High Society ★★★
Reiner Knizia is not a designer known for his strong themes. Most of his designs feature only the flimsiest of justifications for their settings and are rightly regarded as abstracts. And yet, there’s a satirical side to him. In his 1995 classic High Society, we take the role of twenty century socialites willing to waste our riches in the pursuit of status, clout and appearances.
At the start of the game each player is given the same large stack of banknotes. Unable to differentiate themselves in economic terms, they strive to assert their superiority over their class brethren by purchasing all sorts of needless extravagances, from perfume to jewelry. Whoever amasses the most wins.
Each turn, a card is revealed from a deck of 16 cards. Most of them show a luxury of some sort with an associated value in points, from 1 to 10. Players bid using the money in their hand, getting their money back if they decide to pass. The last player left in the auction takes the card and adds it to their score.
Now, not all cards have a positive effect. One nullifies one of our purchases, another divides our score by two and the last one slaps us with a 5 point penalty. Here players bid not to take them, with whoever passes first getting back their cash and everyone else paying dearly for not having to do so.
Lastly, there are three score multipliers in the deck. Pair them up with the right luxuries and you’ll coast to victory. Pay too much for them and you won’t have any cards to use their power on, rendering them useless. Above all, there’s a catch: Whoever has the least money at the end of the game is eliminated, regardless of their score.
After all, millionaires may have awful taste but it’s only when they cease to be that their sense of fashion becomes unacceptable. Extravagance is only afforded to the rich. In High Society, as in real life, the only thing worse than a poor sense of fashion is being downgraded to firmly middle class.
There’s an undeniable brilliance in this mechanic. Every purchase you make puts you closer to winning by points but also to losing for having the least money. It’s a double-edged sword that must be carefully handled to stab the other players but not ourselves. It’s the heart of the game and what makes it fresh and exciting.
It also ties into one last mechanical subtlety. In High Society, players can’t ask for change. You must spend whole banknotes and can’t put them back in your hand as you increase your bids. Mixing hand management with an auction not only introduces a whole dimension into the game, it also pushes us closer and closer to overspending.
In many ways, I believe High Society is brillant. However, what kills it for me is how it ends. Four of its cards are painted in blue and when the last one is drawn, the game is over. This introduces a very high degree of uncertainty. The game might be over in six turns, ten or go all the way up to sixteen.
This has a huge impact on how cards are valued. Luxuries are worth less the more of them we see. If the game goes long, players who bid aggressively lose. If it goes short, they win. And while we can adjust a bit depending on how many blue cards we’ve seen, make no mistake, it’s random and there’s very little we can do to adjust to it.
In fact, most of my plays of High Society have been decided this way. The player who wins is never the same who would have won had the card been drawn one turn earlier or later. All the decision-making, card management and careful bidding is for moot, for the random game end is a more important factor than all of them.
The order in which cards come out can have a similar effect. The disgrace that nullifies one of our other cards is not an issue if a cheap luxury comes out, but it can be ruinous if we must bid on expensive ones. We may never be able to top an opponent’s score or easily trump them depending on what we see.
This is not to say we cannot play better. It’s possible to calculate the expected values of each card, keep an eye on our opponents and gain an advantage. But, at the end of the day, the margins are too low. Once everyone knows how to play, we are at the mercy of the random card draw.
The current edition of High Society features beautiful artwork by Spanish artist Medusa Dollmaker. She draws on the work of Czech artist Alphonse Mucha, giving the game an Art Nouveau look. The oversized cards and bright colors bring it to life and it’s safe to say it’s the best looking version of High Society ever published.
And yet, I’m not fond of it. The artwork stands too much in opposition to the game’s satire. It paints a flattering picture of same the people mocked by the mechanics. They are beautiful, romantic and imbued with good taste. For all their flaws, the stodgy caricatures of older editions were more in line with the game’s satire.
Previous versions featured clearer examples of wasteful spending, such as sports cars and American football teams instead of perfume or ancient works of art. There’s a distinct lack of mockery, which is present in small doses but otherwise overpowered by the romanticism. It plays too nicely into the fantasy of being a distinguished aristocrat.
Dollmaker also imbued the game with a modern, if perhaps americanized, understanding of diversity. It’s one of the few games with a black woman of the cover and there are androgynous characters, Asians and other minorities. But this only separates the artwork even further from its mechanics, as it paints high class socialites as unbigoted and good.
High Society is not Knizia’s only game to suffer from mismatched artwork. Modern Art, which satirizes the speculative nature of art markets, suffers from a similar fate. Instead of crummy art of questionable value, board game editors choose beautiful pieces well-worth paying for. Sometimes, the art isn’t even modern, completely missing the target.
Sadly, it’s unavoidable. A large section of the audience, and even the industry, still doesn’t recognize that games can communicate ideas through their mechanics. We cling to text, cutscenes and artwork to analyze a game’s merits and forget that it’s none of those things that define the medium or that make it worth playing.
Still, High Society‘s randomness remains its true fault. All its strategy and tension can be done away by the flip of a card. And while I cannot deny its mechanical brillance, or how thematic these tursn of destiny might be, I rather hoped for a deeper, more grounded experience.
|HIGH SOCIETY (1995)|
|DESIGN||Reiner Knizia||ART||Medusa Dollmaker|
|NUMBER OF PLAYERS||3-5 (Best with 4-5)||SCORE||★★★|