The idea in 3 Ring Circus is pretty simple: You’re running a small circus in the northeastern United States in the early 1900s, traveling through small towns, medium-sized cities, and large cities, putting on shows and hiring new performers or buying new animals so future shows can be more profitable. All the while, the great menace, Barnum & Bailey, makes its way around the map, and when they hit one of the big cities, there’s a scoring based on who has the most big-top circus tokens placed in that city’s region. When B&B completes one circuit of the map, the game ends and players count up their points, gaining from their objective cards, performer cards’ straight point values, and some performer cards that offer variable returns based on what else is on your board.
Turns are very simple in 3 Ring Circus—you either hire a performer from your hand or you move your caravan to put on a show in a new town or city. Every performer card has a value from one to 16 that indicates its cost. Money cards have values from one to five and can either be played as performers or used to pay for other cards. You have three open rows of five slots apiece on your board when the game begins, so when you wish to hire a performer, you first decide in which row you’ll place that performer card, and then you pay the value of that card minus the value of the highest-valued card already in that row—or zero, if the answer to that is negative. Playing that card might cover a symbol that tells you to draw another performer card or an end-game objective card, or might cover a symbol that reduces your income, movement, or circus’s entertainment value (pedestals). When you complete any of the first three columns, you get to play one of your objective cards. When you complete a row, you get from three to seven victory points. Enforcing balance across the board (pun intended) is a huge part of the game’s design, and part of what makes the game so good.
Moving to put on a show is a little more involved, because the shows at each type of stop work a little differently. Shows in small towns just generate money, while those in cities generate victory points and a little money. Shows in medium cities can also let you draw more performer cards rather than taking victory points. For small towns, you look at how many adjacent towns are still empty—that is, no one has performed there yet—and add one, then take that many money cards from the deck. You place one of your tents on a small town after performing there, blocking it for the remainder of the game to all other players. For medium cities, you look at your current pedestal count, add two if you have the type of performer that city wants (randomly assigned each game), and then place your token on the little scoring track in the highest empty space for which you have enough pedestals, taking either points or performer cards, and then taking one money card for every dollar symbol still showing on your board. For big cities, you must have a performer of the specific number shown on that city, also randomly assigned in each game, and can get more points if you have the right performer types in that same row. There’s also a three-point bonus for being the first player to put on a show in each big city. These are the biggest single point generators in the game, and you want to perform in as many big cities as you can, although it’s possible you’ll never get the right performer type for one or two of them. (You definitely want to snag those performer cards when they show up on the board.) You also take money for big city performances, one per dollar symbol on your board. You can only perform in any town or city once during the game, even if you’d be able to score more the second time through. They’ve seen your act, and they’ve had enough of it.
The board’s size varies by player count, and the game comes with some modular pieces to cover regions you’re not using. With one or two players, you’ll remove two regions; with three players, you remove one. The two-player game includes a neutral player to occupy some spaces on various scoring tracks, while the solo game involves an “automa” player that isn’t necessarily that smart but can truly annoy your face off by how much it gets in the way. The automa player still has to get the matching performer cards to perform in the big cities, so if you get the chance to snag them, you can block them completely from those points, and the automa cards can even backfire because of how they “select” the performer cards for the automa player to add.
I will say that for a game that’s not all that complex to play, there are a lot of little rules in 3 Ring Circus—not so many that I’d call it fiddly, but enough to give it a higher learning curve than the game itself might merit. For example, you can move your caravan token a number of stops up to the number of train symbols showing on your board, with six visible at the start, all of one of which can be covered by a card you play during the game, so you can end up only able to move one space per turn if you’re not careful and don’t add play cards with train symbols on them. When moving, you don’t count any space with another player’s tent or caravan on it. There’s just nothing natural about this, even though it makes a ton of sense in the game’s internal logic. Also, some performer cards have small lightning symbols on them that mean you can discard them during a performance for a one-time benefit, without paying any money to use them—they’re free. It ultimately does work with the game’s use of these cards for everything in the game—currency, performance values, and these one-time powers—but it’s also less than intuitive.
The rulebook itself needs a lot of help. There are a few typos and some contradictory instructions—on the same page, the rules say that you pay the difference between the card you play and the highest card in that row, then they say that it’s only if the card you play is higher than that highest card, otherwise it’s free. End-game scoring cards count against the 10-card hand limit, but you can’t discard them, according to designer Fabio Lopiano, another rule that isn’t clear in the rulebook. My first playthrough involved a lot of confusion and mistakes, and some of the wording could be more transparent. I’m also unsure about the game’s first player advantage; since players choose their starting cities on their first turns, the first player can put themselves closer to some of the more valuable small towns, while the last player in turn order has to take the last unoccupied major city. I’d probably need a few more plays to get a sense of how important that is.
Even with those small concerns, 3 Ring Circus is still a really strong, smart game. Turns are simple and quick, and the design melds several major mechanics together into a pretty seamless experience where they’re all well integrated into the theme. You have to focus on getting around the board efficiently, but also have some area control, some end-game objectives, and some tableau building along the way. It also offers a wide array of decisions in a 60-minute game, where there are usually several paths to victory but every choice feels important. No need to send in the clowns—3 Ring Circus is one of the best games of the year.
Keith Law is the author of The Inside Game and Smart Baseball and a senior baseball writer for The Athletic. You can find his personal blog the dish, covering games, literature, and more, at meadowparty.com/blog.