Full disclosure: A review copy of Dark Horse was provided by Mandoo Games.
Alright, we’re back with more games from Mandoo! They published Wangdo, Venture Angels, and others, and I reviewed a whole cluster of those a while back. Now, they provided some games from Popcorn Games, as well, including this, Dark Horse! They also sent over Queenz, but that review will have to wait for a little bit. That’s fine, though.
In Dark Horse, you’re bidding on jockeys who may not have taken the phrase “Dark Horse” literally enough. Sure, you’ve got your horse, but there’s a tiger starting to outpace him with a look in its eye for the ostrich. That can’t be good. Further back, the turtle is actually making surprisingly good time? It’s a bit of a strange animal race, but you’re betting on it anyways. Can you figure out who will pull ahead in time to make you rich?
First, shuffle your Ticket Cards:
Deal two to each player. If you’re playing with two players, deal three cards to both players instead. Then, distribute Action Cards:
- 2 players: 8 cards
- 3 players: 7 cards
- 4 players: 6 cards
- 5 players: 6 cards
- 6 players: 5 cards
Next, you can set up the standees:
In turn order, each player takes an animal and places it to the left or the right of the current group of animals (the first player takes an animal and puts it in the center, to start). Once that’s decided, give the animal in last place the Dark Horse indicator:
You can also flip its bottom board over. We do both, though I didn’t, this time, for photo reasons. Set out the correct number of Dark Horse tokens, as well. Those are the hex tokens above.
- 2 players: 1 token
- 3 players: 2 tokens
- 4 players: 2 tokens
- 5 players: 3 tokens
- 6 players: 3 tokens
Once you’ve done that, you should be ready to start!
This one is surprisingly not that complex. On your turn, you may take one of the Dark Horse tokens, provided you do not already have one and you have more than one card in your hand.
After that, you must play one of the cards in your hand. These generally have a variety of effects:
- Move animals forwards or backwards.
- Move animals in certain places forwards or backwards.
- Move an animal to the end of the line.
- Swap two animals.
- Force a player to put one of their Tickets at the bottom of the Ticket deck and draw a new one.
Like I said! A diverse array of outcomes. The key thing is that you must play a card on your turn, even if it hurts you, and you will ultimately play all of your cards.
The game ends after everyone has played all of their cards. Score places, and then score a bonus if anyone took a Dark Horse token and it placed first, second, or third. The player with the most points wins!
Player Count Differences
It really depends on how much chaos you like. The more players, the less control you have over any particular outcome. However, there’s also a decent chance that other players might want the same thing as you. Of course, at lower player counts, you’re going to have to do most of the work yourself, which means you might end up playing more cards that really negatively impact your chances of winning. It’s a bit easier to get points for the Dark Horse at higher player counts, since you might have multiple players helping you (as opposed to having to try and do it yourself at two players, which I can’t particularly recommend). Personally, I’ve enjoyed it at both ends of the spectrum, so I don’t have a particularly strong preference on player counts here.
- Embrace chaos. I can’t really give you a ton of strategy advice, since it’s going to be hard to predict your ultimate endpoint. So many players are dropping cards and moving animals around and ultimately, it’s possible that this isn’t going to work out for you. That’s okay! It’s a short game, and it’s pretty fun to see how much control you can exert. But I think the best strategy is to go into it with the mindset that there might not be an especially large number of things that you can do to prevent the inevitable.
- Don’t overplay your hand. You do not want to waste all the cards that can affect your animals too quickly, otherwise you’ll both signal which animals you care about and you’ll be at the mercy of your opponents, long-term. Neither of those options are particularly beneficial, so I’d recommend spending some time moving things around.
- Don’t keep cards that will eventually hurt you. These are the worst. If you’re already in first place and nothing seems to be changing that, don’t hold on to things that will send you backwards. That said, it’s especially difficult to predict how the ordering will change if you have 4+ players all operating at the same time. You may not even be able to control the animals that you need to be in the lead! To that end, get rid of bad cards quickly.
- Obscure your motives. You don’t want other players to figure out what you want, at all. Instead, try to spend some time moving certain things around, moving them backwards, occasionally moving them up. Sometimes you don’t draw cards that can affect first or second place, and if you give off that impression, your opponents might buy it. This is every bit a deduction and bluffing game (in addition to a bidding and betting game).
- Be a bandwagoner, if you can. If you see people going for the Dark Horse, also go for it. Then you can all help each other. Bonus points if the Dark Horse is an animal that you want to do particularly well in the upcoming race, as well. Just make sure you aren’t going to shoot yourself in the foot with the cards you have regarding the Dark Horse.
- If you can figure out what your opponent(s) want, torpedo it. There’s one card that moves third place to the back of the line; that will normally do it. This is also a good attitude to take if you don’t have a Dark Horse token and other players do; you should do your best to banish that animal to the back of the line and cost them some serious points for their hubris. It’s a pretty clear signal when someone takes the Dark Horse token, so, don’t let them get all those bonus points for their efforts. Cruel, but efficient.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- Plays super quickly. It’s a 15-minute game, tops, in my experience. I suppose it might err slightly towards 20 with six players, but what game doesn’t take longer with six?
- Very easy to learn. You really just play cards from your hand and do what the cards say until you have no more left; there’s not a lot more to the game than that, basically.
- I love the multi-use cards. I think I like multi-use cards in general, though; they definitely are awesome in Carthago and Point Salad, as well, and here being able to choose your target and how it’s affected by your card does give you some flexibility in an otherwise-very-chaotic game. I think it’s a very smart choice, personally, and it improves the game.
- The animal standees are very nice. It gives the game a nice tactile sensation as you move them around. They’re also all different animals being ridden by totally serious jockeys, so I really think that was a great move for the game. It presents itself very whimsically but takes itself totally seriously, and that juxtaposition makes it a lot of fun.
- The theme / art is also particularly delightful. Unsurprisingly, Ian O’Toole does another wonderful job, here. We’re really fortunate to have such a solid amount of great artists working on tabletop games, these days; this game looks absolutely awesome.
- The Dark Horse indicator doesn’t really fit on the animal standees super well without potentially damaging it. It seems like it’s a bit too small. Now, we just flip that animal’s bottom tile and that seems to work fine.
- Not drawing any cards that can affect the animals you want to be in the lead is a bit disappointing. That doesn’t happen that often, but if it does, it’s a bit frustrating. Thankfully, the game’s pretty short.
- The English rulebook needs some work. It’s very minor sentence flow stuff, but it’s still a bit distracting when I read through it. Then again, my copy only (hilariously) came with a Korean rulebook, so, still a marked improvement for my understanding.
- It’s going to be a high-chaos mess at high player counts. This will likely not appeal to a decent number of players, but, it’s meant to be a fillerish-weight game, so I’d argue it’s not trying to present as anything beyond that. Still a con, but a very small one, in my opinion.
- That “third place is now last place” card is a super powerful card. That can almost feel a bit swingy, especially if your frontrunner is the one that gets torpedoed by it. There’s not a whole lot you can do to avoid it, though, so just hope it happens to someone else? I’d say the same about “force a player to exchange one of their Tickets with the deck”. If that happens to you late enough in the game, it can be terrible!
Overall: 7.75 / 10
Overall, I think Dark Horse is a solid little game! I think that the main thing it has going for it is that it’s very bright, colorful, tactile, and fast, which are all great things for a small game to have going for it. I think it fundamentally makes me feel like I’m betting on a horse race, and that’s exciting (as opposed to a game that makes me feel like I’m participating in a bicycle race, which is … less so). This game isn’t going to appeal to fans of order and strategy, though, as the game is almost completely tactical; the landscape of the race is going to change wildly as players play seemingly randomly, and you can get torpedoed without any cause or reason just because someone wanted to get rid of a card they were worried might hurt them later. This means you might face an entirely different lineup from turn to turn, especially as the player count grows. That makes this kind of an ideal drinking game, if you’re into that sort of thing, since your control over the game is a weird mix of who players decide to try to spite with the limited (honestly, basically zero) information that they have. And, to be honest, that’s pretty fun! Add in some fantastic art from the always-skilled Ian O’Toole and you’ve got yourself a great little minigame. If you’ve ever wanted to take a day at the derby or you just like a quick and chaotic game, I’d definitely recommend checking out Dark Horse! It’s a solid little game.