Game Design Journal – Dreadful Circus

In 2016, after having devised two light card games, Dolorès and Secrets, Eric Lang and I decided to work on something more ambitious, a big box game with some real table presence. In Wizardopolis, the players were wizards trying to set up the nicest magical domain, with marvelous castles, dark towers, unicorn stables, romantic kiosks, siren lakes and, last but not least, gold and silver mines. Since none of them really had the means of their ambitions, they had to outsource most of the building job to the other wizards, in order to get the required teams of specialized dwarves, trolls, elves or goblins required on the building site. This was done through a tender system, each player on turn announcing what and where he wanted to build, and the other player placing in an envelope the team they were proposing, and setting the required wages. Of course, every type of worker had its specialty – elves can do really nice job in the forest, but their religion forbids cutting trees, trolls are good at moving rocks, knights protect the building site from wandering dragons, goblins can do anything, but don’t always respect the specifications note. The idea was great fun, the game was challenging but we could not manage to make it short, fast and fluid enough. Then Eric got hired by CMON, moved to Singapour, and had no more time to devote to a project which, anyway, was not really moving forward.

A few months later, I took half of our abandoned tender system and tried to start there to build from scratch something completely different and, I hoped, faster and lighter. This has now become a game of secret bidding auctions in which the seller can look at the prospective buyers’ offers in any order, but cannot come back to an offer he already declined. I also wanted to make a good use of the cute papier mâché boxes I had just bought. I found no good name for the game, but he could be played up to seven players and soon got an unoriginal but well fitted theme – dwarves trading gold, silver, gems and various relics.

A note about theme, mechanisms… and components

Starting from theme, mechanics… or components I’m often, too often, asked if I start my designs from theme or mechanics. From now on, every time I’m asked this, I shall probably answer by linking to a recent blogpost by my friend Charlie Cleveland, codesigner of Vendetta. Anyway, the answer is that it can start from one, from the other, from both or also from something else, sometimes a physical component of the game.

Three years ago, in a Parisian general store, I saw small grey boxes made of papier-mâché (thanks Google translate!) and I instantly thought there were a few games waiting to be designed with this component which had not been overexploited like cards and dice. This is probably the true origin of the chest game prototype, the future Dreadful Circus.

During our playtests, clever sellers were inevitably tempted to shake the boxes of potential buyers to get an estimated of their content. We soon decided it was not in the spirit of the game, but it was the starting point for another game, Maracas, now published by Blue Orange. I still have two or three other projects with these small boxes on which I should work again one of these days.

For me and my playtester friends, it was « the game of chests » because every player had two cardboard chests, one for their treasure and the other for the gems and coins offers to buy the cards on sale. The game was very tense and dynamic, and several publishers got interested. I signed with people I like a lot, but have never really worked with, the Space Cowboys. Croc started to work seriously on the game. He did a lot of fine tuning, and a had a great idea to speed up the game, holding two simultaneous auctions, which also made possible to accommodate up to 8 players. Then came the health crisis, several projects were cancelled at Asmodee and, even when they had paid me a comfortable advance, the Space Cowboys had to cancel the project, which was probably as hard to Croc as it was to me.

Playtest at Portal

I got the game back and started a new turn of the publishers, with a more developed game, and one of the first door I knocked at, Portal, was the good one. I know Merry and Ignacy for quite long, even before they started their company, they are regulars at my own small yearly game gathering in Etourvy, but we had never worked together. Their team took my game and, once more, changed a lot of things, starting with the theme.

Players are now managing a freak show style circus, and cards represent the various attractions they can get – all types of artists, acrobats and magicians, shops selling candies and comics, frightening rides and mysterious huts. It might be slightly less consistent, but it makes for nice looking components, and, yes, there are too many dwarves and orcs games.

Several card effects have been modified, making the game slightly less aggressive and more tactical, which is the actual trend. I didn’t take part in the last tunings, I didn’t playtest the final version, so I’m very curious of the result, but since I know the team quite well, I’ve no fear.

Dreadful Circus
An auction and bluffing game by Bruno Faidutti
Art by Maciej Siminski & Mateusz Bielski
4 to 8 players – 45 minutes

Published by Portal Games

A note about theme changes

Often, a publisher enjoys the systems and flow of a prototype but is only interested in publishing it if the setting is changed. This has happened to me regularly these ten last years.

Sometimes, like when the old ladies and pigeons of a small card game became the cats and fishes of Miaui, or when one more game about Renaissance German merchants became Isla Dorada, the publisher suggests the change and ask me to design the new adapted version. Sometimes, like when my dwarf game became Dreadful Circus, or when a completely abstract game became Tonari, one more fishes, the publisher takes care of all the changes. It can be a complex work, far more than just changing the names of cards and pieces. Some rules which made sense in the original setting might become absurd in the new one; more often, the new context brings ideas for new systems and effects.

I’m always wary, but I’m not opposed to such changes. It all depends on the game, on the new suggested setting, and on the reasons for the changes. Several publishers were interested in my small card game about Santa’s Little Elves but bothered by the humorous political references in it; I’m glad I resisted and finally found a publisher interested in the game as it is designed. I was first skeptical about changing the theme of my dwarf game; the original setting worked really well, had been used to devise and name many cards. On the other hand, I was also comprehensive because I know there are far too many dwarves in the gaming world, and they might not fit well in a mainstream game. I finally accepted, and I don’t regret it. The new dark setting is more original, and while all details don’t always make sense, its darkness fits certainly better with a bluffing and psychology game.

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