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High Society

Designer: Reiner Knizia
Publisher: Uberplay Games
Players: 3-5
Time: 30 minutes
Reviewer: Greg Aleknevicus

One of the hallmarks of a good game is that it allows you to pursue different strategies, the so-called "many paths to victory". High Society is sort of the reverse of this in that it has "many paths to defeat." Fortunately, this is a good thing.

High Society! is, on the surface, a very simple auction game. A quick reading of the rules would lead one to believe that it is a quick filler along the lines of For Sale. While it's true that the game is quick, I do not think it is at all light—it has several twists that can leave you feeling just devastated. More on these in a moment. The basics of the game are the auctioning and acquisition of possession tiles and these are numbered 1-10. There are also three tiles that double the value of all your possessions and one that halves their value. Rounding out the list of tiles for auction are two bad ones; a thief (he steals a previously acquired possession) and one that's worth -5. These cards are randomly shuffled and auctioned one at a time. For currency, each player has a hand of cards in specific denominations from $1 to $25. Bids are made around the table until all but one player drops out. The first twist is in how you make bids—you must place one or more of your money cards face up in front of you. The trick is that when increasing your bid you can only add cards to your bid, you may not exchange cards. So, if you had already bid your $15 and then want to raise it to $25 you would have to add $10, you cannot pick up your $15 and replace it with your $25. At first, this may not seem like that big a deal but as the game goes on you'll find yourself increasing restricted in what you can bid. Near the end of the game you may find that you're left with your $25, $20 and $2 bills left. While this is plenty, you're very restricted in the range of bids you can make. What do you do when a bid of $3 comes around to you? This is the first way in which you can find yourself royally screwed.

The second twist regards the "bad" tiles. There are only three in the deck but they can really mess things up. Since no one wants to purchase them the auction is handled a little different—the bidding proceeds as normal but the first player to drop out acquires the item. The twist is that she retains all the money she bid while all other players must pay the amount each had bid. This can be nasty and the turn order can cause agony. e.g. The Thief card is revealed. By the time it gets to you the bid is $12. You really don't want to pay $13 (or more) to avoid it but your left hand opponent has not yet made a bid. If you take it, he'll pay nothing! However, if you bid $15 then it's almost guaranteed that one of the others will take it and you'll have spent a great deal of money. This is the second way that High Society will cause you fits.

The three "doublers" and single "half-er" tiles have red borders, when the fourth one is drawn (but not auctioned) the game ends. The players sum their possessions (doubling and halving as necessary) and the player with the highest total wins. Simple, right? Not so fast! Here's where the final, and nastiest, twist comes in—the player with the least amount of remaining money automatically loses! This does more than anything else to advance the "many paths to defeat" scenario I described above. Near the end of the game players will often survey their situation and realize that they'll lose if they don't buy a particular item but also that they'll lose if they do buy it! Almost every time I play at least one player will ask "How did this happen to me?" This is the third way that you'll be tied in knots.

High Society is the first release from Uberplay that was produced entirely in-house so the issue of quality is a concern. Happily, I can report that they have done an excellent job with a top-notch production. The tiles are thick and durable (just like the original Ravensburger release) and the money cards are well designed. The artwork by Alvin Madden is outstanding and very attractive. Also welcome is that Uberplay has done a fine job of making the rules very thorough. The were some ambiguities in the original but things are very clear in this ruleset. I think that any time an older game is re-released as much care and attention should go into getting things right as is the case with High Society!.

High Society! is easily one of my favourite auction games and receives a very high recommendation. However, there is one large caveat I need to add and that's that the game is much better for fewer players than it is with more. This is actually a rather odd quality in an auctioning game as it is far more common for the reverse to be true. I think there are two reasons for this.

The first is that the "negative auctions" are far more interesting when there are fewer players. With more, the early bidders have a relatively easy time—bid a small amount and by the time it gets back to you (if it does) it will be high enough that it's worth accepting the penalty. With only three players it's a much tougher decision, if you bid low the others can as well and you may be forced to take a penalty without costing your opponents very much. Of course you could raise your bid but the problem with that is that it's more painful to pay $6 plus $4 than $10 due to the restriction on your denominations. (You remain much more flexible by retaining as many money cards as possible.) However, if you bid too high you may force your left hand opponent to take the penalty, letting your right hand opponent pay nothing!

The second reason that fewer is better is that the end of game "poverty rule" becomes much more prevalent. I found that players could almost ignore this when playing with five, spend freely and hope that someone else has spent even more. With three, this is really unwise and you can't ignore the rule to such an extent. Part of this is because there are fewer other players to "drive up the bidding". For example, you may be in a situation where the "9" tile is up for auction, one of your opponents has bid $6 and the other has dropped out. You're currently leading in points but have spent a lot to get there. What do you do? $6 is ridiculously low for the 9 but if you drive the bid up too high you may end up purchasing it yourself. This will put your score through the roof but you'll almost for sure be the poorest player and thus eliminate yourself from contention. This is agony but it's also wonderful stuff!

In short, I find that I always prefer to play High Society! with just three players. The beauty of this is that it makes for a very unique game. While I love Modern Art (another Knizia auction game), it simply doesn't work well with only three. So rather than viewing this as a limitation I see it as a definite bonus—if you're looking for an auction game that plays well with few players, you can't do any better than High Society.

- Greg Aleknevicus

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