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Designer Diary: 3 Ring Circus

by Fabio Lopiano

Diary by Fabio Lopiano and Remo Conzadori


Fabio: I began working on 3 Ring Circus in the summer of 2019, shortly after I had moved to Italy from London. I had just closed the contracts for Merv and Zapotec, and I was eager to start a new project.

During that period, I watched a documentary about the early days of the circus, particularly focusing on the story of P.T. Barnum and the traveling circuses at the end of the 19th century. This documentary sparked the idea of using this fascinating setting for my next game.

After spending a few days conducting research, I developed the first prototype within a couple of weeks. However, I tried to incorporate too many ideas into the game, resulting in a slow and convoluted experience. In the initial versions, players would move their circus to new locations, perform shows, acquire new cards, and play them on their tableau. The cards had numerous icons that affected other cards in the same row or column, leading to excessive analysis paralysis and a slow-paced game.

By early 2020, when the pandemic hit, I transitioned to conducting playtests online. Between March and April, I made some improvements to the game, but eventually, I put it aside to focus on Autobahn, which was already demanding most of my attention.

Remo: Around September 2020, I had a conversation with Fabio. I like collaborating with many designers, and I asked Fabio whether he was interested in working together on some game. Fabio is very productive and I really appreciate the way he continuously reworks and enriches each project. We showed each other a few prototypes we had on hold at the time, and Fabio’s circus game piqued my interest.

Fabio: I believed that Remo’s fresh perspective and ability to simplify games could greatly benefit this project, so I saw it as an excellent opportunity to streamline and simplify the game.

Remo: Could we define our work as a tug of war? I push to clean up, while Fabio tends to add more, and in this way the game found its path. Although I don’t remember the other prototypes we discussed, I distinctly remember being captivated by 3 Ring Circus. Its depiction of the traveling circuses and the nostalgic journey it evoked from my childhood made it an intriguing concept.


Fabio: During my research, I discovered a website called Circopedia, which provided a wealth of information about the circus, including an extensive archive of circus posters depicting various acts. Additionally, I found a website that detailed the routes followed by different circuses over the years, including the dates and locations where they stopped.

These discoveries inspired my ideas for the game.

Some of the posters used for the cards in the prototype

Upon viewing numerous colorful posters, I decided to create a card game, specifically a tableau-building game in which players would place artist cards on their circus to organize their shows.

Remo: My prototypes are usually much less graphically accurate, you can imagine how surprised I was by the care that Fabio had put into the creation of the cards using these magnificent images from that era.

The Map

Fabio: I began working on the main board, focusing on the northeastern region of the United States. I researched lists of cities and towns where circuses had made stops, and I created a custom map using Google Maps.

Map with circus routes

I divided the main area into six regions, each featuring one main city, two medium cities, and six small towns, connected by roads. Players would travel along these roads, performing shows and leaving their colored markers as they went.

During that time, circuses often served as the sole form of entertainment for many small towns. The circus’s annual visit was a significant event, drawing people from neighboring towns and villages.

I wanted to capture this aspect in the game, so I devised a mechanism in which each small town provided a coin card when a circus performed there. Additionally, each neighboring town that hadn’t yet been visited by a circus would contribute an additional coin. After visiting a town, players would leave their markers, covering the coins. Subsequently, other players would be unable to visit the same town and would miss out on the additional coin when visiting a neighboring town.

First version of the board

Remo: I really like this “simulation detail” of the game. Today it is perhaps difficult to imagine how exceptional an event like the arrival of the circus in the city was. The circus attracts people from all around, and this dynamic — the inhabitants of one city already visited having no desire to move to another, thereby making a performance less profitable — has interesting strategic facets.

Fabio: Performing in medium cities required a higher “entertainment value”, which increases as players hire more artists. On the other hand, each major city has an associated card indicating a specific combination of artists required for a performance to take place there.

Main Concepts

Remo: Hey Fabio, may I interject? Let me explain how we came up with some game concepts.

In an era without modern media marketing, popularity relied on local presence, word-of-mouth, and the number of shows held in an area. Perhaps players’ small circuses could garner attention by joining Barnum’s show! Therefore, we incorporated an area-majority mechanism into the game, rewarding players who concentrated their efforts in the right regions at the right times by taking advantage of Barnum’s movement.

While the concept of the journey was well represented, the weak point of Fabio’s original design was the construction of one’s circus. Fortunately, from the first game I played, I found it logical and thematic to propose the progressive construction of the circus, highlighting two concepts: a good manager must build a great show, and the bigger the circus, the more complex (and slower) the set-up operations become.

We divided the personal board into three rows, representing the three rings. Players can choose to complete a ring show, proceed in a balanced manner across all rings, or adopt a tactical mix based on the game situation. However, they must be cautious about the spaces they occupy as a larger show covers locomotive symbols and limits movement options.

I also find the way you hire artists to be very thematic. Players can choose to slowly build their series of performances in a single ring, starting with simple and cheaper artists. Alternatively, they can make a heavy investment in a valuable artist early on, hoping to easily attract artists whose performances complement their characteristics. I hadn’t considered this, but Fabio added a stimulating detail.


Fabio: As the game development progressed, we wanted to ensure that players could explore different strategies and discover new combinations of actions. Therefore, we devised various ways for players to score points.

Area Majority

One of the initial scoring mechanisms we implemented was area majority. Whenever the Barnum Circus reaches one of the main cities, the players who have performed the most shows in that region are rewarded. This creates a strategic element, pushing players to prioritize their shows in the regions that are about to score.

Remo: Since the Barnum Circus moves after every show, the exact turn when an area will score becomes unpredictable. Players can influence this by deciding whether to engage an artist or perform a show. (Barnum moves only during shows.) If everyone focuses on engaging artists to improve their shows before performing, they will have more time to prepare for the scoring. However, as shows are performed, Barnum gradually moves closer to the next scoring, creating an exciting tension.

After the next show, the Barnum Circus will move to Washington, triggering scoring for the blue region.

Fabio: Balancing turn order posed a challenge for this scoring mechanism. The starting player could have an unfair advantage in area majority because they were more likely to have had one more turn than some other players when the scoring is triggered. To address this, we introduced a rule that once Barnum reaches a city, he remains there until the end of the round. This ensures that all players have the same number of turns before the scoring takes place.

However, this introduced another issue: The last player now had an unfair advantage as they always had the last move before a scoring.

Remo: We explored different solutions, such as having a “start player marker” that moved clockwise after each scoring. However, this approach created additional issues, such as the first player essentially skipping a turn after a scoring.

In the end, we decided on a “last player marker” that moves counter-clockwise. After a scoring (which happens during the turn of the player with the “last player marker”), the last player marker moves counter-clockwise. However, play continues in the usual way, with no player skipping a turn. This ensures that every player has the “last” move for at least one scoring. Since the number of regions is equal to the number of players plus one, at the end of the game, the last player marker is with the same player who had it at the start of the game, ensuring that every player plays the same number of turns. This approach also balances the fact that the last player had the last choice of starting city at the beginning of the game as they get to have the last move before scoring in both the first and last rounds.

Tableau Building

Fabio: In the game, each player arranges their artists along three rows, representing the three rings of their circus. Artists are placed in increasing value, which means that when you hire a new artist, you may need to slide higher-value artists to the right to make room for them.

When engaging an artist, you pay their cost by discarding money cards from your hand, which can be basic artist cards or special effects cards. The cost to engage an artist is the difference between the cost on the card and the highest-value artist already present on the same row.

Lower-value artists can be played for free if a higher-value artist is already present on the row. However, if there is no higher-value artist, you must pay the difference to hire the new artist.

Remo: Essentially, the total cost of your ring is equal to the value of your rightmost artist. This introduces interesting decisions during the game. For example, if you hire a very expensive artist at the start of the game, you can fill their row for free by sliding new artists to their left.

Alternatively, you may choose to fill your three rows more or less concurrently because completing each of the first three columns allows you to play an endgame scoring card. Acquiring these cards earlier gives you more time to maximize their potential.

Covering the wheels reduces your movement; in the final game, wheels were replaced with locomotives

Additionally, each ring provides different bonuses when you cover them for the first time, and you’ll want to strategize to obtain these bonuses at the right moments. However, the speed of your circus is influenced by its size. As you cover locomotive icons on your board, the number of available movements decreases, making it harder to reach the right cities for performances. Balancing your progress is important, and you should slow down at the appropriate pace to avoid missing key opportunities.

Fabio: Building a circus filled with high-value artists and placing them strategically to maximize their endgame fame value can lead to satisfying surprise victories. While you may play fewer performances than your opponents if you engage numerous artists, you’ll earn a significant amount of Fame points from the right combinations. Most artist cards award points for having specific artist types in the same ring or across the entire circus. Additionally, completing rows or columns also grants extra fame.

Medium Cities

Remo: Let me talk about medium cities, then Fabio will explain large ones.

When performing in a medium city, achieving a high performance value — which is based on the number of pedestal icons in your circus — is crucial. This is accomplished by combining the right types of basic and advanced artists in each ring of your circus.

However, keep in mind that you can perform in each city only once, so choosing the optimal timing becomes essential. Furthermore, your performance value determines your reward, which can be either fame points or artist cards.

This choice adds an interesting dynamic to the game. Some artists may be more valuable in terms of points, depending on their performance partners within their ring. However, playing those artists requires a turn and possibly spending coins, whereas fame points are immediately gained.

If you’re aiming for artists, the timing of your performance in a medium city becomes crucial. The market of available artist cards keeps changing, so you want to ensure that all the required cards are accessible when you perform your show.

The yellow player performs in Pittsburgh for 9 pedestals, so they can choose between three artist cards or 7 fame points

Fabio: If you manage to achieve a very high performance value, such as eight or more pedestals, it’s advantageous to perform in all medium cities to maximize your results. However, the decision between acquiring points or cards becomes important. Opting for points might allow you to perform several shows consecutively, putting pressure on opponents who are focused on improving their shows while Barnum steadily moves toward the next scoring city.

Large Cities

A successful show in a large city can yield a significant number of fame points, both from the performance itself and from the artists’ values during endgame scoring.

However, achieving success in large cities requires careful planning. You must secure the right types of artists and position them correctly within your circus. Performing in a large city just before Barnum arrives can also maximize your area-majority score. In games with more players, this can pose an additional challenge as you have three rings but need to fulfill five different artist requirements.

Typically, there is a perfect combination of artists that fulfills all requirements, although you may not be able to visit all five cities in time or obtain all the necessary artists due to competition from other players. The deck includes four copies of each main artist required by large cities, theoretically allowing all players to perform in all cities.

The third ring fulfills all the requirements for bothChicago (a lion preceded by an acrobat and followed by a special performer)and Indianapolis (a strongman preceded by an animal and followed by an acrobat)

Remo: The tricky part is that to acquire all these artists, you need to perform in a few medium cities. However, aiming for large cities limits the number of pedestals you can achieve since they require specific combinations of different artist types in each ring. As a result, you may need to utilize special one-off money cards to boost your performance level. Balancing your resources and timing becomes essential to succeed in large cities and secure fame points both during the performances and at the end of the game scoring.

The game after a playtest at a meeting in Milan

Finding the Right Publisher

Fabio: By the summer of 2021, we were pleased with how the game had evolved. We had dedicated countless hours to playtesting, both through Tabletop Simulator and in-person sessions as pandemic restrictions began to ease. The gameplay flowed smoothly, and it was evident that players thoroughly enjoyed the game. This positive feedback indicated that the game was ready for the next step: finding a publisher.

With great anticipation, we attended SPIEL in October, actively seeking a publisher who shared our enthusiasm for the game. During the event, we had several meetings, but one publisher stood out among the rest: Devir. They showed a keen interest in our game, and we promptly provided them with a link to the rulebook and the Tabletop Simulator mod. Shortly after the show, Devir contacted us to play the game online, and by the end of the year, we had signed a contract, officially entrusting the game to them.

Devir enlisted the talented illustrator Edu Valls to bring the game to life visually. We were thrilled with the incredible artwork that Edu created, capturing the essence and excitement of the traveling circus in stunning detail.

Now, after months of collaborative effort, 3 Ring Circus is set for release in August 2023, just in time for Gen Con. We can’t wait to see players dive into the world of managing their own circus, experience the thrill of performances, and compete for fame in the captivating setting of the late 19th century U.S. circus scene.

Some cards beautifully illustrated by Edu

Addressing the Delicate Setting: Navigating Circus History with Sensitivity

Fabio & Remo: Throughout the design and development process of 3 Ring Circus, we were acutely aware of the complex and sometimes troubling history associated with circuses of the past. The circus industry had an ugly side, with instances of animal abuse and exploitation. Furthermore, figures like P.T. Barnum, who played a significant role in shaping the circus world, were known for their controversial practices.

As responsible game designers, it was crucial for us to handle these sensitive topics with care and integrity. We wanted to ensure that the game not only captured the excitement and grandeur of the circus but also acknowledged the historical context in which it operated.

To accomplish this, we made certain design choices and included messaging within the game to address these issues directly. It was essential for us to convey that we do not condone any form of animal abuse or exploitation. We wanted players to be fully informed about the historical realities while engaging with the game.

Within the rulebook and accompanying materials, we provide clear statements emphasizing that the game is a work of fiction and a representation of a particular time period. We encourage players to approach 3 Ring Circus with an understanding of the historical context, while recognizing that our intention is to provide an entertaining and immersive game experience.

By acknowledging these concerns and inviting players to engage with the game fully informed, we hope to foster an atmosphere of awareness and critical thinking. We encourage players to reflect on the ethical dimensions of the circus industry, past and present, and engage in respectful discussions.

Our collaboration with Devir, our publisher, was crucial in addressing these delicate issues. They shared our commitment to handling the circus setting with sensitivity and fully supported our efforts to incorporate educational elements into the game. Together, we strived to create an experience that balances the excitement and spectacle of the circus with a respectful understanding of its historical context.

We believe that games have the power to spark conversations and promote empathy. Through 3 Ring Circus, we aim to encourage players to delve into the rich history of the circus while fostering a deeper understanding of the ethical complexities surrounding it. It is our hope that by exploring these themes in a thoughtful manner, we can contribute to a broader dialogue on the subject.

Image: Carlos Martinez


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