Published by DiceTree, this is an updated version of a classic horse racing game designed by Reiner Knizia. Previous editions have been published by Gibsons, Alea and other companies. In its previous iterations, the game has had other titles, most notably Royal Turf, but this is essentially the same game.
In Winner’s Circle, there are cards which give a number (movement distance) for each of the symbols that appear on a customised six-sided die. A card is laid out for each of the seven horses in the race. Players then take turns to place their betting tokens. In the standard game, these tokens have 1 or 2 on them (representing the size of the bet) and in one of several variants supplied in the box, there are tokens marked 0, with bets are placed face down – allowing players to bluff over which horses they are backing. Once each player has placed three bets, the race begins. Each player in turn rolls the die and then chooses which horse to apply the result to. The horse is moved the distance indicated, unless that square is occupied, in which case it ends its movement on the nearest unoccupied space behind the space it would have moved to. The cards are flipped to show that horse has moved (even if its movement has been completely blocked) and that horse is not moved again until all the horses have had their cards activated. When all the horses have been moved in this way, all the cards are turned over again and the process continues until three horses have crossed the finish line.
What makes this race game fun is the betting and bluffing, and the tactical way in which players choose which horse to apply their die roll to. Players can, in effect, nobble a horse by choosing to apply to it a move it cannot make (because all the spaces ahead of the horse are occupied) or the player might select to activate the card for a low-value move to deny other players the chance to choose to apply the symbols giving that horse a much longer move. The placing of bets is also important, especially when playing with the option of allowing bluffing. Payouts are made not just according to whether horses win, place or show (come first, second or third) but also according to the number and value of bets placed: so a unique bet on a horse coming third will pay out more than a heavily backed winner. The board and rules incorporate a simple grid that makes this abstraction of betting odds very easy to apply.
Of course, luck plays a big part in this game: in one race we ran, one horse managed to complete the circuit and win the race in just two die rolls. That was unusual. However, it is not unusual to find the three winning horses have crossed the finish line while there are still horses that have barely staggered up to the start (an odd feature of this game is that the horses start off in different spaces, so start the race nose to tail rather than lined up in a row).
This edition of Winner’s Circle incorporates alternative cards from the Royal Turf edition and it comes with the rules and chits for a number of variants. What stands out about DiceTree’s version of the game, however, is the stunning quality of the production. The horses all come painted and are very clearly identifiable, and the metal coins are the best you can find in any game. Indeed, I’ve visited several countries with coinage that compares unfavourably with the coins that are supplied with this game. The cardboard betting chits are comparatively bog standard, so they look inferior when compared to the high quality of the other components. The icing on the cake for this game would be for DiceTree to replace the little cardboard squares with chunky poker chips.
Winner’s Circle is a game with, if you’ll forgive the pun, a proven track record and it would be hard to top this edition of the game. If you are looking for a race game that works both as a family game and as a game for seasoned gamers, then this could well be the game for you.