As I’ve mentioned in previous reviews (Meeple Land for one), I’m a sucker for an amusement park theme. I loved going to Six Flags in my younger days—riding roller coasters, playing games rigged against me, and seeing the entertainers. So it’s no surprise that I’m always jumping on board to check out a game with a theme park setting. Heck, I’ve lately been addicted to Planet Coaster, which is an excellent video game if you have the time.
Enter The Grand Carnival. Published by Uproarious Games and designed by Rob Cramer, The Grand Carnival will have players putting on their own carnival over the course of a week. So get your tickets in hand as we spend some time at the fair.
The Grand Carnival is played out over the course of a week (7 rounds) with each round giving players five actions to take. On a player’s turn, they must take one of their tokens and place it on a numbered action space (1-5). The number of the space will determine the strength of the action. The three different actions are:
• Draft a foundation tile: The number will determine which stacks they can draft from.
• Build an Attraction: Attractions come in sizes from 1-5 and are in a variety of polyomino-shaped tiles. Attractions you build must be placed on previously played foundation tiles.
• Move a guest: Move a guest in your park a number of spaces equal to the strength of the action. When a guest stops next to an attraction, they place a ticket on it. When both of your guests have moved off their start space, you get to place a barker in your park, which gives you +1 to all movement values from now on. You also gain two more guests for your park.
There will also be three Tricks of the Trade cards in play that have goals on them. The first player to achieve the goal gets to put a token on the card, granting them a special power for the rest of the game. Each other player then must meet that same goal on their very next turn or be locked out from completing it.
The game ends at the end of the 7th round. Players earn points for having multiple attractions of the same size (on a sliding scale), one of each size attraction, guests who’ve made it to the big top, having 15 tickets on attractions, carnival barkers, and lose 1 point per visible construction mallet in their park. Most points wins.
The Grand Carnival is a really well-designed game that’s both easy to get to the table and a lot of fun to play. In fact, it cracked my Top 10 Board Games of 2020 list a few months ago and after many more plays, I’d probably move it higher up in those rankings. It really uses its theme well, and I thoroughly enjoyed the action system.
That action point system is what creates a lot of interesting decisions during the game. I found myself trying to save the higher value action slots for when I really wanted to use them in a round. Being able to move a guest five spaces, take any of the foundation tiles, or take the biggest attraction tile can be really powerful. On the same note, even the 1 space can be useful. It would allow you to move a guest one space, possibly landing them next to an attraction, letting you place a much-needed ticket (attractions score nothing if they don’t have at least one ticket on them).
One of the best design decisions was the Tricks of the Trade cards though. These go a long way into injecting some replay value in the game, as you only use three cards out of 14 each game. These not only give players some early game goals to work towards, but the special powers can be really strong, so you never want to miss out on one. This forces players to keep an eye on what their opponents are doing so you can be sure not to be too far behind in the progress on them.
My only real gripe about The Grand Carnival is that I wish there was a bit more diversity in the scoring. Getting one of each size attraction almost feels crucial to winning the game as it scores you a powerful 22 points. While sets of the same size can also be lucrative, we found those to be much harder to do (since the number of each attraction type is limited). Players rarely were able to hit the 3 minimum to score a set in our games, especially of the higher-value ones. Most of the other scoring conditions were not too hard to meet so that usually meant scoring came down to one or two categories where a player eeked out the others. I suppose that’s fine for balance, but it doesn’t give much variety in the scoring.
Other than that, the game is fantastic. The artwork from Ryan Goldsberry is excellent, as always. It fits the theme perfectly in both look and levity. I do have to warn you that the custom meeple tokens, while they do look cool, tend to break. Quite a few of my guests have their feet cracked off. Overall I didn’t care that much, but I’m sure that will annoy some people.
The Grand Carnival is a fantastic game that makes excellent use of its theme. It’s both really easy to get to the table and a joy to play. All of the actions make sense, the action point system is easy to explain, and I even found myself being picky about which specific attractions of a single size I put in my park even though it didn’t matter for gameplay (no, I already have a firebreather, I want the other square tile).
Other than the scoring rules, the game offers some solid replay value both from the variety in the Tricks of the Trade cards and also due to the variations in sizes of the larger attraction tiles. When it comes to amusement park-themed games, The Grand Carnival is easy one of the best.
Final Score: 4.5 Stars – A streamlined tile-laying game that’s both thematic and a blast to play.
• Easy to learn rules with minimal downtime
• Action point system is fun and works well in the game
• Excellent artwork that fits the theme perfectly
• Nice replay value thanks to the Tricks of the Trade cards
• Scoring could use a bit more variety
• Guest meeple tokens have a tendency to break