An eccentric, charming take on a Slay-the-Spire type deck builder with tycoon sim mechanics and a big top full of American history and folklore thrown in for good measure. The Amazing American Circus has a strong pinch yourself factor. For the first couple of hours, I wasn’t sold on it. But then my travelling circus arrived in Idaho – I was drawing cards, firing off tricks, filling the finale metre so I could send a performer on a unicycle soaring over the crowd on a tightrope in a desperate plea for applause. But one by one my performers were crooked offstage despite my best efforts. Later that night I reflected that I’d almost broken a very real sweat trying to get a stern-faced audience of virtual Mormons to stop throwing rotten vegetables at a clown. It’s this unique blend of conceptual eccentricity, quick-fire card duelling and historical context that makes The Amazing American Circus so memorable.
How to be a Circus Tycoon
Set up wise, you’ve got to fill your circus’ show billing with 3 performers, a misfit (aka a lizardman or other mythical creature) that acts as a passive buff, and a finale which acts as an ultimate that can only be used once the metre has been filled. The money you make from these shows pays for food and training for your performers and upgrades for your camp making it easier to travel between locations, use new and more spectacular tricks and get the snowball rolling. It looks great – the pin puppet style animation fits well and the cards themselves are beautifully illustrated.
Exploration and Difficulty
But it isn’t all plain sailing – the exploration element that sees your circus travelling to new cities and towns across the US isn’t arranged to escalate in a linear way – you will come across audiences in the early game that you can’t crack. This spurs the strategy side of things, encouraging players to explore the map to find new performers to recruit and forcing you to hit the smaller towns first in order to build your deck up before tackling some of the big cities.
The ticking clock during card duels comes in the form of card scrapping and debuffs based on the decisions you’ve made organisationally. For example, the longer the performance goes on without the crowd being entertained the more frustrated your performers will be and the more of their ability cards you will have to scrap – meaning you’re now ‘fighting’ a tough enemy with a dwindling pool of resources. And if you don’t keep your performers properly fed in the camp they’ll get sick, choking your deck up with debuff cards that give your performers head colds and other ailments that you’ll have to play if you want them out of your hand for the next turn
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Beef with the Best
The demo I had access to included the first chapter – the boss of which is legendary showman and buffalo meat tycoon Buffalo Bill. The objective is to put on a show that puts him to shame and cements yours as the most popular in the region. Word from the devs is that currently the game consists of four areas each with a boss fight in the form of famous historical figures including the original greatest showman: P.T. Barnum himself. If any fans of the musical wanted a shot at beating P.T. at his own game – here’s your chance!
Gently Does It
Speaking of big personalities we come to my core criticism – that the scale and spectacle you’re expected to provide is mismatched with the tone The Amazing American Circus strikes. Considering the subject matter, it’s a surprisingly slow-burning, laid back affair which puts most of the onus on grasping the player in the hands of core deckbuilding mechanics and the RPG elements around upgrading your camp and performers. Once I’d invested a couple of hours or so building up my travelling circus I was hooked, but for a game set around creating the greatest show on earth, little of that energy or tension was reflected in its initial presentation and in a world where refund windows come with a 2-hour playtime restriction, that could be a problem.
The Amazing American Circus is a novel blend of deckbuilder and tycoon sim with just the right amount of magical realism and folklore added to its setting to keep things interesting. Exploration and non-linear difficulty scaling help to force players to strategise whilst upgrade paths keep you invested in your individual performers as well as the logistics of your camp as a whole. It’s a slow burn and might not grab you immediately – the lack of bombast in its presentation is tonally at odds with the spectacle you’re tasked with creating – but within a couple of hours I was already planning my optimal route back to Idaho to put on a show even the sternest Mormon couldn’t help but be thrilled by.