Part of us hoped that Circus Empire was some kind of steampunk fantasia where someone managed to weaponise Barnum & Bailey’s circus in the 1800s, which then carved out a dominion in North America before taking on the might of Her Majesty Victoria’s forces. It’s Carny-carnage! Alas, it was not to be. The devs have taken the more traditional management route. And, despite the obvious low budget, they capture more of the fun of the fair than you might expect.
Avoiding the traveling circus side of things, this is essentially a game of timetabling and choreography. You’re able to put on two shows a day, which are arranged by selecting acts and specific tricks you want to show, as well as whatever lighting and music you’ve purchased. The real strategy comes in managing your talent’s energy and stress levels, which can lead to show-ruining failure if you’ve got them doing two shows a day plus learning new tricks in the morning. Neatly, each act has its own abilities, meaning you can’t treat them all interchangeably. Looking after the pissed-up, burnt-out old clown is a greater challenge than the resilient young warhorse. While you can watch the acts, in practice you fast forward through each day in a handful of seconds, adjust the timetabling and the show, and repeat. With many options - clothes, pay, rewards, housing - to balance, that’s useful. For a relatively casual game, there’s a lot of actual game here.
The game tends to hide some of its depth: it’s unclear how an act will go down with an audience for instance, and the shows aren’t worth watching for anything other than accidental comedy. But Circus Empire’s real problems are more to do with the basic grind, when you’re given a mission which requires you to improve a character massively until they gain a specific skill. The repetitiveness is what grinds you down. There’s a lot to juggle but - as the game teaches you - there’s more to games than juggling.