Something attracted me to The Amazing American Circus; maybe it was the prospect of managing a circus across late 19th century America, or perhaps it was the allure of the unconventional-sounding deck-building game at the centre stage. As a kid I got caught up in a few collectible card games (CCGs) but was always more interested in the collecting part. I never liked reading complicated rulebooks to learn how to play. Video games solve that issue somewhat by having interactive tutorials; however, I have never really felt the urge to try out any digital CCGs or deck-builders before this. As someone unfamiliar with the genre maybe I can bring a unique perspective while reviewing this game. Developed by the aptly named Juggler Games and published by Klabater, The Amazing American Circus presents itself as a historically infused circus management game, centered around a card game without traditional combat.
My opinion and overall experience with the game have changed drastically over the past week. After starting two new games I was very frustrated by the bugs/glitches and the unfriendly RNG (random number generator) and was angry at myself for the early decisions I had made on the management side of things. There is a lot of stuff going on in The Amazing American Circus, especially on the management side, and many aspects are interconnected. The tutorial explains the basics, but you have to learn the rest on your own – essentially with trial and error. You earn money from completing shows, and there is a lot of stuff to spend it on. You have to buy food to make meals, which are consumed when traveling between destinations. Once you learn how this system works you can take advantage of it. The prices of food vary depending on the locations, so on my third playthrough, I stocked up on ingredients in cities where they were cheaper. There are three nutrition stats and each gives buffs or debuffs depending on the value you are currently at; once you understand how the system works, you can easily get all the values up past the buff point and keep them there.
The different elements of your circus are each represented by a wagon, and these can be accessed when you are encamped at a location. The most expensive element in the game is the ringleader’s wagon, where you can improve all the other wagons. You can pay to increase the total number of performers your troupe can hold, decrease the cost of using the recovery wagon, expand the meal wagon menu, increase the probability that new recruits will have extra cards, lower the cost of food items, and plenty more. There are usually multiple levels for each upgrade, and each time you upgrade something on a particular wagon the cost of the other upgrades for that wagon increases. The first time I played I bought the upgrade to decrease the cost of food, and an upgrade that increased the chance of an extra meal being created when you cook a food item. I quickly realized that both of those are pretty much worthless. The food cost is only lowered by $1-$2. I suppose it would add up over time, but that seems like a waste. Also, after preparing a few dozen meals I only noticed a duplicate bonus one time. By the time I was working my way through the last area (the east coast) I had purchased all the upgrades and there was nothing left to spend my hard-earned money on. I think this is a missed opportunity for the developers to reward the player for their hard work and dedication to their game. They could have added a temporary XP boost, that would increase in price each time you bought it or added a few more upgrade levels to some of the wagons.
The RNG can be pretty rough at times too, especially if you aren’t fully aware of the mechanics. After each show the performing artists have a chance to get a positive or negative quirk – the second troupe I started seemed to pick up a negative one every time. Besides random elements like that and the luck of the draw in the card game, the biggest random mechanic is the random events that can pop up while you are traveling between locations. They all seem to have multiple options on how to deal with the encounter, and each option typically has something bad associated with it as well as something good. The one that I always tried to avoid was having one of my favorite performers pick up a permanent negative quirk or hoax.
The final and probably most frustrating thing that turned me off to the game initially are the bugs and glitches. There are a few achievements that seem to be glitched, and there’s another bug that prevents two of your artists from gaining experience. There’s a quest you can undertake that involves distracting some priests on a train so that you can break into their safe. You have to hire two specific performers to start the train heist performance part of the mission, and they cannot earn experience until that quest is completed; however, on completion of the quest, they were still unable to earn experience. This happened to me on two playthroughs. To make matters worse, since they are part of a quest arc you cannot dismiss them, so they are taking up two valuable spots in my troupe. Although it can feel a little underpowered, leveling up is an important aspect of the game, and it does make the game a little easier. You get three random options each time you level up a character which lets you either upgrade a specific existing card or adding a new card to their deck.
I’ve seen the card game portion of the game described in many places as a deck builder, but you don’t actually spend much time building a deck; most performers will only have a few extra cards. The game is more about managing and acquiring new talent, leveling them up, and selecting the best combination to use for any given performance. Once you are familiar with each performer’s cards you could tinker with their loadout a bit to better match the other performers you pair them with. One of the game’s biggest strengths is the large assortment of classes. Most of them have very specific skills, and some are much better than others. The aerialist is a good one to hire at the start. She is the first artist that is able to “attack” multiple audience members at once and some of her cards do more “damage” when she’s at full Focus (health).
Instead of attacking the audience, you have to impress them enough for them to reach a state of delight, eliminating them from the show. The spectators can damage you by sneering, but you can protect yourself with ignore cards. Each show can have one to three acts and you must select three performers for each show (you can use less, but why would you want to do that? There is an achievement for completing a show with one performer, but don’t bother – it’s currently glitched). I’m not going to explain all the mechanics here, I think the best way to learn would be to either play the game or watch a tutorial video. I will however tell you about the one mechanic that I see a lot of people complain about. If you don’t have enough cards left in the draw pile to draw the normal five-card hand then the discard pile gets reshuffled and all the performers lose five focus (health). If a performer’s focus gets to zero, instead of being eliminated you get to pick a card from their loadout and it is discarded for the rest of the performance and their focus is refilled. If a performer loses all their cards they are eliminated from the performance. This all sounds kind of rough, but the reshuffle penalty can be negated by using ignore cards, and there are also ways to lower the amount of health lost with each reshuffle. Another aspect that helps you out are the gift cards that performers randomly gain as you complete shows. Normally each performer only brings five cards into the show, but all the gift cards they have are also added to the deck; they can be pretty useful – replenishing some action points, and letting you draw another card. They can only be used once each show, but are a good way to increase the deck size so the reshuffle is less frequent.
At first, the game can seem somewhat difficult and performances can take a long time to complete (an aspect that I really disliked), but once you understand how to play the game and learn which artists are the most powerful, you can complete performances relatively quickly. Having your nutrition buffs up is important. The misfits and finale are two more elements that can really help you out. You get to pick one misfit for each act and they will give you a small buff at the start of that act. The finale is a powerful move that can be used once you build up enough finale points. In addition to the action point value, each card also has a finale point value that can be positive or negative, and this adds or subtracts to the finale total. Once you build up enough points you can unleash the finale. You start with a tightrope unicycle artist, who when activated picks a random spectator and deals fifteen impress points to them. New misfits and finales can be acquired by visiting certain towns and also by completing quests. Just like the performers the spectators can use ignore and give themselves buffs – fortunately, for the player’s benefit, each spectator has an icon next to them that indicates their next move. This helps you plan the best path to victory. Another helpful feature is how the game lets you select any performer or spectator at any time and get an explanation of their current buffs/debuffs and any other effects.
Despite the claims that the game doesn’t use combat, the basic mechanics are pretty much the same as any other card game I’ve encountered, they just have different labels.
The Amazing American Circus makes use of a fantastic art style that seems to fit in well with the time period it’s set. It has a graphic novel or storybook sort of look to it. My two favorite parts are the map, which has lots of interesting details on it as well as hidden locations (usually with side quests), and the performers’ animations that are activated when you play one of their cards. I also like how most of the cards have art that is specific to that performer and names that fit with the class and their actions. I also liked how each performer has a different randomly generated name, some of them were pretty silly. One element that I found disappointing is the lack of variety in the art for each city. I think there’s only one background for each environment for the encampment. I was hoping that there would be a difference depending on the size of the city or specific cities but the same backgrounds were reused over and over. The only other complaint I could see people having is that some of the imagery and naming could be considered offensive. There’s a native American with a stupefied look who you can gain as a misfit and he is referred to as The Savage. The Chinese characters are occasionally referred to as orientals as well. I’m kind of on the fence about all of this, I think that it adds to the historical accuracy of the game given the time period in which it takes place, but would certainly understand if some people were slightly offended by it.
The music fits the game well; it is kind of stereotypical featuring lots of Ragtime, but I think it was a good choice for the game. The worst part of the sound design is the voice acting. Normally I am grateful when a majority of the dialogue is voice acted, but here the performances are uninspiring. Most of them sound stiff, and many of the actors don’t seem to accentuate the right words. The interactions between the ringleader (your character) and his uncle Jack however can be pretty funny, and they provide most of the game’s comedic relief. I also liked how the game featured historical figures of the time and if you can locate them you usually get to put on a performance for them.
I’d like to give one more piece of advice – try to stop at all the cities and perform at each one, especially early on. Despite the story revolving around a circus competition on the east coast that your troupe is going to participate in, there’s no time limit, so explore the whole map. There are a lot of benefits to doing so. You can only perform at each city once, but you can revisit any city on the map to use your wagon facilities. Just make sure to stock up on food ingredients when they are cheap.
Despite the game growing on me once I learned the ropes, I can’t recommend this game in its current state. There are too many bugs and a few achievement glitches. There is a good amount of variety in the performers but learning how everything works can take some time. The game also starts to feel very tedious in the last area when all the performances are three acts long. If this circus comes to town I’d give it a pass unless they upgraded it. Right now only a matinee show would be worth checking out (if there was a discount).Become a Patron!
This game was tested and reviewed on Xbox One. All of the opinions and insights here are subject to that version. Game provided by publisher.Want to keep up to date with the latest Xt reviews, Xt opinions and Xt content? Follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube.