Studio Stamp – On Circus Grounds [Review]

Toxic Coworkers

Location: at home

Date Played: September 2, 2022

Team size: up to 5; we recommend 2-5

Duration: 2-5 hours

Price: back on Kickstarter at €41

REA Reaction

On Circus Grounds provided us with a wonderful evening of tabletop sleuthing with friends.

I’m a social puzzler, and what I liked most about On Circus Grounds was how many interesting threads it offered. The characters had relationships and motives. I loved when someone brought up some new information… and across the table something clicked into place for someone else.

While On Circus Grounds was ultimately a deduction game – we were investigating a murder, after all – the puzzles were varied and satisfying. Most impressively, the puzzles made sense within the context of the plot and characters.

One major story/ gameplay thread fell flat for us, which was disappointing, but it had potential to be the most impressive part of the experience. We hope Studio Stamp can tweak this so that it lands consistently.

An assortment of mostly paper evidence, each on different stock and with beautiful designs. There is a gold locket and chain as well.

There are a lot of tabletop deduction puzzle games on the market, and the creators at Studio Stamp have clearly played many. On Circus Grounds is a narrative puzzle game that does both narrative and puzzle well… plus the materials are great to handle.

The kickstarter is already 400% funded, and there are only 5 days to go. If you enjoy collaborative tabletop solving, back this one before it’s too late.

Who is this for?

  • Story seekers
  • Puzzle lovers
  • Budding investigators
  • Players with at least some experience

Why play?

  • Interesting characters
  • High quality materials
  • Fun ahas

Story

As investigators for a new government agency tasked to investigate historical wrongs, we were sent a case file for an 1883 murder committed in a circus. Ringmaster Nicolaas Maester had suddenly died in front of a bigtop audience. Someone had been convicted of murdering the Ringmaster, but the judgment seemed fraught.

We had to review the case files, examine the evidence, and piece together who killed the Ringmaster, why, with what weapon, and how they’d come into possession of it.

"On Circus Grounds" box, looks like an aged sign for a circus.

Setup

The materials came inside a (relatively flat) box.

Upon opening the box, we read the introductory letter. Then we laid out all the materials on the table and chose which to pick up and examine first. There was no defined starting place.

We could read hints on a website. When we thought we knew how to solve the crime, we input the answers on the website.

The opened box with a letter from the "Civilian Service" sitting atop an assortment of evidence.

Gameplay

Studio Stamp’s On Circus Grounds was a standard play-at-home escape game with a moderate level of difficulty.

The difficulty is mainly from the volume of content, so it will vary by group size.

Core gameplay revolved around detailed observation, reading, staying organized, solving puzzles, and critical reasoning.

Analysis

βž• Studio Stamp justified why we could Google information for a story set in the 19th century. We appreciated this level of world-building.

βž• The characters had depth. They each had independent motivations that became apparent as we dug into all the materials and solved the puzzles.

βž• The printed materials were high quality. They were crafted with care and attention to detail – from fonts to paper choice.

βž– The instructions specifically stated that we should be careful with the materials, which was misleading. To fully enjoy this game, we needed to destroy materials.

❓There was no clear starting point; all the materials were available from the start. Because there is no on-ramping, newer sleuths or smaller groups may find the start a bit overwhelming. That said, this setup felt authentic for the situation. Your mileage will vary.

βž•/❓On Circus Grounds relied heavily on encipherment. The puzzle path fit the world and the characters, which added to the fun of it. The ciphers were well clued and fun to crack… even if the subsequent deciphering proved laborious.

βž• Studio Stamp’s online hint system was thorough. It was also handy when we’d had our fill of deciphering.

❓/βž– While this is a period piece, know that if you cannot read cursive handwriting, you will be at a disadvantage. The online hint system could include print versions of materials written in cursive for added accessibility.

βž– We were excited by a puzzle sequence that departed from the printed materials. However, it turned out to be a lot of steps to confirm something we’d been told, which felt like a letdown. It didn’t help that in our situation, inconsistencies in perception or results also led us astray. Furthermore, associated materials flirted with an unfulfilled Chekhov’s Gun situation.

βž• We enjoyed charting a course between different aha moments. There were some really satisfying puzzle solves.

βž–In the end, we answered a series of multiple choice questions to solve the case. This felt like a letdown after our evening of sleuthing. We were debating the case based on the characters and their motives, and this answer structure just didn’t provide the same depth as the rest of the experience. Additionally, it left no room for the Agatha Christie plot twist we craved.

Tips For Players

  • Space Requirements: At the bare minimum, a small table, but this game is more comfortable at a large table, especially if you have a large group.
  • Required Gear: pen and paper, scissors, internet-connected device.

Buy your copy of Studio Stamp’s On Circus Grounds, and tell them that the Room Escape Artist sent you.

Disclosure: Studio Stamp’ provided a sample for review.

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