The Knizian Society
Want to know the best thing about all these Reiner Knizia reprints? It’s that somebody else is doing the hard work of curating the good doctor’s 500+ games. Rather than picking through every last trifle, experiment, and flub, they’re all being sorted for the brightest, smartest, and most fulfilling of Knizia’s catalog.
The latest in this spree of curated Knizias — remade with gorgeous art by Osprey Games — is High Society. And much like its namesake, it’s elite, holier-than-thou, and oh so catty.
Much like Modern Art, High Society is an auction game with a twist. A host of twists. A curly-Q of twists.
First, the basics. You’re a member of uppercase Culture, the sort of person who wears their cufflinks that fancy folded way rather than just stapling your sleeves together like regular folk. Naturally, in order to maintain your status as somebody who corrects people’s pronunciation of French phrases, you must always be on the lookout for ways to stand out. To elevate yourself. To be cool where others are drab. And how better than to spend wagonloads of cash on boiled gastropods, the fruity undertones of champagne, and pretending neckties are fun?
For the barest moment, this quest to make yourself better than your peers seems like your average jaunt to the auction house. Something of value is revealed. Perfume, perhaps, or a trip to the casino. Then around the table you go, wagering increasing amounts of cash or bowing out — and out means you’re out, no more bids for you.
How gauche! How graceless! Then the twists dawn on you, all in sequence.
First twist! There’s nothing so crass as making change in High Society. Your spendable assets range from a measly 1,000 francs all the way up to 25,000 francs. Sounds like a lot, right? However, creeping your bid upward with low-value cards will functionally remove them from the game if you win the auction. The only way to get them back is to bow out of that bid entirely — and, of course, when you lay something on the table, there’s no guarantee that you haven’t just won the auction. Spend the wrong cards early in the game, and you might find yourself unable to make incremental bids later on. And there’s nothing more embarrassing than overpaying for some perfume because you’ve already spent all your low-value cards.
Well, almost nothing more embarrassing. High Society’s second twist is that the poorest person is rejected from uppercase Culture entirely. Because you can’t be certain when the game will end — it’s based on the appearance of certain cards, and nearly always at an inopportune moment — you’re prompted to spend cash while you’ve got the opportunity. But, once again, you’ve got to spend with the wisdom of a miser, because no quantity of jewels or pony riding lessons will make a shabby poor person not shabby and poor. To make of yourself an alpha, you need to own the best stuff and not be the poorest at the table. It’s a tribulation only the affluent could understand.
Finally, not every auction is alike. Oh, they’re conducted in the same manner. But alongside all those nice pretty things you can buy, every so often a scandal comes along. These might halve your score, lose points, or even discard something you purchased previously. Everybody’s bidding, but the first person to bow out will claim the spoiled spoils — with the caveat that everybody else is forced to spend whatever they just wagered. Someone will find themselves tainted by some impropriety, but at least they didn’t lose any francs over it.
Like many of Knizia’s greatest triumphs, the appeal of High Society is twofold. The rules are simple enough that an unclaimed bastard could comprehend them. But when mingled with the social sphere, the resulting swill is as potently complex as it is subtle. There are moments when you should bid like a supposedly-humorous “peasant at the auction” scene, and moments when you should bid nothing at all. But no strategy guide could possibly account for the minds seated around the table, working at odds, taking each other’s measure and often measuring poorly, because measuring is farmer’s and haberdasher’s work. Between the random assortment of cards drawn from the auction deck and the capricious vagaries of your friends’ minds, even the lowest-value card might be the most valuable thing on offer.
Put another way, it’s the sort of game that cannot be solved, because to solve it is to solve the human conundrum. What remains is one of the finest auction games ever assembled. It’s as smart as an inbred Hohenzollern’s steward and as quick as an inbred Hohenzollern’s, um, racehorse. Not only is it one of the finest filler games ever made, it’s one of the finest in Reiner Knizia’s estimable stable of successes.