The first time I played High Society I didn’t get it. I wasn’t in the right place and it left my mind as soon as it left the table. Whether my worldview has simply expanded or the tumor of cynicism has grown, this time it was different. This time the not-so-subtle message hit me square in the gut and I couldn’t shake it.
This simple 20 minute auction design was first released in 1995. Osprey games has given it the Criterion Collection treatment, beautifying the illustrations and modernizing the production. There’s an obvious effort of widening the title’s representation which is appreciated and commendable.
Mechanically, this one’s a pie. It’s easy to slip into the social duel of a round-table bid. It bears more than a few similarities to the classic No Thanks! and For Sale. There’s that typical alternating one upmanship as the offers escalate and bills flow from your fingertips.
The concept is that we’re all living it up, trying to hack it in the realm of the socially elite. We’re those smiling grand bastards making up the one percent and dropping wads of cash as fast as we earn it.
The winner of each auction acquires some new fancy duds or even a ridiculous banquet of food far too rich for my cockroach blood. Where Knizia upsets the cart is in mixing in two special types of cards – a few worth negative points and a few that multiple your score by two.
The bidding for those cards that represent scandals and faux paus work in reverse – the first player to drop out takes the rotten cake and the others discard their cash.
This is a pretty subtle system that relies heavily on interaction and bumping up against your opponents in order to manipulate the game state and come out ahead. There’s much cleverness in limiting your money to specific increments as well as offering the two very discordant auction types. There’s also this fantastic sense of drama just below the surface as the game can end at virtually any time. This is triggered by the appearance of four special cards which injects an enticing sense of push your luck.
All of this is given weight by the cruel wrench of formally eliminating the player at game’s end who spent the most money. While this design incentivizes you to spend like a heathen and hoard the garish uniforms of the rich, you have to be just scrupulous enough to avoid completely destroying your fortune. It’s not about outrunning the bear, but simply being faster than the slowest poke.
If you manage to avoid elimination, then you compare your total points against those of the other elitists, with a single player claiming victory as the highest of snobs.
All this rules nonsense doesn’t matter.
What really matters is the theme at the heart of High Society. This is a piece of game design that’s morose in its perspective. It’s unabashedly critical of consumerism and by proxy, Western culture.
To “win” at this game one needs to adopt the conflicted worldview that actual wealth is not tied to financial responsibility, but to shedding money in favor of appearing affluent. But be careful and don’t spend too much or you’ll end up on the street and eating out of a dumpster. These two ideals clash ruthlessly and on the surface don’t make philosophical sense within the terms the game lays out. This is with purpose.
You need to be the best at living a certain lifestyle and maintaining proper optics. It’s all about keeping up with the Joneses and the rot at the center of our society. The game’s not even subtle in its warped position and the rules it forces us to operate under. On one hand it’s intensely clever, and on the other it’s inherently horrific.
Deconstructing that win condition of having the best “stuff” and how this dovetails with the auction is at the heart of truly understanding this game.
Here’s where it gets interesting.
Let’s imagine for an instant we all refuse to play the game. We take these rules as dictated by the wealthy and we tell them to shove it up their collective ruffled tush. In a moment of solidarity we form our own little revolution.
In this case we’d all repeatedly pass, refusing to bid even a precious dollar. The game carries on, even if erratically, some of us gain points and some of us lose points from being saddled with free cards. All of us, however, maintain our currency and become good little savers.
When the game ends we all lose. We’re eliminated for possessing the least money, in this instance a multi-way tie, and High Society snuffs us out like the bugs we are.
Yet, in this case I would argue we all actually attain a sense of integrity the game wishes to forcibly strip away from us. By positioning gameplay through this prism of moral corruption, the cultural significance of the design emerges. It seeks criticism and enlightenment through satire to great effect. In many ways, this sense of mockery is merely an extension of what Knizia touched upon in his earlier work, Modern Art. Both seek to offer a sobering viewpoint on value and its societal definition.
Each of these sibling designs convey their criticism through interaction. The denigration of our culture occurs as a result of participants enforcing a crooked ideal of wealth upon each other.
The final twist of that sharp blade is the realization that we’re doing this to ourselves.
There’s a fantastic multi-faceted view triangulated around this game’s system. This intersection attempts to define value, and each of the three viewpoints bump together awkwardly.
The first perspective is of High Society’s internal game mechanisms – spend your cash loosely and dining fine, but also make sure to squirrel away just a wee bit. It evaluates your performance based on your ability to acquire, while also holding back ever so slightly.
The second angle is that of the players seeking monetary valuations on those different acoutrements. We determine what a dapper coat or suave pair of shoes cost as we’re the market forces behind the internal dynamics. We also determine that cut-off line of how much spending is simply too much. This is where the struggle and conflict in the design arises.
The final view is the one from our intestines. It’s reconciling real-world ethics with our sense of morality. What valuations are we placing on our character’s actions and behavior within this system? What does that say about us and our culture? It’s heavy stuff if you peel away from the table and really contemplate it.
Where these three meet is where that magic happens.
There’s an intense criticism rampant in our culture of those who fall into squalor, particularly those who lost it all among the socially elite. Compare this to our continual fervor towards spending and consumerism. We don’t value status or wealth based on how much money someone has in their bank account, rather, we judge them by their bling and hardware. Their financial health behind the scenes is inconsequential as long as they can maintain that cracked facade.
As a society, we’re ill.
With this updated edition Osprey fulfilled their end of the bargain. By leaving the inner workings alone and simply giving the proceedings a facelift, it’s as if they’ve recognized the more things change the more they stay the same. While the lights may be brighter and the buildings taller, the stark philosophical reality at the core is just as appropriate today as it was 20 years ago.
High Society’s primary achievement is in conveying thematic weight that outstrips its size. This is a thoughtful design shaped with a sense of purpose, and in many respects it’s one of the best examples of a game being more than a game.
I raise my top hat to you Reiner Knizia.