How Tall Is Your Spire?
I’m always curious to see how board games handle issues of scale. Is a desolate geographical region compressed, perhaps necessarily, in order to fit onto a map? Is a powerful monster larger than its weaker kin? Do oceans feel vast, or are they minor transitions between continents? Do stock markets plummet or gently slope?
And then there’s Gil Hova’s High Rise. Set on an island that could give Manhattan a run for its money, every addition makes its presence known. A size-six structure is twice as tall as a size-three structure. When somebody muscles into a district, the skyline is altered. When one of the taller edifices is constructed, it stands over the rest, unironically erect. Phallic comparisons? Isn’t that gauche? Not when it comes to corrupt billion-dollar enterprises stamping their mark on human endeavor. Scale is the point.
Oh, and it bears mentioning if but once: High Rise manages this without a single plastic miniature.
Miniatures aren’t the only thing High Rise does without. It also doesn’t feature currency. Maybe that sounds odd. When contrasted against other games that portray urban real estate as an inherently corrupting process, like Acquire or The Estates, such an omission seems absurd. What’s corruption without a little cash?
High Rise proposes something different. Its corporations aren’t interested in dollars. They’re interested in scale. There’s that word again. I’ll say it a third time for repetition’s sake: scale. Scale as a measurement of the highest, ahem, steeple. But also scale as a measurement of who has the least visible corruption. It isn’t that money doesn’t exist. It just happens to exist beneath your notice. What matters is how much more you have when it comes to points, and how much less corrupt you are than your rivals. Everything is quantified by the width of these margins. Ever wonder why the world’s wealthiest only seem to accumulate more wealth? If High Rise’s thesis were inked on elongated cardboard, it would be that things like fortunes and skyscrapers are all about men taking each other’s measurements.
The good news is that High Rise is eminently playable, principally concerned with a rondel that wraps around the circumference of the board. As with other rondel games, your decision revolves around how far to move your pawn while operating within a few simple limitations. The main one is that pawns can’t share the same space. Every spot you select provides a bonus, whether color-coded floors for constructing skyscrapers, wild ultraplastic tokens, or cards with bonus actions, but also represents another handful of bonuses you’ll never collect. Meanwhile, spaces are also bunched into zones. For every circuit of the board, you’re only allowed to land once in each zone. Every step is loaded like a walk through a piñata minefield, spilling out goodies at the slightest pressure while preventing you from collecting too often.
A common problem in rondel games is that players often cluster together, making decisions based on how many spaces they can hit rather than the specific quality of any given space. It’s easy to see how that could have been a problem here, especially since the player farthest back on the rondel always gets the next move. Why jump ahead when you could take as many sequential actions as possible? Zones are one tool Hova uses to combat this tendency. Another are bonus tokens awarded to the first player to pass them, like periodic finish lines. By leaping ahead, it’s often possible to gain your pick of upcoming spots and nab a bonus token, compounding your benefits in a single turn.
And then there’s corruption.
Think of corruption as a sliding scale of advantages and disadvantages. On the advantageous side of the coin, many spaces offer extra perks in exchange for extra corruption, or perhaps corrupt those who arrive later. For example, the first player to reach any given construction zone gets to trade floors for a building; those who arrive later can still build, but they grow more corrupt in the process, probably because they’re bribing somebody at the zoning commission. Similarly, you might be permitted to draw a single floor from the bag — a chancy move that might not provide the floor you’re digging for — but for a tiny increment of corruption, you can also select any floor you like.
The drawback to all these greased palms comes much later, once everybody has completed their circuit of the rondel. Like everything else in High Rise, this is evaluated by scale. Companies in line with their peers don’t have much to fear; after all, they’re no shadier than the other firms in town. When customers are forced to pick between Scrooge McDuck and someone who embezzles money from nursing homes, a swimming pool of bullion pales in comparison to grandma losing everything down to her dentures. It’s only once you’re dirtier than anybody else that you need to worry, both about how much your corruption will eat into your final score and about round-concluding hits to your bonus cards.
We’ll talk about those in a moment. For now, the important thing to note is that Hova has provided about as many incentives as possible to shake up the rondel formula. Sometimes the best approach is to creep along. Other times you’ll leap forward to secure the best spots and claim bonuses, even if such a move means you won’t have a turn for a while. This prevents High Rise from growing stale — not that it would have, given its emphasis on buildings and tenants.
Tenants: these are the lifeblood of any large building. Fortunately, you aren’t forced to sign leases or hire a collections agent when someone moves out their stuff in the dead of the night. The game opens with the board already populated, each neighborhood boasting three or four tenants from a pool of nine options. This is where High Rise gets its variability — and what variability it is.
By landing on a tenant’s spot on the rondel, you gain their benefit. Some are straightforward sources of additional floors. Other spaces are more involved, spilling out bonus cards that can be used in a multitude of ways. Architecture Firms and High-End Condos permit you to construct taller buildings. The University lets you transform a portion of a blueprint into a wild ultraplastic, making it easier to meet the demands of the design. Electronics Manufacturers and Engineering Firms install high-speed elevators for extra points. Tenants like Investment Firms and Retail Spaces let you draw additional floors when the proper triggers are met. One of my favorites is the Cable News Channel, which talks up your sterling reputation and bashes your rivals. There are even Taxicab Commissions and visits to the Mayor’s Office to break the previously inviolable taboos of the rondel, letting you move within the same zone or enter a space occupied by another player’s pawn.
Expect rules to be broken. Better yet, expect rules to be broken in very different ways with each play. As befits the game’s undercurrent of grubby land developers, it’s even possible to double dip. You earn a tenant’s advantage by visiting them on the rondel, and again when you provide a skyscraper for them to reside in. This provides a honeypot for attracting other players; they gain your tenant’s advantage, you get extra floors as a bonus. Kickbacks are king. Unless you’re collecting them from your own building. Then you’ll produce some corruption for insider something-or-other.
Who cares? It’s nothing your Insurance Company and Masonic Lodge can’t handle.
For the most part, High Rise drums along to a pleasant rhythm. Whether taking multiple turns in a row or waiting for the conga line of pawns to catch up to you, it ebbs and flows in a way that could almost be considered meditative if it weren’t so tightly competitive. Floors accumulate, then are spent for skyscrapers and points. Corruption rises, then is gradually tempered. Cards pile up, then are spent for heaps of extra stuff, just waiting for you to churn them into further points. And all the while, the city grows taller and denser and more impressive to look at.
This rhythm isn’t always up-tempo, mind you. High Rise is played over the course of two or three decades — complete circuits around the rondel — depending on whether you’re playing the abbreviated introduction or the much longer full game. The introduction skips the first decade entirely, even handing each company a starting skyscraper and tenant. Unsurprisingly, this feels like stepping into a game partway through because somebody was called away on an emergency and asked if you could fill their seat. By contrast, the full game tends to run long for the depth of decision-making High Rise offers. This is more of a ding than a slam; for what it’s worth, Hova knew it was an issue and filled the rules with the requisite warnings. But it’s still a shame that the game feels either too short or too long, too truncated or too drawn-out, rather than settling into that middle groove.
All the same, it’s hard not to like High Rise. It lacks the elbowing satire of some of Hova’s other titles, and it’s so relaxing that it edges into sleepy and raises the occasional yawn, but the entire thing is elevated by little touches and subtle masterstrokes. The towering skyscrapers and their sense of scale. The humorous names fine-printed onto each structure. The interlocking webs of bonuses. The intelligent approach to rondel movement. The sheer joy of variety apparent in each setup. The occasional “broken” combo that leaves everyone sputtering and asking you to please pass the rules, no not for that, for something else, no I’d rather not ask you, Geoff.
Just goes to show, even when High Rise is preoccupied with big girthy stonkin’ things, it’s the little touches that count.
A complimentary copy was provided.