My father loved the spectacle of horse racing. Our local track, the Evangeline Downs, has a thoroughbred racing season during the summer months, and every few years, Dad would organize a Saturday night trip for dinner and parlays. My brother and I would dress up in coat and tie, an arm around each of our brides, and escort them to the second story perch with the humongous wall of windows that overlooked the track, and start looking at the menu of delicious food and expensive bottles of wine we couldn’t afford.
I only made it to the track a couple or three times in my life, but I remember enjoying the moments. I especially loved poring over the betting newspapers that they always had on hand, looking at the stats of the different horses especially the trainers and owners.
Trying to see a pattern in the fog fascinated me. Patterns, randomness, streaks. Jockeys versus trainers. Do I bet on the owners? Or look at the horses’ past results? Chaos and predictably. Which to choose?
Can a board game ever give a sense of what it is like to feel the thrill of the horses barreling down the stretch, you holding a ticket punched with three numbers that match the nose, shoulder and tail of the winning ponies? Can a board game ever produce the combination of skill, instinct, and vision that can help grab hold of disparate numbers as they jumble and dance around in front of you?
Let’s not bury the lede. Ready Set Bet can and does.
Ready Set Bet is a new game from prolific game designer, John D. Clair, he of Space Base / Mystic Vale / Cubitos fame. Those three games alone would be enough to cement his status in current game design halls, but there’s more, so much more if you deep dive into his ludography. Clair turns his attention this time to racing games — or I should say, “betting games”, and you’ll see why soon — this time with his new entry from AEG.
Unlike games like Formula D or Downforce or even Long Shot: The Dice Game, players don’t really “own” a racer (i.e. a horse). Instead, this game is more like a frenetic, real time version of Camel Up, where players are trying to divine which of the ten horses in the race will make your day or break your heart.
I know what you are saying. You hate real time games, don’t you? Fret not, anti-real time gamer, Ready Set Bet is not going to ask you to roll your dice against another player as you do after a hit in Bottom of the 9th or during the action selection mechanic in Steam Park. The actual real time dice chucking is done by a neutral third party, who calls out the race as the dice are rolled, and moves the horses down the track depending on the results from those rolls.
While the track announcer cracks jokes about how the dice are rolling, you’ll be placing your betting tokens on an oversized board with different bets. Each of those tokens gives you a chance to win an increasing return off your bet, but once you run out of tokens, or one of the horses reaches a certain part of the track, you’re done with betting for this race. Then it’s time to kick back and cheer your little horse down the straightaway and across the finish line.
Trust me, you *will* cheer. Loud, long and hard.
Some racing games don’t really feel like racing, more like just chucking dice and moving pieces around a track. Some betting games abstract the tension in such a way that it is hard to get excited about anything except the payoff. And some dice games have all the tension you want, but absolutely no theme or setting that makes any sense.
Not Ready Set Bet. In this game, players are going to try to amass as much winnings as they can over four short, ten minute-or-so races. It’s important to get the most money, of course, but the unique thing here is that it is just as much fun to hit a big time prop bet or have the horse you went all in come in first.
From start to finish, these are thrilling races, with horses bolting out to the lead, or hard charging from the back in an effort to sneak across the finish line ahead of other horses by a nose. I’ve seen gamers really struggle, holding on to that last betting chip, knowing that each second they wait, the horses get closer to the line on the track that closes out the betting or knowing that another play will snag one of the betting marks before they do. With only place for one marker in most of the betting areas, those crunchy decisions are fun if it is you having to process the odds, and just as much fun for spectators to watch you sweat it out.
I should say a bit about the board, I guess, although you probably have already figured out that there is some way for the players to track who is betting what for which horse. The game comes with a large central board that is dominated by boxes where players can throw down their chips. (You’ll definitely want to alternate between ‘sneakily betting on a middling horse’ to ‘throwing down a big one on a long shot ’cause you got a hunch’ type of lays for your bets.) There is room for bets for ‘win’ (meaning you think the horse will come in first), ‘place’ (or second) and ‘show’ (third). Lay the right bet on the right horse, and it pays back the odds listed on the box multiplied by the value of the betting chip.
And staking out your claims on those bets give plenty of chills and thrills. Players will struggle with the decision to geaux early — which means your bet is probably going to be free, instead of costing some of your winnings at the end of the race — or to geaux later so that you can get a better idea of which horse might win.
But, there’s more.
I love two innovations in the game that really ratchet up the gamification. On the bottom of the board are cards that affect how each of the races are handled. While the main board only allows one bet per box, some of the cards on the bottom have unique prop type bets (called “exotic finishes” which reminds me of some of the weird drizzles that my local pizza joint offers every time I pick up the box) that might have more than one space.
Trying to watch the racehorses fly by at real time speed, the track announcer chuckin’ and callin’ with pure abandon, AND calculating the odds of winning one of those prop bets is just too cool. Plus, there are a few more specialty bets (like ‘red to win’ or ‘blue to win’ or even ‘blue finishes higher than orange’) to consider at the top of the board.
With all of these different odds and bets and boxes, you might think the look would be jumbling and confusing, but the production is well done. It’s easy to scan the board and see what is popular and what is not. I bet the graphics team had to really resist the urge to go whole hog on a racing motif, and instead let the numbers and bets take center stage and it was a good decision to do so.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention how the action really gets started each race, because the conceit of this game falls apart if the racing itself was not done as well as it has been implemented. A smaller sideboard awaits all of the players, the one that the track announcer will mostly manage. It looks like a standard flat racetrack, with a series of spaces for each of the nine horses. Each of the horses has a different color and a different result on a two-sided die to keep track. In real time, the track announcer will grab two six-sided dice and start rolling, pausing only to announce the results of the toss and move the horses appropriately.
It’s a pretty simple concept, actually. Each of the horses are assigned to a different result on a standard 2d6. Obviously, the more common numbers (like 6, 7, and 8) will come up more often, but the game balance this by giving increasingly better bonus movement to the horses further out on the edges on repeat throws. So, sure the 7 will come frequently, but that horse will probably be limited to one movement a time, whereas the harder to hit numbers can get boosted up dramatically if they are rolled again.
One last cool thing to mention. I absolutely love how the game gives each player a choice of keeping one of two random VIP cards at the end of the race that can change how you approach some of the later races. But don’t worry, you’ll still be cheering and yelling. This game should really have been called Ready Set Yell, at least based on our plays. Honestly, this is one of my favorite games that I’ve played this year, a real contender for my game of the year.
My two sons and their buddies love board games, but they also need them to be action oriented. It might be kinetic energy like in Game of Thrones, where the troop movement is stored up and then thrust all over the map in a wave of destruction and treachery that we still talk about months later. It might be a simple card game like Stick ‘Em or No Thanks! when players are tossing cards and/or chips at each other when a particularly delicious play happens.
Knowing their taste in games, I am anxious to show them Ready Set Bet this weekend at their game night. I’ll be the track announcer (again!), using that famous phrase from Evangeline Downs that my dad loved to start the race: “Ils sont partis! (They’re off!)” I’ll try to maintain my proper focus on doing my job, throwing dice and moving the correct horse the correct number of spaces. But no matter how chaotic the race gets, I’ll still have a warm glow in the back of my mind, remembering those dinners at the track with my folks, dressed up in our Sunday finest, cheering on jockeys we didn’t even know to finish strong in the trifecta we just knew was going to come in.
Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!
— BJ from Board Game Gumbo
A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher for review and streaming.
A previous version had an egregious misspelling of “partis” and has been fixed. (Editor’s note: how about less Mountain Dew, more spell checking)