Review – Carnival


Designer: Cherilyn Joy Lee Kirkman & Christopher Kirkman (2011)
Publisher: Dice Hate Me Games
# of Players: 2-4
Ages: 10+
Play Time: 30 minutes
BGG Rank/Rating: N/A
Category: Family Game 

One day, Cherilyn and Chris were just sort of talking about boardgames.  Something they said planted a little seed in Cherilyn’s mind, so she ran with it and came up with an idea for a little card game with a carnival theme.  Two weeks later, after many long nights and lots of work developing this new idea, they had a fully fuinctional prototype that Chris was ablt to take to Origins.  Both there, at WBC, and in the time ever since, many of us have been following the progress of this fairytale project on Twitter and their website as it grew, blossomed, and, as of yesterday, finally went live with an already-successful Kickstarter campaign.

Thankfully, I was fortunate enough to get my hands on a prototype copy of the game, which I’ve played pretty extensively with my wife and also with the guys at my game group.  I think I have a good handle on the game at this point, so I wanted to get this review published as quickly as I could to help all of you who might be considering joining in supporting both the Carnival game itself through Kickstarter as well as Chris and Cherilyn’s dream of getting their game company (Dice Hate Me Games) off the ground.  

Game Basics

(Note: This review is based on a prototype version of the game, so minor changes may still take place to its rules and artwork prior to publication.)

At its core, Carnival is a set collection game, where each player is trying to gather all the components they need to open rides in their carnival.  There are five different rides (colors) in the game, each containing several copies of their four components: Seats, Materials, Banners, and Lights.  The first person able to complete and open 4 of the 5 rides will win the game.

To start, players are dealt a semi-random hand of cards (1 wild + 5 other cards) and place 5 Midway cards (forming the base of the 5 different rides) in front of them.  Players are also given 3 Tickets, which are a resource that can be used to mess with other players or to gain a little extra control over your actions (which I’ll get into a little later).  Finally, a number of cards equal to the number of players is dealt face-up into the discard pile (since it’s available to draw from as one of the actions), and then you’re ready to get started! 

Each player’s turn is broken down into the following steps:

1) Check the discard pile; if it’s empty, discard the top card of the draw pile into it
2) Discard down to 6 cards
3) Roll 3 six-sided dice and use 2 of them to perform their associated actions (see below)
4) Play cards from your hand to your Midway
5) If there are less than 3 cards in hand, draw cards from the draw pile to fill your hand to 3 cards

Dice Actions

Players must use 2 of their 3 dice to perform actions, even if they don’t want to.  If all three dice end up with the same number (either naturally or through manipulation with Tickets), the action is performed all three times (with the 3rd die being placed in the bullseye on the Tableau below).

Die Roll of 1: Draw a card from the deck

Die Roll of 2: Draw the top card from the discard pile

Die Roll of 3: Steal a card at random from an opponent’s hand

Die Roll of 4: Choose a card from your hand to give to an opponent, and then steal a card at random from their hand

 Die Roll of 5: Exchange a card from your Midway with a card from an opponent’s Midway

Die Roll of 6: Steal a card from an opponent’s Midway and add it to your own, then discard a card from your hand.

Playing Cards to Your Midway

After performing 2 dice actions, the player may play as many cards as they can to the rides in their Midway area.  There are a few simple rules about playing cards:

To begin a new ride, you have to play a minimum of two different parts of same ride from your hand (one of which can be a Wild). 
You can also add single cards to any ride that you’ve already started. 
Each ride can only have one of each of its four components at any time, and when all four are present, the ride has been completed (and count as one of the four you need to win). 
If no Wild cards have been used to complete the ride, it is considered a “natural set“, and that whole set is flipped over and “locked” so that no one may steal from it again for the rest of the game.  In addition, if you have less than 3 tickets at the time, you gain an addtional ticket when forming a natural set.


Tickets are a resource that players can use to gain a little more control over what would otherwise be a pretty random game.  On your turn, you can use a ticket to either reroll all the dice or to add or subtract one pip from a die that you rolled.  On an opponent’s turn, you can use a ticket to block one of their actions, even if it wasn’t being aimed at you.  Obviously, using tickets effectively and taking opportunities to complete natural sets and get tickets back are really the main keys to the game.

The Discard Action

I didn’t mention this earlier, but there’s actually one more thing that you can do on your turn.  As the game progresses, you can sometimes start to build up cards in your hand that duplicate cards already played in your Midway.  The #4 and #6 actions can help a little to move those cards out, but your hand can still get pretty clogged up.  So, instead of rolling the dice and taking your dice actions (step 3 above), you can choose to discard a Wild card from either your hand or Midway, along with as many other cards from your hand, and then draw cards from the deck equal to the number of cards you discarded (including the Wild).  It’s admittedly a bit of an add-on fix, but it works well when you need it.     

Here you can see the setup for a 2-player game.  In the middle of the table is the draw deck and the Tableau.  I have two natural sets (carousel and bumper cars) and am close to two others, but Gwen has 3 natural sets and is about to complete another to beat me once again.

What I Think…

Let me start with a bit of a disclaimer.  I know Cherilyn and Chris well enough to consider them friends.  Our relationship is based mostly on participating on each other’s blogs, Twitter, and other online interactions, but we’re simi-local to each other and have met in person a few times to play games as well.  I have also participated in the playtesting for Carnival and made a few suggestions here and there about it.  So I will be as transparent as I can and admit that I probably would not be able to write a negative review of the game.  In fact, after my first play of Carnival, which I didn’t really enjoy all that much, I was a little worried about how I would dance around it here on  Thankfully, most of the issues I saw in that play were resolved pretty quickly in playtesting, so the opinions I’m about to share are completely true, honest, and as fair as I can make them.

The first thing that jumped out at me about Carnival is how original it is.  And since we’re talking about a freaking set-collecting card game, you’d think that originality would be pretty hard to come by.  But the random constraints of the dice-based actions make it unlike pretty much any card game that I’ve ever played before.  I’ve compared it conceptually before to Bohnanza, not in mechanics of course, but in the sense that the game throws something at you seemingly out of left field that you have to learn to work around.

Speaking of the dice and their role in the game, I really like how they limit your choices each round.  One of my favorite things in games is when they throw curveballs at me that I have to deal with and even incorporate into my strategy.  Even in deep strategy games, I think this keeps play dynamic and exciting, and here in a relatively light card game, it’s very appropriate and exciting.

But the real key to Carnival is that you’re not necessarily bound to the whim of the dice as long as you’ve got Tickets to spend.  On virtually any turn, you can spend a ticket or two to get the action you want, or to protect yourself from an unwanted action from an opponent.  But since tickets are a such a precious and limited  resource, almost every turn presents you with a tough choice about whether or not this is the time to use a ticket or if it would be better to hold onto it for later.

Since there is the opportunity to earn more tickets through completing natural sets, however, you also have a little extra freedom to use the tickets and manipulate your dice if you think you’ll be able to get it back when you finish off your ride.  I like how this sets up a little economy for the flow of tickets that encourages you to look for clever little shenanigans that you can pull off in using and gaining them. 

I also like a lot of the other choices that Cherilyn and Chris made in developing the game.  The hard limits on hand size and slightly odd turn sequence may feel a little contrived at times, but it’s also pretty easy to see why it was done that way and what benefit each phase offers the game.  The 6-card limit, for instance, makes it very hard for people to just hold sets in their hand until they’re complete, which would really diminish the strength of the #5 and #6 actions for other players.  Similarly, drawing up to 3 cards at the end of your turn makes it an advantage to play card to the Midway (since you’ll be able to draw more cards) even though it also gives other players more options with their Midway-related actions.  

Carnival is, of course, still a card game, and it uses dice.  So I think it’s also important that you not expect it to be something it’s not.  Consistently bad die rolls or card draws will still make it harder on you.  If that possibility of random screwage is totally abhorent to you, then Carnival may not by your cup of tea.  But assuing that you have a more-or-less fair distribution of randomness and given the built-in mitigating factor of the tickets, I think that the luck-based elements of the game are perfectly tolerable and appropriate considering the overall weight and theme of the game.

While I’ve played with more people a few times, the bulk of my plays have been 2-player with my wife, Gwen.  There a few rough spots that may still need be to be worked out for the 4-player game, but I’ve also heard that the team/partner 4-player variant  is really good and may be the preferred way to play for that number.  In our 2-player games, though, we’ve had a really good time.

In fact, Carnival is the one game that Gwen has been asking to play ever since I first introduced it to her.  When I asked her what she liked about it, she more or less mirrored most of the thoughts I mentioned above concerning the tough choices you have from the dice actions and how the tickets stand as a really nice contrast and complement to that.  I also think that the combination of having such an original game that is still so relatively light and approachable made it really easy for her to fall in love with it.

Carnival promotional image from Dice Hate Me Games

The Verdict!

Carnival is a unique card game that is light enough for families but still provides enough choices and interesting gameplay to keep most gamers happy.  It’s a fantastic first offering from a new designer and new game company.  And if you’re reading this before October 2, 2011, you can also still play a part in supporting it on Kickstarter as well!

Rules: The rules are simple, but the dice-related action selection could be a little hard for some to get their head around
Downtime: If people agonize too much about their choices, downtime can get a little problematic in the 4-player game.  Otherwise, it’s not an issue at all.
Length: My 2-player games with Gwen usually run 15-20 minutes, but the 4-player games are more on the order of 40 minutes.
Player Interaction: Limited, but actions #3-6 let you take things from other people, and you can use tickets to block actions altogether. 
Overall Weight: Light, but verging on medium at times
GamerChris’ Rating: 8 (on the BGG 10-point scale)


1 Comment

  1. This is a very good review of the game. I’ve played it twice now and also find it unique. It has just enough randomness to combat predictability. But you are still able to strategize and plan. I think you have touched on what raises it about the crowd – tickets. Their power is such that you want to use them but are afraid to because you might need them later. And it makes for an interesting game near the end. Hard choices. This is good.
    I do agree with you that the 4 player game may have a few small quirks to work out. But I have confidence that these will be addressed.
    Cherilyn and Chris are my friends too. I can honestly say that I feel strongly that Carnival is a top notch game.

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