Barker Placement: A Look at The Grand Carnival
Back in March I wrote about the seven best prototypes of SaltCon, including my personal favorite, The Grand Museum by Rob Cramer. You might remember Rob as the designer of the very silly wallet game Turbo Drift. Or maybe you don’t, because wallet games are tiny and often overlooked among the slew of big releases that clog up the headlines every month.
Well, fate is a strange thing, and not only because it doesn’t exist. After some retooling and a whole lot of development, The Grand Museum is back as The Grand Carnival, it’s better in nearly every way, and I’m here to tell you about it.
Ask yourself a question: what is the truest thing about carnivals? No, it isn’t that George Washington Gale Ferris, Jr. invented the Ferris Wheel in 1893, although that’s a very impressive factoid you’ve pulled out of your pocket. Nor is it that you can buy literally any foodthing deep-fried in surplus elephant grease. Nor even that growing 20th century disgust at freak and geek shows led to unfortunate unemployment rates among chicken-swallowers and the disabled. Rather, the truest thing about carnivals is that they are horrifically irresponsible. More people die at carnivals than from smoking and auto accidents combined. It’s true.
In The Grand Carnival, everyone steps into the knee-high boots of a ringmaster of their very own traveling circus. You’re ready to put on the evening of a lifetime, and guests from near and far (but mostly near) are gathering at the entrance. But there’s a problem: the carnival has yet to be assembled.
Dangerous and irresponsible, sure, but this state of disassembly might also represent an opportunity. Before the night is out, maybe, just maybe, you will have made a name for yourself as the grandest carnie of all time.
Assembling a carnival is a three-step process. Staring back at you is a barren field between parking lot and big top, so your first goal is to lay the foundations that will separate your grounds into paths for your guests and spaces for your attractions. With that done, the attractions themselves must be raised, and then the guests will be loosed upon the carnival to buy tickets as they make their way steadily northward to the main show.
That’s the reductive version, and somewhat undersells the joys of cobbling together a functioning carnival. In practice, the game is about juggling multiple needs, with all three of those steps happening over and under each other, and often competing for your attention.
Here’s how it works. Each turn sees you picking a number — one through five — which locks it off from future picks until you’ve cycled through them all. From there, your chosen number gets put to use, with higher numbers allowing more freedom than lower numbers. For example, if you picked five, then selecting a foundation is as easy as grabbing anything from the market. But if you instead picked two, you’re stuck grabbing the lowest visible foundation or something random from the stack. Which, if you hadn’t already guessed, might saddle you with a tile that doesn’t fit the growing arrangement of your grounds.
The same goes for the other two actions. With a high number, you can build an attraction of that size or lower. Bigger attractions eat up more space, but also hold more tickets when guests swing by. Speaking of which, your chosen number might also be used to move a guest that turn. The higher your number, the faster they go, and the sooner they arrive at crucial intersections that see them spending money on two or even three tickets at once.
In other words, The Grand Carnival very quickly forces you to make hard decisions on at least two levels. Not only are you choosing what to do this turn, but how flexibly you’ll do it. And each decision ripples outward. If you spend your best numbers early in the round, you’ll be stuck making piddly — or even damaging — investments later on. Better to spread out your options, just in case a valuable tile appears in the market or an opponent is looking to scoop a particular attraction.
That double-edged bite appears elsewhere. Although this is largely a heads-down kind of game, with everybody focused on their own carnival, there are moments that pit you against each other a little bit more directly. I’ve already mentioned the market and the attractions, with everybody scrambling to claim the best tiles and shapes that will fit their growing carnival, but tricks of the trade and barkers must also be considered.
We’ll start with tricks of the trade. These will prove familiar to anyone who’s ever striven toward Food Chain Magnate’s milestones. Each game features three, and they shape your approach every bit as much as the tiles available in the market. By meeting certain criteria — say, a particular arrangement of foundations, moving guests into the big top, or loading up an attraction with tickets — your carnival earns an exclusive bonus. Want your guests to move diagonally, the freedom to shift or rotate your foundations, or your patrons growing so starry-eyed that you no longer subtract points for any spaces still under construction? Tricks of the trade are how you’ll do it.
Carnival barkers don’t punch quite as hard. They’re limited in quantity and provide extra points, but everybody should be able to grab at least one. In essence, they’re the fellows nudging your guests an extra step every time they move. The trick is that they only appear when your initial four guests have been ushered from the entrance into your carnival proper. A barker staggers in from whichever dive he’s been hiding in — and blocks his space, so be careful where you station him — and four new guests file in to fill the vacancies. This keeps your chutes well buttered, with guests herded forward and attractions pulling in the points.
Of course, none of these elements exist on their own. Their combination is what makes The Grand Carnival hum. At any given time, you’re considering how to use your numbers to build better paths, arrange better attractions, and get your crowds moving, while also shooting for the best tricks of the trade and maybe a barker or two. It’s a lot to consider.
Although The Grand Carnival is less interactive than I usually prefer, it does a whole lot of things that I like quite a bit. Its central puzzle offers multiple solutions — and, in fact, demands them, with varying sequences of foundations and tricks of the trade requiring fresh approaches. It certainly helps that the entire thing is a race between rival ringmasters, one where not a single action can be spared. And it’s done with a lighthearted touch, its ramshackle carnies pulling every trick in the book to put on a good show. It’s a lot to consider, in other words, without becoming the sort of game anybody is likely to get upset over.
The result is a bit like a circus juggler, keeping items of various weights and sharpnesses aloft at once without missing a step. For a game that first caught my eye as a homemade prototype scavenged from other boxes, I’m impressed with how The Grand Carnival has come into its own as a title with streamlined rules but plenty of ways to get ahead.
The Grand Carnival is on Kickstarter from 23 September to 10 October.
Disclaimer: I know Rob Cramer in real life. We recorded a few podcast episodes together a couple years back, and we grab lunch approximately once a year. So be warned that humans sometimes forge friendships with other humans and adjust your reaction to this preview accordingly.