Circus Train – VPG’s Gold Banner Game Gave Us Wood For Lions And Tigers, Oh My!

Only the oldest members and readers of Superfly Circus reviews would remember the vicious beating that Victory Point Games (VPG), publisher of Circus Train 2nd Edition, experienced at the hands of myself some time ago. I was lambasted by some of the folks at VPG as well as other sites, for such a vile review. Well, I stand firmly behind that review because it was easily one of the most truly terrible games I’ve ever played. I’m still reeling.

That said, in that same article I spoke about some of the really fun and clever games that VPG has produced, such as Nemo’s War, although the production value was only marginally better than the game I reviewed. You see, while I am a “toy guy” who likes little metal miniatures and plastic bits, the fact is that I am well-equipped to identify what a good game is despite poor game pieces. Production value is not everything in a game; the purpose of everything in the box is to immerse you in the game, to draw you in, and to enhance the user experience.  A game doesn’t have to have the amazing art or bits of Cyclades in order to make the game enjoyable, but it sure as hell doesn’t hurt it, either, if it’s done right.

Why am I telling you this? Allow me to explain: Victory Point Games got themselves a laser, and they now produce what they call their “Gold Banner” line, which has laser-cut wood counters, and in addition to a paper game board, they include a laser-cut wood game board. Compared to other publishers who use cardboard counters and a fiberboard-mounted game board, these games are absolutely the pinnacle of quality, aside from one major flaw; the game board sections don’t always line up. From a play standpoint, it really doesn’t make very much difference at all, but from the aesthetic one, it’s something that might piss you off a little. 

Circus Train is a mature title, originally released in 2010, and has recently been upgraded to the Gold Banner standard, which sells for a premium price of $55.00, and in my opinion, is worth almost every penny. It comes in a nice box instead of the old polyester zip-lock bag that most of their games come in, and it has really, truly well done artwork throughout the production. I got this game second-hand in a trade, and I have heard first-hand that during the removal of bits, the game leaves a powdery ash over the whole affair from the laser cutting process. To me, that’s not a big deal, but I thought I’d mention it so you know what to expect. All in all, this is a top-notch production, and I think that it easily commands the price they’re asking due to the immense quality that is built into the game.

As I said, a game isn’t only components, and the underlying design is where the true quality lies. The reason all of us at the Superfly Circus thought this was a great product is that aside from the quality inherent in the components, the game itself is truly wonderful to play. I’m not really all that partial to the circus, aside from MY circus, the game really gives you the feeling that you’re running a circus, which we all thought was pretty damned cool. In a lot of ways it’s a very traditional design, but it also has a lot of modern Euro built into it, which adds quite a bit of strategic options for players. 

The game itself is really a sort of pick-up-and-deliver design, with players moving their circus trains all over the map, which represents major US and Canadian cities, in order to please the crowds with their fabulous acts. A core concept in the game is that you have to manage the acts you have on hand and weigh them against the demand for acts, as indicated on “demand markers” which are placed on the board. Too many acts, and you can go bankrupt, forcing you to sack the acts that you paid dearly to acquire; too few, and you limit your ability to score points. Your actions are also limited by a player deck, which contains cards that allow movement, performances, and even more interestingly, the ability to snatch acts away from other players. 

The game isn’t scored in a traditional way, either, because points are scored based not on only how many points you’ve accrued during the game through various means, but on the score of the best single performance you’ve made. Another facet of the game for players to manage is that money is quite important in the game. Initially, each performance renders five dollars, but as the game progresses the performances scale in value up to ten and twenty dollars, allowing you to buy more acts, and more importantly, pay for them when you choose to play, or are forced to play,  the “pay up sucker” card. As I noted before, if you run out of money, you have to sack performers, which absolutely kills your ability to raise your “best performance” level, a key aspect to winning the game.

Not unlike another Euro design, El Grande, you score points at pre-set timing along the “calendar”, which acts as the game timer. During this scoring period, the person with the highest maximum performance rating scores the most points, and then players with the most of a type of performer, from acrobats and clowns to cannonballers, scores points. We all really enjoyed the complexity in scoring as it provided several paths to victory, and more importantly, provided impetus to stealing other players’ performers at the most opportune time. It’s quite impressive that the game isn’t weighed down with player-versus-player backstabbing, but instead is augmented by it, which is a hard balance to achieve. Beyond that, at the beginning of each “month” of the game has an “event card” which is put into play until the end of the month, which affects a wide variety of things, such as not allowing one type of performer to score.

Also included in the game are special characters, which sometimes randomly pop up on the board and provide the person who acquires them some more options, such as allowing further movement than normal, or giving players extra performance value when performing at a “demand marker”. There’s even solitaire rules included, which is a hallmark of VPG, and while I only played it solitaire once as I don’t really like solo games, it was fun and easy to learn. I’d argue that it was more of an afterthought, or perhaps a hold-over from the first edition which was far more geared toward solo play, since the game has so many features that are designed with multi-player games in mind. At the end of the day, this game has a lot of different ways to play, with basic, advanced, solo, and optional rules that are all well written and easy to understand.

The red circles are added to show where the problems lie.

With all of that praise in mind, my one complaint about the “product”, as alluded to above, is that the art on my board is misaligned fairly badly, although the puzzle-piece design is very good and precisely what I would’ve wanted Z-Man Games to do with their amazing Ascending Empires. The pieces interlock seamlessly and flawlessly, but the art is skewed such that some of the cities’ names have letters missing, and some of the railroad tracks don’t quite line up. Again, it’s a minor annoyance, but what is a major annoyance is that inside of the box is a mea culpa sheet that tells purchasers that the game is likely to have misaligned artwork, and to “please accept the game as-is”. As someone who shelled out $60.00 (or equivalent in trade) for a game, if there’s something wrong with it, one should expect to be able to contact the publisher and remedy it.

As such, I wanted to see what they had to say about it, so I contacted VPG with an image of my board, asking for a replacement board since the art was so badly misaligned. Their response was as follows,  after almost two weeks had passed:

Hi Pete, 
Unfortunately, there is nothing we can do about the misalignment. Due to the size of this map, it is cut in separate parts, and this is the result. I could send you a replacement in hopes that it will be better than the one you currently have, but most likely it will be the same. Would you like me to send it anyway?
Stephanie Marroquin
VPG Shipping Manager

I’m not so much upset about the response as the time it took them to get back to me; in the age of the Internet, one would think that a company, even one as small as VPG, that produces such good games would have someone to answer more rapidly, but alas, it doesn’t appear that this is the case. Even that didn’t bug me, though, all that much. What I’m really bothered by, if anything, is that they are claiming that the boards are pretty much always going to have printing errors. What I extrapolate from that is that they don’t know how to adjust the art for the laser cut width due to inexperience with their laser.

As a former CAD designer who spent four years working with lasers, I can understand the complexities, but in light of the fact that I did the design work for many of the products that company made, and with little training, it seems that they need to get with the laser or software company and discuss the issue rather than just throw up their hands in frustration and accept that they’ll be making mistakes on every game they produce. That’s just plain lazy, and it does a disservice to their customers. To add insult to injury, you can do a simple Google search and can find photos of boards that are NOT nearly as misaligned:
ESpaceJeux.TV Circus Train (OLGS)
Quarter To Three Circus Train Review
Angry Imp Games (OLGS)

What I’m seeing isn’t poor quality, per se, as much as inconsistency. Now, I know I’ve belabored the point perhaps more than I should have, but it’s my duty to you, my readers, and potential buyers of this otherwise outstanding game, the things that you need to know to make a purchase decision. There is no spite, only the facts as I have illustrated them to you. The final “dot on the I”, so to speak, is that I want to reiterate as strongly as possible that the errors do not affect play, or at least didn’t affect us, and that this game is truly outstanding from a design and “fun” standpoint. 

The long and short is that Circus Train is a very accessible, easy to learn, and very fun game that we have truly enjoyed playing. Aside from the board problem, which can be easily mitigated as the game also includes a folding paper game board, this game’s components are amazing, and easily stand up to much larger publishers. I wholeheartedly recommend this game to pretty much everyone, but especially if you’re a fan of medium-complexity Euro style games. My Circus friends loved it, my 12-year old loved it, and my “mostly non-gamer” wife loved it. If that’s not enough of a glowing endorsement, I cannot envision what is.

Why I Have Become A Fan Of Trains In General, And Most Especially Circus Trains:

– Simple, easy to learn, rules make this a great game for anyone
– Fast turns keep downtime to nearly zero, even in a 4 player game
– The art is nice, and evocative of the days of carnies impregnating your daughters and whatnot
– The optional rules REALLY add a lot of depth to the game, especially the named characters

Why Circus Train Is Not As Awesome As The Superfly Circus:
– Epic fail on the board alignment and subsequent customer service
– The game might have a little too much “random” for your taste, but there’s not much
– Silly child, NOTHING is as awesome as the Superfly Circus

Despite the lack of alignment on the game board, despite their slow customer service, and despite their unfathomable inability to produce a board that doesn’t have glaring errors, this game is outstanding. Everyone who played it either liked it or loved it, and what really intrigued me, and still does, is that there are so many viable strategies to win, especially for a game that is so streamlined and simple. No game has played out the same over the span of our testing, and above and beyond that, you always feel that if you had JUST ONE MORE TURN you might be able to pull out a win. That’s a sure sign of a competent, entertaining design. For me, it’s a total autobuy, and I think this might even make it onto the Forever Euro shelf next to El Grande and Lords of Waterdeep.

4.25/5 Stars
Check out the rules here:

Share Button

2 thoughts on “Circus Train – VPG’s Gold Banner Game Gave Us Wood For Lions And Tigers, Oh My!”

  1. I agree the game itself is really good. My recommendation for the readers is to buy the first edition: less than half the cost of the second edition. Granted the first edition doesn’t have the expansion, but it is still cheaper to get the first edition circus train with expansion. I think the second edition loses a little charm. The ONLY reason I splurged on the new edition was to get an updated board, which was a total bust.

    I am including a link to VPG advertising their games at Origins this year. What is odd is they did not lay Circus Train out like the other games. the whole point of the new edition was the better looking components. Why not show then]m off, unless VPG did not have confidence in their product?

Comments are closed.