Winner’s Circle

Designer: Reiner Knizia

Artist: William O’Connor, Franz Vohwinkel

Publisher: Face2Face Games

I wish they used the names of actual racehorses in the game. Where is my Secretariat or my Seabiscuit? (Photo credits: Romir Paulino@BGG)

I own only a handful of racing games and I just reviewed Ausgebremst, the only other racing game I have in my collection. I did have a few wonderful visitors from abroad coming to join our table and they are all Knizia enthusiasts. I thought long and hard about the games I wanted to try and in the end, I chose a Knizia that rarely hit the table – Winner’s Circle. I have only played it twice before and both times, most of the table did not enjoy the experience. I was lukewarm but wasn’t as turned off. Since we were in the presence of Knizia fans, I thought this would be a good opportunity to give it another go.

As far as I can tell, Knizia doesn’t have a lot of racing games though he does have plenty of games with “first to cross the finish line” victory conditions. Winner’s circle is essentially a betting game where players place wagers before the race to see which horses can cross the finish line. Payouts are made based on the position of the winner (win, place or show), the size of the bets (0, 1X or 2X) and the number of players placing bets on the horse (odds). I think this actually mirrors the actually betting variables in real life, but I could be wrong. The last round of betting doles out double the prize money. If you get the most money over 3 races, you will be the winner.

There are 8 horses in the field and a stack of horse cards listing their attributes which tells you the likelihood of how fast each horse can move per round based on the probability of getting the dice roll you need. To move a horse, players roll a single die. The die has four face types: 3x horse heads, 1x saddle, 1x horse shoe and 1x helmet. This means half the time, you will roll a horse head while you will get 1/6th chance of rolling the remaining symbols. Based on these probabilities, Knizia then assign different movement speeds for each symbol that differs across all the horses. What’s neat is that all the horses have a similar movement score after adjusting for the probabilities. That means you may have a horse that is mediocre across all the stats, moving at average speeds while another horse will, on average, plod along slowly only to show an amazing burst of speed every once in a while. So do you want to bet on an exciting but risky horse, or one that is a consistent, albeit boring performer? The choice is yours.

Now, Winner Circle works because no one really “owns” a horse. After initial betting phase where players lay their 4 bets, there is a good chance all 8 horses will have a chit from more than one player. Each turn, players chuck dice and choose a horse to move. You can move your chosen horse forward and advance your position, but you must also consider moving other horses where you didn’t place a bet, just to prevent them from advancing. This is especially true for horses that move with incredible speeds, usually 1/6th of the time because of the die roll. These horses can potentially win the race in two movement cycles. So you may want to pick this horse with a die face that is not favorable for their movement. All horses only move once per round and won’t be refreshed until all horses have moved. On average I think each race probably lasts only 3-7 rounds.

This is the meat of the game, deciding when to move your horse vs. letting others move them. It’s always a risk of course, but then it’s a calculated one. If you are riding on a horse to win, sometimes, your die roll is not favorable. So, you move other horses instead. Also the combination of bets matter. You want your horse with the highest bet with the fewest betting chips to cross the line. That way, your payout will be maximized. There is also a 0 value betting chip that you can use to bluff. We usually play with the face down betting variant which is more fun.

For me, a board game that simulates racing must absolutely have a rapid pace. Turns must be lightning fast with zero down time and very little analysis paralysis. If you have to sit there and ponder your options, something is lost in translation. That’s the nature of a racing game – always on the move! That’s the only way to capture the feeling and tension of racing.

Honestly, Knizia’s Winner Circle lies somewhere in between the pace I am seeking in a racing game. The game can be played rapidly, but also requires some thought in selecting which horse to move. That means that depending on circumstances, some parts of the race may slow down and I think this is a weak point in Winner’s Circle. If you are looking for pure racing exhilaration, I am not sure Winner’s Circle will satisfy your desires. Instead, what you have is a relatively cerebral race that sits somewhat uncomfortably in the middle of my desired pace. The thing is that most players will be able to make a quick decision, but if you have one player that slows down, it will disrupt the flow of the game. In contrast, Ausgebremst decision making is quick: you have your own car movement to worry about, that’s it. Usually, it is pretty clear which card you should be playing even before your turn comes around.

I do already have a bias to rate Knizia’s games above average and I think the trend will stay. I won’t pull this out often, but as far as racing game goes, you can do a lot worse. I love how the movement probabilities intersect with the betting scheme and one must integrate all these variables into the decision process. It is just classic Knizia. I also love how players must decide which horse to move and then letting Lady Luck decide the rest. There is also some cajoling and threats of retaliation among players during the selection process and that adds to the flavor of the game. So overall, while I think this is not the best racing game, it is still a Knizia gem.

A note about the production values, Winner’s Circle has eye popping components. For example, the horses are toy-like pieces and the other components are solid. However, the is a “cheap” feel to the game. I can’t pinpoint the reason. I think all Face2Face Games has that particular quality where the board feels rough to touch and not matted. Perhaps it is. I know there is a Korean version of the game with outstanding production values. But a game is a game, so I am glad just to have a copy.

Initial impression: Average

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