Why You Should Play High Society

Scoring in High Society (Image: Haoran Un)

Auctions ask you difficult questions. What is the value of a thing? How much is love worth? Is victory worth it? What is the price of winning? What if the price of winning is losing?

Auctions makes you answer those questions in an instant. Auction games make you question everything. Auctions make for great games.

High Society is one of the greatest auction game ever made, from one of the industry's most prolific designers. It takes all the things that make auctions good, and adds subtle twists that make it exceedingly great.

High Society
  • Designer: Reiner Knizia
  • Publisher: Osprey Games, Eagle-Gryphon Games, et al.
  • Year: 1995.
  • Game time: 20 minutes.
  • Players: 3-5.
  • Why should you play it? It's the greatest Auction game ever made.

In High Society, you are all wealthy socialites with more money than sense. You win by buying status symbols at auction. Status symbols are worth 1-10 points. A small number of cards multiply your final score. The person with the most points the end of the games.

Simple? No.

Whoever invented auctions was a genius. A sadistic, twisted genius, as anyone who's ever tried to buy property in Sydney knows. A regular auction forces you to do the impossible: to to buy apples with oranges. To trade one thing of value for a different set of values entirely.

To complicate matters, there are three subtle but delicious twists to a standard auction game that lift this game from goodness to greatness. Reiner Knizia, too, is a genius.

High Society: Bidding (Photo: Haoran Un)

First: change cannot be taken mid-auction. If I bid $1 million, that card stays on the table until the end of the auction. I can't take that back that to play my $2 million. I'll just have to add my $2m to my $1m and make it a bid of $3m.

If someone else wins, then you get to pick up your cards again. This has the odd effect of making you far less likely to play your $25m card, but it also makes your $1m card far more valuable.

In technical terms, currency has stopped being fungible, and that means it is far harder to calculate the value of the money you're spending.

High Society: A hand of Cash (Photo: Haoran Un)

Second: there are three catastrophe cards, which halve your points, or remove 5 points, or remove your next status symbol. These are compulsory auctions. Everyone must place a dollar figure on the table, or else they're forced to take the calamity card.

All money spent to avoid catastrophe is gone forever. The game places you on the horns of a dilemma. You're immediately making one unpleasant decision (to throw away money) to avoid another catastrophic alternative (to lose the game, potentially).

Here's the last and best twist. The person who has the most points at the end of the game wins EXCEPT that the person who spent the most money loses. To reiterate: the person with the least money at the end of the game cannot win.

Combined with the previous two rules, that balances everything in a number of delicious ways.

Each design decision in this game neatly balances against each other.

Auctions are normally a case of man-to-man brinkmanship. Do you want this more than me? And can I manipulate you into making a rash purchase? But the last rule prevents a straight bidding war.

High Society (Photo: Haoran Un)

You need to calculate the short-term gain of this card against the long-term prospect of losing. But when making your calculations, it's not simply a matter of spending more money. Because you cannot take change, outbidding your opponent not only involves giving away money, but giving away flexibility.

If I've splurged on a high status-symbol card early in the game and you have a perfect memory, you know how much money you need to spend to keep me the loser. However, you also need to beat the other players at the table, and also avoid any unexpected catastrophe cards.

When spending in order to avoid catastrophe, you might well corner yourself: to avoid catastrophe might well mean spending the most money and losing automatically.

High Society is a perfect short-game for 3-6 people. It's small and easily transportable. You can play it in 20-30 minutes, and it's a neat game to play at the beginning or end of a games night. Also, you can easily fit in two games with some co-workers at lunchtime.

It's a game full of delicious, meaningful decisions. It deserves a place on every gamer's shelves.


Comments

    Interesting! thanks for the write up.

    my current favourite auction game is Neue Heimat(new version is called "The Estates")

    And you can get it for the amazing price of $16, including shipping (from book depository). I played it for the first time last weekend, and yes, its great. Possibly not quite as good as Knizias other auction game, Ra - but still pretty damn good.

    Also worth pointing out that the newest version just released by Osprey Games has an absolutely gorgeous art nouveau style and larger cards through which to enjoy the art. The Eagle Gryphon version (pictured in the article) is fine, but doesn't do much to encourage people who aren't familiar with the game.

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