Roll up, Roll up!
1883, Circus Maester in Dalfsen, the Netherlands.
Right in the middle of his opening speech Nicolaas Maester collapses in front of the audience. The ringmaster of Circus Maester appears to have been murdered.
It doesn’t take long for somebody to be arrested and for the case to be closed.
2022, at your home.
You receive an old package containing handwritten documents, scratched photos, mysterious drawings and weathered objects. Remnants of the 140-year-old crime scene.
Now it’s up to you to figure out who murdered Nicolaas Maester.
We were contacted by the creators who asked us play this game and give an honest review, and arguably the timing couldn’t have been better – we hadn’t played a play at home game for a while (despite having a very large pile of games to play) and we were off on holiday to Cornwall for a week – so of course we would have time to finally play some games, and hopefully review a few too.
There seem to be some decent play-at-home games coming out of the Netherlands, at least many that we have played have been good (Vandermist Dossier and Witchery Spell spring to mind. So we had high-hopes for ‘On Circus Grounds’ by Studio Stamp, a game which I gather had been successful in its native language and was now translated into English.
Unlike many games that we’ve played, we’re not trying to solve something that is happening now, or recently, we’re actually reopening an old case of wrongful conviction from 1883 and trying to find the true killer. So I guess you could say this is more of a ‘whodunnit/murder mystery’ rather than an escape room, but it shares a lot of the same themes. This game is big on story, so make sure you take notes as you go, it will make your life much easier.
So with the rain beating down and obscuring our view of the sea (it is Cornwall after all), we put on our play-at-home gaming music and prepared to enter the circus.
*At the time of writing, this game is available for backing on Kickstarter – ‘On Circus Grounds: Studio Stamp
The first thing that hits you with this game is the quality of the materials – the second thing is the obvious question of ‘How long must this take them to assemble each box?!’. Literally everything in this package feels like it belongs and has that feel of age, without feeling like it is going to fall apart. There’s one item that feels more modern than everything else, but as that is an introductory letter from the modern day, it fits in its own way. This introductory letter is useful as it explains the story, what happened, what information we need, how we get help, and gives us a list to make sure we have everything we need (we did).
This is one of those games where everything is available to you at the start, and there is a lot to take in. I think we spent the first ten minutes or so just going through everything and seeing what we had, and trying to find a way to piece it together. Because of the sheer amount of content, I think this game would be perfect for larger groups. We played as a team of two and it felt rather overwhelming to start with.
You need access to the internet for the help system and for inputting the results of your investigation, we generally found it worked well – but more on that later. The internet portal helps give closure to the story. Every time we entered our answer (assuming we got it right) it would state if it was correct and then provide the document/detail that would back up our findings. If the wrong answer was entered, you did have a chance to check your notes and try again.
As you may have guessed, due to the non-linearity of this game the first puzzle is working out what you have and where you should start. We decided to start with one of the biggest items in the game, no real reason why, it just got my attention. Unfortunately I’m not sure if we were doing something wrong but we could not get this to give the correct answer so we had to turn to the help. Even knowing the answer we still couldn’t get it to match so we just had to admit defeat there (we knew what to do, we just got different results).
This game has a lot of reading and observation, and as some of the fonts used are quite tricky, prepare for a little trial and error in places (perhaps find a magnifying glass to help?). If TV shows have taught me anything, being a detective is about looking through stacks of paper to find any details that help, and that’s what this is like too.
Saying that, there are puzzles, of course there are puzzles! Mostly the puzzles revolve around cyphers and decoding, but these are not quick wins at all – prepare to spend a while trying to work out the message, and getting frustrated if you get some letters wrong! There is signposting to help you know what to do, but even that is hidden away, so you’ll have to work for it.
We checked out the help system on a couple of occasions and found it to be useful. It broke the clues down into each document and then provided hints and eventually the solution so you should be able to get through the game. I think what we would have liked to have seen was a bit more information in the clue system to explain things. Instead of just showing the solution, perhaps pictures of it on the page or some more background on how it was solved would have been nice for us.
There is no doubt that this game is lovingly put together and a lot of time has been spent to create a compelling story that resonates even today. We didn’t click massively with the puzzles and found some of them very long winded, but we got to the end and managed to find the real killer – so it obviously works and makes sense.
If you’re looking for a game that is well assembled, has an intriguing story and a few puzzles to boot, then get some friends round, have a glass of wine, and give this a try.
Also worth noting that we were careful with our copy and it is fully reset and replayable, so if you wanted to play it then pass it on, that should be doable.
- Computer with an internet connection
- Pen and paper may help
|Value for Money|
Team: 2 players
Time Taken: 1hr 35mins
*Disclaimer: we weren’t charged for this experience, but this has not influenced our review.