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Meeple Circus – a balancing act

Roll up! Roll up! All the fun of the fair! At least, that’s what the gaily coloured Meeple Circus box promises.

Meeple Circus box lid

Meeple Circus is a game designed by Cedric Millet and published by Matagot. It created quite a stir at last year’s International Spieltage (Essen), where eager punters were queuing to give it a go. To be sure, the cutesy components helped: in addition to the conventional wooden meeples, there are ‘guest star meeples’ (different coloured and different shaped meeples with stickers to help distinguish them as, for example, the circus strongman, clown, tightrope walker and ringmaster). In addition, Meeple Circus comes with wooden beams, barrels and balloons, as well as meeples in a variety of animal shapes, including horses and elephants. If you disapprove of animals in circuses, please look away now. This game doesn’t come with a Cirque du Soleil option!

Meeple Circus components

Meeple Circus is a dexterity game so, as you’d expect, what you’re doing here is balancing meeples on top of one another. The game is accompanied by a downloadable app that plays appropriately thematic circus music. That’s not just atmospheric, it also acts as a timer as players race against each other to complete objectives (balancing the prescribed meeples) that will score them applause (victory points) before the tune comes to an end. The music can also be accessed using the QR scan code that links to the Matagot website. This is a game where the app is a key component: it’s the musical timer that makes Meeple Circus a ‘real time’ dexterity game. Like Musical Chairs, you’ll definitely feel the tension as you desperately rush to finish assembling your circus act before the music runs out.

You see one balancing game, you’ve seen ’em all. What’s special about Meeple Circus?

There are a lot of cute dexterity balancing games out there, so what makes Meeple Circus special? Well, despite the fact that the game inevitably comes down to balancing and stacking, and is always reduced to the fun and frustration of that physical process, there is actually a real game in here too…

Meeple Circus drafting

Players all start with a beginner (blue) and intermediate (yellow) acrobat meeple but they need to make drafting choices to recruit the expert (red) acrobats and the various other components they will need to join their acts. Randomly selected ‘public demand’ cards are placed out to show the acts that the audience wants to see. These each show particular meeple shapes balanced in a specified way. A player can’t even begin to score a ‘public demand’ card that involves an elephant, say, unless they’ve recruited an elephant into their own individual circus ring but they can only do that by choosing to draft a circus tile that shows an elephant on it. If they go for one of the few tiles showing an elephant, their subsequent pick may not give them the other components they need to satisfy the demanding circus audience… The drafting stage, therefore, involves some planning and may well involve a little bit of ‘take that’ in deliberately denying other players the components they will need to score big in the Big Top.

Meeple Circus measure

There are rules too that dictate whether and precisely how the different colour acrobat meeples score. The blue beginner acrobats score one point but only if they are touching the ground (ie: at the bottom of a stack). By contrast, the yellow intermediate acrobats score one point only if they are not touching the ground. The red expert acrobats are the self-important stars: they seek the limelight and have to be at the very top of a stack in order to score (ie: they must have nothing balanced on top of them) and the number of points that the red acrobats score depends on their height as measured by a ruler that looks like one of those circus fairground ‘test your strength’ machines or fundraising ‘thermometer’, depending on your point of view. The measure goes up to 7 but don’t expect ever to be measuring anything that high: you will be doing well to build any stack that measures much beyond 3 on the thermometer. And good luck measuring the height of even a 3-high stack without knocking it over in the process! Nevertheless, the scoring rules for the beginner, intermediate and expert meeples also make this more of a ‘proper’ game as they require players to make evaluative choices in trying to optimise their scoring in the limited time available to them.

Meeple Circus: Klutzes need not apply

Herein lies much of the perverse charm of Meeple Circus. Other popular dexterity games like Zock Verlag’s Bausack or Pretzel Games’ Junk Art involve mainly chunky wooden pieces. The components in Meeple Circus are comparatively small and incredibly fiddly. Clumsy adult fingers are every bit as likely to knock over the components already stacked as they are to successfully balance a red acrobat meeple on top of a ball being carried by a yellow meeple standing on the shoulders of a blue one. Expect to find this game frustrating but be comforted by the knowledge that the other players are equally likely to make clowns of themselves.

Meeple Circus demand cards

You’ll enjoy the minor triumphs and get a definite kick out of at least trying to build that ambitious towering stack. You’ll genuinely applaud each other’s successes and you’ll try to suppress your schadenfreude at seeing other players’ meeples tumble across the table. The one thing that can lead to angry arguments, however, is suspicion of sabotage. This is most certainly not a game to be played on a wobbly table or one prone to transmit vibration. It’s annoying enough to see your carefully constructed meeple stack clatter down beneath your gently positioned red meeple – and just as Julius Fucik’s ‘Entry of the Gladiators’ theme approaches its conclusion. You’ll curse (probably calling out an approximation of the Czech composer’s name) but you’ll shrug it off. You’ll be rather slower to forgive and forget, however, if you think your creation has been sent flying because another player has deliberately or carelessly jogged the table. Play this on a very firm rock steady table, or on separate tables in a room with no creaky floorboards, or you’ll have to expect a degree of resentful acrimony. You have been warned!

Meeple Circus clowning around

Meeple Circus is played over three rounds, with components carried forward from one round to the next and with a layer of complexity added on in the second and third rounds. Unfortunately, the third round also demands an additional layer of silliness that, for some players, could risk ruining the game.

Meeple Circus scoring

As specified in the rules, the third round represents each player’s grand performance. In this round, each player assembles their meeple balancing act separately rather than simultaneously. This means that players are, in that sense, performing to an actual audience. Fair enough. What this round also demands is that players comply with an additional vocal or physical requirement. This might, for example, require the player to make appropriate animal noises whenever an animal meeple is placed or it could impose a cripplingly absurd physical limitation like requiring you to assemble your pieces while covering one of your eyes with one of your hands. By all means try the game with these silly specifications in place. I’m sure you will get a wonderful feeling of elation and achievement if you do actually succeed in building a stack despite having leapt out of your chair every time you hear a cymbal crash on the music track (yes, that’s one of the round 3 options). My bet, however, is that on subsequent plays you will eschew this element and substitute instead a third round that largely mirrors the second. There is a middle way hinted at in the rules, however. You can decide to edit the third round card deck so that you only play with demands that seem to you to be workable. The game comes with 22 different ‘round 3’ cards, so you should be able to put to one side the silliest and least practical yet still finish up with enough to play with.

Even if you have other dexterity games, you probably won’t have another game that’s quite like Meeple Circus. The game scores 7/10 for playability. It’s a game you can bring out with gamers and non-gamers alike, and its attractive components make it a game people will immediately want to try. You can complete a game in 30 minutes or so, and it takes 2–5 players. It doesn’t come with solitaire rules but, given that it’s played with an app musical timer, it really wouldn’t take a huge leap of ingenuity to devise your own solo play option. Of course, you wouldn’t then have the fun of laughing at other’s collapsing constructs.

5 (100%) 2 votes
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Selwyn Ward

Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.

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