Horse Fever (Cranio Creations) has been a perennial favourite of mine ever since its original publication in 2009. It's ostensibly a horse racing game, and, yes, you're owning and racing horses, but the game is much more about the betting and the secret nobbling of the horses. The stock market game Stockpile (Naovoo Games), which first appeared in 2015, uses a similar mechanic, and, tho' it too has its own unique charm I've often felt that game owed a debt to Horse Fever.
We're not left in any doubt that Unicorn Fever emanates from the same stable as Horse Fever. If not an exact reskin, it's very clear that the Horse Fever designers Lorenzo Silva and Lorenzo Tucci Sorrentino have enjoyed revisiting their original game and representing it for a wider audience.
In place of horses, we're racing unicorns. Aside from giving free rein to artist Giulia Ghigini to deck the game out in rainbow colours, it's transposed the game into a dazzling fantasy world where one of the options players have in the pre-race action selection round is to take a contract from one of the fantasy factions (witches, goblins, fairies, gnomes or leprechauns: in each game, you pick two of the five factions to use).
Unicorn Fever is played over four races. the 2-6 players each 'own' a unicorn. Owners receive some gold prize money if their unicorn wins or finishes in the first three in a race but the big money, and the even-more-important four-leaf-clover glory (victory) points are to be had by betting on the winning unicorn, regardless of who owns it.
Unicorns are ranked from top to bottom on a betting odds chart. Initially this is random but for subsequent races unicorns move up and down the odds table according to how they perform in the races.
Before each race, there are three rounds of action selection. This is where players have the chance to place bets - either to win, which pays out according to the unicorn's position on the odds table, or to place (1st, 2nd or 3rd), which doubles your stake money. Players can also use their actions for other purposes, including to take a contract and to place out magic cards. These are played face down on any of the individual unicorns to either nobble the unicorn or give it a boost in the race.
Tho' the nub of Unicorn Fever is the betting and nobbling, it's the race that's always the greatest fun. The magic cards are revealed and their effects come into force. The unicorns' movement along the track is determined by cards that are flipped showing how many spaces are moved for each position on the odds table. In addition, two custom six-sided dice are rolled and the two unicorns whose colours come up each move an additional space.
There's a genuine sense of excitement as the race progresses. You'll find players cheering their unicorns on and punching the air when the unicorn(s) they've backed make a large move towards the finishing line and that big payout you've been banking on...
Players start the game with 20 gold, and you can pick up a bonus 10 gold if you select the action to take the first player marker, but a couple of unsuccessful bets and you can find yourself running short of money for the next races. You can bet small but then you'll never catch the players who scored on the first race(s) so you may have to resort to taking out a loan with the shady elf mob. They'll be happy to lend you 20 gold but you'll have to pay them back 25. At the end of the game, the first determinant of the winner is the player with the fewest outstanding loans. Only then do you compare more positive outcomes: the player with the most four-leaf-clover glory points. And, yes, you can convert gold into glory at a rate of 20 gold per glory point, so a player who is trailing badly can borrow and bet large in the final race in the hope of pulling off a 'Hail Mary' big payout that can be converted to glory.
Tho' the action selection phase may be initially unfamiliar to non-gamers, this is a game that all the family can readily pick up and play, and it's a game that'll keep them engaged and cheering on from start to finishing line. Given that players are gambling with and being paid out in gold, the introduction of a secondary victory point currency can feel counterintuitive but it facilitates catch-up mechanics such as the 'glory tax' which players have to pay each round on the glory tokens they hold. However, if you play with children you could consider simplifying the game by ditching the glory and just using gold.
The jokey theme and art add to Unicorn Fever's whimsical appeal. Shown in this Board's Eye View 360 is the deluxe version of the game, with oversize pre-painted unicorns, metal coins and an enlarged cloth playing mat. The retail edition of the game comes with smaller unpainted minis, cardboard tokens and a conventional folding board but Horrible Guild have done such a fantastic job in the production and you'll find this edition still delivers plenty of table appeal!
You can be sure of getting hours of good-natured fun out of Unicorn Fever so you won't be taking a gamble buying a copy; you'll just be gambling while you play.
(Review by Selwyn Ward)