The Non-Impartial Carnival
Impartiality, to me, means not making up my mind about something before I’ve given it a fair shake. Usually it’s a reminder. Not every game’s description or box art or choice of setting catches my eye right away. Yet some of my favorite titles are ones I initially overlooked. So it’s worthwhile to sit back, get past the parts that don’t immediately appeal to me, and try to evaluate this thing on its merits or problems rather than first glances.
The Grand Carnival is a premium example. If you’ve been around for a while, you’re probably aware that it isn’t my sort of thing. But I adore it. Whenever I open that box, I glow with happiness. There are tangible reasons, certainly, and I’d like to discuss them. But those reasons are impossible to untangle from my affection for its designer, Rob Cramer. Rob is a personal friend, you see. This is his first big publication. And I couldn’t be prouder of him for how beautifully and sharply it turned out.
So I’m going to talk about The Grand Carnival. But everything I say, I want you to take with a Salzburg-sized shaft of salt.
What an image can’t convey about The Grand Carnival is the chunkiness of its production. It’s easy to assume that most games will provide player mats the size of player mats. Here, they’re nearly as large as some regular game boards. The same goes for everything else. The tiles are big enough to show off Ryan Goldsberry’s artwork, the guests and carnival animals are vibrant and fitted perfectly to the tiles they’ll traverse, and those tiles are thick enough to impede easy shuffling. Better to jumble them together like Scrabble pieces in a conspiracy thriller.
The first time I tried The Grand Carnival, it wasn’t even called The Grand Carnival. It was a prototype at the SaltCon 2019 called The Grand Museum. It was a tiny thing, home-printed, with three-dimensional cutouts for its largest exhibits. The pieces had been scrounged from, I think, the Lord of the Rings edition of Risk. Rob didn’t seem to believe me when I said it was good. It’s even better now, and its production is part of that. The Grand Carnival positively wallows in its size. It’s about making a carnival, the kind you remember from childhood when you had to stare up at people and attractions rather than regarding them eye to eye. Appropriate that it should seem a little oversized, a little larger than life, its guests relegated to the second-smallest component in the entire game, like insects exploring a maze of color.
All the better for the sprawl you’re about to cast up around them.
Every action in The Grand Carnival revolves around a mechanical focal point. On your turn, you pick one of the numbers on your board — one to five — and block it off. Your chosen number now permits you to take an action. The trick is that each of the game’s three actions is more powerful when you’ve invested a higher number, but using a number blocks it off for the day. Since The Grand Carnival plays out over a week, that’s only thirty-five actions in a game, and significantly fewer of your really potent options. You’re working with limited daylight, so you’re forced to make the most of the time you’ve got.
That restriction squeezes you to perform, which will be familiar to anyone who’s optimized some board game actions. What enables the growth of your carnival is that each action is dead simple to explain, while allowing enough wiggle room in execution that optimal moves are rare. First you need foundations, tiles that delineate spaces for your guests and where attractions can be built. The higher your number, the more your options, with the best tiles disappearing rapidly from the market. And picking the lowest number is a not-insignificant risk, doling out a random tile that may leave you awkwardly wedging it into your fairground’s grander schemes.
The other two actions are similarly straightforward. Attractions are built according to their size. A popcorn stand occupies only one square, while something marvelous like a roller coaster takes five. Importantly, higher numbers can also build smaller attractions, making it easier to chase sets or fit multiple attractions into the same space. And that can matter a whole lot, since your third action moves guests through your park, buying tickets at attractions so they can qualify for scoring.
As a system, this is solid. Streamlined and quick to teach, but soon upended by other considerations. It’s easy, for example, to spend so much time looking for the perfect foundation that you neglect your attractions, or fret about covering every point-deducting mallet and therefore forget to lead guests through your carnival. Other disruptions exist in the form of Tricks of the Trade, cards that provide boons when you accomplish their objectives. The trouble is that they’re only awarded to those who first accomplish them, adding a gentle element of speed to a game that’s otherwise timed out to the action.
In fact, that precise timing is one of the game’s biggest departures since Rob had me look at it last. Originally there were end-game triggers, which could be rushed to deprive an opponent of entire chunks of points. The Grand Carnival now has less bite but a more sincere grin. And even though I tend to prefer games that nip once in a while, the friendlier approach suits it better. You’ll finish your carnival, or nearly enough, before the week is out. The focus has been honed, forcing everybody to keep one eye on their scoring chart and another on the dwindling supply of the best attractions.
Summed up, it’s one part polyomino spatial puzzle, one part optimization puzzle, and one part “how well did you understand the scoring criteria?” puzzle. The last is the wobbliest, with certain conditions spitting out the big bucks while others are so meager that they function more like tiebreakers. It’s a narrow approach rather than one that really allows for breadth of expression, and tends to reward carnivals arranged a certain way. A disappointment, but not necessarily a deal-breaker. The focus is right where it should be, on putting together sets of attractions rather than nagging guests or hiring too many carnival barkers. Those scoring opportunities are pretty much icing, the little bit of distance that sets apart the best carnival from those that only met the basic requirements.
Or is it that I can’t bring myself to fully face a flaw in a game designed by a friend? Hard to tell. Games provoke all sorts of emotions for me, from the pleasure of slotting things into their proper places to the myriad joys of learning. In the case of The Grand Carnival, there’s also pride for a friend who designed a game with such focus and vision. I believe this is a good one. But for impartiality, you’ll have to go elsewhere.
Disclosure: I know the designer of this game and value him as a good friend. That should probably be obvious, considering some of the things I wrote above. If you’ve reached this point without becoming aware of that fact, might I suggest starting over at the beginning?