Q&Play: Circling the Wagons to Build a Better Boomtown

In this edition of Q&Play, Ryan looks at Circle the Wagons. A 2-player map-building game that fits in your back pocket.

The rundown

Circle the Wagons is a 2-player game, designed by the trio of Danny Devine (Ghosts Love Candy), Paul Kluka and TIGR’s own Steven Aramini (Yardmaster), with art from Beth Sobel (Herbaceous, World’s Fair 1893 and Lanterns) and is being published by Button Shy. Circle the Wagons is the winner of the 2016 Button Shy Wallet Design Contest, beating out over 70 other games.

Circle the Wagons is a map-building game, set in the Wild West. Setup is simple take 15 of the 18 cards and just place those cards in a circle and flip the final 3 cards over to their backs to reveal the scoring goals that will be used in this game. Players will take turns going around the circle taking a card to place in the boomtowns they are building making sure any cards placed are connected together. You can skip any number of cards to take the card you want when going around the circle, but any cards that are skipped are given to your opponent who MUST place them in their boomtown. When all the cards are taken and placed, players score each of their biggest groups in the six different territory types and also score the three scoring goals. The winner is the player with the most points.

The play

It’s no secret that I used to work for Button Shy Games. During my time there, there was this one game that I just fell in love with. Those that follow me on Twitter may already know what game I am talking about. Which is of course, Circle the Wagons. And now it’s finally here, ready to hit Kickstarter on April 4th. Despite my previous connection to Button Shy I really wanted to write a (p)review of the game. Sure, you already know I love the game, I already stated that, but:  Why did I fall in love with it? What was it about the gameplay? Why am I still wanting to talk about it today?

Immediately, the thing that will strike many gamers about Circle the Wagons will most likely be Beth Sobel’s art which gives a map feel, to well…, this map-building game. However, underneath Beth’s gorgeous art is a really great game. What makes it great? Well, some of the gameplay that really stands out for me in Circle the Wagons is the skipping mechanic and the goal cards. First, the skipping mechanic. In Circle the Wagons, players are able to pick any card going in clockwise order, even skipping cards if they wish. However, anytime you skip cards, your opponent must take the skipped card (or cards) and place them in their budding boomtown. This is an important part to the gameplay that adds a little depth because you must learn when to skip not only for defensive reasons (having to skip cards to ensure you get a card you want) but also for offensive play (stick your opponent with a card they may not want) as well. Also, since each card is broken up into quadrants, it allows the map-building portion of the gameplay to really feel like you are making a decent size boomtown with only a handful of cards.

Sample of a Boomtown.

The true key that makes the gameplay shine is the 3 scoring goal cards that are placed out at the start of each game. The goal cards add another dimension to the gameplay that steps it up from being a good game to an excellent one. It’s clear that a labor of love went into making these cards, as it’s not just the same scoring goal with symbols switched and a different name for each card. We see a bit of experimentation from the designers in the types of scoring goals. Additionally, the goals that are given don’t feel like they were just pasted on. Instead, we see goals that range from bootlegging, to mining gold, to building up your army forts, to cattle ranchers wanting water for their cattle. That is, goals that feel like they naturally belong in a Westward Expansion era themed game.

Circle the Wagons will come in its own vinyl wallet (different coloring wallet then above) packaging .

In the end, Circle the Wagons has a weightiness to it that one may not expect from a micro-game that is made-up of only 18 cards. Now readers shouldn’t expect a medium weight Euro, I mean we are talking about a 15 minute (max) card game. There’s no going around it, Circle the Wagons is what would be labeled a ‘filler,” but at the same time it isn’t a “turn your brain off” filler, but one that you will need to keep your wits about you when playing. For me, Circle the Wagons has become the standard to compare other games to when it comes to card-only micro games.

Small in size, but big in gameplay. Don’t let the 18 card format fool you, Circle the Wagons may fit in your back pocket, but there is a lot of gameplay packed in as well.

The Qs

First thanks to both of you for agreeing to do this interview with me. Could you share with us, the story behind Circle the Wagons?

Danny: Button Shy had announced they were having a contest, and Steven’s ears perk up when he hears the word “contest.” He was the one that brought the original idea to the table.

Steven: It actually sprang from an earlier idea we were kicking around called “Ten in a Pen,” where you were rearranging cards designed as quadrants each containing different barnyard animals that were separated by fencing, trying to get 10 of one type into a single pen. That game never really came together, but it sparked the idea for the “map building” aspect of Circle the Wagons.

Danny: Oh yeah, that’s right, I forgot about Ten in a pen (also a great name!). At one point I believe is was also about dueling wizards too.

Photo by Mary Sanders

Were there any games that served as an inspiration when you were designing the Circle the Wagons?

Danny: Patchwork is a big one. It helped to define the mechanic of drafting around a circle. Before that I believe we were drafting from a straight line of cards. Thankfully the circle worked out, because “Straight Line of Wagons” is a terrible name.

Steven: For me, Tokaido was an influence. I really liked the idea of the player in last place on the road getting to take actions until they were no longer in last place. It helped lead us to the idea of jumping ahead in the draft while giving the player behind the opportunity to then draft the card or cards that were skipped.

Where did the idea of each card having a different scoring goal on the back come from?

Steven: It came as part of the evolution of the barnyard game. We were talking about how just arranging cards to form the map wasn’t fun or replayable enough, and it needed different goals, which Danny brought up first as an idea. We talked about a game called “Tides of Time” and how it was interesting because it had several paths to victory even though it only used a few cards. I worked on the theme and some of the initial scoring conditions to bring shape to the game and Danny and Paul added to it, and then collectively we dialed the cards in from there.

Danny: The first time we played with the scoring conditions on the back, we knew we were on to something. Then the focus was on making those scoring conditions diverse so that every game had a unique feel to it.

Speaking of the scoring goals. Do you either of you have a favorite?

Danny: My favorites are Claim Jumpers & One Too Many, I love how you have to balance what you have against what your opponent has. Target Practice is also a great one, if used well and not countered, it can really rack up the points!

Steven: I am going to copy Danny’s answer and say I am a fan of Claim Jumpers and One Too Many, as well. Those are great ones because you really need to pay attention to which cards your opponent is drafting. Smalltown Charm is a fun one too because it really throws the game for a curve in a way none of the other scoring conditions do.

Circle the Wagons being a western theme, I have to ask – What is your favorite Western movie?

Steven: Gotta be “Tombstone” for me! It’s got so many great characters and scenes, and I love Val Kilmer’s Doc Holliday in it. For a classic, I’d say “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” It’s not your typical shoot-’em-up, but more a story of greed as all the characters get paranoid about their gold and end up killing each other. It’d make an interesting theme for a game, actually…the more gold you get, the more greedy and paranoid you get. Kind of like an insane track with Cthulhu games!

Danny: I think Steven just volunteered to make a Western Cthulhu game! I have not seen most of the classic Westerns…but I have seen Blazing Saddles and Back to the Future III which I’m going to go ahead and count. I did really like “3:10 to Yuma” the depth that Russell Crowe brought to his character as the villain really stood out, usually with Westerns it’s “This guy is wearing a black hat, he is bad, shoot him until he is dead.” With Yuma, it was hard not to root for the hero and villain at the same time.

When you were still prototyping Circle the Wagons, what was the best piece of feedback you received from a playtester?

Danny: We got a lot of feedback on how unclear some of the scoring conditions were. The restrictions of the contest meant we didn’t have enough room in the rulebook for an FAQ so it was important to make sure each card back worked as its own clear rulebook.

Steven: Yeah, definitely the scoring conditions got the most feedback and went through the most changes.

What was the biggest lesson you learned from designing Circle the Wagons?

Steven: I look at every design as adding to my experience as a game designer. It was really our first venture into microgame design (with a few starts and stops along the way to get it there), and so the whole process was a lesson, really. The biggest takeaway for me, though, is how important replayability is to a design.

Danny: I learned a lot from this game. Learning how to craft a game in only 18 cards was a big lesson, I have never had such a tight restriction on a game and it really forces creative thinking and innovation. The biggest thing I learned is to try and design goals that aren’t just carbon copies of each other. If we had gone through and made 6 scoring conditions say “2 points for every adjacent COW, 2 points for every adjacent Wagon…etc” we would not have a truly unique experience with every game. Carbon copying is something I have done a lot in past designs (symmetrical brain) and something I hope to avoid moving forward.

As we wrap this up, what makes you the most proud that you designed Circle the Wagons?

Danny: Steven was the true believer, up front I thought and probably said out loud “18 cards? Why bother, that’s not enough to make an interesting game.” But the more we all talked about it and made iterations the more I started to see its potential. The thing that has made me the most proud is showing new players the game, watching them fumble with the first few turns, then seeing it click. More so than any other game I have worked on, Circle The Wagons takes every player by surprise, and it’s rewarding watching that happen.

Steven: I’m just grateful that it’s been well-received thus far. As designers, we obviously enjoy creating stuff for ourselves, but to share it with others and have it be enjoyed beyond our circle of friends and local gamers is really a great feeling.

Meeple’s et cetera

When I use to work at Button Shy Games, I did an article about Circle the Wagons as an introduction to the game. The below part is from that article (Yee-Haw! Circle the Wagons!) and takes a closer look to three scoring goals in Circle the Wagons.

Stampede!: 4,896 Scoring Combos

Each of the 18 cards in the game have their own unique scoring goal on the back – but only 3 are used each game, making 4,896 different scoring combos in the game. The scoring goals are where the map symbols on the forefront of the card come into play. Here is an example:

Please note that the  “Boom or Bust” card should have a Pickaxe and not a Wagon symbol. This preview copy error should be fixed in the final version.

So if these 3 goals were in play in the game that you were currently playing, you may want to keep the following in mind:

Badlands: One of the more common types of cards in the game are those that require you to match up symbols or a symbol and a color. The most straightforward strategy with this card is collecting as many deserts and guns as you can if it means skipping a card to do it. However, when making a group of desert territories you may want to keep in mind is a way to lay down guns between the desert while keeping the group connected. To fulfill this goal effectively you may have to overlay cards with your guns.

Boom Or Bust: One of only two scoring goals that use a chart. This one is based on how many pickaxes a player has. Note a few things with me first after you collect 8 you have topped out on the score for this card and to focus on other scoring objectives. However, for cutthroat players, you may still have to keep in mind how many pickaxes an opponent has. Which brings me to the second point – the mid-range number 3-6 scores you zero points, if you pay attention to what your opponent has, you may be able to skip cards with pickaxes they then must place, putting them within this mid-range.

One Too Many: One of only two scoring goal cards in the game that allows you to give negative points to an opponent. The most obvious strategy with this card is to pay attention to your opponent’s boomtown and make sure you end with exactly one bottle less for maximum points negative points for your opponent. Keep in mind that the bottles are not bad, just leading in them is. Watch out for opponents skipping cards, leaving you with cards that have multiple bottles on it. Do not forget you can cover the bottles up with future cards, so be careful not to place them in a way that you will cover up things you may need.

This is just a brief look at 3 of the 18 scoring cards, so you can see that there is a lot of gameplay packed into a small package when it comes to this game.

The last word

Thanks to both Danny and Steven for taking time out to do the interview. Also thanks to for Button Shy for sending a preview copy. For anyone interested Circle the Wagons is now on Kickstarter, but only for a short time (ends April 22, 2017). To be taken to the Kickstarter click hereUntil next time, thanks for reading and stay inquisitive… 
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One comment

  1. Great review! I have never heard of somebody designing a game before with only 18 cards, and I am very impressed with how much depth was able to be packed into such a lightweight design! I think the idea to have different goals on the back of the cards was genius, and I am very impressed by how well the goals were implemented.

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