Three Ring Circus: Trieste a Crowd


Trieste is a rarity, an asymmetric card game for three players.  Designed by Matthew Ma and published by Victory Point Games, it sees Merchants, Thieves and the City Watch locked in a complex battle for supremacy in 16th Century Trieste. I remember watching Reservoir Dogs in a Paris cinema in the early 1990s.  The film is not one for the squeamish and the cinema was not one for the smoke averse, (in France at the time it was obligatory for anyone over 12 to smoke in public).*  One memory that stands out from that night, (apart from the asthma attack), was the stand off at the end of the movie.  In the warehouse, the remaining characters hold guns on each other.  Lives are in the balance and who will come out alive is anyone’s guess.  Take away the blood, guns, swearing and cinematography, and Trieste is what you would be left with. *This may be an exaggeration.


In the box you will find three unique decks of 33 cards, (City Watch, Merchants & Thieves), nine hero cards and a deck of 56 treasure cards, (copper, silver, gold & diamonds). The faction decks are made up of character cards, action cards and a few specials.  These cards show a cost and a level.  I sleeved the cards, because they felt a little thin.

Three is the magic number

Set-up is fast.  Regular players can get going within two minutes of opening the box.  Once you have picked a faction, you choose a hero, draw two cards from your deck and two copper cards.  Play moves along quickly too, most action taking place simultaneously, (card resolution being the exception where the City Watch always goes first, followed by the Merchant and Thief).

  • Draw two cards from your own deck, the treasure deck or one from each.
  • Players choose a card to play from their hand and place it face down.
  • Reveal cards and pay the indicated cost.
  • Resolve the card.
  • Check for a win and, optionally, buy back character cards previously discarded.

Thieves to the left of me, merchants to the right…

Not only is each deck unique, the victory conditions are too. The City Watch’s goal is to imprison 7 Thieves.  The cards reflect a heavy police presence in olde tyme Trieste, with Patrol Officers, Bloodhounds and Undercover agents available, amongst others, to capture thieves.  Other actions allow them to mess with the thief’s deck and tax the rich.

The Merchants are doing what merchants do: trying to amass a fortune.  The amount needed to end the game is variable, it goes up as more Thieves are imprisoned, (the merchants pay the gaoling bill).  Most of the merchant cards help draw treasure, some, (such as the Security Guard), block the thief’s activities.

The Thieves are in it for the infamy. Picking up 9 infamy tokens for the win comes about through successful robberies.  If you pull off a big result, (steal gold or diamonds), you gain more infamy.  The thief has some wonderfully named cards to play with; Street Urchin and Foxy Vixen to name two.  Most are designed to rob the Merchant, others will interfere with the City Watch.

Playing with Three

It is fair to say that Trieste plays best with three and only with three. Some games when played with three can be a drag.  Once victory is in sight, you can expect an unholy alliance between the losing players to bring the leader down.   In Trieste, this vice is made a virtue by creating a series of interlocking goals, that means rushing for your own success can see you tripping over your own feet and gifting the win elsewhere. Because the captured thieves and the Thief’s infamy stack are visible, you can have a pretty good idea of how close to the end of the game you are.  The Merchant’s progress is a little less clear, but can be guessed from the wedge of cards being held.  Knowing this allows you to be judicious with your card selection.  The Thief needs to get out and steal, but trying to do so every round means the City Watch will be picking you off and moving to their victory goal.  Perhaps it’s better to wait for the Merchant to pull in a fistful of treasure before striking?  On the flip side, sometimes the City Watch needs to turn a blind eye to let the thief pull off a smash and grab on the merchant.

How easy is it to teach the game?

The rules are short and well organised. They are supplemented by text on each card. Compared to Dominion the cards can be quite wordy and, occasionally, unclear.  The game suggests it is for age 13+.  Younger players should be able to cope, but the text in the game could be a stretch. Matthew Ma supports the game very well via the Boardgamegeek forums.

Can complexity be scaled?

Using the hero cards is optional, starting the first few games without them is a good idea. The heroes can be incorporated easily and add a nice bit of hidden information.

Can you handicap other players? Do you need to?

Each faction’s goal could be adjusted to allow some handicapping.  It would also help to allow the youngest player to pick who they want to be.

How likely is your child to flip the table half way through?

Trieste takes less than half an hour to play.  There isn’t time for frustration to build up, nor the sense of impending defeat that can lead to a meltdown.

Beyond the game

Trieste was one end of the Iron Curtain.

What do I think?

Although Trieste plays with many more cards than a game like Love Letter, it takes a similar amount of table space.  This is definitely a game you can play while out for a cappuccino. In our house, this is what happens at the end of a game:

  • Recriminations about heavy handed policing.
  • Shouts of, “I was so close to winning, if only….”.
  • Calls to play again.

I really enjoy Trieste, it is like no other game I own.  It feels like a high-wire act of balancing your opponent’s goals against your own progress.  Each game we have played has felt close, and there have been a fair number where a well chosen card in the final round could have taken the win for anyone.  There is luck involved in the draw of the cards, but not to an extent that I ever feel cheated.  You will want to play again, because you will be wondering if you could have done better with the faction that you just had or one you will get next time.

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