Thursday, February 7, 2008

Win, Place & Show -- "Horserunners"

Win, Place & Show is a classic example of a "grown-up" game from the 1960s. A bit clunky to play and strangely indirect in emphasis. The game's action is really about the betting and it's the primary path to victory, but players spend most of their time rolling the dice and moving plastic horses around the race track in a tactically simple horse-race.
A characteristic of more modern euro game designs is a ruthless concentration on the key elements of the game and paring down of extraneous elements that might contribute to the theme but aren't essential to the play of the game.
But WP&S is from an earlier era, when the value of this approach hadn't been discovered. The experience of most gamers game from playing games like Monopoly or Clue, which also have a lot of extra stuff cluttering up the essential elements of the game.
I did get to enjoy some adult sessions of WP&S, but my fondest memories of the game and the reason why I still have it, come from discovering that it made a great game to play with my kids during that middle period when they're ready for something more challenging than Sorry!, but aren't quite ready for adult level games. My daughter and son would often ask to play the game, which my daughter dubbed "Horserunners."
The key to this transformation was discarding the betting aspect of the game, which isn't appropriate for kids anyway, and concentrating on the racing.
A problem when playing with kids is that it's desirable that they win most of the time, otherwise they get discouraged and lose interest. But it's also a problem if the parent makes it too easy or obviously doesn't play as well as they could. Kids aren't stupid and they'll catch on soon enough that Dad or Mom "let" them win and that ruins the fun, too. Once you've moved beyond games of pure luck like Chutes & Ladders or dominant luck like "Sorry!," achieving a good balance between winning and providing a challlenge is tough.
But Win, Place & Show provides a way around this because all horses aren't created equal. While the right rolls and good play can give any horse a chance to win, odds are that the favorites will win most of the time. The game provides odds for each horse (although they're not entirely accurate in adult play, they're close enough for this purpose). The solution is simply to give the younger players the better horses. This provides a ready-made balancing mechanism that's still not obvious to the kids. The game appears "fair" to them, even though the parent has handicapped the race.
We usually had three playing, so my son (youngest) would get the best horse and the fourth-best horse. My daughter would get the second-best and fifth horse and I would take the third horse and the worst.
This arrangement provided enough of a challenge to help maintain my own interest while ensuring that over a series of races the kids won more often than not.
It also helped teach them about tactical decision-making and overall game strategy with real consequences for poor choices. It was possible to lose to Dad, which made winning that much more fun.
This worked out very well and both my kids grew up to enjoy challenging games. I'm now working the same project with a new batch, although there's less need to enlist Win, Place & Show these days because there are quite a few newer games that do also good job for mixed adult and kid play such as Family Fluxx and HerosScape.

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