Meeple Circus (2017)

Game Details
NameMeeple Circus (2017)
ComplexityLight [1.42]
BGG Rank1020 [7.03]
Player Count2-5
Designer(s)Cédric Millet
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's great! You should probably try it if you can!

Meeple Circus represents a genius idea – something so clear and obviously right that it seems like it must have been discovered rather than invented. It feels like a kind of archaeological inevitability, like finding a fully matured city underneath the overgrown vegetation of a forbidden forest. The most surprising thing isn’t that it’s there, it’s that there was a before when it wasn’t. It’s fair to say that at the tail end of 2017 I was awaiting the UK release of this game with a considerable degree of excitement. Maybe more excitement than for any other game during that period.

Meeple Circus box

Why has it taken so long for this game to be created? Its an almost perfect design. You get meeples of various sizes, shapes and configurations and you get points for how interestingly complex you can make their physical intersections. That’s good – it’s clever in the ‘oh, I wish I had thought of that’ kind of way. There’s a very relatable spark of creativity in here – it’s a game that anyone could have made and yet nobody did. Throw a circus theme onto the thing and add a real-time element driven by a jaunty carnival soundtrack and you’ve got a game that is impressive precisely because of its comparatively workaday elements. Nobody invented a new mechanism for Meeple Circus. It’s not dripping with invention or sautéed with enviable wit. It’s an exciting game because it shows that we can still see new things when people bang together familiar elements. Meeple Circus is marvelous because something genuinely new has emerged from the most mundane compilation of game systems.

Meeple Circus components

Here’s all you need to know – the game is played over three increasingly complex rounds. Each round you add new performers and new props to your act. Each round, the scoring context of the game shifts slightly, forcing you to improvise and adapt. You’ll never have all the props or performers that you need and as such you’ll be constantly incentivised to be bold in the way your act is conducted. You’ll want to reuse props in multiple configurations. You’ll need to create pyramids of people. You’ll be driven to arrange ever more varied and complex menageries of creatures. All of this you’re doing to a time limit imposed by a signature tune that you can choose from the game’s app. You’re also being jollied along by the sure knowledge that someone is going to beat you to the early completion marker. You’ve got to perform tonight, you can’t mess around! The opening night is so close that for the first two rounds you’ll all be doing your rehearsals at the same time.

Meeple CIrcus score setup

Each round, you’re selecting from a menu of choices – you’re going to pick on ‘element’ tile and an ‘act’ tile, and it’s done in a round-robin system. You want to pick the tiles that give you the biggest chances of success with regards to what’s going to earn you the most points. Each tile determines the new elements that get added to your initially meagre set of circus components.

Collected components

Every round you’re going to be scored on some of the innate features of your performers, but also on how well you manage to meet the various public expectations. Nobody goes to your circus to watch a mournful clown play with a balloon. They want to see a trapeze artist wrestling with a tiger on a tightrope. They want to a see a strongman that lifts two elephants while standing on the back of a camel. This isn’t Cirque du Soleil, and it’s much better for it. Clowns are very creepy and circuses are improved immeasurably by their absence.

Public expectation cards

And that’s how it goes. You collect up all your starting components, you start the music playing, and it’s rehearsal time! All of you individually, as the jaunty beat sets the tempo of the game everyone, are going to arrange these components in such a way as to earn applause from the audience. Every component that is on the ground has to be carrying another component. They all have to be within the bounds of the ring, and they all have to be standing appropriately vertical. Aside from that, the world is your mollusk.

End of act one

Blue performers gain a point of applause for standing on the ground. Yellow performers gain a point of score for not standing on the ground. Red performers are acrobats and gain points depending on how high they are placed in the circus. Your first act of rehearsal isn’t going to let you accomplish much because you won’t have the props to throw at the performance. Despite this, it’ll be a masterclass in how resentful you can become of your own malfunctioning fingers as they attempt to do something that seems completely trivial. Nothing in Meeple Circus, save perhaps for an occasionally structural beam, is precisely configured for your convenience.

Within your circus you’re probably going to have several independent structure of pieces – they don’t all have to be lumped together but that’s how you’re going to get the most use out of your various bits and bobs. The structure shown on the image above gets four points for fulfilling the brown public demand, and an additional two for fulfilling the purple demand. Add one point for the blue performer on the ground, two points for the yellow performers, and a further two for the red performer. Eleven points of applause, plus whatever bonus you get for having completed ahead of the other players. Nice. Straightforward. Not at all easy.

After the first rehearsal is over and scored it all gets a bit tougher. Now each player takes a second element marker and an act two tile that has a special act and a condition that must be met for scoring. Also, one of the public demands changes as you experiment with the format of the show. The second rehearsal is a case of more, better, faster. Here’s where you incorporate your headliners.

Act two incorporating a camel

Look at us – we’re adding a camel to the act, and you can see right away what this does – it makes you reach for a more complicated performance while also adding in a massive amount of additional difficulty through the contours of the different shapes. The mere existence of a centre of gravity in any of your props can be all it takes to completely mess up your plans. You don’t have to do anything with the camel but you can bet your jugglers that your opponents will be making plans for their headliner, and the points are enticing. It’s not good enough to be good enough – you’ve got to excel. Bums on seats and all of that. You gather up your components, start the music again, and then you’re all off once more!

Now you can see how excitingly varied these simple scoring contexts can be. You can play it safe – have each scoring element handled largely independently in the ring. You get a lot more fun, and occasionally a good deal many more points, by going for the audacious. Just because a performer has to carry an upside-down camel, it doesn’t mean it can’t be on the beam supported by the two blue performers on the circus floor. No reason that horse you’re not otherwise using couldn’t be drafted into service for the acrobat. No reason that barrel couldn’t be an important stabilising element. Admit it – you’d go to a circus where they managed to pull that off. I know I would.

You all finish your second rehearsals, make notes on how it went, and then you handle your second scoring round. You get another element. The scoring context changes. And now it’s time…

…because it’s the big night – it’s time for the performance! And for that you draft… one of these bloody things.

Act three cards

For the last round of Meeple Circus there is a performative aspect in both senses of the word. You’re not just putting on a show, you’re putting on a show where you are going to be required to be a performer. Yes, you – the sack of meat and water that has been merely directing up until this point. The music that plays during each round is no longer just a timer – it’s something which sets the rules of your physical performance. ‘With each cymbal crash, bite on you fingers and say “Oh my gosh, it’s going to fall’. ‘Stand up, bow down and say “thank you” with every applause on the soundtrack”’. So now you’re not only fighting a time limit for a complex circus act, you’re also going to have to pay attention to the flourishes that are down to you.

And this one?

This final act?

You do that in full of view of everyone. The final performances are done one after another, not in parallel. You’re the centre of attention and everyone will be watching to make sure you fully fulfil the conditions of your final act requirements.

‘Make a drumming sound with your index finger and middle finger as you place your last component’. God, what? It’s stressful enough when I have two hands to use, buddy. I don’t need to inject artificial tension into this, I’m already on the verge of tears. I mean, I’m getting there…

Building a tall tower of components

And now it’s all so precarious that I don’t think I can really do it but I’m gonna try…

Adding a barrel on to the top

And now I’ve got to drum my fingers as I put the final element on there? LOOK AT HOW MY HANDS ARE SHAKING ALREADY. I mean, definitely I’m going do it – there are too many points at stake here not to – but I resent the hell out of you for…

Topping it off with an acrobat

TADA! It’s done, it’s done, and the performance is a massive hit. Sure, I could have gone for something easier for my final component but the mere existence of something more complicated in the ring limits your ability to safely mess around with even easy structures. Sometimes you’ve got to roll the hard six on a pair of out-sized comedy dice and hope you didn’t inadvertently invalidate your entire act by having a balloon in an illegal configuration.

But that drumming… these flourishes can be the difference between a triumph of accomplishment or the heart-sickening realisation that the only headliner in your act is the one that will be in tomorrow’s paper. ‘Bonkers Circus Tragedy Kills Six Acrobats and Maims Two Camels’. ‘This sleepy village was the site of a tragedy last night, when Bozo the clown slipped while making his way to the top of a fleshy meat pyramid of animals and acrobats. “It was awful”, says eye witness Lisa (28). “You couldn’t hear the music for the sound of honking noses. There was glitter everywhere. You couldn’t see where one coloured scarf began and the other ended. I had to go out and be sick at one point”.

Collapsed pieces

Ah, it’s a grand wee game it really is. It’s like Rhino Hero but laced with powerful amphetamines. The whole package is just beautifully executed and comes with just enough variety to keep things interesting – not forever, sure – but for a while. There’s enough skill and mastery needed in the arrangement of your circus elements that even working from the exact same scoring context can give you opportunities for satisfying crowd-pleasing ambitions. Ironically though for a game about circus acts, I have numerous concerns about the balance of the whole thing.

Look, Meeple Circus is great and it’s not getting out of this review without a big sloppy appreciative kiss on its cardboard lips. It’s just that while you are encouraged towards a degree of ambition and creativity in your acts you’re not really ever truly rewarded for it in a way that is at all proportional to the effort you expend. Consider the following scoring cards:

Three separate scoring cards

I’m an overachiever, let’s say, and I decide am going to approach this in as brave a way as I can. I want to thrill my audience. I want them to go home talking about what they just saw. Here’s what I put together for them:

Difficult configuration of pieces

Look at that – three points for the elephant and horse. Four points for the yellow performer on the beam and the barrel, and another two for the fact that performer is holding another. Two additional points for the two yellow meeples being off the floor. Everyone on top of everyone – as ambitious as it is audacious. It’s a tour de force – eleven points. I didn’t win though, because my opponent grabbed the ‘first finished’ token after taking a less roundabout approach to the task..

Low effort high score

That ‘minimum viable product’ is actually worth in and of itself one more point than mine despite it being the laziest, least effort, least risky approach to the brief. That extra blue performer is what clinches the win even leaving aside the fact this was done in seconds and mine took a good deal longer with much greater likliehood of everything collapsing.

Some cards too are just weird in terms of how much they give you for how little effort. ‘Say squish whenever you pose an animal on an acrobat’ is worth five points. That’s the same as what you get for creating your circus act with using one hand. ‘Qualify each component by an adjective when it’s placed’ is worth seven. If you make your circus act using only your least dominant hand, that’s also worth seven. Some configurations of performers, particularly those using the balloon element, receive comparatively few points for how difficult that often turns out to be. You get two points for placing one of the special act figures on top of an elephant which is the same is what you get by engineering the circumstances under which the trapeze artist’s head touches nothing in the ring. You might be happy to wave that away as a simple consequence of the drafting system, and that’s fine. It feels though very unsatisfying to do something amazing and still be beaten by those that invested the least effort in the easiest tasks.

Similarly some of the performer tiles have ‘low hanging fruit’ conditions. “Place Tarzan at the highest position of your circus act and let out his signature cry” might be incredibly challenging for some of the configurations shown above. It might also be incredibly trivial if you don’t really have any high position laid out. That leads to certain circumstances where those interested mostly in winning can game their circus act towards optimal point rewards for minimum effort. We saw another example of that above, but this is something specifically baked into certain of the game conditions.

More structurally problematic is that the nature of the shifting public demands results in only glacial adjustments to acts as time goes by. You can almost always get more points by simply doing the same thing as you did last time but adding in the new components in the simplest way. The player in last place chooses a public demand to cycle out each round, but that means that three quarters of your performance can stay the same. There’s some ability of players to actively sabotage other players, but since it’s only one person that gets to trash a card it’s difficult to do this in a way that makes it effective for internal balancing of the experience. You can adopt some more aggressive card cycling as a house rule, but that’s not quite in the spirit of the game as it is presented in the box.

In the end though these are relatively minor quibbles more than anything else. If you’re playing Meeple Circus for the scoring you’ve probably taken a wrong turn somewhere in how you approach the whole endeavour. This is a game that is about the spectacle. It’s about getting your friends to go ‘Oh, you’re just showing off’ when you place a horse on its face on top of an acrobat at the tip of a human pyramid. In a real sense the fun in Meeple Circus comes from the performance you put on for everyone at the table. In the end the weirdness around the scoring doesn’t much factor into it. I’d definitely prefer if it felt like you were actually appropriately rewarded for your efforts. I’m happy enough though if that reward is simply basking in the satisfaction of a job well done.