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The object is to achieve the most possible money with your betting tickets by the end of the game. You can be successful exchanging the betting tickets or moving the horses to manipulate their order to fit your betting tickets.
Dirk Henn has been quite consistent in producing about one game per year in his own "db Spiele'' format. Several of these have been republished by major names, and Derby, the 12th in the db line, has a good chance at being one more of these. As the name implies, Derby uses a horse racing theme but it is not really a horse racing game, despite the track and rectangular-shaped horses.
If not racing, then what is a horse race about? Betting, of course! This is the true issue at hand with Derby, as each player takes positions on each of nine horses and tries to manipulate both their betting slips and the race itself to best align at the end. This is done through a mechanic whose nature is typical to many of Henn's games: simple yet not simplistic. This is often the beauty of his designs.
Each horse has nine betting cards associated with it, one for each possible finishing position in the nine-horse race. Each player randomly gets one slip for each horse, and the remaining cards are placed on fixed spots in the center of the oval track. In addition, each player is given a set of number cards that will move one to six horses; the exact amount of each is dependent on the number of players. Horses move by pairing these number cards with a movement cards.
The movement cards remind you of the Top Race/Detroit-Cleveland Grand Prix concept. Each card shows six horses that can be moved, with the top horse moving the least and the sixth moving the most. If you pair your "two'' card with a movement card, only the top two horses move; pairing a "six'' card moves all six. In play, you select the top number card from the stack in front of you, choose one of two open movement cards, and act accordingly. But, wait a minute: nine horses, and only six can move? That is because also on each movement card are the three motionless horses, and these are the betting slips that can be traded after you move the required horses.
To trade a slip, you take the card in your hand corresponding with that horse and place it at the bottom of its excess betting slips. Then, you take the top card, already revealed, from that stack. Obviously, you're trying to improve your standing in that horse relative to its likely finishing position. As the race goes on, information gets better and better yet the options to both move horses and change the right slips for the right numbers continually shrink. As horses cross the finish line or at the game end, they are placed in their final order and your slip scores for you if the horse finishes in its position or higher. For example, a "first place'' slip scores 1,500 points but only if the horse finishes first; it is worth zero for any other position. By comparison, the "five'' slip scores only 600 but pays off if the horse finishes in any position from one to five. Once a horse has crossed the finish line, though, no more betting slips can be exchanged for that horse.
For all of the card selections, you have a choice. The top card of each stack, be it your number cards or the horses' excess betting slips, is always shown face up. When selecting, you can take this card, or move it to the bottom of the stack and blind draw the next card. Say that I can trade a slip for Gray Mouse (one of the horses), and I want to do this because I'm holding the "two'' and he is now far behind. If the "six'' is on top, I may just take that and try to use movement cards efficiently to edge Gray Mouse into sixth or better. If the "three'' is on top, however, I may choose to put that underneath and blind draw the next card, hoping that it is not the "one'' but rather improves my position better than the "three'' would have. Similarly, this option is available when choosing number cards. Say a movement card is showing that moves Green Wave 14 spaces, which would leap him into first place, but on the fifth card spot. I'm holding the Green "one'' betting slip. If my face-up number card is a "two," I wouldn't get to move Green, so I may bury that and take the next hoping that it is the "five'' or "six'' that I know I have left in the stack. With only nine betting slips you can keep some track of what you're likely to get, even though you don't know for sure which everyone was dealt initially. With your number cards, you can be more accurate since you know the distribution and can remember which cards you buried to get to another. For the movement cards, you can choose one of the two face up or simply blind draw another.
The game ends when players have used their complete number card stack; this is 10, 12, or 16 rounds depending on the number of players. At that point, the horses that have not yet crossed the finish line are placed in their respective spots. Tied horses tie for the higher spot and the next is left unfilled. This gives real advantage to the last player, since they can often determine the relative positioning of at least two horses. Beyond this, the initial betting slip distribution can be a problem if you end up with mostly very low or very high numbers. In this case, you spend a number of your limited trades just getting a distribution that has a reasonable chance to win.
As expected, the payoffs of the slips are very well balanced. Holding all "nines'' which ensures that every slip pays off gets you only 900 total points. By comparison, holding all "fours'', ensuring that exactly four pay off (or more if you're lucky and two tie for third or fourth) gets you 3,200. Even this strategy won't likely win, and of course it may be impossible to implement anyway.
The production of the game is typical "db Spiel'', although the track is on a higher than usual quality board. The cards are nicely colored and of good stock, but the horses themselves are small rectangles of foam that are quite fiddly. The game would work ideally with a metal board and magnetic pieces. The betting slips get cumbersome in the middle with all the changing, but this is not really a problem. During the start of the race, removing the just played number and movement card pair must be done carefully to not upset the order of the horses just out of the gate. There is one amazing gaff in the board, however: there are only 3 spaces between numbered space 40 and numbered space 45! This is a shocking oversight from an otherwise well done production.
Derby is an enjoyable, tense game with a solid start, middle, and end component. Finding the right betting slip as the positions change, or betting too early on a perceived leader that gets left behind can be frustrating or fatal. It helps to keep the cards in your hand in the order represented on the board after each move, thus seeing at a glance which slips are "in the money'' and which ones need exchanging the most. Despite the small production glitches noted, this is a solid game that was a surprise from the Essen group. In my opinion, people should start to give Dirk Henn a little more advance hype.