Don't worry! This game may be themed around building a circus that invokes dread but 'dreadful' certainly doesn't describe the game. It's actually one of the best auction/bidding games we've seen. It's a game involving strategy as well as bluff and double-bluff, yet it also works as a party game for up to eight players.
Designed by Bruno Faidutti, the 4–8 players in Dreadful Circus are trying to collect sets of cards and/or tokens for which they will score at the end of the game. Everyone starts with a hand of eight cards. They choose one to place face up in front of them. The card you play will give others an indication of what specific sets you might be looking to collect and that will inform the bidding when all but one of the other cards are put up for auction. Players offer up cards for others to bid on. Bids can be currency or tokens, so you're paying for cards with elements that are themselves actual or potential victory points. Each player places their bid unseen in a box. The player auctioning their card can look inside a box but if they do so they must either accept that bid without looking at any others or they must reject it, in which case they cannot return to it. That means that, through bluff or misjudgement, you could end up accepting a lower bid.
As the game progresses, players increasingly compose a picture of what opponents are trying to collect, so you know which of the cards you have left to sell are most valuable to which players. Do you use that information to extract the more generous bids from them or do you deliberately avoid letting them win cards they especially want even if that means accepting lower bids from other players? You can even reject all the bids and just discard the card rather than allowing an opponent to take advantage of it! And, be warned, there's the potential for 'take that' stealing from or sabotage of other players through the special effects of some of the cards.
Tho' the mechanics appear simple on the surface. this all makes for a tense but entertaining game that, at around 30 minutes, never risks overstaying its welcome, especially with players' inevitable table talk and baiting. The mildly disturbing art by Mateusz Bielski and Maciej Siminski captures the mood well, and Portal Games have done a great job in the production, especially with the sealed-bid boxes and screens to keep secret players' tokens. And it's only when those screens come down at the end that you'll finally learn who has been most successful in assembling their Dreadful Circus.