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Review: HomeStretch

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The sound of a shot–and they’re off! The clear favorite takes an early lead, with the other favored horses close behind. Some remain at the starting gate, pawing the ground as if they’re still in their home stable. But wait–who is that horse, and where is its momentum coming from? It’s gaining–and gaining–and–it’s a photo finish! The dark horse has it by a nose!

Enter the exciting world of horse racing with HomeStretch!

How It Works

HomeStretch is an economic/betting game for two to six players set in the world of horse racing. Players invest in and bet on horses, and after four races, the player with the most money wins.

At the start of the game, each player receives five betting tokens, a score marker, and a player identifier. The horses are placed on their starting gates, and four random race cards are selected from the race decks.

HomeStretch begins with a card draft. Horses are numbered 2-12, representing the results of two rolled dice. Players draft shares of stock in the eleven available horses. Once players have drafted their stock, they reveal their choices and pay for them, with higher probability numbers (like 6-8) costing more per share.

The board and the horses in their gates.

After players have drafted their stable, the races begin. At the start of the race, the race card is revealed, and handicap tokens are assigned based on the race card. Handicap tokens include Xes, which prevent the horse from moving the first time its number is rolled, and +2s, +4s, and +6s, which give horses advantages the first time their number is rolled.

Once handicaps are assigned, players may bet on which horses they think will win, place, and show. A bet on win pays out more but only pays out if a horse wins outright. A bet on place pays out less but pays out if a horse takes first or second. A bet on show pays out still less but pays out if a horse takes first, second, or third place. Once all players have placed their five bet markers, the player in last place starts the race.

During the race, players roll the dice in turn order. The sum of the dice shows which horse will move. If it is the player’s first roll, he may choose to move the horse either one or two spaces. If the player chooses one space, he rolls again and must move the new horse two spaces. Once a player moves a horse two spaces, the next player rolls. Once three horses have crossed the finish line, players receive money based on their bets. The owners of the winning horses also receive winnings in the form of payout purses.

After the first race, players have one more chance to buy horse shares. After four races, the player with the most money wins.

Best in Show, or Out to Pasture?

HomeStretch is not quite what you might expect given the theme and packaging. When I saw the dice, I was expecting a luck fest, with horses claiming victory at the mercy of dice throws. What I experienced was a clever, theme-driven economics game with a risk-reward heart.

Chomping at the bit, as it were…

One of the things I like about HomeStretch is the economy open to the players. Players earn money whenever their horses win–either the horses they own or the horses they bet on. Depending on how heavily players invest in individual horses, either option can be lucrative. The prize purses start small in the game but get larger as the game goes on, so owning stock in the winning horse is a sure-fire way to get money. But depending on the number of shares your opponents own, you may earn more money by betting on the right horses. In either case, players have to decide whether to invest broadly (and have more chances at a generally lower payout) or deeply (investing heavily in a few horses who are guaranteed to pay big if they win). Both strategies have their perks.

And this was the surprising thing about HomeStretch: the amount of strategy there is in what looks like a simple luck-filled betting game. The four race cards each list different horses with handicaps, which allows players to plan ahead and have a window into the favored horses for the race. But beyond this, players also control (to some extent) which horses move. Being able to control horses rolled by moving them either one or two spaces is more strategic than you think, especially when you have to balance who gets paid if the horse wins. That is, you may make money if the horse wins, but will someone else make more? And if you roll the dice again, what’s the probability that you’ll roll worse, or the same, causing the horse you were trying to hamper to move an additional space? I like these decisions because they keep the game tense.

The horse shares. Owning a horse can be a lucrative proposition.

Of course, much like the real world of sports, where statistical calculations can point us in a direction for prediction but don’t determine the results, HomeStretch is fun because the races don’t always go as we might expect. I know some players hate dice of any kind because of the randomness they inject. I don’t think the dice are out of control in HomeStretch. In fact, I view HomeStretch much the way that I view Can’t Stop, another strategy game that involves dice: yes, you will occasionally have bad rolls that put you behind, but far more often, if you’re behind, it’s due to your own choices. I like this. (I also like that I played Can’t Stop before HomeStretch: Sid Sackson’s stop sign is such a valuable tool in my mind for considering 2d6 probability.)

By far the best aspect of HomeStretch is this racing–the predictability matched with uncertainty. The racing is what I think will be the draw for most gamers, as the game flows fast and free at this point. It was surprising to me how invested I became in the races. I really wanted my horses to win, but I had to consider again and again which horses I should be cheering for. Like any good risk-reward game, I was faced with the choice of hedging my bets, making it more likely I’d win something, or of making big bets that carried higher risk but also offered more substantial rewards.

The race cards. No, no. Not that race card.

There are a few things about HomeStretch that I’m less crazy about. First, the rulebook was a little hard to digest. The rules are there, but the way they are laid out is confusing at times. There’s not really a broad outline or overview of what players are doing, so the problem is that one rule and section flows into the next without a good sense of where these rules fit into the game. Adding to this, there are several exceptions listed in the main text which derailed my thought process away from the flow of the game. This isn’t a deal breaker, and the rules are not incomplete, the game was just harder to learn from the rulebook than I would have liked.

The race in action. C’mon, Coodwin!

Second, the components, while serviceable, are not amazing. I do like the horse pieces, but it can be hard to see which horse is which from across the table. (And if you have a full table, this can be an issue.) There’s not much space behind the horses to hold the handicap tokens, so it can be hard to see which token belongs to which horse, particularly if a string of horses all have tokens. The bright colors on the board are not easy on the eyes when combined with the colors of the players’ betting tokens. And the card and chit quality is not as high as in many hobby board games. However, these component gripes are quibbles, especially given the low price point for the game. The components would be difficult to justify for a $50 game, but they are more than adequate for the game’s $30 MSRP (and even cheaper discounted price).

The insert.

HomeStretch is a very fun game, but it also seems to fit into a quirky niche. The game’s atmosphere (especially the rowdiness of the races) lends itself to a casual, party-style environment, but the game is a little more complex than your typical party game, and it may be difficult to get the rules across in a party context. (It’s hard sometimes to get party game rules across in this context…) The game is a little long for a “filler” (45 minutes), but the luck elements present in the game make it seem more ideal for that context. Really, I think this game is perfect for two situations: opening a game night and conventions. For opening the game night, once everyone’s there, this is a good game to loosen the players up, get them thinking strategy (but slowly: again, there’s still a lot of luck and risk in the game), and open them up to the slings and arrows that is a horse race. For conventions, most people there will have the focus necessary to learn the game, yet the fast-and-loose and often boisterous gameplay opens opportunities for players to interact and get to know one another.

HomeStretch won’t be for everyone. It’s not meaty, and the theme might not appeal. The game is better with players who are invested in the game. But with the right group, this can be a contender.

  

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank R&R Games for providing us with a review copy of HomeStretch.

Summary

  • Rating 7.5
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Summary

Pros

  • Good theme integration
  • More strategy than you might expect
  • Horse races are a blast

Cons:

  • Rules can be a bit fiddly and hard to remember
  • Components are decent, but not great
7.5 Good

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

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