Full disclosure: A review copy of Carcassonne: Under the Big Top was provided by Z-Man Games.
Making good progress this week! Only three days in and I’ve written three reviews, so far. Must be in a good mood or something; haven’t felt like writing in weeks. Anyways, I’ve covered Carcassonne a few times in the past, and so, getting a chance to check out the newest expansion along with the 20th Anniversary Edition has been a real highlight. Love anniversary editions of games. Got a new expansion to try out, though, so let’s dive into that and see how it plays! Maybe I’ll check out the others, one day.
In Carcassonne: Under the Big Top, the traveling circus has come to town! And left town. And come to town again! It’s a traveling circus, after all. As it zips up and down and around, it leaves joy in its wake and teaches some of the locals new tricks. As they try and master their acrobatic prowess, workers of all kinds are delighted whenever the circus ends up near them, even if the circus only has a trained flea to show off this time. Master the circus’s many arts and wiles, and make way for the Ringmaster to astonish, surprise, and delight if you want to become a major name in this up-and-coming region. Do you have what it takes?
Not a ton of additional setup! There are a handful of Acrobat Tiles:
A similar number of Circus Tiles:
And then Ringmaster Meeples and the Big Top! Give each player a Ringmaster in their color, and set the Big Top aside, for now.
Finally, shuffle the Animal Tokens up, face-down, and set them near the score board, for now.
Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to start!
So Carcassonne: Under the Big Top plays effectively the same as the base game, with three major changes, each corresponding to the major elements added. Let’s go through what each of them do!
Acrobat Tiles are probably my favorite new addition? They’re goofy. So, when you first play an Acrobat Tile, you can either place on the field or road as normal, or you can place your meeple standing on one of the two spaces as an acrobat. On subsequent turns, any player who places a tile adjacent to an Acrobat Tile (diagonally counts) can place a meeple of theirs on the other space. If both spaces are occupied, the tower can be completed by adding a third meeple on the other two meeples’ shoulders. It’s fun. Nothing happens if you knock the tower over; just fix it. Pyramids of meeples can be multiple colors; there are no restrictions on who can add to a pyramid.
Once a pyramid is completed, in lieu of placing a meeple of any kind on your turn, you may score that completed pyramid. Each player earns 5 points for each of their meeples in the pyramid, and then those meeples are returned to their players’ supplies. After a pyramid is completed, the same Acrobat Tile can be used again to create a new pyramid following the standard rules.
You can score a pyramid that you have no meeples in, but I am not sure why you’d want to do that. Additionally, Ringmaster meeples and Abbotts and other fancy meeples cannot be part of a pyramid; their ridiculous hats interfere with the balance.
Circus Tiles bring the Big Top to town! Whenever you place a Circus Tile, you may place a meeple as normal on any of the tile’s features except for the Circus Space. That honor is reserved for the Big Top. When placing the Big Top, first choose a random face-down Animal Token and place it on the Circus Space, and then place the Big Top on top.
Once a subsequent Circus Tile is placed, the Big Top moves to the new location. It’s a traveling circus. When that happens, the previous Circus Tile scores! Reveal the Animal Token, and then each player with meeples on the Circus Tile and the eight adjacent tiles scores points equal to the Animal Token’s value per meeple on those spaces. Ringmasters count as meeples! Then, remove the Animal Token from the game and place it face-up next to the scoreboard.
The Ringmaster Meeples
Ringmaster Meeples are special meeples with fancy hats who love the circus and everything about it. They benefit from being close to the Circus and Acrobat tiles, but they’re multitalented; they can do other things too! You may place a Ringmaster as a normal meeple (but not an acrobat) on any road, city, field, or monastery (we refer to this as “going to Clown College”). You can also use the Ringmaster as a standard meeple for other tile effects from other expansions, should those rules overlap.
When you complete the feature that the Ringmaster Meeple is on, score the feature as normal. The Ringmaster then scores an additional 2 points for each Circus Tile or Acrobat Tile that they are on or adjacent to. Afterwards, the Ringmaster Meeple returns to your supply.
End of Game
As usual, the game ends once the final tile has been played. Score incomplete features as you would in the base game. For incomplete Acrobat Tiles, each meeple on the tile scores its owner 5 points, and then returns to their supply. For incomplete features with Ringmasters, score them normally, and then score the Ringmaster as normal (2 points for each Circus / Acrobat tile in the nine tiles that they are on or adjacent to).
The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
I wouldn’t say that there are a ton of differences here, though at higher player counts, given the more-rapid tile churn, you should expect less of a points profit off of circus tiles. The circus will be moving around the board a lot “faster” since, while the same number of tiles exist, you individually will be placing fewer of them. So you’ll have fewer shots at getting meeples around the circus before the circus ultimately moves again. For the Acrobat Tiles, I mean, you’ll probably see a more diverse set of Acrobats in the pyramids with more players, since it’s usually good to get in there, but I wouldn’t say that there’s any big difference from the other features of the expansion. I tend to like Carcassonne most at two, and this expansion doesn’t really change that, especially since I feel like the Circus Tiles benefit most from a two-player game. Nothing against the higher player counts; I just think Carcassonne is one of my favorite two-player games.
- It’s worth being a part of an Acrobat tile, even in a two-player game. I always think of it as “if someone’s scoring, it might as well be you”, and that still applies, here. Even if it contributes to your opponent getting a pyramid completed faster, at least you’re getting in on scoring part of it instead of letting them have 15 unanswered points.
- Placing a Circus tile next to big, incomplete cities (or farmers that are stuck on a space indefinitely) can really pay off. It can also specifically not pay off, if you’re unlucky enough to flip the Flea Token, but what can you do? Building Circuses next to your stuck meeples can be a great way to get them to pay some dividends even while they’re not doing anything. Bonus points if you can use the same meeples a few times with the Circuses, or you can build Circuses around your Ringmaster. Just remember that Circus tiles score any completed features before they score the Circus, so you should avoid completing a feature with your meeple on it if you want them to score from the Circus tile. Completing an opponent’s feature so they get left out of the scoring may be ideal, however.
- You’ll tend to see some clusters of new tiles, given that Ringmasters benefit from them (and Circuses), so try to get in on that. Would you believe that I forgot the word cluster for a while there? I had “groupings”, originally, which made no sense. Anyways. Newer tiles tend to cluster together since they can be used for big points with Ringmasters and Circus tiles can benefit from meeples being in the same place. This means that you can often benefit from an opponent’s tile placement. I once scored big because my opponent placed a (to be fair, unknown) Circus Tile that was pretty high value, and I surrounded the Circus with a lot more of my meeples, meaning that when the Animal Token got flipped, I scored a bunch of points.
- More generally, placing your Ringmaster as an extra meeple is useful, but keeping an eye on how you place your other tiles can really help them score big. It’s nice having extra meeples, but once you’ve placed your Ringmaster, you can place Circus and Acrobat tiles nearby to boost the scoring value of that meeple. Particularly, if you put them in a monastery, you can really get a lot of points from that. At the end of the game, placing the Ringmaster as a farmer can be helpful, but I wouldn’t necessarily do that until you’re very close to the end. They’re too valuable to lock out of the game too quickly.
- It’s worth looking through the tiles before your first game, just because some of the tile element configurations are different than the base game, and it might help you to see that you may be able to complete some cities or features you weren’t able to previously. I generally recommend this if you’re trying out a new Carcassonne, because they like throwing in some genuinely tricky tiles in there. I generally don’t recommend trying to memorize all possible tile configurations for Carcassonne, just because, frankly, there are more useful things you can keep in your brain, but knowing if a particular tile configuration doesn’t exist in the base game is usually helpful. A few that don’t exist in the base game definitely are in this set, so for those of you who enjoy playing more aggressive versions of Carcassonne, you might find that your attempts to cut your opponents off only help them score major features. Worth looking out for before you start your first game. What you find might surprise you!
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really like the way that the various tiles encourage you to build adjacent to existing tiles. Both Acrobats and Circus tiles do a great job with this, here. They have effects that benefit players who play adjacent to them or leave meeples on adjacent spaces, which is not something I’ve really seen out of a Carcassonne set, before. Granted, I quite like it, so happy to see it here, but it’s a way to think about Carcassonne that I wasn’t used to. So it’s pretty novel.
- Similarly, I think this set does a nice job of helping players deal with “less useful” tiles. There always are a few “bummer” tiles for players in Carcassonne sets (usually a single-turn road, but it depends on where you are at the moment). They won’t score you many points or advance your current features, so you kind of just put them wherever. Now, however, you can use them to place Acrobats or put a meeple near the circus, thanks to the new tiles. These less useful tiles now have something to do that’s useful (and potentially lucrative), breathing new life into them. I think it’s a pretty brilliant move, and I was impressed with how well it worked as we played. I love the idea of a Carcassonne where every tile is useful.
- The circus theme is fun. It’s an odd choice for Carcassonne, which kind of tends to be a bit more serious / fantastical in nature, but there are also volcanoes in the third expansion, so what do I know? Either way, it’s a fun new thing to see in the ever-expanding Carcassonne mythos.
- I also like stacking the meeples on the Acrobat tile. I wish there were more of a dexterity element to it beyond just stacking them, but you can’t win them all, I suppose.
- It’s interesting that the Acrobat spaces are reusable. I like that, but I’m mostly just intrigued. The most you can really get from an Acrobat space is eight uses (one upon placing it and then seven more tiles surrounding it), so I suppose you could get almost three pyramids out of it. Either way, it also has the nice benefit of helping reduce gaps in the board, which makes the whole play space look better.
- Honestly, the Ringmaster meeples are absolutely delightful. They’ve got fantastic hats. More meeples should? Their in-game effect is fine and all, but I really am mostly here for the high-quality hatwork that’s happening.
- I like the randomized animal token elements; it’s fun to either score big or score very little, though I imagine the folks who score very little can be frustrated. I think it’s fun, but I’m also throwing the spread of the Animal Tokens under “Cons” just because there’s an opportunity for a big swing between 7x and 1x. But I like the surprise of seeing which animal came to the circus to give you some fun points. Who’s going to be excited about a flea? Exactly. But it adds a nice bit of risk / reward to placement.
- There are a lot of “useful” tile configurations, specifically when contrasted against the base set. I mean “useful” here to mean that a lot of the tile configurations are configurations that don’t exist in the base set, so they fill in gaps that can emerge when playing with the base set. I think that kind of thing is always nice, and it’s a great way to throw off folks who play aggressively if they don’t expect the new tile types.
- More tiles in play will extend the game, so if you’re looking for an expansion that doesn’t extend the playtime, the boxed expansions generally aren’t it. This is kind of a standard thing to know about Carcassonne expansions. The more you have, the more tiles you get, so the longer the game goes. I’ve never tried a game with all 10 expansions, though that sounds pretty fun. Maybe some day.
- I know I’m being a bit silly, but I would have liked to have seen some dexterity element in the Acrobat tiles. The balancing is fun, but making a bigger pyramid for more risky points? Seems fun, too. I think I’m just missing the Carcassonne Catapult expansion that’s never getting reprinted, but a guy can dream.
- There’s some decently high variance in the animal tokens, and that can introduce a bit of swing to the game, for players who find that sort of thing distasteful. Not much to be done about it, but you will definitely see some players frustrated if a player gets a big 7x all to themselves and then they get a 1x. That’s … kind of how this set works, so if that sounds frustrating to you, maybe don’t go for this one.
Overall: 8.5 / 10
Overall, I think Carcassonne: Under the Big Top is a great expansion! For me, it does two things particularly well. It adds a bit of complexity to the core game without overwhelming it, and through its additions, it makes overlooked parts of the base game more useful. One thing that players often struggle with in the core Carcassonne game is tiles that don’t really … do anything for them. They place them and don’t want to place a meeple on them because they’re mediocre, low-scoring, or generally unhelpful. Acrobat Tiles’ adjacent placement rules make those tiles still pretty tangentially useful, since you can place them next to an Acrobat Tile and still place an Acrobat. I think that’s pretty great? Plus, being able to score a complete tower in lieu of placing a meeple makes those low-utility turns still pretty useful. Same goes for the Circus tiles: allowing “stuck” meeples to still have a high degree of utility is pretty great, especially if you’re playing an aggressive game of Carcassonne where you’re making it hard for your opponent(s) to complete features (and vice versa). This is a smartly-designed expansion, packaged in a fun circus theme to boot. I suspect that not everyone will love the potential swing of the Animal Tokens, but, I mean, that’s why you want to be near the circus; who knows what will happen? I’d say the Ringmaster Meeples are the least essential part of this expansion, but they serve to nicely tie the two elements of the game together with a bit of extra theme, so I’m still a fan of them. If you’re looking for more Carcassonne, you enjoy a circus, or you just have completionist tendencies (I know I do), you’ll probably enjoy Under the Big Top! I think it’s a solid addition to the series.
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