High Society is a little gem. There is nothing spectacular about it, but play balance is just right. Players never know quite when the game will end, and the identity of the winner will not be revealed until this moment. These are just the things I look for in a game.
In the small size box, you will find five colour coded sets of `cheques', and a deck of cards for which players bid. The graphics are attractive, in a 1930s style. The character on the box bears a marked resemblance to Clark Gable.
The object of High Society is to obtain the highest total points, representing trappings of the rich and famous. This is achieved through bidding, using the cheques. The problem for the players, and the reason why the winner remains a mystery until the end, is that the player with the least money remaining is out. No account is taken of the points that player has obtained. Logically the poorest player will be the one with the most points, having spent the most money obtaining them. This is not by any means a certainty.
Every player starts with an identical hand of eleven cheques. These range in value from one to twenty five thousand. Once spent they are gone from the game, and no change is available. The card deck consists of ten items, three titles, a scandal, a thief, and a gambling loss.
The items are numbered one to ten, and score these points. The titles double a player's score, while the scandal halves it. The thief steals an item, and the gambling card costs the player five points. The title and scandal cards are red, and the instant the fourth red card is revealed the game ends. The remaining cheques are totalled, the poorest player is shunned by society, and those left survey their goods and chattels. The highest total wins.
To begin, the cards are shuffled and turned face down. The top card is revealed, and the bidding starts. A bid is made by placing one or more cheques face up on the table. The next player may either raise, or pass. Bidding consists of a series of rounds, which continue until only one player is left in. Once a player has elected to pass they lose no money, but may not re-enter that particular auction. In order to increase one's own bid, cheques must be added to those already declared. This is a pig of a rule, and makes the selection of cheques critical.
Imagine I have used all my low value cheques in earlier rounds. I have retained the fifteen, twenty and twenty five thousand value cheques. This feels good, as I have loads of money. I open the bidding for the seven point seaplane at fifteen thousand. When it reaches me for the second time the bid stands at nineteen thousand. I want to bid twenty, and have the twenty in my hand. However, I may not pick up my opening bid, only add to it. This means my minimum bid is thirty five thousand; the fifteen plus the twenty. I pass, and the plane is sold for nineteen... a tragedy!
As if that is not bad enough, one has to pay not to receive the negative cards. When a `bad' card is revealed, bidding works exactly the same way, except that the first player to drop out pays nothing and takes the card, while the others lose their bid. This involves some really tough decisions. It is unwise to accept a bad card before the bidding has completed a round, as those who have not bid will lose nothing. If the bidding is high though, and you think the next player may take the card do you stick with it or not? It may seem a good idea to accept the halving card, while the others have paid twenty or more not to have it. Ten minutes later you realise just how much it has cost you to buy the extra cards needed to catch up.
One of the strengths of High Society is that you cannot afford to disregard any card that is turned over. Often in bidding games you are after a specific type of card, and can therefore ignore others. This is not the case here, as even the one point item has a value beyond its single 'victory' point. If you can buy a low point item cheaply, it is a good insurance policy against the thief. Consider the position. Four players, their points are as follows:
The thief is drawn, and bidding commences. Players `A' and `C' may have paid around thirty thousand each for their items. If one of them accepts the thief, he will steal that item. They would probably be prepared to pay twenty thousand not to have the thief. Player `B' is a little less certain. He has no items to lose, but this means that the thief will hang around until he buys something, and will promptly run off with it. This is fine if the next item can be bought cheaply, but having the thief effectively precludes the player from bidding for anything decent. Player `B' is therefore also likely to bid reasonably high to avoid the thief.
Player `D' however is sitting comfortably. He paid only four thousand for the one point item, and can happily take the thief. He will wait, though, until the bidding has risen sufficiently to hurt the other players. Remember, with negative cards, the player accepting it bids nothing, all others lose the totals they had bid at that point. Of course timing is everything here. If player `D' becomes over confident, and allows the bidding to rise to such a point that one of the others accepts the thief, his bluff has been called. He will have to pay the amount he bid.
The only reservation I had about High Society was that after playing a few times a formula would reveal itself, thus making it predictable. I haven't found it. The game varies greatly depending on how the cards come out. If the `bad' cards come out first players are so busy fighting them off they have little money to actually bid. If the `good' cards come out first, those with the most points tend to have the least money left to avoid the setbacks. The other big variant is that the nature of the game changes depending on the playing style of those taking part.
The sure sign that High Society is a hit is the amount of post-game discussion that goes on. It plays in about twenty minutes, giving three exciting, tense and unpredictable games in an hour. Perfect.