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[This review originally appeared in Counter Magazine]

WIN, PLACE & SHOW (3M, 1966)
Designed by Thomas M. Divoll and John B. Reilly

One of the longest lasting traditions in American gaming is the sports game. Ranging from detailed simulations to simple dice games and based upon practically every major athletic endeavor, sports games have been a vital and vibrant part of the U.S. game industry for over 100 years. Many of these games are excellent recreations of their activities, properly modeling even subtle details of their parent sport. However, as games, most of these designs are lacking. To reflect the uncertainty inherent in sports, many games use dice or spinners to determine outcomes. This can give exquisitely accurate results, but naturally gives the players little control. At the other extreme, games like Avalon Hill’s Football Strategy let the players call plays and use a matrix to determine the result. There is no luck in this process, but the end result is little more than a guessing game. Both kinds of game can be very enjoyable, particularly to fans of the sports they represent, but for gamers not so inclined, they often hold little interest.

Probably the principal exception to this rule are racing games. It’s almost impossible to reflect the on-field workings of such sports as baseball, football, and basketball, but it’s much simpler to simulate a race. Consequently, such sports as car racing, bike racing, horse racing, and track and field have produced games that are more in the realm of family gaming than the team sports noted above. Of these, there’s really only one that ranks as one of my favorites: Win, Place & Show.

WP&S was one of the great 3M games that so enriched the gaming scene in the sixties and early seventies. These games had their origin in the late fifties. One of the divisions of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company at that time produced wrapping paper and ribbon and it faced a problem with faltering sales. Looking for a new product to produce, they decided for some reason to create board games. (The decision to go with such a non-related product was such a peculiar one that I have to assume it was influenced by the introduction a few years earlier of the Avalon Hill adult games.) The series was launched in 1962 with three games--Oh-Wah-Ree, Twixt, and Phlounder--in the now revered bookshelf box format. The line was such a success that in 1966 they expanded into sports gaming. Eventually, the sports line would include baseball, football, hockey, golf, auto racing, yacht racing, and horse racing games.

In Win, Place & Show, each player gets to own, race, and bet on horses. The object is to amass the most money from winning purses and making successful bets. Each player begins the game with $50,000. A game consists of six races of varying length. Prior to each race, the cards for each horse’s stable are shuffled and auctioned one at a time. Bidding goes around the table and continues until every player but one has passed. Horses which receive no bid are put aside. No player can bid on a second horse until every player owns one. After all the horses have been bid on, any horses which were set aside are auctioned off again (unless there are six players, in which case these horses are randomly assigned to the players without horses for the minimum bid of $500).

The heart of WP&S is the horses themselves. Each horse has its own Running Strength table, which is a list of numbers, one for each furlong in the race. Here’s an example from the horse Gunsmoke in the first race: 11-11-9-9-2-1. The higher the number, the faster the horse will be at that stage of the race. So Gunsmoke is a sprinter, a horse that starts very fast, but poops out near the end of the race. Each horse also lists its post position (1 through 6), a Bonus Number (a value from 2 to 12), the type of jockey riding it (either Veteran or Apprentice), and the odds the horse will go off on for that race.

After the horses are auctioned, the players make their bets. Each player secretly writes down which horse he is betting will win, place, and show (that is, finish first, second, and third) in the coming race. He also writes down how much money he is risking on each bet. No more than $5000 can be wagered on any one bet. Once everyone has made out their bets, they pay the bank the total amount of their bets. The race is then ready to start.

On every turn of the race, one player rolls two ordinary dice, one of which is white. The number on the white die indicates which horse moves first that turn, followed by the horse with the next highest number, and so on until every horse has moved once. To determine how many spaces each horse moves each turn, take its Running Strength for that turn and add the white die to it. So in the example given above, if on the first turn a white 3 is rolled, Gunsmoke can move 14 spaces (11 + 3). In addition to this, if the sum of the two dice is equal to the horse’s Bonus Number, three additional spaces are added to the move.

The track itself is an oval, six spaces wide, ten spaces per furlong. The two turns have 15 spaces on the innermost lane, with 17 and 18 spaces on the next two lanes and 19 spaces on the three outermost lanes. The two longest races, which are ten furlongs, have two turns; the other races only use one turn. Scattered through the spaces on the innermost lanes, both the turns and the straightaways, are dashes which indicate that the space is a passing space.

The movement rules are not complex. Horses must always move either straight forward or diagonally forward. A horse cannot move into the space that another horse occupies, nor can it move diagonally into the space immediately in front of a horse. Horses with veteran jockeys can change up to two lanes in one direction and then may move back up to two lanes to its original lane during the same move. Horses with apprentice jockeys can only change one lane per move and cannot return to their original lane that move. Regardless of the type of jockey, horses can never change lanes while in a turn. However, if a horse begins its move on a passing space, it may move through one occupied space in its beginning lane.

A horse which is blocked and cannot legally change lanes loses the remainder of its move. Otherwise, a horse must take its entire move, with one exception: a horse may stop up to three spaces short in order to end its turn on a passing space.

At the end of the turn that the finish line is crossed, the horse that is farthest beyond the line is the winner. The same procedure is used to determine the top four horses in the race, all of which earn a portion of that race’s purse for their owners. If there is a tie, a veteran jockey beats an apprentice. Apprentices do get one advantage, however--at any time during the race, they can add a one-time bonus of two spaces to their move.

When the race is over, the bets are revealed and the winning bets paid off. At the end of the sixth race, whoever has the most money wins.

Win, Place & Show is a game that works on many levels; there are elements that can satisfy the race fan, the gambler, and the serious gamer. Most of all, it is a superb family game, equally appealing to both adults and older children. There are interesting, but not overly demanding decisions to be made every turn. The result is a very enjoyable game, and its two and a half hours or so of gameplay inevitably passes very pleasantly.

The game’s best feature is the way the horses are defined. The mechanics are simple, but nonetheless the individual horses have many distinguishing features. Best of all, it is not at all an easy matter to gauge which horses are the best in a race. Different players will have different features that they prefer, which greatly adds to the game’s interest.

The sum of a horse’s Running Strengths is an obvious basic measure. But many races end before the last Running Strength can be used, so that is one variable. Then there’s the Bonus Number--some come up much more often than others. The type of jockey is a consideration as well. Veterans are usually considered superior, but many players are irresistibly drawn to the apprentice’s two-space bonus. Post position is important as well, since the horses which begin on the outside will have a harder time reaching the shorter inner lanes on the turns. A particularly dangerous combination is an apprentice in the sixth post position, since with its limited ability to change lanes, the best it will be able to do is reach the third lane on the first turn.

It can get even more involved than that. The distribution of the Running Strengths is vital as well. Getting off to a strong start minimizes the likelihood that the horse will be blocked. But many players are mortified by horses that finish weakly, fearing a heartbreaking homestretch. You can even compare the Running Strengths of different horses in different post positions to estimate the probability of being blocked. In short, there’s almost no limit to the amount of analysis that can be applied to handicapping horses in this game.

Properly judging horseflesh is necessary in order to perform well at the auctions. There is always a premium on the horses with the best odds and some players refuse to bid at all until the favorite comes up for auction. This can lead to some bargains for less discriminating players. Another factor to take into account are the purses. The first few races award $5000 to the winner and only $500 for the fourth place finisher, so bids should be limited and you’ll be lucky to break even with lower quality horses. But the purses steadily increase in value, so that by the sixth race, the winner earns $25,000 and even the fourth place horse will take home $5000, so lower bids for lesser horses can really pay off and the main objective of the auction might be to ensure that you wind up with two horses to run.

There are two main issues to consider when placing bets. First, what are the best values to be had. Horses with short odds don’t pay off very well, particularly for place and show bets, so it’s worthwhile to gamble on some middle of the pack nags with better odds. But placing large bets on favorites can provide steady income that can make the difference between winning and losing--so long as the horse cooperates. Emphasizing place and show bets on lesser horses can have the same effect, possibly with less risk. But for many players, the real consideration is whether to bet on a horse you own or an opponent’s. There’s an almost irresistable urge to put all your eggs in one basket and back your own animal. Other than the feeling of control this gives you, there is a more practical side--an opponent may not be trying as hard as she might to succeed with her horse, since she may have bet on another. The game actually provides quite a few rules allowing a player to make a foul claim against an opponent who is trying to hold back a horse, but in practice these only work against the most egregious practices. In less friendly games, there are many subtle ways in which players can influence a race, which makes betting on someone else’s horse a genuine risk. It also makes the game more interesting (and nastier) for more serious gamers in games strictly with adults.

In the running of the races, WP&S includes just the right amount of uncertainty, so that the better horses do dominate but are far from sure things. The uncertainty comes from three sources. First, the white die; a series of lower number will favor strong finishers, while high numbers will benefit the sprinters. Next, this die also determines which horse moves first each turn and this can affect if horses will be blocked or which horses can grab the valuable inner lanes on a turn. Finally, races can often be swung by which Bonus Numbers come up.

That being said, clever play will usually win the day if you aren’t too unlucky. The major decisions are which lane to position your horse in and how many movement points you should sacrifice to stop on a passing space. The principal objectives are to avoid blocks (usually at all costs, since a block at the beginning of the move will usually eliminate any chance of doing well) and to gain a good spot on the turns. Secondary considerations are naturally to get in the way of your opponent’s horses (particularly one you haven’t bet on!). None of this is terribly difficult, but the decisions are real ones and come up on most turns, so that the races are always enjoyable to run.

In play, WP&S feels like an actual horse race, with a minimum of artificial add-ons. The lane shifting rules work well and the fact that the space in front of a horse is off limits is a realistic reflection of how races are actually run. Of course, the passing spaces are not very realistic, but they work very well in the game and it’s easy to imagine a skilled jockey squeezing his horse past the front runner on the rail. And the differentiation of the horses also gives the races a genuine feel, as sprinters dominate early, only to fall back while the horses with the finishing kick come on strong at the end.

The track itself is cleverly designed. It allows races of three lengths to be run with a minimum of confusion, thus providing variety over the six races. The passing spaces are also distributed well: sparingly on the straightaways, and only in the first two lanes, where all the congestion lies; on every fourth space in the first lane of the turns, so that you can always land on one (but possibly at the cost of shortening your move); and much more frequently on the second and third turn lanes, so that blocks are much less likely there (but at the cost of a guaranteed two or three space penalty due to its greater length). The end effect is that there is genuine strategy on how to best negotiate the turns and that your decisions here will probably determine the outcome of the race--just as in actual horse racing.

WP&S’ components are up to the usual standard that 3M had established. All of the sports games came in long flat boxes, with the laminated plastic covers unfolding to form the game board. This worked very well here, with the unfolded cover revealing plenty of space for an oval race track. Inside this track are two identical betting tables showing the payoffs for every kind of bet, with one rotated 180º so that they can be easily viewed from both sides of the table. This is an excellent physical design decision that really helps to move play along. The small plastic horses look good and their colors are easily distinguishable, but they are quite fragile, particularly for all the handling they will receive. The standard 3M money is here, along with its cherished serial code of 3M4FUN4U2. Ownership of horses and auction order is handled by providing a card for each stable, rather than for every horse. This works very well and reduces the necessary number of components at the same time. Best of all are the racing information forms. These are laid out like a realistic looking Official Program (price: 20¢) and they include all the purse and horse information for every race in an exceedingly clear and useful fashion. I can think of few gaming aids that so assist with the smooth playing of a game in such a stylish fashion.

Overall, I feel Win, Place & Show is the best of the 3M sports line and one of the best of the many great games the company released. As a family game, it had few peers during the sixties, as the game provides excitement, variety, and decision-making for a wide variety of age groups. Designers Thomas Divoll and John Reilly (who as far as I can determine have no other game credits to their names) succeeded in creating a game that doesn’t rely solely on luck or guessing. And compared to most other sports games, that is decidedly a horse of a different color.
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Marshall
United States
Charles Town
West Virginia
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Picked this up at a thrift shop recently, and was doing surfing the Geek for info on it. I came across this review and almost fell off my chair. Quite simply, the best, well written, informative, review I have ever read on here period.!!!
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Richard Cole
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Superior
Wisconsin
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i hate when a CREEP destroys a game's rating because other people enjoy it TOO MUCH!!
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My games look COOL with all those yellow stars!
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i would like to play this game with exotic wagering. does anybody have a good pay-off scheme, short of doing the complicated math? cool
 
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