Someone clearly fed Slay the Spire after midnight, and now we have its little deckbuilder gremlins running about. We can barely go a week without another deep and strategic card game launching onto the Xbox Store, and – you know what? – we love it.
Because a good deckbuilder – one like Monster Train, Loop Hero, Black Book and the rest – is one of the most absorbing games you can play. If you’re not lost in the moment-to-moment gameplay, then you’re lost in the finetuning of a deck. If you’re not lost in that, then you’re castaway on the replayability. There’s always a future run where your deck can get better.
But, even in the subgenre’s early years, they are developing habits. A deckbuilder, more likely than not, will be combat focused. We’ve killed demons with little pieces of cardboard more than we would like. And they’re often not the most accessible of themes, diving into hell or post-apocalypses.
The Amazing American Circus does a fantastic job of bucking that trend, finding a home in the travelling circuses of late 19th Century America. You might cynically claim that it’s riding on the coattails of The Greatest Showman, but The Amazing American Circus feels more akin to the Carnivale TV series. Like the show, it’s a road trip, and it’s more interested in your journey than any showtunes. The setting has so many colourful and fabulous characters, and you can guarantee that you will meet all of them: PT Barnum, the Ringling Brothers, Buffalo Bill, Queen Victoria and Nikola Tesla all make an appearance.
By casting you in the role of ringleader, as you are bequeathed a particularly shoddy circus troupe by your late father, The Amazing American Circus can take a radically different approach to the deckbuilder. Instead of fighting enemies, you are looking to ‘impress’ them. On one side of the screen are your spectators, some harder to delight than others, and that manifests in a kind of ‘boredom’ life bar. Mormons, masons and pastors – honestly, they never seem to lighten up.
And on the other side of the screen is your circus troupe, never more than three acts, consisting of strongmen, acrobats and mimes, among others. These have life bars called Focus, representing their self-esteem more than anything, as they are heckled by spectators. Each act adds four or five cards to your main deck, and you can switch out these acts to change the make-up of that deck. Most commonly, your cards will be cards that Impress, chipping away at the resistance of your audience, and cards that Ignore, effectively applying armour to resist the incoming heckles.
There’s a case for saying that this is combat in different clothing, but you’d have a hard heart to make that claim. The Amazing American Circus does a great job of converting these familiar elements into circus routines, as your artists chain together maneuvers.
In the first three-or-so hours, you might wish that The Amazing American Circus used more familiar terms. It is one of the most opaque deckbuilders on the market, and it will utterly bewilder you. There are tutorials, but they pass by quickly and ineffectively, and it has some of the worst ‘help’ text that we’ve ever encountered. Keywords are explained using other keywords, creating a chain of confusion with a big metal ball at the end. We have no shame in saying that we have finished and ‘mastered’ The Amazing American Circus, with ‘mastered’ in inverted commas because we still don’t understand what keywords like Pantomime and Stash do. They are so poorly explained and we have simply avoided cards and characters that used them.
There will be people who fall off the circus caravan in those opening hours, and it could so easily have been avoided. But those players are missing a rewarding, satisfying card game.
Most of the enjoyment comes from the bold, fresh ideas that we haven’t seen elsewhere. We’re used to choosing characters or classes in deckbuilders, and those classes determine the deck. In The Amazing American Circus, you effectively choose three characters, and each of those characters might have different mini-decks within their own Firebreathing or Illusionist classes. Pick-and-mixing acts to create a killer deck leads to fantastic combinations, and those combinations are innumerous, far more than you’d see in other games. We fell in love with a Counting Chicken, which dealt damage according to the fibonacci sequence, and a Face Changer whose cards have two sides, flipping on use. These are fabulously imaginative, funny and unique, and finding which character works with which is a joy in itself.
Then there’s a Finale special event like Tesla’s Coil or a cougar, which triggers once you have played enough cards to fill up its bar in the top-left of the screen. It adds a layer onto the deckbuilding, as less objectively good cards have high Finale scores, so you might include them for their ability to jump the bar. But it also adds a layer to the gameplay too, as a sequence of bad cards in your hand can still swing the game in your favour. It gives you an out.
If there are faults in the card gaming, it’s that it’s slow and gets repetitive by the end. The Amazing American Circus is determined to make you watch all of its animations without the ability to shut them off, and while you can still select and queue up cards mid-animation, you will still have to watch them. When there are so many (slightly too many) matches to play in the campaign, and so many ‘Acts’ within each match, this slowdown hurts. By the end of the game, too, you will become tired of the hundredth Miner, Cowboy or Pastor, and hunger for enemies that do something that little bit more interesting.
Tumble out of the circus, and you realise that it’s only half of the game. The Amazing American Circus is just as much a resource management sim as it is a card battler. You are given a full map of America, starting in the Wild West but moving further east and to the south. You choose a location to move to, and this costs food, so you need to be making meals for your team, which costs you the gold that you generate from performances. Once you’re camped in a town or city, you can spend your money to do a metric tonne of things, and no strongman could lift it. You can upgrade your caravans to do more things better, or more cheaply. Within those caravans you can train your acts (levelling them up), build their decks, manage bonus ‘Gift’ cards in your deck, remove negative quirks and add positive quirks (effectively buffs and debuffs), cook food and take on mini-quests that distract you from the overall mission to become the best travelling circus in America.
Needless to say, The Amazing American Circus does a bad job of explaining these too. This is one of those games that would benefit from a ‘10 Things you Should Know Before You Play…’ article, as you will likely make similar mistakes to us. It seems to encourage you to spend all your money – there’s even an achievement to do exactly that – but should you do so, you are unable to make any progress in the game at all, and you may well need to rely on random events (which appear Slay-the-Spire-like between cities) to generate your cash. Swapping between characters seems like a bad idea, as you are dismissing someone that you’ve levelled up. But, in all honesty, the starting characters aren’t a patch on other characters, and levelling up only marginally improves the characters, so you shouldn’t be fearful about switching acts regularly. It all seems very counter to established deckbuilder wisdom.
But most of it is great once you get to know it. The world map is a doozy, breaking the custom of having a rogue-like approach. You don’t play The Amazing American Circus over and over again: you play it once, a full campaign. And that means that you’re clearing a fog of war across America and coming across well known cities, events and people as you do so. It’s all contrived and – in a few cases – historically inaccurate, but acquiring Bigfoot and defeating the Pinkertons never gets old. We loved ‘completing’ America, with three stars hovering over Pittsburgh, Boston and the rest.
And there are so many different ways to alter and buff your deck. We got in the min-maxing frame of mind, copying and ‘locking’ Quirks on acts, filling their decks with Gift cards, and choosing Finales and Misfits that all work towards a common goal. We had games where we won in the first turn, or popped achievements for doing hundreds of ‘Impress’ in one attack, simply because our combos came off spectacularly.
The Amazing American Circus, when it comes to December, will factor into my Best Of list. It knows all of my buttons and presses them repeatedly. But I can’t in all conscience give it anything higher than a 4. Part of that is because of the clumsy opacity, its inability to make itself welcoming to the very players that its theme will attract. It’s also because of the slowness, and the regular feeling that I just wanted to be getting on with things.
The biggest problem, though, and the overwhelming reason why it can’t achieve the score it deserves, is that The Amazing American Circus is tremendously underbaked. Originally due for release in June, it was pushed back for unknown reasons, and those reasons – we would guess – are still present in the finished product.
We had to reset The Amazing American Circus countless times due to game-stopping bugs. We achieved states where we could play cards from our discard pile (wahay!), and states where cards refused to enter our discard pile and instead hovered sideways in our hands, stopping us from taking future turns (boo!). Text would be replaced by square blocks. Spectators would disappear. Thanks to the obscurity of some of the rules and keywords, we thought the problem was with us: in truth, the problem was with the game. Often, the clown make-up comes off, and what’s underneath just isn’t funny.
It seemed to get worse the longer we played, as if the size of the save game was a problem. By the last area, we could barely play, such were the issues. Things may well improve in future months, as Klabater have done a fantastic job of working with their community of Kickstarter backers to make the game so special. But, for now, it’s clear that a larger delay would have benefited The Amazing American Circus.
The Amazing American Circus is a recommendation with enormous caveats. We loved it to the point that we can, without cynicism, say that it has peaks that few games will better this year. But it’s so unfriendly, gatekeeping the fun behind ineffective tutorials, keywords and initially complex systems. And – here’s the kicker – it’s unfinished, leprous with bugs and exploitations. It made our first and last two hours with it painful.
We want to grab the loudhailer, telling everyone to ‘roll up, roll up’, as The Amazing American Circus is brilliant, one of the best card games on the Xbox. But we’d feel dirty. It’s just too broken and unfriendly to confidently make that claim.
You can buy The Amazing American Circus from the Xbox Store for Xbox One and Xbox Series X|S