Designer: Peter Parlett
Artist: Franz Vohwinkel
Publisher: Rio Grande Games
There are oldies and then, there is Hare and Tortoise. This classic board game that borrows its title from the legendary race between the fleet-footed hare and the slow-but-steady tortoise is the first Spiel des Jahres awardee in 1979. The game, I believe, is out of print but copies of the game can still be easily found in the secondary marketplace. Don’t be fooled though, while the fable may be for kids, the game is far from that.
The main aim of the game stays true to the tale: all players are racing toward the finish line. The first to cross the line wins…… but only if you used up most of the carrots in your inventory in the process. That’s right, you can win, but not if you hoard the one thing that powers your movement throughout the race. If you are to claim the ultimate crown, you cannot have more than 10 carrots when you cross the tape. That is the requirement and boy, does it make the game interesting. Also true to the fable, the game provides a few strategic paths to win the game: be a hare and sprint ahead and hope there is enough in the tank to cross the finish line as you pick up carrots along the way, or be a tortoise and hang back to collect carrots just enough to make a spurt for the finish line. You can also choose to be in the middle of the pack and hope to make a dash in the end. The game is elegantly designed to accommodate different strategies and in some cases, you may need to go down a path depending on your placement on the track. More on that later.
The board design in the Rio Grande Games edition looks really old school, with colorful illustrations of carrots, hares and numbered boxes along the length of the race track. The illustrations are cartoonish in a Peter the Rabbit sort of way. However like any true German board game design, dice do not really feature at all in the movement of your pawn unless you choose to dance with lady luck and land in certain spots. Most of the time, you will use carrots to move from one space to the next on the track. This movement is predetermined as the number of carrots you need to move ahead is based on a mathematical equation. It is cheap to move a couple of spots and increasingly more expensive if you want to leap ahead. Luckily a player aid is available for players to see how many carrots are needed to move a certain distance. Because you can easily decide where you want to land, the game isn’t luck driven despite having elements of luck in the game.
Now, not all spaces are equal on the track. Obviously, one needs to get carrots to move ahead. To do that, one can go backwards and land on the tortoise space. In fact the tortoise space is off-limits to any forward-moving pawns and can only be reached by backtracking. The amount of carrots one gets depends on the placement of the pawn on the track relative to other players at the start of the next turn. So, the further behind you are, the more carrots you will get. I suppose this is sort of a catch up mechanism, or if you prefer, a turtling strategy to hoard massive amount of carrots. Other ways to get carrots include stopping at spaces that have a numerical value and if at the start of the next turn, you correctly judge your relative position on the track, you will earn carrots. There are also carrot spaces where one can pick up or lose 10 carrots each turn. This is an inefficient way to earn carrots, but it is an important way to lose them. Remember, one must shed the inventory to win, so pausing at these spaces to unload your carrots toward the end of the race happens quite often if you misjudge how many carrots you have left in your inventory.
Now, there are two types of spaces in the game that really make the game shine. First, we have the “hare” spaces. If one lands on these spaces, a die roll will determine your outcome. This is the luck part of the game. To be clear, you can choose not to land on these spaces. However, the further ahead you are in the race, the more undesirable the outcome of the die roll, which is based on cross-referencing a handy-dandy chart. Undesirable outcomes include losing a turn. Therefore, the hare space is of little use to a front runner of the game, but serves as an excellent catch up mechanism for those behind. If your position is far behind in the race, landing on the hare spaces may seem chaotic, but is not always a bad bet as most will lead to good outcomes such as free movement without carrots or take another turn. Furthermore, on a roll of a “5” on the die, the player gets to discard a lettuce card….. which brings us to the final space I have yet to describe. The lettuce space is the one that sets the tone for the game. You see, in order for you to win, each player must also get rid of all their lettuce cards and each player starts off with 3 of these cards. There are only two ways to get rid of the lettuce card: either by landing on a lettuce space, or by rolling a “5” on the die. The problem is, the lettuce space is an area where the bottleneck occurs as all the players will jostle to reach this space -and there are only 4 of these in total in the entire track. Two are located very early on the course and two of them, late in the game. There are none in between. This is of course intentional. With these lettuce squares spaced far apart on the circuit, different strategies can come to the forefront. Do you want to hang around, potentially miss your turns and stay where you are to wait for the bottleneck to clear while all the while hoarding carrots to make a massive move? Or should you hop in front of the pack, quickly trying to reach the lettuce spots before they are occupied. Alternatively, you could aim to land on the hare spaces and roll the die to catch a “5”. If you choose to live by the die, then you can also die by the die because if you cannot shed your lettuce cards, you cannot cross the finish line. Of course, you can also mix and match your strategy by being opportunistic and go with the flow. Essentially, how or where you choose to get rid of your lettuce will shape the strategy for your game. This is the genius part of the game. The track layout must have been carefully conceived by David Partlett to optimize for different strategies to win the race while maintaining a balance between predictable and calculable maneuvers vs. hedging your bets on the die roll. There is something for everyone as the gambler or the accountant both have a fair shot of winning the race. Brilliant.
Yet, judging from the comments left by players, it is clear that many players either love or hate the game, and it is not hard to see why. The game is mathematical in a way and if you find this mental juggling of numbers a chore, then you will likely despise the game, never to touch it again. On the contrary, I would argue that this isn’t rocket science. We are dealing with basic arithmetic here and any player who can add or subtract should be able to play the game decently well. Case in point, my 7 year old can play the game just fine even though I am not sure she enjoys it. In fact, the game also comes with a chart to help you decide how many carrots for movement, so you don’t even need to do the calculations. Still, many find this a “chore” or consider this “dry” and “homework”. I can understand why they feel this way, but at the same time fail to see why they feel this way as it doesn’t feel laborious to me.
To the game’s credit, I have yet to come across any other board game that has used this mechanism for movement. Zilch. This is a unique one-of-a-kind design by Partlett. I suppose one can say that this design is so polarizing that no designer or publisher wants to implement it. Yet, Hare and Tortoise did win the SdJ. I admit though that the game requires your full attention when playing and you need to be in the mood for it. It is not really light but also not particularly heavy. However, there is no doubt this is a fully interactive German design from the yesteryear where there are no personal tableau, individual player powers or card texts to read. Just a cheat sheet. That’s it.
Do I like Hare and Tortoise? Yes. Will I play it often? Unlikely. Do I think it deserves the SdJ? Yes. Do I admire it? Yes? Do I want to to keep it? The jury is still out on that one. I can tell you that one of the reasons that might push me to get rid of the game is that my kid does not enjoy it. She can grasp the game, she can play it, but it is perhaps too dry for her and she is not willing to be competitive. In which case, there is no point in keeping it. This does not make the game bad, but it does tell me that the game may not be for kids….. well, at least not for my kid. Otherwise, I think the design is brilliant and the ability to superimpose a simple racing game with German/Euro mechanisms is amazing. There is lots more to explore and I hope I have the chance to do so.
Initial impression: average
8 years old: The game is fine for her, but I feel it drags out and is too dry. She plays it reluctantly and I don’t want to push this on her. Moreover, she is decidedly not competitive in this game as she often goes for the hare spaces, thus hedging her bets on rolling a “5”. I have a sense of what she likes now in games, and the more interactive it is, the more social it is, the better. Perhaps she will come around to Hare and Tortoise and in the mean time, the game doesn’t appear to be great with two.