I love the track. We have this dirt hole of a paddock, a loud and raucous environment that’s as much a party as it is a pedestal for hoofed contest. Stepping through that turnstile is like entering another world, a Disneyland dedicated to debauchery.
Of course I love horse racing games too. It’s a genre that has all but disappeared. You simply don’t see titles like Winner’s Circle or The Really Nasty Horse Racing Game anymore. Maybe I’m still drunk from my last bout of carousing at the track, but I’m just going to say it. Long Shot: The Dice Game may be the best in breed.
“How bold of you to use the word ‘may’, Chuck.”
You got me, you scoundrel. I hesitate to definitively state such a thing because it’s far too early in the race. This release just hit the retail channel after all. Time is a necessary component for conclusive judgment, and I won’t have that for a long while. So, let’s do our best.
This complete reworking of Chris Handy’s 2009 release Long Shot is special. It transcends its peers by harnessing the strengths of the Roll & Write genre of tabletop games. Hopefully you’re as shocked as I was, because this was a revelation.
I’m not particularly fond of Roll & Writes. These are those games which can trace their lineage back to Yahtzee, now offering fancy tricks with tetrominos and dry erase markers. There are hundreds or perhaps even thousands of them now, successes such as Cartographers and Ganz Schon Clever. I’ve written about Silver & Gold at this very site, as well as a brief impression of the recent hit Hadrian’s Wall at my Patreon.
I understand this genre’s appeal, but it intrinsically lacks interaction and drama, two qualities I cherish. Two qualities Long Shot: The Dice Game offers in abundance.
The pace of play is fantastic. This is the strongest lift from Roll & Writes, as each turn is very fluid with a tight loop. One player rolls a pair of dice that dictate which horse will move and how far. Then every player picks up their dry erase pen and marks up their personal sheet. You get one action, one thing to do and it’s constrained by that die roll.
I love this bit.
The eight-sided die determines which horse moves each turn, but it also limits your personal action to effects bounded to this horse. The restriction is important, because it narrows strategic considerations and forces you into lesser desired pathways, but it also speeds up play by equally narrowing your action menu.
The options here are clever. You can do something traditional like place a bet, even mid-race, or you can buy the rolled horse hoping it manages to win, place, or show. You can massage the odds by manipulating bonus movements where specific horses which are not rolled leech a move off the active pony. You can even mark off little Concession spaces playing your own game of bingo.
Some of these options are transformative. By placing bets in the back half of the lap, you can strap your bags of cash onto horses in the lead, or perhaps horses other players are influencing.
This delaying of strategic decision allows you to backload gambits by shifting the thought space into a tactical realm. It’s all done by the agency of the player, at the risk of being too patient and missing your moment.
The option to give horses you’re pulling for bonus movement when competitors are activated allows you to draft off rolls that would otherwise be useless. It affords you an opportunity to massage the odds. It puts a degree of control back into the hands of the bettors, offering a psychological out from the perceived oppression of randomness. This isn’t all powerful or overly influential, it’s more akin to nudging the pinball table or buying a mulligan.
All of these small decision points function similarly to the sports phenomenon of micro betting. Micro bets are placed on individual actions in the middle of a contest. Such as whether the pitcher will throw a strike or ball, or whether a free throw will be made.
Marking up your card each turn elicits a similar focused rush. Long Shot: The Dice Game offers a continuous form of gambling where you wager limited actions for small yet momentous payouts. Will that Jersey action propel you forward or were you better off marking a Concession? Each is a speculation in its own right, a micro bet. It’s fascinating and addictive.
A key component is that the feedback to those decisions is often speedy. The Roll & Write structure keeps play nimble. Each action is quick and nearly simultaneous. Most players will already know what they’re doing before it gets to their turn, as most actions will not be affected by other player’s maneuvers. Sometimes, however, play will slow a tad. This is more common at the upper end of the player count.
It occurs most frequently when someone is moving a horse or buying one. If you’re going to place a bet on number seven, lovingly dubbed Better Safe Than Sorry, you want to wait until each player before you have taken their turn. In this way you are assured its position, and thus its perceived odds, have not unexpectedly shifted. This is the downside of turning a Roll & Write into something interactive and dynamic.
But to call this a Roll & Write is a misnomer.
It doesn’t feel like one. Fundamentally, the action does not occur on your player card. Like the blinders a racehorse wears, your score card focuses your attention on the race itself. It keeps you looking forward and emotionally invested on those wooden blocks hoofing through mud. It functions as an interface for your plot and scheming to the macro element of play, a conduit to the greater experience shared at the table.
And that’s powerful. You see, this is a horse racing game. That’s what it feels like. Much of it takes place above the table. There are discussions, both cajoling and trash talk. There is deal-making and joined efforts to tank a particular steed’s position because half the table has leaned in heavily on their bets. The ecosystem this is occurring in is topsy-turvy, with safe bets going awry and new competitors emerging. The arc of play is unpredictable game-to-game.
The social dynamic is strong, something which appeals greatly to me but may be a turn-off to some. You really need to weigh whether you should throw your money behind a particular horse as everything is open to the table. If you bet too heavily on a leader, others will either hop on your coattails or run you into the dirt. There are fleeting alliances and broken promises. It can be maddening but it’s always exhilarating and interactive.
In this way it’s more overt and active than one of its closest touchstones: Restoration Games’ Downforce. The texture provided by the many ways to earn payouts avoids the problematic social phenomenon of that design where everyone bets on the lead car and hands the win to another player. That won’t happen here, and the proceedings are all the more tense for it.
As previously mentioned, it can stumble a bit in pacing if you’re playing with a particular kind of player, and some may still find the variance of outcome to be too bitter and unpredictable. It can certainly be chaotic, despite player influence.
It’s also not simple. While not a strenuous or heavy design, there’s some awkwardness in explaining and internalizing some of the actions. This unfortunately precludes playing this with my daughter or those who don’t often play hobbyist titles. This can also lead to a somewhat slow start in your first play. It has this strange yet interesting familiarity curve where the table will try to get their bearings, slow playing it as they peruse their action options. Then it will remarkably speed up before slowing a touch as the depth of the design emerges and a new level of strategy and thoughtfulness is appreciated.
Yet for this style of game, I dare say it’s tremendous. Unparalleled, even.
And perhaps best of all is that it’s humane. Typing out the opening paragraph put a pit in my stomach. While there are far more brutal acts committed upon animals than whipping them into a gallop, the cruelty of this sport is inescapable. One significant benefit of enjoying these games on the tabletop is that they allow a gentler mode of engaging the majesty of the track.
This is just a splendid experience all around. It keeps you in constant movement, always acting and having a hand in the race. Yet it still feels like something not altogether in your control. The balancing act between observer and participant is spectacular. At this moment, there are very few ways I’d rather spend 30 minutes of my life than playing Long Shot: The Dice Game.
A review copy was provided by the publisher.