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Dusty Dragon #10: High Society (review)

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High Society box

In modern board gaming, we tend to have a short memory and a long wishlist. Six of the top ten games on Board Game Geek were published after 2010. Kickstarter has us shelling out funds many months (sometimes years) before games are released, and by the time they land on our doorstep, we’ve already moved on to the next thing.

In The Dusty Dragon–a monthly column on iSlaytheDragon–my goal is to reintroduce games from the past. Games that are at least five years old and are not in the Board Game Geek top 150. The goal of the column is to balance out the more immediate board game coverage on iSlaytheDragon by reminding us of some games that might have slipped through the cracks. (To see all posts in this series, click here.)

Reiner Knizia has many auction games to his name, but few play as quickly as High Society. High Society is a lean game built around a central concept: players want to get the most points, but if they are too greedy, they can be eliminated from the game altogether. High Society is twenty years old this year–does it still hold up?

How It Works

High Society is an auction/hand management game for three to five players. Players are wealthy socialites wasting their money on ostentatious possessions and trying to avoid misfortune. The winner is the player with the most points (and also not the least amount of money) when the game ends.

Each player receives an identical hand of money cards. The sixteen possession, recognition, and misfortune cards are shuffled together, and the first player reveals the top card of the deck.

High Society set up. ... Yes, you just shuffle the deck and turn the top card over. BAM!
High Society set up. … Yes, you just shuffle the deck and turn the top card over. BAM!

In turn order, players bid cards from their hand for the card revealed from the deck. Players may keep bidding on their turns provided that they bid more money than the last player and that they add to the cards they have already played (that is, players may not make change). A player may also pass, taking the money bid back into hand. If the card is a possession or recognition card, the player who didn’t pass discards his or her bid and keeps the card. If the card is a misfortune card, the first player to pass keeps his or her bid (and suffers the consequences of the misfortune) and all other players discard their bids. The player who kept the last card turns up a new card and starts the next round of bidding.

The game ends immediately when the fourth card with a red border is turned up. The player(s) with the least amount of money remaining in hand is/are eliminated from the game. The remaining player with the highest score wins.

The rules for the travel edition are included on cards. They're not quite as handy as a rule booklet, but I love that they easily fit in the tuckbox.
The rules for the travel edition are included on cards. They’re not quite as handy as a rule booklet, but I love that they easily fit in the tuckbox.

High on the Hog, or Down in the Mud?

I’ve made no secret that I love Reiner Knizia’s auction games. Ra is one of my top ten favorite games of all time, and Medici almost made the same list. It shouldn’t be surprising, then, that I really enjoy High Society. But my enjoyment of High Society is much different from my enjoyment of Knizia’s other auction titles.

What separates High Society from, say, Ra and Medici is its emphasis. Ra and Medici are full game experiences: each game lasts around an hour, and when the game is over, players are satisfied. They can walk away from the table with a full stomach. There is strategy involved, and while the games center around timely opportunism, players get to see a full strategy come to fruition. High Society is more of a snack. The entire game takes fifteen to twenty minutes to complete (even with a rules explanation) and is based around one novel concept: players are restrained from chasing points at all costs. Because High Society is such a lean game that, while in Knizia’s longform auction games the focus is on the game’s mechanics and strategy, the focus here is on the players and the table.

The cards in the auction deck in High Society. The possessions, scandals, and recognition cards provide a good deal of flavor for the game.
The cards in the auction deck in High Society. The possessions, scandals, and recognition cards provide a good deal of flavor for the game.

Knizia’s games aren’t usually known for their theming, but I think the flavor in High Society is right on. Wealthy socialites spending their millions on frivolous possessions while dodging disasters and still having enough cash on hand to upstage their rivals is a fun environment to inhabit. The art in the Eagle-Gryphon edition of the game fits this world. It’s lighthearted without being cartoonish. The people and possessions on the cards look distinguished, but the cards tell a story. (In one game, when the woman’s portrait followed the scandal card, the word “appeasement” was thrown around.) Because the game is short and easy to understand, it fits my definition for an ideal filler game: it is a conversation starter. Players are willing to explore their surroundings. The player with lots of points and no cash has been compared to Downton Abbey‘s Earl of Grantham. In one game when the misfortunes came early, my brother-in-law commented, “I have no money and no possessions. This isn’t High Society; this is real life.” The easygoing nature of the game opens up fun banter at the table, and while I wouldn’t honor High Society as the Best Auction Game There Is, it is one of the most engaging.

Each player gets all the money cards of one color. They are easy to sort at the end of the game.
Each player gets all the money cards of one color. They are easy to sort at the end of the game.

And High Society isn’t hanging its top hat on theme alone. It is engaging because it is still a very good auction game, bolstered by two considerations that drive all of the action: players have limited cards, and at least one player will be eliminated from the scoring. The main novelty the game captures is this elimination. Essentially, it reins in all players by punishing the greediest. Money is kept secret in the game, and while it’s trackable, it’s hard to keep an exact count, especially in a game with four or five players. Players ideally want to spend as much money as they can, winning recognition and possessions and avoiding misfortunes, while still expending less than the most prodigal player. This is an incredibly hard balance to strike, and finding the balance is made more difficult because the game has a variable length. There are four “timing” cards in the game, and only three of these are bid on. So players have to be careful, because even if their strategy is to win big at the beginning and coast through the rest of the game, the game can end quicker than you think, and if you are the player with the least money, it doesn’t matter how many mansions or fancy dresses you own: you are out.

I find that the timing mechanism keeps tension high and gives the game an almost push-your-luck feel. How much are you willing to spend now at the risk of the game ending early? Or, conversely, how much are you willing to spend, knowing that the game could last until the final card? Players have to weigh their options and plan accordingly. Because of the timing mechanism, the order the cards come out is hugely important, lending a good deal of replayability to the game. In one game, my sister spent big at the start of the game on the yacht and estate cards. She had no way of knowing that the next three cards were all misfortunes–misfortunes that she desperately needed to avoid. She paid handsomely to avoid most of them, and at the end of the game, she had the least amount of money. In other circumstances, she likely could have ridden her early lead to victory.

The money cards each player has to bid with. It can be a challenge to manage your money well.
The money cards each player has to bid with. It can be a challenge to manage your money well.

The timing element in the game illustrates what I imagine some players won’t like about High Society. Unlike, say, Mogul or Airlines Europe, in which the timing cards are shuffled into a known sample, in High Society the timing cards are shuffled with the rest of the deck. It is possible for the game to end after a mere four cards (although this scenario is highly unlikely). Because of this, there is a hefty dose of luck in the game. What seems strategic in one game (vindicated by the cards going your way) can look foolhardy in another, and the players are at the mercy of the order of the cards. While I agree that there is luck in High Society, for me this potential qualm is mitigated by the playtime. While I wouldn’t accept as much luck in a game that lasts two (or even one) hours, for fifteen minutes of fun, I can accept that things might not go my way. And because things might not go the way players want them to, that makes them more likely to try risky gambits in High Society. In one game, I conservatively held my cash to run the table toward the end of the game. Well, the end of the game came sooner than expected, and while I had almost $40 million more than my closest competitor, I was completely shut-out on points. Fortune does indeed favor the bold, and this keeps the game fresh as players adapt and react to the vicissitudes of the deck. The luck inherent to the experience is a small price to pay for the interesting dynamics of each game.

The misfortune cards are an interesting twist to the game.
The misfortune cards are an interesting twist to the game.

The novelty of one player being eliminated from the final scoring is what usually steals the show in discussions of High Society, but there is another interesting aspect to this auction game: the hand management. Each player starts with the same hand of money cards, but the way players budget them can lead to some tense situations in the game. Once players place cards on the table to bid, they can only increase their bids by playing more cards, not simply by increasing the bid. Early on, it seems to make sense to bid by nickels and dimes, slowly and incrementally raising the bid. However, by mid-game, this strategy can hamper players as the only cards they can use to raise the bid are higher-amount cards. And, again, as one player will be eliminated for having the least money, players need to keep some of their bidding cards in reserve. The high-stakes hand management in High Society is a brilliant way to increase tension and at the same time reduce analysis paralysis. (Unlike, say, Medici, players have a limited number of amounts they can possibly bid.)

This is a sticky situation. Bids can escalate quickly if you don't budget your cards well.
This is a sticky situation. Bids can escalate quickly if you don’t budget your cards well.

I have the travel version of High Society, which comes in a simple tuckbox with only cards. Even the rules are printed on cards. For me, this is perfect. The game-to-footprint ratio is high, meaning the game is more likely to travel with me and remain in my collection. The cardstock is very nice and snappy, as is the norm for Eagle-Gryphon’s games, and I like the evocative artwork on the cards. All told, the High Society package is nice. When you consider that you can often purchase the game new for a mere $8, you almost feel like you’re robbing the publisher. High Society is an extraordinary value.

The box advertises play for three to five players, and that’s accurate. What serves as a good bid varies depending on the number of players, so the game naturally scales. For my part, I think tension is highest with four players, so that’s my favorite player count for this game, but I wouldn’t turn it down with three or five.

The tuckbox for High Society is tiny, making it ideal for travel. It's pocket sized, so that travel can be literally almost anywhere.
The tuckbox for High Society is tiny, making it ideal for travel. It’s pocket sized, so that travel can be literally almost anywhere.

High Society is an excellent entree into auction games, as well as a fun game in its own right. The rules are simple enough for new players to learn, yet the decisions are interesting enough to serve as a filler for more experienced players. The setting here works, and the game is simply fun to play. As a filler game, of course this won’t serve as the main attraction for any game night. But you might be surprised at how many games of High Society you’re tempted to play in a sitting. High Society is a clever game, and you don’t have to break the bank to get it. It’s a winner for what it is.

  • Rating 8
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Summary

Pros:

  • Fun flavor keeps spirits high at the table
  • Clever auction mechanism keeps the game fresh, even for a short game
  • Tense decisions keep players invested in the outcome of the game
  • Simple rules, short gameplay, and interesting decisions make for a winning combination

Cons:

  • Game includes a healthy dose of luck
  • Timing mechanism may frustrate strategic players
8.0 Very Good

I'll try anything once, but my favorite games are generally middleweight Euros.

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