It was getting a bit late last night and there were only three of us but we decided to kick ourselves off the computers and play a game. Since it was late I scanned the titles in my collection and decided on something that wasn’t heady and if push came to shove, we could cut short. Winner’s Circle was the winner.
Neither Noah nor Lisa had played before and it had been since October since I’d played but WC is extremely easy to teach and with only a couple pages of rules it doesn’t take much to get back up to speed.
The game comes packed with a board representing a track, fat plastic horses in varying colors, thick cardboard placards depicting a horse’s abilities in 4 areas (horse head, saddle, helmet, horseshoe), some money chips, 4 betting chips per player, and a 6-sided die with 3 sides depicting a horse head, and the other three sides depicting saddle, helmet, and horseshoe.
The game comprises three individual races. The horses are lined up and the placards are turned up and assigned to specific horses. In round robin fashion, players place bets on horses (a betting chip depicting 0, 1, or 2) until all 4 betting chips have been placed (you can’t bet on the same horse twice). Once all betting chips are down, the race begins and the starting player rolls the die. The player then chooses any horse and moves that horse forward on the track according to the number on the placard that matches the symbol rolled on the die. After moving the horse, the placard is turned over and the horse is not allowed to move again until all other horses have moved.
The game does have some pretty significant back stabbing aspects to it since you can, for example, on a bad roll choose a horse you didn’t bet on and move them a small amount. Making situations worse is that it’s not allowed for horses to occupy the same spot on the track. If, when moving forward, your horse lands on an occupied spot, you must back up until the first free spot opens up (maybe all the way back to your original position). Congestion on the track can really devastate some moves restricting some horses from breaking out of the pack.
The first horse that passes the finish line is moved to the center of the track followed by the 2nd and 3rd horse. When the 3rd horse crosses the line, the race is over and the horse in last place is moved to the center as the “last” horse. At this point, a payout occurs and using a chart on the board, players determine the value of a bet based on the finishing position of a horse and receive money based on the value of their betting chip. The 0 betting chip pays nothing but is used as a bluff bet since it looks as if you intend to split a reduced pot for the horse and may make others choose another horse. Players that have bet on the “last” horse owe money to the bank.
That’s basically it, you set up for the next race and go again. The game is relatively random but fun. We played with the Royal Turf variant where you use the 0 betting chip and bets are secret (placed face down). In addition the “horse head” value of the placard (the most common dice roll since it’s on 3 sides of the die) must be different for every horse in the race. It bothers me somewhat that the horses are always lined up in the same order behind the starting line and they don’t start from a flat start as in a real race. A variant I might like to try would be to turn up placards and place bets but then randomly assign the start order to represent the random nature of a good/bad start as the come out of the gates.
Winner’s Circle is a chaotic bit of fun that is pretty much a crap shoot strategy-wise but I’m glad to have something like it in my collection. If you can find a copy just about anybody can play (gamers and non-gamers) and the theme ties in relatively well to real life so players shouldn’t have much of an issue at quickly picking it up.