Spectaculum

Spectaculum – R&R Games, 2-4 Players, 45 minutes.  Spectaculum is designed by one of board gaming’s most famous, Reiner Knizia.  Knizia has a reputation for making games with great mechanics, but often with a theme slapped on it which has no real effect on your enjoyment of the game.  I have always thought that theme depends more on the player than designer.  Yes, some games are better at forcing you to emerge yourself in theme, for instance, Elder Sign.  But for the most part, as in this game, if the art is evocative enough and you have a decent imagination, the theme is there, even if the developers could have chosen a different one to fit the game’s mechanics.
As for theme, players are financial backers of 4 travelling circuses.  The art on the cards and the board is pretty colorful and vibrant.   Each player starts with one performer from each circus in his or her stable of performers.  Throughout the game, players try to navigate fluctuations in the reputation of the circuses while trying to acquire new performers when reputation is low, and then jettison those performers while their reputation is at its highest.  At its heart, Spectaculum is a buy low, sell high auction game.  But, you also get to choose the path of the various circuses (circii?) throughout the land, by placing colored tokens representing each circus in adjacent spaces to each other, creating the paths each circus travels from town to town.  There are towns all over the board, and there are counters that are randomly placed at the beginning of the game that contain modifiers (plus 1, minus 3, etc), poison, or a one time money bonus.  As circuses move into these spaces their reputation may get modified up or down (effecting sales price) depending on the token in that town.  Or, if a town has a poison token, each player immediately loses 2 coins for every performer in his stable from that circus.  Conversely, the money token represents a rich noble in that town who immediately gives players 2 gold for every performer of that circus.
On your turn, you choose three random chits from a bag and must play those colors on the board to represent the circuses’ movements.  Clearly, you want to boost the reputation of your favorites and reduce those of your opponents by moving the circuses to “pluses” and “minuses” accordingly.  In addition to placing the chits, you may take two actions – buy two performers, sell two performers, or do one of each.  That is the entire process of the game.  Simple, yes.  And yet, the game requires you to pay attention to your opponents on their turns, to see what they own, and what they are buying and selling, so that you can time your actions to hinder them and improve your chances.  I also found that paying attention to the possible towns that a circus can reach more easily may dictate which performers you buy and sell.  If the yellow circus is surrounded by negative modifiers, you might want to wait to buy when those are at the lowest, then hopefully move them to towns with pluses so you can make a killing.  Also, if there are towns close by with poison in them, you have to imagine your opponents will try to exploit that (and cost you two gold per) if you buy too many of that color’s performers.
Spectaculum moves beyond a gateway game like Love Letter, but it is easy enough to teach to just about anyone.  It plays in less than an hour and is fun with any number of players.  There is little down time and the fact that you have to pay attention to what opponents are doing lessens down time even more.