An Heirloom of Modernity – A Ready Set Bet Review

It’s sometime-A.M. and half the house is sleeping. The other half is riding the edge of sobriety and screaming at 11 little horses. A small pile of money lies crumpled between pillars of glass and plastic. The size of the bounty doesn’t matter, what matters is that it exists.

I shake my fist and let the dice tumble free, bracing in a rare moment of silence.

“Seven!” someone shouts as if they’re dealing craps. I groan in disgust. I care, but I don’t really care.

Before my body can snap back to neutral, Tim’s grabbed the bones and let ’em fly.


I’m the one yelling. Tim and I connect with a wild high-five and it’s as if the entire track is erupting.

There’s this game that’s popular with some of my friends. The ones that don’t play modern board games and don’t read articles like this.

You may have seen this thing. It’s more wooden antique than board game. It has no real name, no credited designer. We simply call it The Horse Racing Game.

It’s not much of a game though. You’re dealt random playing cards and those map to the horses you’re stuck with for the round. You kick money into a pot and play until you’re out of chips. There’s no strategy, no wit. It scrambles to include players by having them roll dice and move the horses along. You are both the workhorse and the observer.

It’s a wooden effigy of exciting sport. It’s devoid of soul. At best, it creates a vacuum and expects the players to fill it. And we do, by embracing the electric rush of gambling.

But for every shared moment of excitement and anguish, there’s a dozen more of sheer boredom and insolence. We play until everyone but a select few have run out of chips. It’s Lamb Chop on a bender, a night of Monopoly that won’t ever end. We stand around the table rolling dice and raising voices until our legs and minds have withered.

I push for a more sensible approach. I argue we should set a time to stop, or siphon winnings out of the game each round. They don’t understand or care about the lunacy of the closed economy and lack of elimination. It’s at times unbearable, and it always leads to exhaustion and capitulation. It’s become the butt of jokes.

“Why don’t we pull out the horse racing game?”

“Because I have to pick up my kids in six hours.”

The space above the table is a blur. Stillness is torn by a buzz of limbs, chips falling from the sky to smother numbers. The surroundings are no less the bedlam as bodies rise and jitter.

And I’m as calm as a pole dangling a pinata of bees.

The crowd of eight screaming in cacophony as I roll dice as fast as I can.

Nine! Come on nine!/DAMMIT/Learn to roll you stooge/Nine!/AHHH!

My ears are full and my mind is racing as fast as the small horses I nudge along.

In our parlance, Ready Set Bet is the new Horse Racing Game. This one has a designer, and he’s John D. Clair. Instead of a void it offers frenetic tension. It doesn’t arbitrarily assign you steeds and then spit in your face when the dice come up rotten. Rather, one player – functioning as a Game Master – rolls dice at a steady pace, progressing the race in real-time. They can, but they won’t, and they don’t stop.

You’re left wearing out the edge of your seat, slamming betting chips on a large board and trying to secure wagers before someone else. Betting positions are limited and you’re all in conflict.

It’s war.

There’s a wonderful pressure at the heart of Ready Set Bet. The smartest players want to hold their wagers back until the last possible moment when the horses are close to the finish. But the last possible moment is in conflict as others move to claim the juiciest bets early. There’s this dance as you hover indecisively, waiting for the right time to strike. It’s akin to two gunslingers tightly wound and ready to explode.

And then there’s this delightful sense of confusion that muddies up the action. It’s spurred forth by the feverish pace as well as the more complex betting options. These include randomized conditional prop bets such as horse eight finishing ahead of all of the blue colored racers. There’s a large mix and they change each race. It can be difficult to quickly make sense of it all while some lunatic is continually shouting out numbers and hamming it up, stretching to be heard over the throng of players verbally willing desired outcomes.

Ready Set Bet is best described as a bridge. Yes, one as sharp as Kirk Hammett’s work in Creeping Death, but also one serving overtly as a linkage from old to new. It bears so many similarities to that antique horse racing game that it’s hard to imagine it accidental. Instead, I interpret it as a modernization of that heirloom. It offers special asymmetric powers to players, variable content, and simultaneous play. Yes, a bridge to current trends but also to the more practical and reliable joy modern games offer. None of our time is wasted. Agency is nurtured and emotions are elevated through defined mechanisms. It’s going to hit more often because it’s designed to.

But it’s also a bridge to another kind of experience. It forms a connection between the fierce excitement of the racetrack and a sequestered group of players huddled around a table. It’s at its best when everyone is invested in the raw display of emotion and in those moments, it’s unlike anything else the hobby can muster. It occupies a fuzzy realm between party and strategy game while capturing the theater of live action. And it’s comfortable in its non-conformity.

Everything feels bigger than it is. The sense of scale isn’t provided by a large box of components and hundreds of cards, but instead by the humans around the table. I feel like I’m somewhere else, whisked away from a dank basement and deposited in the dirt behind a pack of hooligans. Ready Set Bet often feels more immersive than the bevy of thematic titles constantly paraded as best in breed.

Despite all of this praise and excitement, there are moments of catastrophe. It’s a game that can fail spectacularly. While it’s provided some of the most fantastic sessions of the past year, it’s also floundered at times like a wounded mare. This can happen if the group’s heart isn’t in it. People need to be yelling, they need to be active. They need to care.

Otherwise, it’s one dope rolling dice in silence.

It’s also a very loose simulation of the racetrack experience as opposed to a more precise one. It seeks to capture the intoxicating energy of the pavilion crowd, but it does so by keeping you active during the race as opposed to simply observing and fretting over wagered money. It also tries to obfuscate the low stakes of riskless board gaming by presenting players with escalating powers and new bet options. It accomplishes this well from my perspective.

I believe it a minor miracle that we’ve been gifted two exceptional horse racing games in the same year. This is a genre that has all but vanished, and it’s now received a huge resurgence courtesy of Ready Set Bet and Long Shot: The Dice Game. Even more surprising is that these two designs share little in common. The latter is a more contemplative game that hews closely to traditional strategy designs with a clever Roll & Write chassis. It still boasts the spirit of horse racing, but you’re afforded the opportunity to manipulate the track while checking off various boxes to collect sets, place bets, and score money. There is certainly some excitement and a great deal of suspense, but it’s not the turbulent social festivity that Ready Set Bet manages. It’s not quite as immersive or transportive.

But both complement each other well. Long Shot finds its groove with smaller player counts of three to five in order to keep rounds concise and the pace snappy. Ready Set Bet wants a larger crowd, at least five and even better as you approach the maximum eight. They’re both triumphs of genre, riding in tandem to surpass even their strongest peers.

Ready Set Bet is a magical game. I’ve found immense satisfaction running the experience as well as slinging bets. In the event no one wants to act as facilitator, there is even a surprisingly effective free app you can fire up on a tablet with near zero effort. As long as you can provide an energetic and engaged group, this game flourishes and does things I’ve never seen on the tabletop. Ready Set Bet is a thoroughbred and one of the best experiences 2022 has to offer.


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