Big Top is a reworking of the traditional card game Fan Tan with an interesting "card calling" feature. There are four suits and each contains one "poster" and two sets of cards numbered 1 to 6 (one set in dark numbers, the other in light). You play one card a turn and the object is to be the first to get rid of your hand. The first card played in each suit must be the poster. Once this happens there are then two stacks played beside it, one for the light numbers, the other for the dark (in the matching suit of course). Play on either stack must be strictly in numeric order so the light 1 must be the first played, then the light 2 and so on. (Note that the light and dark series in each suit are independent of each other.) Often you will be unable to play any card at all, which you generally want to avoid. (This is more or less the extent of the rules to standard Fan Tan.)
Big Top adds several features to this. The first is the concept of "bets". In Fan Tan it's winner take all—whoever goes out first collects the entire pot (players add a chip to the pot whenever they cannot play). In Big Top you have four bets (a 10, a 7, a 5 and a 3) to make after being dealt your hand. You secretly place the bets, one to a suit, and if you're void in that suit at the end of the hand, you collect the appropriate number of points. So, obviously you place the 10 on the suit that you're most likely to be able to play all your cards and so on. The player who goes out will collect all 25 points but it's usually the case that everyone will make two or three of these bets. The other way you make points is much more interesting. On your turn, instead of playing a card, you may "call" a card. (In most circumstances you'll only call a card if you're unable to play but not always.) You do this by placing the called card on the $3 section of your play mat (see photo below). The reason why you don't normally want to do this is that any player (besides yourself) who plays a card in that suit (and shade) will gain points equal to its current position on your play mat. So, if Bob has the Red light 5 on his $2 spot and I play the Red light 2, I gain two points. At the start of your turn you move any previously called cards left so that a $3 card is then worth $2, then $1 and finally $0. Much of the strategy in the game is in figuring out how to play your cards so as to avoid calling while at the same time forcing your opponents to call cards which you can play under. I found this very innovative and it allowed for quite a bit of strategy in how you played your hand.
Ape Games is a new publisher and so some lee-way should be shown. However, the production values on Big Top are so poor that they practically sabotage the game. The scoring counters are very thin and their "die-cutting" is actually perforations so they're rough edged and unattractive to boot. I refused to use them after my initial play and had to replace them with some plastic counters. As annoying as this is, it wasn't the biggest problem which was with the cards themselves. I've never experienced it before but they had some sort of coating on them that left your hands with a very sticky feeling. Again, I managed to play but a single time before I realized that I had to use card protectors. I don't usually find card protectors annoying but they're a problem in Big Top because you need to shuffle the cards quite a bit between hands (they're sorted during gameplay). Further, since they are indexed on only one corner you need to rotate them in your hand which is more cumbersome with "condomed" cards. On the positive side, they do feature interesting circus trivia and excellent artwork by Alessandra Cimatoribus (who should be recognized from his work on Torres). Still, when the majority of the components have one problem or another, the game needs to work extra hard to make up for it.
I haven't played Fan Tan but having read the rules, I must say that I have absolutely no desire to play this traditional game. There is a huge element of luck in who goes out first (in both Fan Tan and Big Top); if you're dealt lots of 5s and 6s then you really don't have much hope. However, in Big Top, the scoring is such that you can still "win" a round even if you don't go out. You can gain just as many points from called cards as you can from your "bets" and with all but the worst hands you should be able to void yourself in two suits. As such, you should be able to gain at least 17 points which is not much worse than the 25 you would get from going out.
So, I have no problem stating that the scoring system Big Top adds to Fan Tan is a serious improvement. With multiple ways to score you suddenly have interesting decisions to make in regards to how you play your hand. I found this to be the best of Big Top as these decisions are not trivial or obvious. However, the problem (and for some it will be huge) is that there is still a tremendous amount of luck in the card draw. Plain and simple, some hands are better than others. Now this can be said about most card games but it's very pronounced in Big Top—it's much better to be dealt 1s and 2s than 5s and 6s. When dealt a terrible hand there's a feeling of futility as you're forced to call cards which not only hurt you (called cards still count as part of your hand and so do not help you void in a suit) but will usually allow your opponents to collect points to boot. The challenge of making the best of a tough situation can be enjoyable but often you were simply at the mercy of a bad deal. It's frustrating having to call cards time and again while watching your opponents make easy plays.
This leads me to ponder the target audience for Big Top. I know many people who like to play the same game over and over, sometimes devoting an entire evening to one game. (Usually they'll choose a traditional card game.) For such people I think Big Top would work quite well, if you're going to play 20 or 30 hands, the sting of getting even six or seven horrible deals is lessened. Everyone will have their share of good and bad luck and the winner will be the player who makes the best of either situation. The official rules for Big Top are that you play only 4-6 rounds and so getting a couple of bad deals can be devastating. In fact, we had several players who simply refuse to play the game again because of this. These same players will happily laugh off getting an awful hand in The Great Dalmuti so I don't think it's a case of them being poor sports.
Ultimately, I have very mixed feelings about Big Top. I like the extra scoring possibilities (and how they affect hand management) but the randomness of the card draw has far too large an affect on the outcome. If I ever have a group wanting to play Fan Tan I'd have no problem insisting on Big Top instead but I can't see wanting to play it of its own accord.
- Greg Aleknevicus