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I'm pretty sure High Society is the most published lightweight auction game. Leaving the zoo-themed edition aside, the Ravensburger, Überplay and FRED/Grypon releases over a decade and a half all saw new artwork around the same rules.
High Society has a very simple game premise. You've got lots of money, so make sure you end up with the coolest toys to show for it. The twists are an increase-only bidding system, money coming in a range of inconvenient amounts and the final goal that having the least amount of money at the end guarantees a loss.
Components and editions
The components of the game are simply cards and card-sized tiles. They include a hand of money cards for each player which come in a variety of denominations ranging through 1000, 2000, 3000 with some gaps up to 20,000 and 25,000 at the top end.
This most recent edition is still available in stores. It goes back to an almost Victorian era set of items to buy and is less popular among folks here. More concerning is a production problem with this game that makes it really easy to see what the colours of upcoming tiles in the stack are. As this is game-breaking, it is recommended that this game is played with the card stack hidden in the box.
This is my favourite edition. The items are updated to match every businessman's dream of things to possess during the boom of the 80's and have nice clean lines. As Überplay went out of business a few years ago, you should rush to pick up any copies of this you find lying around in small game stores.
The Ravensburger artwork is more stylised and reminiscent of the high life in the early part of the 20th century. Particularly dating are the sports car and early seaplane. Components in this edition are mostly light cards, but they're still perfectly fine to play with.
This edition is readily available on ebay. I suspect many copies were produced, so if you prefer this artwork, this is the one to get.
The core of the game is an auction among the players who are each trying to have the largest total value of possessions. Each round, a tile will be revealed from a face-down stack and auctioned off. Each player starts with an identical set of 11 money cards in inconvenient denominations ranging from 1,000 to 25,000.
Most of the tiles in the stack are simple possessions. They are marked with a value from 1 to 10 and are simply worth this amount at the end of the game. There are also two misfortune cards in the stack, the burglar and the scandal. The burglar steals one of your possessions (your choice) or hangs around swilling your whisky waiting for you to win something he can then steal. The scandal is simply a card with a value of -5.
There are also four red-bordered cards. Three of them double the score of your cards, while the fourth halves it. These red-bordered cards also form a game clock. When the fourth red-bordered card is turned over, the game ends immediately with both it and any cards under it left unauctioned.
The auctions take a very simple form. The starting player (or the winner of the previous card) starts bidding by placing one or more of their money cards down. Players can pass to leave the current auction or place down a higher bid. When play comes back to a player, they have the option to either pass or raise their bid. Players are not permitted to take any of their money cards back into their hand, so they can only raise a bid by the amount of one of the cards they have left. If all you have is a 25,000, this becomes troublesome. Once all the players but one have passed, that player pays their bid and everyone else takes their money cards back into their hand.
The auctions for the two misfortune cards and the red-bordered score-halver are a little different. Players bid around the table until the first player passes. The player who passed gets all their bid money back into their hand but receives the bad card. All other players breathe a sigh of relief, but lose any money they have bid.
The game ends at the fourth red card. It bears repeating that the player (or players) with the least among of money left at the end of the game automatically loses before any other points are totalled, otherwise the points are totalled among items and modifier cards and the person with the best toys wins!
Notes and Conclusions
High Society scales pretty well from 3-5 players, although is probably better at the higher end of this range. It's important to keep in mind that the amount of money available for each card varies quite a bit with player count, and how aggressively the players are chasing high-valued cards.
The auction mechanism of adding cards from a restricted set of overlapping values is brilliant. The agonising decisions on how much to bid now vs later, and deciding to drop out of an auction because you can't afford to lose having a particular card rather than because you've run out of money is fantastic.
There's also a particular art to bidding on the misfortune cards, particularly later in the game so that someone will choose to pass before the bidding comes around to you again. Ideally, the last possible person so that noone escapes the card without paying anything. Again, this relies as much as playing the people as the particular money cards they have left.
Players frequently underestimate how much money they'll need to obtain a doubler tile or avoid a misfortune tile later in the game. Misjudging this, or betting against it actually coming out of the deck can be ruinous, although more frequently because you spend enough money to end up last.
High Society is a great filler game. There's enough variety with the variable deck length that it holds up very well to immediately repeated plays and is fairly popular here (with multiple copies lying around). It's also really fast to play, perhaps going over 20-25 minutes only if you've got someone who is agonising over things in the hand.
If you enjoy light auction games, have a look at my Favourite Lightweight Auction Games geeklist where I cover many of them.
Thanks for a very nice overview. Especially nice to see the different editions, which I hadn't known about. Your gameplay description is good enough that I may have to print this out to put in the box.
The word "agonising" certainly applies here - I taught it last night, emphasizing how quick and light it was, and then we spent 30 very tense minutes making our way through the stack.
Good point about the number of players affecting the card costs. And handling your money when you don't get to make change, and watching out for those red tiles. It's really something for so simple a game, and one of my favorite auction games. Now I'll have check out your geeklist to see what other ones I might need to play.