Time: ~45 minutes
Times Played: 8+
Dexterity games are a guilty pleasure of mine as they can appeal to the puzzle solving portion of my brain while bringing forth a fun time in real-time as structures collapse after some hard work. Meeple Circus joined the conversation and after having the game for almost a year, I think I’m ready to finally talk about it.
In my opinion, dexterity games share a similar audience to social deduction games where the people that sit around the table and play with you will make the game better or not. It is a lively experience and Meeple Circus, like Rampage/Terror in Meeple City, is a highly social game where even if you’re not directly interacting with one another, you’re feeding off the energy of the table.
Meeple Circus has three unique rounds. At the beginning of each round, each player will draft a set of two tiles that will give them access to a variety of circus components. These pieces are added to the players collection for use during the upcoming round. The draft adds some interaction between players but for the most part, everything you do will be on your own accord.
The game comes with a free app that helps keep track of time over the course of the round. It also plays whimsical carny music to really immerse players into the theme and has a camera mode for capturing pivotal moments with a built in filter. The app does drain the battery fairly quickly but that tends to be the case for me in regards to board game companion apps. For reference, I used the app on my LG phone and my ASUS Chromebook.
As the music plays, the players will try to build the best act using the pieces available to them. For the first two rounds, players will build on their ring circles simultaneously. Once the music stops, play ends and the game moves toward the scoring phase. If a player finishes their act early, they will gain a speed bonus that can accrue them additional points. The speed bonus is limited to the first two players and will score two points for the first player to finish and one for the second player.
Besides the speed bonus, there are three additional metrics for scoring at the end of the round. First are the Acrobats. There are three different colored acrobats that will score points depending on the requirement associated with them. Second are the Public Objectives. These public objectives will change with each round. Lastly, players will check to see if they have met the requirements set forth by their Individual Objectives. This scoring can only occur in rounds two and three however.
Regarding the differences between rounds, the second round introduces a “Star” act, which allows for an additional scoring opportunity if the requirement is met. The third round follows a similar pattern as the last two but offers one major change: the building phase is done one player at a time. The players will also draft a performance tile that has players trying to perform a particular act to score additional points during the final round. The complexity of these acts ranges from fairly simple to difficult.
After the third round concludes, the player with the most points wins the game…
…but this game isn’t about the points. It’s about the individual acts that occur and the hilarity of trying to finish your act in time. Yes, there are winners and losers but the game shouldn’t be measured that way. I’m not going to call the strategy or depth of Meeple Circus ‘basic’ but you’re not playing this game because of some interconnected tactic you’ve been waiting to try out. You’re playing this to stack pieces and see others players stacks fall…and maybe the circus theme.
Meeple Circus reminds me a lot of Betrayal at House on the Hill where yes, someone will emerge the victor, but it’s the experience that’s important. The arena that you place your acrobats and camels and elephants and strongmen in is tight enough to create tension when trying to complete your acts but big enough that you have room to spread out if you’re not good at stacking or want to play it safe.
The components that you’re stacking are quality meeples but they definitely feel lighter than say, a Carcassonne meeple. The heft is missing but they do make up for it in visuals. There are different animals and unique meeples (like a clown) that make up the circus. Putting the stickers on each meeple sucked but that might have been more my issue with affixing stickers straight than it was the stickers themselves. Once done though, they do look good.
I’m not entirely fond of the third round having players play individually. With the right group, it can be a very fun time but even then, it adds a considerable length to the game when compared to other rounds. The third round also introduces the physical acts that players can complete and these are either your cup of tea or not. Some are much more difficult than others and like a circus, some might require you to perform in front of other players.
I do think, as far as dexterity games go, Meeple Circus is the most friendly for introducing young and inexperienced gamers to the hobby. The colorful pieces and themes are enticing and vibrant and the rules can be slightly modified to extend the time period for our younger friends. The theme helps it have that appeal as a gateway game and once players tire of it, they’ll be ready to look for the next challenge ahead of them. I might enjoy Rampage/Terror in Meeple City more as a thematic dexterity game but it does have a violent overtone that may not be suitable for players of younger ages.
The game also ensures that players can play the game that they want to play via the draft. If you want a difficult time, choose the harder to place pieces and if you don’t, grab the simpler (but lower scoring) tiles. I’m not sure how I feel about this. On one hand, that’s great as players won’t be forced into playing a hand and make a structure that they don’t want to or can’t but on the other, it can leave players playing completely different games.
If you’re looking for a highly thematic dexterity game, I would recommend Meeple Circus. If you’re looking for something with more depth, strategy, and in my opinion, replay-ability, I wouldn’t. I think the theme saves a basic game from overstaying its welcome. Which hurts me to say as we’re all guilty of stacking our components in games where we have a pile in front of us but Meeple Circus takes an activity that everyone enjoys (for a brief period of time) and stretches it to the point of no return.