Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Game Review: Carnival

Designer: Cherilyn Joy Lee Kirkman Publisher: Dice Hate Me Games Players: 2-4 Playing Time: 20-40 minutes
Review by Mark Jackson (5 plays with a review copy provided by the publisher)

Carnival has hit the table 2 times at my house…

  • one 2 player game with my non-gamer sister
  • one 2 player game with my gamer 10 year old son

…and 3 times at my gaming group…

  • two 3 player games
  • one 4 player game

…and after much deliberation, I’ve decided that Carnival is a chocolate-covered Peep.

Yes, yes, I know that some of you live for processed marshmallow hunks with the consistency & flavor of sugar-coated Styrofoam. I am not among your number. However, I was intrigued by the culinary possibilities of taking the highly sugared Peep and dipping it in milk chocolate – but the reality does not meet my hopes & expectations. It’s still a Peep.

Which brings us back to the subject of this review – Carnival. Though dressed up with some interesting ideas & very attractive card art, Carnival is an underdeveloped low-control set-collecting/rummy game.

The Game

The play of the game is simple enough – after discarding down to six cards in hand, players either use a Wild Card to ditch some or all of their hand in exchange for the same number of cards (this doesn’t happen very often, as there are only 6 wild cards in an 86 card deck) OR they roll the 3 dice and choose two of the dice-activated actions to execute. You can

  1. draw from the deck
  2. draw from the discard pile
  3. steal a random card from another player
  4. steal a random card from another player then give them a card of your choice your hand
  5. take a card from another player’s tableau and then give them a card from your tableau
  6. take a card from another player’s tableau and then discard a card from your hand

A player then plays down cards into his tableau. You need two cards to “meld” (all the rummy players in the audience nod knowingly) and once you have at least one card in a suit (you could lose a card due to another player’s action), you can add cards to it one by one.

To end your turn, you draw back up to three cards.

You are collecting cards in your tableau (called “Midway” in the game for thematic reasons) in order to make four-card “sets” of each of the five available rides (suits). When you’ve completed 4 of the possible five sets, you win.

Each player is also given 3 tickets, which allow them to do one of three things:

  • add or subtract a pip from one of the dice when choosing your actions
  • reroll all three dice
  • block another player’s action

Completing a “natural” set does two things: it protects that set from being messed with and it gives the player a ticket back (if he has less than three tickets when he completes the natural set).

The Interesting Ideas

I see two interesting if under-developed ideas in Carnival:

  • I like the IDEA of using dice to determine your actions – in theory, it should force players to play in order to be flexible in what they can do, leaving them with ways to utilize as many possible dice combinations. In practice, it means that about half of your turns are simply about drawing new cards… and that effect is exaggerated in the early turns when players don’t have many cards in their Midway, thus making 1/3 of the possible die rolls useless to players.
  • I have the same kind of mixed feelings about the ticket mechanic… while it should offer some answers to the problems I have with the dice-activated actions (by allowing you to change pips or reroll), once again that didn’t happen in actual play. Players saved their actions to defend their tableaus & their hands in the late game – where stopping another player is a doubly good: you not only keep your cards safe but you also force him to burn up one of his actions in the wasted attempt.

But interesting ideas do not necessarily lead to a playable game. (Here I am forced to admit that one of my “guilty pleasure” designers, Nik Sewell, has this problem as well – calling S.P.I.V.s “playable” is what we English majors charitably call “stretching the truth”.)

Carnival IS playable – it’s no Sufferin’ Spirits, to once again take Nik Sewell’s name in vain – but it has some problems that lead to a game experience that feels scripted, regardless of the number of players.

Stick to the Script

Since you can’t hoard cards (you must discard down to six cards at the start of your turn) and the only consistent way to get cards is to play out your hand (in order to draw back to three cards), players tend to do just that. Once your hand jams up with cards that duplicate ones you already have in play, the only way to clear them is to use a wild card – if it hasn’t been stolen from you already. (Players begin the game with one wild card.)

There’s another incentive to lay down as much as you can – it costs your opponent more to steal a card from your Midway than it does from your hand – he will either have to transfer one of his cards into your Midway or discard a card from his hand, depending on the dice roll. This acts as a mild deterrent to using those actions, which leads to a continuing cycling of player hands searching for the right cards.

As I stated above, tickets tend to be stockpiled for late game use to slow the leader or protect your lead, depending primarily on how kind the dice & the cards have been to you. From the mid to late game (yes, I feel funny using those terms for a game that lasts 20-30 minutes), any other use invites the one-two punch of (a) using a ticket to get the action you need, followed by (b) a player using their ticket to cancel the action, thus causing you to lose both a ticket and an action.

With those rules in place, it’s simply a race to draw the best cards while hoping the dice don’t hamstring your efforts to do so… and that was Carnival with 2, 3 or 4 players.

The Dark Underbelly

Thanks to the magic of television, we all know that carnivals have a dark underbelly of seediness, right? (I offer into evidence HBO’s CARNIVALE, the fourth season of HEROES, the truncated mess that was THE CAPE, and that really creepy X-FILES episode with the carny geeks.) Sadly, Carnival also has some shadowy & questionable dark corners:

  • The rules, while laid out in an attractive fashion, have some gaps & clarity issues. Questions like “do you shuffle the discard pile if you run through all the cards?” and “Can you trade identical Midway cards?” have only been addressed on BGG. (A modest proposal: when your “Game Notes” – clarifications – run most of the length of your rule sheet and still miss things, it’s time to think about rewriting the rules.)
  • The most notable rules rewrite (per BGG forums) is for the Hand Trade action – a player doing this must choose a card to give before taking a random card, which is the opposite order from the published rules.
  • As written, the rules for managing the discard pile only work if the players use Wild cards to exchange part or all of their hand. Without that action, the discard pile can reach a point (most likely in two player games) where a player can only get one card from the discard pile – even if he has 2 (or even 3 with triples) discard actions. This means that dice rolls are even more limiting – and thus will force you to burn tickets early to gain actions, leaving yourself unprotected as the end of the game nears.
  • While I once again want to praise the lovely art design of the game – I especially like the art used for the rides and the clear iconography on the player aid cards & center board – the graphic design has some problems. The four types of each ride (suit) – Lights, Banners, Seats & Materials – are only identified by a small banner at the top & bottom of the card. This information is important for other players to have and is difficult to see. (In fairness, graphical clarity was a problem with another amusement park card game that I playtested – Joe Huber’s Scream Machine. The prototype was actually easier to “read” on the table than the published version.)

Kick(starter) Me!

Now we reach the part of my review where I try to gently suggest to the publisher of Carnival (and many other publishers) that the temptations with Kickstarter projects to “hold back” parts of the game in order to encourage monetary support may be fiscally wise but game design foolish. While I have not been able to play with the Wild! Die or The Sideshow expansions, I’ve done a bit of reading on BGG in order to figure out how they might change the game – and perhaps deal with some of my issues with it.

The Wild! Die is simply a die that replaces one of the original dice that has a “wild” symbol on one face – meaning you can choose any action. Frankly, since one of my struggles with Carnival is the limiting nature of the die rolls, the increased chance of being able to call your own shots seems like a step in the right direction.

The Sideshow is a set of six replacement Wild cards that can either (a) do the normal work of a Wild card, or (b) have a special power that can be activated by discarding them:

  • Man-Eating Chicken: force another player to skip a turn
  • Water Lily: draw two cards
  • Draco: force another player to discard a Wild card
  • Goliath: take one card from another player’s Midway
  • Twist Tina: search the discard pile & take a card from it
  • Hypno: force a player to discard a Ticket

While the serious gamer side of me rebels against adding more random elements to a game that is already pretty low control, the tactical gamer side of me likes the increased opportunities for clever plays and the thematic gamer side of me likes the introduction of some carnival elements to a game that – lovely as it is – has a very pasted-on theme.

But short of marking up my own Wild! cards, I’ll never know – thanks to the Kickstarter model of funding game publishing.

Note: I have no idea if either of these expansions were part of the original game – that’s purely speculation on my part. However, both of them could have a positive effect on game play without adding any real complication to the game, so it’s a shame that they are not available to the general public.

Final Thoughts

One of the toughest things about writing a critical review in our not-so-large board game market is the knowledge that the publisher & designer (in this case, one & the same) seem to be very nice people and you’ve basically told them their child is ugly and they’re dressing him funny.

At the same time, I don’t think Carnival is a fully finished game as published. There are some good ideas for game mechanics that needed to be worked over & polished… as well as a full rules rewrite and some graphic design changes that need to be made. (Credit Dice Hate Me Games with being aware of the rules problems – they are promising a new rules set sometime in the next month.)

There’s nothing wrong with a rummy-style set collection game – I just want it run smoothly, not lurch like a carnival ride missing some key bolts & safety latches.

This review originally appeared on the Opinionated Gamers website... and if you follow the link, you can find more insightful commentary on Carnival from some of the other reviewers.

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