Full disclosure: A review copy of Circle the Wagons was provided by Button Shy Games.
I don’t … own a ton of Western-themed games. I mean, the classic is BANG! (and I own that + The Dice Game), but I don’t play that much, anymore. The player elimination is … killer, I suppose pun intended. Saloon Tycoon will probably see some more plays, soon, given that The Ranch expansion is coming. And then there’s the sad tale of Tiny Epic Western, which I really enjoyed but haven’t gotten back to the table in a long while. Maybe another Western game is worth checking out? Well, I’ve heard so much about Circle the Wagons that I figured I had to try it out.
In Circle the Wagons, you’re … well, circling the wagons because you’re staking a claim to this land and building your boomtown. You’re not alone, though — your opponent has their sights set on building an even better town than yours, and you won’t stand for that insult. These towns aren’t big enough for the two of you (and honestly, given that it’s a wallet game, these towns aren’t very big at all). Will you be able to win big in the Old West?
I know I said Kintsugi‘s setup was pretty simple (and all Button Shy games are pretty light on setup), but this is even easier (with one small exception). Take the 18 cards:
The territories look really nice, but that’s no surprise given that Beth Sobel’s on the art, again. Shuffle them and flip three over to reveal the three scoring conditions for the game:
Yup, every card has a scoring condition on its backside, and you’ll always use three. That’s fun and variable.
Anyways, uh, once you’ve done that, put the other 15 cards in a circle around the three scoring conditions. Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to start!
In Circle the Wagons, you are working to build your boomtown in the Old West, similar to Saloon Tycoon, but … itty-bitty. Mechanically, it’s pretty close to Honshu. Each of these cards, however, has a territory icon and a background type:
The backgrounds matter, and they are:
The icons are:
- Pickaxe (Mines)
All the essentials.
The player going second will choose a card and that will be where the first player starts their turn.
On your turn, you’ll do one of two things:
- Take the next available card.
- Take any card that you want, skipping over the ones you don’t want in clockwise order. Your opponent gets every card you skip and must play them in the order that they receive them. They cannot refuse these cards.
When you take a card (or your opponent receives a card), you must add it to your boomtown following these rules:
- It must be placed adjacent to at least one territory (quarter) on an existing card. Your first card just kind of … goes. You likely will want to place similar territory backgrounds together, as you score for those regardless of the scoring condition cards.
- You may flip the card 180 degrees but you cannot play the card sideways. That’s why they’re not square cards, among other reasons.
- You may cover other territories with the card you gained but you may not tuck the card you gained under any other cards. Just in case that was a thing you were thinking about doing. In this boomtown, we only build up! That’s a decent motto.
Once every card has been played, score! You’ll score the conditions in the center, and you’ll also score each territory background type (desert, plains, etc.). You’ll get one point for each territory in your largest block of that type.
The player with the most points wins! See? Pretty simple.
Player Count Differences
I’ve only played the two-player version. There is a solo version, but I haven’t had a chance to play that.
- Scoring the territories can be huge. I’ve had several games where the scoring condition cards ended up being pretty low-valued, so trying to make blocks of the same territory type ended up being huge. Keep an eye out for those, but don’t underestimate the value of making large swaths of the same terrain type for your boomtown.
- Giving your opponent cards might be the best play you can make. For instance, there will be times that you want certain cards, and skipping less-useful cards to get them is obviously worth it. However, there are times where you don’t want certain cards and giving them to your opponent (so that they can get those delightful negative points) is a significantly good move. Just make sure they don’t get wise to your games and do the same to you.
- If you’re choosing the start card, choose wisely. You should try to choose a card that either your opponent will take or they’ll give 2+ cards to you to get what they actually want. That gives you some good starting ground to build off of, and that can be huge.
- The scoring condition cards will generally dictate if you need to care about what your opponent is doing. Some will give you points (or cost you points) if you have more or less of something than your opponent. Others will just give you points for each of some thing you have. In the latter case, paying attention to your opponent is just going to let them get in your head (or worse, slow the game down). In the former case, you need to make sure you’re on the winning end of that scoring condition (or at least tied so that they don’t get the better of you). Some games will be more aggressive and other games will be entirely passive, so watch the scoring condition cards.
- I haven’t found a situation where skipping 3+ cards is wise. You’re giving your opponent a lot of land with a play like that. I hope that you know what you’re doing, should you choose that route.
- Don’t forget that you can flip cards 180 degrees. I usually do, so I’m just noting it here.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- The art’s great. It’s Beth Sobel, though, so this is less a pro and more of “an obvious fact”. That said, for such a small game the art really has an abstract yet clearly Western feel, and I like that.
- Building a circle of cards is kind of my jam. It’s a bit annoying since I have to do it by hand, but I like it from both a gameplay and thematic angle. In both cases, it’s a lot of fun.
- I really like games with building components. I feel accomplished after the game, win or lose, because I can look at the thing I built. It’s one of my favorite parts about any game where you’re constructing something, from the towers and domes of Santorini to your weird species in Evolution: Climate. It’s just a game mechanic I love.
- The variable scoring / card ordering makes the game feel a lot more varied. I like that it’s always a very different game each time you play. We’ve been trying to play without repeating a scoring card until we get good at the game (so I think we’ve got one more game), and that’s been a great way to explore the game from a birds-eye view. I look forward to digging more into it as we keep playing, and we plan to keep playing.
- Easy to learn. It’s a drafting / city-building game where you take cards or give cards. Like I said, it’s fairly straightforward if you know all the core concepts, and that makes it highly appealing to a lot of experienced gamers while still being pretty accessible for newer ones.
- Highly portable. Again, this is a staple of the Button Shy line, but I still appreciate it.
- Plays super fast. This and Kintsugi are definitely working their way up my List of Quality Lunchtime Games.
- My inability to make a perfect circle of cards on command without help is frustrating. This is more of a me problem than a problem with the game, but the game exposes it, so I’m going to slightly blame it. I haven’t yet played a game where I’ve laid a 15-card circle perfectly on my first try, and it’s decently likely that I never will.
- The non-interactive scoring conditions, when all together, can make the game feel fairly solitaire-esque. I like a bit of interaction in my games, but if the scoring conditions are right, I’m not even paying attention to what my opponent grabs unless I have to, which I generally don’t feel like I need to do. This may not be a problem for anyone or everyone, so I’ve listed it as more of a Meh.
- Takes up a lot of table space, relative to its size. You’ll definitely be able to take this anywhere, but you may have more trouble playing this anywhere. You’re not playing it on an airplane; that’s for sure.
- Be careful while you play. Accidentally hitting your boomtown would be a catastrophe, and that’s decently likely while you’re setting and covering and manipulating all the cards. Playing on a playmat might reduce some of this risk but that makes the game substantially less portable.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, Circle the Wagons is super! It’s a super small, fairly light boomtown-building game with a cool card-drafting mechanic and some great art, which are all positives in my book. I think there’s some manipulations you can do to make the game more or less interactive (I’d love something like Sol: Last Days of a Star where they note what easier, difficult, and aggressive actions can be taken — you could imagine something on the cards that you can look through to play a lighter or heavier game). I still maintain circular movement (or drafting, in this case) is very peaceful, and the short time to play ensures that it gets to the table quite often. That said, after playing it a few times, I imagine it’ll probably stay on the table for a while, as well! If you’re looking to build yourself a town in the Old West on a time (and money) budget, Circle the Wagons is a super game to check out!