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Review: Winner’s Circle (DiceTree Edition)

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Reiner Knizia has had a good run–such a good run that many of his older games are returning to print for a new generation of players to enjoy. Winner’s Circle is one of the recent crop of games to receive the update treatment, this time through the Korean publisher DiceTree Games.

Winner’s Circle set up and ready to race.

I reviewed Winner’s Circle recently enough that I won’t rehash how to play. And the only thing that has changed about my opinion since the first review is that I bumped my rating up from a 9.5 to a 10. It recently entered my top ten games of all time, so it’s safe to say I love it. Still, if you want some specifics, here’s the summary from my review to give you the gist of my feelings:

Winner’s Circle is a joy to play, one of the most interactive and fun experiences you can have on the tabletop. In fact, in my recent top ten social lunch games list, Winner’s Circle took the top spot. It produces tense choices, constant conversation, and riotous cheers each time I bring it out. I am always willing (and eager) to play this, and I have still yet to win. Ignore the theme (if you don’t like horse racing). Ignore the drab, “realistic” components. This is a perfect mix of probability, luck, and strategy. In short, Winner’s Circle is a winner.

The new edition comes with a superfluous purse for storing the metal coins. NICE.

Instead of reinventing the wheel, I plan to use this review to look at the upgraded components in the DiceTree edition to help you decide 1) if you should buy the game if you don’t have it, and 2) if you should pay to upgrade to this edition if you have one of the older editions. For comparison, the pictures below feature the DiceTree edition and the 2006 Face2Face edition of Winner’s Circle.

The box arrived like this. It was well packed, and the game was not injured en route to me. (This is a simulation; I didn’t photograph it right when I received it…but you get the point.)

The first thing you’ll notice if you order the game from the publisher (currently the only way to get the new edition of Winner’s Circle in the States) is how well packed it is. Most of the time when I’ve ordered from overseas it has been from Amazon.de, so that might not be the best point of comparison, but my orders have never survived their Atlantic voyage without a few dings and scratches. Winner’s Circle, however, arrived in pristine condition, owing to the styrofoam wedges that kept the game in place during transit. So while the price tag is hefty without online discounting, at least you can be confident in its safe arrival.

The prepainted horses look great.

Once you open the box, the next thing you notice will probably be the prepainted horses. This is one of the things I was most excited about when I heard about this new edition, and the painting on the horses is well done. Each looks as unique as a horse can while keeping the same mold and same colors as older versions of the game, and the painting is detailed. What’s helpful here is that each horse is also numbered, and this number is on each side of the horse and the rider’s back for easy identification.

A side by side comparison with the Face2Face edition.

Now, the reason I was most excited about the prepainted horses is for usability. It was simply hard to tell several similarly colored horses apart in the old version, and doing so is one of the important aspects of the game. It’s crucial to the game to be able to read the board and the positions of the horses. While the prepainted horses look much better than the older horses, and while they are easier to distinguish on the board, the gains for usability aren’t as great as I expected them to be. It’s true that no longer do I have other players asking me, “Which horse is that again?”–the numbers are a direct giveaway, and even colorblind players can easily tell which horse is which. But the game isn’t much easier to read at a glance–you still have to pair each horse with the number of their stall, and this takes longer than I’d like. While the painting job for each horse and rider is unique, it’s still not immediately clear who is who. I do think the painted horses are an improvement; they just aren’t as much of a usability boost as I’d hoped. (Realistically, I think that could only be achieved through unrealistic colors like typical board game pieces–similar to Camel Up–which wouldn’t be as thematic. I suppose you can’t win them all.)

Money chits versus metal coins. The new edition is better here, and it isn’t even close.

Next to the horses, the aspect of the DiceTree production I was most excited about was the metal coins. The Face2Face edition used cardboard money chits, and these were small and not very fun to handle. They were the clear loser in that production, and while they were functional, I always wished they had been better. The DiceTree coins are unequivocally better. It’s not even close.

Winner’s Circle metal coins next to Scythe’s. The Winner’s Circle coins are larger and heftier.

The metal coins are large and hefty–far weightier than, for example, Scythe’s metal coins, which I consider to be excellent. The denominations are easy to spot at a glance due to three different colors, and it’s amazing how a simple component upgrade here improves the feel of the game, even though functionally they aren’t much different. The game includes a screen printed pouch to hold the coins in, which is superfluous but welcome. These coins are a huge upgrade over the last edition.

The board. The DiceTree edition is the left side, the Face2Face is the right. I don’t have a strong preference here.

The board has received a minor graphic update, as you can see in the picture. The board is the same size as the last edition, but it has been updated to accommodate the included Royal Turf rules (more on this in a moment). I’m not sure whether it’s just because I’m more used to the Face2Face edition, but I have a minor preference for the old board. Still, if I weren’t comparing them side by side, I’m not sure I’d recognize much of a difference.

Winner’s Circle cards. The Face2Face tiles are on the left, the DiceTree cards are on the right. I found the tiles unwieldy to shuffle.

The horse cards in the DiceTree edition are mini Euro-sized cards instead of the larger tiles included in the Face2Face edition. This seems like a downgrade, but I actually prefer the cards. I have a hard time shuffling tiles, so in most instances, I’d rather have a deck of cards to randomize something. I’ve sleeved my cards, but they have a nice linen finish to them, and the information they have to convey isn’t hampered by the smaller size in my estimation.

The Royal Turf cards are now an included and supported variant in the rulebook.

The DiceTree edition also includes the cards for Royal Turf, which some Knizia enthusiasts will love. In Royal Turf, the same seven horses race each race, but they have slightly different stats for each race. The Face2Face edition included Royal Turf as a variant, but players had to look at the value a horse moved when a horse head was rolled in order not to duplicate horses. (That is to say, it was a little bit of a pain.)

The Royal Turf rules included in the DiceTree edition versus the Face2Face edition.

The included Royal Turf cards make it a lot easier for fans of the older game to play as they know it (although the painted horses might make them a little harder to distinguish; I haven’t played the Royal Turf game, so I can’t comment on this). The rules for Royal Turf as given in the rulebook aren’t super clear, but I was able to parse out what the game is supposed to be online easily enough, and this won’t be a problem for those who already know and love Royal Turf.

Seabiscuit and Secretariat make their Winner’s Circle debut.

Most of the horses that fans of previous editions of Winner’s Circle know and love are present here, but two real-life horses now make an appearance: Seabiscuit and Secretariat. I’m a little bummed to see two horses were switched out for them; then again, I didn’t recall these two horses being in the older edition, and I couldn’t think who was switched out when I saw them initially. (Clearly Count Fleet and Challedon were not favorites of mine.) I’m resistant to change, particularly in a game like this one where the pieces take on character from game to game, but all of my favorite horses are still included (Regret! Twenty Grand! even poor, bland Sysonby!), so this isn’t something I care too deeply about.

The betting chips are mostly an upgrade, although the red and orange are very close in shade.

What matters a little more is the betting chips, which are in some ways better and in some ways worse than the Face2Face edition. The chips are larger, which is nice. (My fat fingers always had trouble with the tiny betting chips in the older edition.) And each player’s betting placard is larger and double sided, showing a man’s silhouette on one side and a woman’s on the other.

The betting areas. The new edition has larger chips and a smaller place to put them.

However, the place to put betting chips on the board is a little smaller, so players have to police themselves to make sure the chips don’t cover the horse number now that it matters.

The red and orange colors are difficult to distinguish, even for non-colorblind players.

The colors of the chips are mostly easy to distinguish, but the red and orange are very close, and even players who aren’t colorblind have had trouble distinguishing them. I heard DiceTree had wooden betting chips available for people who bought Winner’s Circle at Essen 2016; I wish these were more widely available. As it stands, I will probably make my own to avoid the red/orange issue. I wish this weren’t present, as it does make chips a little harder to distinguish at a glance, but it hasn’t impacted play much. (A colorblind player in my group claimed a color that is easy to distinguish from the other colors.)

A place for everything, and everything in its place.

The insert holds everything in place in the box and even has ridges to keep the board from sliding around. The insert in the old edition was fine; this one is also good. One thing I appreciate is that the card wells are deep and wide enough to accommodate sleeved cards, even sleeves like the miscut ones I’m using that are longer than they should be.

Dice and pace chip. Changes don’t matter much to me.

There’s not much else to comment on. The dice are slightly different (the Face2Face die was wooden with light etching filled with black ink; the DiceTree edition feels screen printed), and the pace chip’s horse and rider illustration has been replaced with crossed riding crops. I don’t have much of an opinion on these matters.

A comparison of the horses from behind. Numbers are helpful.

Based on my praise at the start of the review, my conclusion should be obvious if you don’t already own Winner’s Circle: get it. Winner’s Circle is fantastic, and it has been a hit with both people who play games frequently and people who don’t. It is a great blend of strategy, tactics, and luck, and every game is a delight. It is one of those games that, for me, at least, has never misfired–it’s simple to teach, and even new players understand the strategy usually before the game is finished. And this is a good time to be in the market for Winner’s Circle, as the DiceTree edition is fantastic.

It’s easy to separate the Royal Turf cards from the Winner’s Circle cards.

Now the trickier bit: if you already own Winner’s Circle or Royal Turf, should you upgrade to the DiceTree edition? And this is where I waver a little bit. To me, just about everything in the DiceTree edition is an upgrade, and it is the nicest version of the game to date. But what would make an upgrade much easier to recommend–greater usability–isn’t as pronounced as I’d like it to be. It’s easier to be certain of which horse is which thanks to the numbers, but it’s still just as hard to tell who’s who at a glance. The betting chips are larger, but the red and orange colors are hard to tell apart in gameplay even for players who aren’t colorblind. To me, whether you should upgrade to this edition comes down to the metal coins and the painted horses. Both serve to improve the ambiance of the game, even if they don’t increase usability enough to make this a slam-dunk. If you are someone who usually blings out your games, this is a worthy upgrade. And if you’re someone who plays Winner’s Circle a lot, this is the showpiece edition you’ve been waiting for: it won’t take you as much convincing to get other players on board, and it now has a classy look to match its brilliant gameplay. If you are only an occasional Winner’s Circle player and are content with your current edition, upgrading probably isn’t worth it. But if you don’t already have access to a copy, the DiceTree edition, thanks to wider availability and quality, is easily the one I’d recommend.

The coins!
The back of the box.
And the coins again. Seriously, huge upgrade here.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank DiceTree Games for providing us with a copy of Winner’s Circle for review.

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Summary

Pros:

Simple rules that are easy to teach and digest
Dynamic gameplay that is very interactive and fun
Recreates the adrenaline of the racetrack without the financial ruin
The components of this new edition are stunning

Cons:

Red and orange betting chips are very close in color
The painted horses aren't easy to distinguish at a glance
Currently the game is only available as an import

10.0 Triple Crown

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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