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This review continues my series of detailed reviews that attempt to be part review, part resource for anyone not totally familiar with the game. For this reason I expect readers to skip to the sections that are of most interest.
If you liked the review please thumb the top of the article so others have a better chance of seeing it and I know you stopped by. Thanks for reading.
Game Type - Racing/Betting Game
Play Time: 45-90 minutes
Number of Players: 2-6
Mechanics - Wagering, Bluffing, Roll & Move
Difficulty - Pick-up & Play (Can be learned in 20 minutes)
Components - Very Good to Excellent
Release - 2001
Designer - Reiner Knizia - (Lost Cities, Tigris & Euphrates, Pickomino, Samurai, Amun-Re, Through the Desert, Lord of the Rings, Modern Art, FITS, Ra…and the list goes on!)
Overview and Theme
Winner's Circle takes us to the track to cheer on majestic steeds and to assume the role of punters for a day. With each race, the players get to lay bets on their favourites and even have a chance to manipulate proceedings. The aim is simple enough...to win the most cash and take those bookies to the cleaners. In doing so we get to see some of the champion horses in history doing their thing as they strive to be first past the post and paraded in the Winner's Circle!
This edition from 2006 is a re-implementation of the original title, Royal Turf. The main difference being that the original design featured 4 races whereas here the game is stripped back to only 3 races. This racing/betting combination comes to us from Reiner Knizia and is yet another quality addition to his impressive stable of designs.
It's time to done that top hat and pull on that race day frock. We are off to the races!
This component overview will be focusing on the 2006 (Face2Face) release of the game but it is important to note that a new edition has been released this year (2016) by DiceTree Games.
Board - The board contains 3 key areas. Naturally the track takes center stage and it consists of 36 spaces for those horses to run around. In the center of the track is the Winner's Circle, complete with a Payout Table to help calculate betting payouts. Above the track are 7 horse images to reflect the 7 mounts featured in each race of the game and a location to place bets.
It's all very efficient and it works well. Is it wow? Well no, but it does what it needs to do.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Horses - The horses are nice 3D rendered affairs made of moulded plastic. Each horse comes in a different colour although one or two are a bit similar to one another. The detail is quite decent and they look pretty good painted up if the images on BGG are anything to go by.
Image Courtesy of Geosmores
Horse Cards - Central to the play of the game are the Horse Cards that represent each of the runners in each race. These feature the name of a horse and 4 stats that link to the icons present on the dice. I'm no horse racing aficionado but even I can recognise some of the famous horses from history such as Phar Lap and Secretariat.
These are simple but really nicely done and utilise a matte/linen finish. They are really quite thick and are more akin to tiles rather than cards.
Please note that the image below is actually of the tiles featured in the new 2016 release. But functionally they are identical.
Image Courtesy of W Eric Martin
Dice - Winner's Circle offers up a chunky wooden dice with engraved icons. Three faces feature a horse's head whilst the other 3 sides feature a saddle, jockey's helmet and a horseshoe. All icons are represented using a silhouette which helps them to stand out against the bone dice colouring.
Image Courtesy of da pyrate
Cash Tokens - The Cash Tokens are nice small cardboard chits and come in a variety of denominations. These are very reminiscent of the tokens used in Wyatt Earp, if you are familiar with that game.
Image Courtesy of Geosmores
Betting Chips - Several small tokens act as the player's betting chips. These all come in the one colour for each player and a larger chip featuring a horse is kept by each player to show which coloured chips represent whom.
As for the Betting Chips themselves, the game offers each player a 0, two 1 values and a 2. The 0 value is only used with one of the variants.
Image Courtesy of Alice87
Rules - The rules are to the point and well written, offering very few ambiguities, if any. The game offers up several booklets in a variety of languages.
Overall there is nothing amazing about the components for Winner's Circle, but it all works well and allows the game to be played easily. I probably like the horse figures in Winner's Circle a little more than those offered up by Long Shot, only because here they do not need any stuck on numbers and they feel a little chunkier.
The set-up to Winner's Circle is pretty easy and part of it is actually getting the first race ready to go, so I will leave that to the opening section of The Play area below.
Each player simply needs to take a set of Betting Chips in a given colour, the cash is put in a pile for the winning and the horses are removed from the box. The Horse Cards are shuffled and the game is ready to begin.
The rest is covered in point one below and is repeated before the start of each subsequent race.
Image Courtesy of Royalflush
Winner's Circle plays over the course of three consecutive races. The flow of the game is very streamlined and makes it an easy game to remember how to play, even if months or years have passed between them.
Assemble the Field – Each race in Winner's Circle requires a field of 7 horses. One by one, the players must draw and reveal a new Horse Card. The first one drawn goes onto gate one and the matching coloured horse is placed at the first space behind the start/finish line.
This is repeated until all 7 horses are drawn for the race. Each horse is placed one space further back than the last and this results in creating a staggered field (more on the implications of that later).
The final act of this race set-up is to place the $100 Pace Chip on space 18 of the track.
The race is almost ready to begin...
Lay Down Bets – But first the punters must have a chance to lay some bets.
Before the first race, a random player is selected to place the first bet. In races #2 and #3, the player with the most money will place their first bet first.
The players have a 2 and two 1 betting chips in their colour. The first player must select one of these and place it below one of the horse cards of their choice in the betting area. Betting continues in this fashion in clockwise order (one bet at a time) until all players have placed their 3 bets.
Under the standard rules, all bets placed are done so face-up. So the players know who is rooting for who and how much support they are likely to receive from the other players as the race unfolds.
However there is a variant that allows for hidden bets (see the variants section towards the bottom of this review).
Running the Race – And they're off!
This is where the action unfolds. The first player to place the first bet gets to go first. They roll the dice and consult the resulting icon. There is a 50% chance of rolling a horse and a 1 in 6 chance of rolling a helmet, saddle or horseshoe.
They must then consult the outcomes for each of the horses (on those Horse Cards) and decide which horse they wish to move. Once selected, they move the horse the allowed number of spaces and flip the Horse Card chosen.
Now it is the next player's turn in clockwise order to roll the dice and follow the above steps. The only difference is that they cannot chose to move a horse that already has their card flipped face-down. These horses cannot be selected again until all Horse Cards have been flipped and then they are all un-flipped and any can be chosen.
Horse Movement Rules - The only rule that applies to horse movement is to do with their finishing position. A horse is never allowed to end its movement on the same space as another horse. Thus they must be moved backwards to the next available empty space and this naturally has some implications for strategy, which I will cover shortly.
The first horse to reach or pass space 18, takes the $100 Pace Chip and places it on that horse's betting area. This could add to their betting payout if they come in the top 3!
As each of the first 3 horses cross the finish line, they are placed in their respective positions in the Winner's Circle to laud their awesomeness over the rest of the field. Last placed is also placed on their spot in the Winner's Circle...as losers.
Paying Out - Payday...hopefully! Any bets on horses that failed to earn a place in the Winner's Circle (top 3 or last) are returned to their owners.
For each of the top 3 horses, bets will pay out. In order for each horse, the players consult the betting table in the middle of the Winner's Circle. A horse will pay out more money if it had fewer bets on it (as it has had a harder run [less support] to the line). When calculating how many bets were placed on a horse, a '2' betting chip counts as 2.
Once the payout for a horse is calculated, the players receive that exact amount (if they had a '1' betting chip on it) or they take double the listed payout if they had a '2' betting chip on it.
Naturally the winning horse can also earn a higher payout compared to second and third place.
Any players that backed the last placed horse (the horse at the back of the field when 3rd place crossed the line) must pay a penalty to reflect how crummy a race day they had!
The player's take all winnings in the form of Cash Tokens and all betting chips are returned to their respective owners for the next race. A player can never be forced to pay more money than they have.
The Endgame and King of the Track – The above flow is repeated for races #2 and #3 with the exception that the player with the most money places the first bet and bets then go clockwise from there.
At the end of the 3rd race it is the player with the most cash who takes the win in their stride!
The Strategy - What Makes the Game Work?
There are several lean and efficient elements that make Winner's Circle work as a gaming experience.
The Combination of Horse Stats and Starting Positions -
Image Courtesy of badrobot What allows Winner's Circle to be a strategic racing game and more of a Euro design is the information that is provided up front in the form of the horse stats.
Once the field is assembled the players can evaluate each horse's likely chance of placing (top 3) in the race and they also have to factor in each horse's starting position as well, as some horses have to travel further than others to cross the line.
Part of me (the pure racing fan) dislikes that the horses are staggered, but there is no doubt that it plays into the strategy of the game and makes it a more challenging experience.
Of course the beauty of those horse stats is that they reflect the rough probabilities based on the distribution of icons on the dice, but just like the real thing...you never can quite tell how all those odds will play out over each race. Several horses have low movement stats but one that is massive. Of course these horses have those stats against one of their 1 in 6 icons. It might be a long shot to get them home but then again they only need to have that icon rolled twice to cross the line!
The other element to really like about the Horse Cards (stats) is that with each race, a given horse can have any starting position and that makes for a quite varied playing experience also.
The Betting Mind Games - The Betting phase is very much where the game allows for player interaction. The players may come to the same conclusions as others in relation to which horses have the best chance of placing. But if too many players bet on the same horse then its payout will be significantly lower than other horses that may have only 1 or 2 bets on them.
This lends the game a push-your-luck aspect as some players may think it worthwhile in taking a sole bet on a horse. Of course the more bets on a horse, the more likely it is to do well, because more players will want to advance its position around the track.
The other crucial aspect of betting placement is that it creates teams within the players. It determines who is happy to work together and which players find themselves pitted against one another.
The Vagaries of Racing - But the joy of horse racing (I'm not a fan of the real thing mind you) is that you never can quite tell.
It is still possible for a popular horse to be nobbled somewhat, and that is made possible by player turn order and the rule that a horse must end its movement on an empty space. Clever players will sometimes jump their horses out in front in the hope that others are forced to land on it and stay behind. Others will deliberately move a horse they have no money on as quickly as possible, especially if it has a low movement result.
The final element that influences which horse a player moves is the acquisition of the Pace Chip. The first horse to land on or pass space 18 earns the Pace Chip and this boosts that horse's payout for anyone with a bet on it (should it come in the top 3).
The Meta-Game - Winner's Circle could be a little dull after a while if races 2 and 3 were simply rehashes of the first. What helps the game to avoid this is the consideration of how the players fared in the previous race(s).
The leader should be a target for 'nobbling' of their horses in the later stages of the game and players should try to avoid placing bets on the leader's selections as they may be struck by the subsequent lightning.
Of course they (the leading punters) are likewise trying to 'buddy up' their bets with others to get the support they need.
The game offers up several variants to the rules as written :-
Hidden Bets -
Image Courtesy of Slotracer This is the most common variant used I think and one that we always play with. It requires the players to place their bets face-down as opposed to face-up and it allows the players to also use their '0' bet to help create bluffing situations.
Hidden bets are not revealed until the race is over.
The rules recommend it for games with 2-4 players to help keep things from getting too controlled but we use it with any player count.
Royal Turf - For fans of the original design this variant allows you to modify how horses are put in the gates. Under the rules presented here, 7 Horse Cards are simply revealed and placed in the gates as drawn.
With this variant, any card that is drawn and features the same Horse Icon value is put aside and another card is drawn instead. This is repeated until all 7 horses in the race feature a unique horse icon stat.
The point of doing this is to ensure that 7 different horse types (bolters versus plodders etc) are in play. Any cards set aside are re-shuffled back into the deck for the drawing of the next race.
Personally I haven't tried this variant and prefer to simply accept the initial drawing of the field but I'm sure some would like this variant.
Crowded Field - This variant does away with the movement rule, allowing horses to be on the same space at any time. For me this takes something away from the strategy of the game.
Alternative Payout - This variant uses the total chip count rather than the total of all bets to calculate the Payout Column used. In effect it will generally result in higher payments although '0' chips will also count now, when they didn't under the standard rules.
For me this isn't strong enough a change to bother including.
The Final Word
Winner's Circle is a pretty great racing/wagering game. It has plenty of light strategy to make it a game worth playing and it mixes in that little dose of luck in the form of the movement dice to keep it from being a solvable puzzle. Variability is created in the variety of horse types drawn for each race and the distribution of bets across the field makes for varied short-term alliances and enemies.
The play also zips along pretty nicely, with the analysis of horses and the betting taking about 5 minutes per race. Even at the maximum 6-P player count, we were completing races in about 25-30 minutes and games tend to take between 45 and 90 minutes, depending on the number of players.
Despite all this, my preference is still Long Shot in the horse racing stakes.
Well as clever as this game is, it does come across a little like the Good Doctor himself. It's very clever but it is a little dry. Ok I retract that Herr Knizia...what I really mean is that you look a little dry. I'm sure you have an amazing personality...but we have never met.
As a result, games of Winner's Circle I have been a part of have been rather quiet, contemplative affairs. They've been enjoyable for sure as trying to outwit your opponent's is always an enjoyable time. I guess what I am trying to say is that the game (Winner's Circle) is more cerebral as opposed to high octane.
Long Shot though is more about the adrenaline. Players shout the names of their horses as they round the next corner and head down the straight. The moves can be exciting but the hits you can take are equally excruciating. I guess actually owning the horses in Long Shot is part of the appeal but the chaotic nature of the rolling and the card play is also a large part of its appeal. I've never felt compelled to shout out the name of a horse in Winner's Circle.
For that reason alone I suspect that Winner's Circle and Long Shot may well appeal to different types of gamers. I like my racing fairly frantic and edgy. For Euro and pure strategy fans, Winner's Circle is the clear winner in a canter!
So make of all that what you will. If horse racing games appeal to you then I am sure that Winner's Circle is worth a look.
Till next we meet, may your horse always come in.
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I can recommend Grand National
The only difference is that they cannot chose to move a horse that already has their card flipped face-down. These horses cannot be selected again until all Horse Cards have been flipped and then they are all un-flipped and any can be chosen.
This is the other biggie - it's sometimes wise to move a horse with a 'big move option' when it's smaller move comes up. Or to move a 'fast horse' (that makes lots of ground-gaining moves most of the time' with one of its least favorable options (especially if you don't have money on it).
I liked it a lot, but sold it in favor of Long Shot. WInner's Circle is the better GAME, but Longshot got played a lot more.
New South Wales
BorderCon 2017 Tickets - Sold out in under 2 Hrs!!!
WInner's Circle is the better GAME, but Longshot got played a lot more.
I was all set to agree with you and then I thought...'Hang on, which is the better game if one gets played more than the other?'
But I tend to agree with the sentiment none-the-less.
- Last edited Tue Nov 29, 2016 9:06 am (Total Number of Edits: 1)
- Posted Tue Nov 29, 2016 7:26 am
That one not so much
Ohh that tickles
You must play with the wrong crowd Neil, this is always a much louder game than Long Shot at London on Board. In fact I have not seen Long Shot in years but this still turns up regularly.
My 2 favorite Horse Racing games are Grand National and Turfmaster. I have Long Shot and it is okay but I prefer the other 2 previously mentioned. I am interested in getting a hold of Winner's Circle though. I was waiting for the new version to come out and it looks like I missed it, looks like they are all sold out! Thanks for the review.