Updated: Sep 26
WBG Score: 8.5
Player Count: 1-4
Published by: Devir
This is a free review copy. See our review policy here.
3 Ring Circus Board Game Review
There are surprisingly very few games with a circus theme. Circus Flohcati comes to mind. A classic circus themed (in an abstract way) card game, that is hard to get hold of, but fun to play. As such, when I heard about 3 Ring Circus, I was instantly keen to play. Added to the the seemingly rare theme, we have the astonishingly high recent pedigree of Devir and their smaller boxed euro games. The Red Cathedral and Bamboo to name just two were both excellent. Packing a lot of game into a tiny box seems to be Devir's thing of late. Pulling out component after component, like Clowns emerging from a tiny car. Not a bad thing to be into in the current climate. Saying that, 3 Ring circus comes in a slightly larger box, more square in design, but still small for the weight of game inside. But does it deliver on all this promise? Well, roll up, roll up! Let's get it to the table and find out.
How To Set Up 3 Ring Circus
The main board is single sided and needs to be modified based on your player count. The normal board looks like this and is fine for a four player game.
You need to block off one space for a three player game, and two spaces for a two player game. There are choices to be made here as from the five areas, you can block off Boston, Indianapolis, or Chicago. You just cannot leave anything unconnected. A linked road must always be present between all open areas. There are boards that you can place on top of these areas to block them off. They slide about a bit which is a bit annoying during gameplay, but otherwise work fine enough. Here is the board shown with the two western areas blocked.
And here is it with both the far west Chicago and eastern Boston areas blocked and the three central areas open for play.
Once this is done, now it it time to set up the rest of the board. Give each person playing their own player mat and the pieces in their chosen colour. Each player will place their scoring marker on the zero space of the score track on the main board, then place the Barnum carriage onto the city shown furthest east, either Boston or New York. Then, shuffle each separate deck of cards for the End game scoring deck, Ticket deck, and Money deck. Place them onto their spaces on the board, revealing the top five cards of the Ticket deck onto the spaces shown. Each player takes one End game scoring card, one Ticket card and four Money cards.
Next, shuffle the city tokens and place one, either side, onto the medium sized cities in play. Do the same with the cards for the large cities. This will randomly determine what each city requires for a high scoring show each game. In a two player game take some neutral circus tokens and place them onto the six spaces shown in the rule book. Finally, decide who will be the first player and give the Barnum card to the player sat to their right. Take your seats please, you are now ready to start the show!
How To Play 3 Ring Circus
The rule book makes it seem a little more complicated than it actually is. Hopefully the below makes it sound a little more simple. On your turn, players will simply do one of two actions. Either Engage with an Artist, or Perform a show. You take one action then the next player does the same. Let's go through the two actions in detail.
Engaging with an artist simply means to place one card from your hand onto your player board. You have three rows, each one representing one of your three rings in your own circus performance. You are looking to place cards that increase your current powers, end game scoring opportunities, and cards that work with each other to maximise points.
The cards all show the cost on the top left, end game points or category on the top right, and power on the bottom. The colour on the top left also dictates their set, which is important when it comes to the powers, such as the purple card in the middle top below. This will offer two end game points for every orange card placed to its left. The below cards are all Ticket cards.
The Money cards also have a cost shown on the top left but can also be used as currency, to pay for other cards to be played. When you do this, simply discard the cards required to cover the cost and place your chosen card into your tableau on the left most space of either of the three rows. You can choose either row. Your choice will be dependant on how the card works with other cards, and which spaces you want to fill. As you place cards you will cover up symbols which reduce certain powers, such as the train symbol which is used for movement when performing a show. More on that later.
The Money cards also show a category on the top right instead of end game points. These categories are important when it comes to performing in the middle sized cities. More on that later.
The player boards each player has start with multiple symbols visible. Each Train symbol for example grants you one movement when performing a show. So you start with six movement. But as cards are paced over these, the movement is lost. Some cards will grant powers back to you such as movement, but not many. So, in the later stages of the game, when your player board is filling up, movement will be a lot more restricted. But the game has a clever way to help there. We will discuss that later.
On the left of the player board you will see three spaces for your end game scoring cards. You start with one in your hand which you can place when you complete your first column, as shown by the three stars on the bottom of the first three columns. You will can gain your second and third end game scoring card when you fill the second space on the second row and the third space on the third row. Doing this early will let you know what you need to aim for during the rest of the game, so it is advisable to do this as soon as possible. You cannot change end game scoring cards and you won't ever see more than the three cards that you acquire this way.
You will notice the track to the right of the End game scoring area. This displays your Circus shows current attraction levels. The more Pedestals you have the better your show will be. You start with one shown on the symbol on the bottom left of the End game scoring area, but this is lost when you play a card that covers this. You can gain many more from the card powers you play.
Placing cards must always be done in numerical order, ascending lowest to highest. If you place a Five card down, and have already placed a card of lower value down, the five will go to the right and you pay the difference between the two. The cost is reduced by the highest card already payed. For example, if a three was already on the same row, then the five now only costs two additional money to place. If you have already placed a higher value card, such as a seven, the five is now free, but must be placed to the left of the seven, which now shift ones space over to the right. You can never play a card of equal value.
So, a few rules. But a simple action. Engaging with an artist simply means placing a card from your hand, onto your player board. Pay the cost, take the reward if there is an immediate one. And reduce any affected powers. Make sense? Great. Lets perform a show! The audience is getting restless.
The second action you can take on your turn is to Perform a show. If you choose to do this, first move your playing piece the required spaces. Your playing piece is a carriage in your colour. It starts off the board. But on your first turn you must place it onto any available large city. You cannot share this space with anyone else or any other piece such as the Barnum circus carriage. You will move your piece the number of spaces you choose, up to your current movement potential. Then, wherever you land, you will perform a show. There are small, medium, and large cities. Each one has a different way to perform a show. We will go through them all now.
Small City - There is no requirement for performing a show in a small city other than it being available. Meaning no one else has performed there yet. When you move here, simply take one Money card and then one further Money card for any adjacent small city that is also available. Take an extra Money card for each Money symbol currently shown on your board. You start with one. Then, place one of your Circus tokens onto this space to show it is no longer available for you or another player to perform here. Then finally, move the Barnum piece one space clockwise. Herein begins the game clock.
Medium City - These cities have a requirement for maximum crowd enjoyment, and points. This is determined by the tokens you placed at the start of the game. As you can see below, they split the top and bottom middle city in each area, and offer two extra Pedestals for each card in your tableau with a specific symbol. Use this and your current Pedestal level to work out which space to place your Circus token onto the board. Placing your Circus token will block up one space and will grant you the rewards shown of either new Ticket cards or points. You will also take one Money card and move the Barnum token one space.
Large City - The large cities use the cards placed during set up, such as the two shown above. You simply score points based on how well you meet the criteria. For example, the top left card requires an orange card to the value of 11 to have been placed in one if your three lines to score six points. If you have it placed with a purple card to its left a further four points are added, and a turquoise to its right, a further five. For a total of 16. You will also score an additional three points if you are the first to perform here, and one for the second performance. Again, you will also take one Money card and move the Barnum token one space.
And this is how you play the game. Sounds like a lot, but it really isn't. On your turn, you are only ever adding one card to your tableau or placing a Circus token onto the board to get additional cards or points.
There is a small additional element of area majority when whenever the Barnum piece moves onto one of the main city spaces, at the end of the players turn that triggered this, the player with the most Circus tokens in this area will score ten extra points. The player in second gets six, and the third takes three. But other than that, this is the entire game. You are building up your circus and performing shows. The game ends when Barnum gets back to its starting spot, players will score one final area majority and then add all points from the ecards on their board. Most points wins.
Is It Fun? 3 Ring Circus Board Game Review
3 Ring Circus is a fascinating game. As I have tried to make clear above, it is very simple to play. But the intricacies in strategy are immense. Let's look at just one area. Card play. What card you want to play and where you want to place it. So that you can start to see how well interconnected this game is.
When you place a card from your hand onto your board you are going to be thinking about a lot of things.
What your end game scoring conditions are and how you can best manipulate that in your favour.
What each main city needs to score maximum points. Which colour, which number, which location.
How the card helps you now. What powers will it give you.
How the card hurts you now. What symbols will it block.
How the card will work with future cards played, and how it will work with current cards already in your tableau.
How the card will help you score at the end of the game.
How you will pay for it. Which cards will you discard to gain this one.
It is not a simple choice. And your brain will be in overdrive for a moment as you process the structure of your turn, thinking a number of moves ahead, and try to puzzle this out.
By the end, this already cluttered board begins to look quite busy. But it will all make sense to you, and is easy to read. The busyness also works in a clever way to help your movement. As you move around the board, you will start to have more specific requirements as to where you want to be as the game draws to the end. You will have certain things you will want to fulfil that can only be done in certain places. But as we discussed, your power to move longer distances will also reduce. However the rules state that you skip any space with another player, Circus token, or Barnum figure. So, you can end up moving vast distances across America with only a few movement actions, jumping over occupied towns and cities. But of course, where you can now end up will be very restricted because you cannot stop where other players have already performed or are currently located. It's an ingenious tightening, then loosening, and then one final big squeeze of the games freedom and strategy as you play. Oh, I love it.
The interplay of cards is wonderfully satisfying as well. It is hard to make cards work together as well as you would like. They often have a requirement for another type of card, that will not match with the others in your current row or hand. You need to make choices about which card to play and where and be flexible with how they may work with some other cards but not always all of them. There will rarely be a perfect choice. Choices won't ever be bad. Always good. But never obvious and rarely perfect. It will take some noodling each time, which is a wonderful thing for a game that moves otherwise, with a brisk pace. With one action from only two choices, turns are quick, so a brief respite when someone considers their options is a welcome thing for all players around the table.
I would recommend this game to anyone who enjoys classic Euro gaming, but wants something with just a few smidges of extra accessibility. This game dials the complexity of rules, game length, and intimidation factor right down to a three I would say. But keeps the strategy and satisfaction right up there when compared to some other big box Euros. If you enjoy this style of games but wish you could have one that could be played more often as you don't always have two hours, or those specific friends in your group who don't mind complex games, this could be the one for you.
The Red Cathedral is probably better, but this game is less fiddley, and has a more interesting theme to me. I like the sprawling board and point-to-point movement around it. Working out where I can go, and where I want to go, along with the powers currently available to me from my player board is a delightful puzzle to work out. The Red Cathedral offers a little more in terms of strategy, but this offers more drama, and a much lighter and more attractive theme, to me at least. Add a decent insert, a better rule book, and perhaps one more tiny amount of complexity with an expansion and this could well become one of my favourite games to play. I look forward to many more games of this and seeing how it develops with what I hope will be inevitable expansions.