Shut up and take our money – but not all of it
Originally released in 1995, Reiner Knizia’s High Society is often overshadowed by the trilogy formed by the German designer’s other auction games of the decade: Modern Art, Medici and Ra. This year’s revamped edition gives the game a rightful chance to be rediscovered. Firstly because its latest makeover, led by Medusa Dollmaker’s Art Nouveau-inspired illustrations, is absolutely gorgeous and, secondly, because High Society is just a ridiculous amount of fun.
High Society starts out with a light but amusing theme. Players are turn-of-the-century French socialites that must maintain their status by – what else? – splashing their cash as publicly as they can, without living life a little too large. Knizia’s coup de maître is that no matter their score, the person with the least money at the end of the game is cast out of society, making it impossible for them to win. It’s a simple twist that introduces a riotous amount of mind games and bid-baiting to each auction for one of the game’s status cards, as players lay down increasing numbers of money cards until they pass, reclaiming their cards, or are the last person left – whether they want to be or not. The cards come in fixed denominations from 1(000) to 25(000) francs, requiring players to think carefully about what they lay down to increase their bid to avoid diminishing their options for future rounds. The last-minute elimination and tricky cardplay makes for some excellent surprises when it comes to crowning a winner – matches that are won or lost by a single digit are among the best reveals gaming has to offer.
The second twist arrives with the disgrace cards, which flip the bidding on its head as the first person to pass is shunned with a negative effect or modifier to their score. In these inverted rounds, all the money on the table is claimed by the bank once the card is taken, neatly forcing players into awkward situations where they’re forced to weigh up the cost of dodging – or biting – the bullet. High Society isn’t a complicated game by any measure, but the variation between rounds and the balancing act required to score high without ending up penniless leaves plenty of room for playful (or not so playful) nastiness and the need to shift tactics on the fly.
You can’t bide your time waiting to scoop up the last run of cards to the chagrin of your opponents, either. Four of the cards – including three valuable times-two multipliers and a score-halving disgrace card – have coloured backgrounds. When the last is drawn, the game ends immediately. The flexible length and unpredictable finish make the strategy a bit more chaotic to manage than with the fixed length of other auction games, but cleverly forces everyone to be completely involved in every round of bidding – several of our games saw neither of the two highest status cards even make it out of the deck, sealing the fate of overly-patient players.
All of this would be impressive enough in a longer game, yet High Society crams it into a fast and furious 20 minutes (or fewer, depending on the draws), with an equally modest set of components and rules. What it lacks in terms of ambition and scale compared to Knizia’s more noteworthy auction games, High Society overcomes with a much quicker filler length, complex simplicity and purely entertaining design backed up by its designer’s trademark twists on the formula. Those looking for a strict, serious auction experience are probably better off investing their cash elsewhere. For anyone after 20 minutes of laughter, mischief and fun, you can bet on High Society.
Packed with clever gameplay twists, beautiful art and plenty of potential for friends to screw each other over, High Society might not be the most groundbreaking auction game ever created – but it might be one of the most out-and-out entertaining entries in the packed genre.
Designer: Reiner Knizia
Artist: Medusa Dollmaker
Time: 20 minutes
This review originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here – or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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