Under the dust-covered canvas Big Top of its premise, Karnival plays much like any other theme park management game. What warrants mention is the superb period packaging that expertly camouflages that familiar gameplay and gives the game a vital, brooding essence.
You follow the troubled life of a young boy who, having a goat's leg in place of one of his arms, knows the difficulties of fitting in during depression-era 1930s America. It's up to you to help this unique outcast lad build the only career to which he's suited: operating a travelling carnival.
Beginning with nothing more than a merry-go-round, your task is to carefully manage this meagre amusement and grow it into a profitable and sprawling business. The lot upon which your travelling troupe stops to entertain the masses is divided up into a small grid. Each section can host a single ride, stall, game or freakshow.
The more money you make, the more amusements you can buy, and thereby gain good repute on the carnival circuit. The placement of your rides and stalls is important to the enjoyment the rubes will have, and the amount of coin they're liable to part with.
These stalls also benefit from being aligned with certain other pitches, as the punters will forget their good sense in the allure of a well-organised carnival and spend like they're going out to sea the next morning.
Yet these are just the technical details of play. The brilliance of Karnival lies in its dark inspiration. Strong overtones of the magnificent, yet incomplete TV series Carnivale blow in the dust of the antique caravan's journey across a ruined America - a country desperate to enjoy itself again, yet terrified that it's forgotten how.
The freakshows form a nucleus of unexpected humanity as Karnival progresses, as you pick up more and more strays and outcasts and slowly build a family of mutual convenience.
The tarot card reader works her magic on the cavalcade, be it good or bad, and assuming you've gathered the karma to afford a staring match with fate (through your successful venture) turning the right card can increase profits or bring the tents down around your ears.
Admittedly, the gameplay is too slow to begin with, as the days tick by with little to do. As the carnival grows, your maintenance and management duties fill the gaps admirably, though not all will have the perseverance to make it to a point where the game really begins.
Similarly, it occasionally gets a little long-winded in its exposition, but considering how the game's premise brings the experience to life, it's easily forgiven.
Carried on such a rich atmosphere, it's hard not to admire Karnival for making a bold effort to imbue a typical strategy and management game - usually the most sterile of genres - with such a tapestry of gritty ambience and slick style.