is much harder to build on than a regular table surface, (can be bumped, isn’t perfectly flat etc) but then it makes the game more challenging which I do like. I would have preferred if it was thicker cardboard though, it feels very flimsy as is.
  • The round three performance tiles have wildly varying difficulty and the points rewarded for them don’t accurately reflect this. Some of them are incredibly trivial while others require constant attention or distraction for only a couple of points more.
  • The translation job in the English version leaves quite a few grammatical errors on both the components and in the rulebook.
  • The (android) app is terribly optimised. It uses up a lot of battery and makes my phone quite warm when it is running. You can’t really substitute a timer in as some of the sound effects from the app are important to gameplay.
  • Maybe a (bigger) scoring flowchart or reference cards would be handy, it’s easy to forget elements and the small iconography provided isn’t super clear.
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A crowd pleasing performance indeed!

Some of my comments might make Meeple Circus out to seem like more than it is. I want to emphasise here that it is a simple family dexterity game about who can build the best circus acts. The thing that pleases me most about it is that it does this in a way that includes more ‘gamey’ elements and allows small amounts of tactics, planning and strategy to add to the gameplay. This leaves Meeple Circus with a wide audience appeal and fun engaging gameplay that can be made as competitive as the players want it to be. If you like dexterity games, or can use your kids as an excuse to get a game that is very enjoyable for everyone, pick it up! Live out your dreams of running a tiny circus!

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