Thurston Howell III: “Gentlemen. I am Thurston Howell III and this of course is my wife, Mrs. Thurston Howell III.”
Mrs. Lovey Howell: “Charmed.”
Igor: “Capitalist! Exploiter!”
Thurston Howell III: “Capitalist? Exploiter? I was wrong Lovey. They’re very friendly!”– Gilligan’s Island
These days there are a few thousand new boardgames released every year. Most of us are not rich. I can’t afford the time or money to play anything more than the tiniest fraction of these titles. It’s easy for a game to get lost in the shuffle, even if you’re a well regarded card game from a well respected designer. Such is the case for me and Reiner Knizia’s High Society. First released in 1995 in German, it was the 2003 Uberplay edition that introduced the game to the English speaking world, and quite possibly the 2008 Gryphon Games edition that popularized the game in English. I had heard about the game many times, but it wasn’t until Osprey’s gorgeous 2018 edition that I acquired a copy. It was a full year later before I had a chance to finally play it, and fall in love with this game that let’s me pretend to be rich!
High Society is a 3-5 player auction game. It works well at all player counts, but like many auction games – the more, the better. The game is simple, and so is the premise. You are member of the elite super-rich, set in some vague early 20th century period. Think Great Gatsby levels of affluence, with marginally less automotive drama. You must show off your superior penchant for opulence to your friends and family. It’s time to spend some money!
To this end, there are a handful of cards that are flipped over from a deck, one at a time, and players are bidding to win these. The cards represent finery, vacations, and other adornments of wealth, and each of them is numbered. You must collect the best assortment of these cards, using your lofty pocketbook.
Occasionally, a card is flipped over that represents something bad. A scandal, perhaps, or a faux pas! You will bid on these cards as well, but now you’re bidding to avoid taking them, with the first passing player winning the bad card and getting to keep their money, while everyone else must pay out their bids. Heavens to Betsy!
There are four special cards shuffled into the deck, and when the fourth of these is revealed, the game is over. In this way, you never quite know when the end of the game will happen, though you get a growing sense of urgency along the way. Once that final card is auctioned, it’s time to score. Almost.
Here comes the twist.
Before scoring, each player will tally up their remaining cash, and the person with the least amount of money is simply too poor to represent high society. They are out of contention! The poor dears. The remaining players add up their winnings (which may also include some negative modifiers) and discover who is the ritziest hot dog in town.
It’s a wickedly delightful game! The first time we played, only six cards appeared before the fourth endgame card was turned over. This kind of thing would normally break a game, but surprisingly, High Society remained intact and… even more to its credit, it remained truly interesting. Most of the time, however, you’ll end up with only two or three cards left after all the endgame cards.
Knowing how to value the luxuries as they’re revealed is the key to a successful game. Should you pay $6,000 for that 4 card? More? Maybe 6 grand is too much? Often times, the answer will depend on the context of the table. You aren’t bidding in a vacuum. Maybe you’re bidding because you want to drive up the price-tag for your neighbour, who may otherwise get it for a steal. Maybe you really want it.
To complicate matters (in the best possible sense) your money comes in particular denominations… and there is no making change. Once you put down your only $10,000 bill, you can’t pick it up again, unless you pass. You can add other bills to it, but be careful! If you use up all your low bills, or your high ones, you may not be able to respond to opponent bids very skillfully in the future.
Playing the game well seems to be a matter of subtlety. You need to know when to jump in, how much to bump your bids, and when to stop – and often the right decisions are a matter of mere degrees. Sometimes you’ll need to take that negative score card, knowing that this sacrifice may result in you keeping your head above water while draining the bank accounts of your wealthy
rivals friends. Other times, you’ll need to spend whatever it takes to avoid those negative cards.
I won’t tell you that High Society will make the best family game ever, but it won’t be too far off. It’s easy to teach, and while experienced players may have a slight edge over newer players in understanding the tempo of the game, it won’t take more than a single 20 minute game to educate them. This also doesn’t mean it can’t be a great game for more serious gamers, who will appreciate its cleverness as a short opener or closer for game nights.
There are the beguiling decisions tucked inside the fur coat of High Society that make this unassuming card game about life as a filthy rich socialite work well. It’s simplicity, paired with a clever endgame twist, set it apart. It’s a game that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who enjoys auction games, and lands it right near the upper crust of my favourite Knizia designs.