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[Review] Big Top

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tomvasel
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Joined: 03/23/2011

It’s hard to theme a card game successfully. Take a look at some of people’s favorite card games – Bohnanza, Rage!, etc., and you’ll find very few where the theme actually matters. Most card games have a theme slapped on a simple card mechanic – which satisfies most people. This is probably why I like board games better than card games, since the theme can be stronger in a board game. Yet card games are wildly more popular with many people – much more than board games. If I am teaching a group of “non-gamers” a new game, and they hear that it’s a card game, it is much more palatable to them, especially if they have card games in their history. My wife grew up playing card games, so any card game is preferable to her over any board game (with a few exceptions). And recently, many companies are taking traditional games that could be played with a deck of cards, rethemeing them, and changing the rules slightly. I don’t see this as a bad thing, because frankly I (and I’m sure others) would probably not be too interested in the game otherwise. The theme, stupid as it may be, might just be the thing to pull me over the brink and pick the game up.

This certainly holds true for Big Top (Advanced Primate Entertainment [APE], 2004 – Ray Mulford). I probably would not have been interested in the game at all, except that I love circuses, and the theme really attracted me (and I was interested in playing a game designed by a renowned game reviewer). The game produced some interesting reactions. When I played it with the teenagers, they were a little put out because “the game had nothing to do with the circus!” However, after playing the game with adults, I fully expected them to dislike the game, but they actually enjoyed it. My first playing caused me to think that the game basically played itself, but subsequent playings showed me that there is strategy in the game. One’s opening hand can really determine their fate for a round, but no more than – say – a hand of the traditional Hearts game. I myself wasn’t a huge fan of the game, but I realized that it has a lot of potential, especially to the adult crowd who are big card game fans.
The theme of the game is to become a circus manager who has collected the most money. Okay, it’s really about who can score the most points with their hand. A deck of cards is shuffled and dealt out completely to each player (from three to six). The deck is composed of four suits (clowns, sideshow, animals, and performers) – each composed of 13 cards (one Poster card, and “1” through “6” in two colors each: white and black). Each player takes a set of gate receipt tokens ($3, $5, $7, and $10), a scoring token, and an organizing chart, which they place in front of them. Each player evaluates their hands, and determines which colors they think that they can get rid of. The color they think they are most likely to get rid of, they place the “$10” token face down on that color on their Organizing Chart, then the “$7” token, etc. Once everyone has “invested” their tokens, thusly, the first round beings. The dealer (who has been most recently to a circus) goes first, with play proceeding clockwise around the table.

On a turn, a player must decrease the value of all their “called” cards. This involves sliding the cards down on their organizing chart one space each (if possible). Then, the player can make an action. If they have a “called” card in front of them that is possible to play, they must play that card in the appropriate spot. Otherwise, they may play a card from their hand onto the table, or “call” a card. When playing a card from their hand, or a “called” card, players must follow a certain order. The Poster card is always the first card that must be played from each suit. Following that, the numbered cards are played in ascending order, on both sides of the poster card – white numbered cards on one side, and black on the other. For example, if the black numbered “3” of the clown suit is on the table, I cannot play my black “5” clown card until the “4” is placed down.

When a player “calls” a card, they take any card (must be currently unable to be played, and cannot match suit and color of a card that player currently has face up in front of them) and place it face up in front of their first slot of their Organizing Chart (worth $3). If any other player on this turn plays a card that matches the suit and color of the number (posters count for both colors), they receive 3 points, and move their scoring token accordingly. If a player plays a card, and two or more other players happen to have that suit and color face up in front of them, the player scores the sum of all those points. The “called” cards decrease their value by a dollar each turn, until they reach a value of “zero”, or until they cannot move any farther (there are already cards in those slots.)

When one player plays their last card (including “called” cards), the round immediately ends. That player receives 25 points, plus the amount of points their scoring marker lies on. All other players receive the amount of points that their scoring marker resides on, plus the amount of the scoring tokens only on the colors that they no longer have in their hand or in front of them. All the points are taken down by a scorekeeper, and another round begins – the deck is reshuffled and redealt, and all players can invest differently. After each player has dealt once (twice in a three player game), the points are totaled, and whichever player has the most points is the winner!

Some comments on the game…

1.) Components: APE Games is a new, small, independent company, but it is evident by their work that they put some time into their games. The box for Big Top was attractively designed, and I always prefer a slightly bigger box for card games, since I hate when cards slip out of the box. The Organizing charts are very well designed, but are not of the best quality – I wish there was a way to put them in the box without folding them in half. The tokens are the worst of the lot, being small square pieces of thin cardboard stock, but they are functional. The cards, on the other hand – being the mainstay of the game, are of superb quality. The numbers and suits are very easy to distinguish from one another, even for a color-blind person, and they can take a good beating (as card games often will) and hold up fairly well.

2.) Artwork: The artwork on the cards is very good – if you like the style. The people I played the game with either liked it or hated it – but one cannot deny the game’s artwork certainly added atmosphere to a basically themeless game. I actually like the artwork on the cards and box, and also enjoyed the flavor text on each card – where I learned some hitherto unknown facts about early American circuses. If you really like the art, you can even download it as computer wallpaper at the companies website, www.apegames.com .

3.) Rules: The rulebook is very, very nice, taking about nine pages to explain a simple game. The rules really are quite simple, but I wasn’t sure of them at first – until I saw that they had almost an entire sample game round printed out in the rules. This helped me greatly to learn how to play the game, and then I was much more easily able to teach it to others. I found that players didn’t always grasp the concept of the game on the first play, but that after a round, they understood it completely, so I would recommend a sample round before actually playing the game through to completion.

4.) Fan Tan: According to the rules, the game is inspired by a children’s card game Fan Tan. I’ve never played it, but after reading the included rules for the game – I don’t think I ever will, it’s entirely too simple. One of the players I played the game with said that it reminded him of “Michigan Rummy”, a game I’ve never heard of. Either way, I thought that it was an improvement over a traditional card game, and the colors on the cards, etc. – helped make it that much more fun to play.

5.) Strategy: After the first game, I sat there scratching my head, trying to figure out if I played the game, or if it played me. Then we talked about the strategy, and I realized several cards that I could have played differently. Some situations are certainly more powerful than others – for example, if one player gets only the poster card of a certain suit, they can hold it in their hand until the end of the round, practically ensuring their victory in that round. Other strategies are more subtle – and involve knowing when to play cards, and when to call cards – and which ones. I saw that one person compared the game to Lost Cities. It certainly doesn’t have the sometimes extreme tension of that game, but the games did have a somewhat similar feel.

6.) Fun Factor: Threatening death to players who are holding posters in their hand may not sound like a happy experience, but as long as people are having a good time – this can be a lot of fun. The game is certainly more fun when you get a good hand, but still is rather enjoyable, even when you get a hand of garbage. Knowing how to play the cards in your hand, and playing them to your maximum benefit, can really make the game that much more enjoyable.

Now, this will certainly not become one of my favorite games, because I’m not a huge fan of card games. However, I think it will see a decent amount of play in my gaming group and my house especially. That is because I have so many relatives and friends who enjoy card games – and this one is right up their alley. I applaud APE Games for making a fun card game – and even though the theme is not really relevant – I do like it, and wish it was used in games more often (instead of the tired fantasy themes, etc.) The production is not stellar, but certainly good for a new company, and if you like traditional card games, Big Top is sure to be a winner for you.
Tom Vasel

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