Posted by: gschloesser | July 14, 2011

Big Top

Designed by:  Ray Mulford
Published by:  APE Games
3 – 6 Players, 30 – 45 minutes
Reviewed by:  Greg J. Schloesser


Kevin Brusky launched APE Games (Advanced Primate Entertainment) back in 1998 and has re-emerged with it recently.  Ray Mulford has been working closely with Kevin and was gracious enough to send me copies of both Anathema and Big Top to play and review.  I had no trouble learning and playing Anathema, but, truth-be-told, struggled to get through the rules to Big Top.  It is well known that I am not a player of traditional card games, so am mostly unfamiliar with the unique terminology used in such games.  As such, I was very confused by the term “called card”, which is used liberally in the Big Top rules.  I even tried studying the lengthy example of play, but to no avail.  I simply couldn’t grasp the mechanisms of the game. 

Fortunately, I was able to coerce my good friend Michael Labranche to learn the game and teach it to me.  Michael and his wife Shanna play traditional card games with great regularity, so I figured he would be able to understand the rules.  Sure enough, he found it very simple to learn and did a good job teaching it.  

So just what is Big Top?  Loosely based on the traditional card game of Fan Tan, Big Top pastes on a circus theme and challenges players to be the first to deplete their hand of cards.  In the process, players must predict which suits they will deplete, and earn additional funds from playing cards at opportune times.


The cards are poker-sized and contain ‘retro’ artwork depicting various circus performers and acts.   There are four suits, with each suit containing two sets of cards numbered 1 – 6, one being white and the other dark.  Each suit also contains one “poster” card.  In addition to a unique drawing, each card also contains an interesting fact or bit of circus trivia, which is related to the drawing.  The text has no bearing on the game, but is quite interesting to read. 

Each player receives an “organizing” chart upon which he will play cards, predict his gate receipts and record his income.  The chart is divided into four sections, bearing values of $0 – $3.  When a player opts to play a card onto his chart, it will be played onto the far right section, which is valued at $3.  This is known as “calling a card”, a term which was at the root of the confusion I experienced when trying to learn the game from the rules.  The designer has since stated that he overlooked explaining the term in the rules, which has caused some confusion.  

Play begins with all of the cards being dealt to the players.  With four players, everyone receives an equal number of cards, but all cards are still dealt even when playing with other numbers.  The players who get an additional card just have to work a bit harder to deplete their hands!  

Once everyone receives their cards, they analyze their hands and place their gate receipt tokens face-down onto their organizing chart, one on each suit depicted.  Each player possesses four gate receipt tokens, with values of $3, $5, $7 and $10.  The idea is to place the higher-valued tokens on the suits that you feel you will be able to deplete easily.  When a round ends, players will receive income from these tokens IF they have successfully expunged that suit from their hands.  So, if a player has only one or a few cards of a particular suit – particularly if they are posters or low-valued cards – then it would be wise to place your $10 gate receipt token onto that suit. 

The first thing the active player does on his turn is to decrease the value of any cards he has played to his organization chart.  This simply entails sliding all cards on his chart one section to the left.  Once a card reaches the $0 section, it cannot be slid any further.  

Then, a player must perform one of the following actions: 

1)      Play a “called” card.  This is MANDATORY, if possible.  This means that if a player has a card on his organization chart that can be played to the center, then the player MUST remove it from his chart and play it.  I’ll explain how cards are played shortly. 

2)      Play a card from your hand.  This is optional.  If, however, the player can legally play a card from his hand to the table and chooses to do so, he may gain income.  The player checks to see if any of his opponents have a card of the same suit and shade (light or dark) on their organization charts.  If so, the player receives income equal to the current section that the corresponding card occupies on the opponent’s chart.  For instance, if Jason plays a dark green card and Steve has a dark green card occupying the $2 space on his organization chart, Jason earns $2 and moves his scoring token up $2.  

This is one of the keys of the game:  deciding when to play cards from your hand to the table.  Ideally, you want to entice your opponents to play cards to their organization chart, capitalizing on this by later playing cards to the table that will generate income for you.  

3)      Call a card.  There’s that confusing term again.  Basically, this means playing a card from your hand to your organization chart.  The card played must be placed into the $3 section, and there cannot already be a card on your chart of the same suit.  Further, a poster card can never be played to the chart.  A player can choose this option even if he had a card in his hand that could have been played to the table.  

Sometimes a player is forced to play a card to his chart, specifically when none of the cards in his hand can be played to the table.  Sometimes, however, it is wise to play a card to your chart even when you had a legal play from your hand.  You may be waiting to play the card until your opponents have cards of the same suit on their charts, enabling you to gain income when you do play the card.  Another reason might be that you are stalling, hoping not to see a particular suit on the table progress any further.  This injects some interesting decisions into the game. 

If a player cannot perform ANY of the above options, he must pass.  

In order for cards to be played to the table, a suit must first be opened by the play of its poster card. Once this card has been played, players can begin playing cards of that suit in two stacks to the table, one stack for light cards and one stack for dark cards.  Cards played to each stack must be played in numerical order, so a “light 5” cannot be played prior to the “light 2”.  Pretty simple. 

In spite of its simplicity, this does provide for some interesting tactics.  Holding onto a poster of a particular suit will cause those cards to languish in opponents’ hands or on their charts.  If you have only one or two low numbers of that suit, you can run the other cards out of your hand prior to playing that poster.  Or, you can choose to hoard a low number in a suit, causing that suit to stall.  There’s more, but you get the idea. 

A round ends as soon as one player gets rid of all of the cards in their hand and from their chart.  Having depleted ALL of his cards, this player will collect income for all of his four gate receipt tokens, a total of $25.  This is added to the total income he accumulated during the hand to give the player his final score for that hand.  All other players collect income from their gate receipt tokens ONLY in the suits that they depleted.  

The rules recommend playing a number of hands equal to the number of players.  When playing with six players, this may be a bit much.  We’ve found 3 – 4 hands to be sufficient.  The player with the most cumulative points following the agreed-upon number of hands is the Ring Leader. 

Frankly, I was a bit worried about the game.  As mentioned, I’m not a fan of traditional card games, and Big Top is a variation of Fan Tan, albeit loosely.  Plus, the confusing rules sent up a warning flag.  Fortunately, my fears were unfounded.  This is a fun game.  No, it is not located on the deep end of the strategy pool, but there are some very interesting choices to be made and strategies to employ.  The theme, although loose, does work, and the artwork helps add to the flavor.  Yes, I had problems with the rules, but folks familiar with the terminology used in traditional card games will likely have no trouble.  My only quibble is the quality of the gate receipt tokens, which are only slightly thicker than paper and difficult to pick-up.  Still, they work, and their thinness isn’t enough to detract from my enjoyment of the game. 

Will you break-out Big Top with your group of heavy-strategy gamers?  I wouldn’t.  However, the game shines in the family venue, or as an opener or closer.  It should also prove appealing to those family members who tend to only play traditional card games.  As such, it just might be one of those “bridge” games that help folks cross over to the European-style games we treasure.


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