Towers above the rest.
Real estate and board games have gone together like peanut butter and jelly since time immemorial. Monopoly, Acquire, Shark, and I could go on but I’ll spare you. There is an innate satisfaction in dropping wads of cash on a lucrative building and seeing just how well your investment does, usually at the expense of your opponents’ wallets. Removing money from a mogul-simulator seems almost impossible, even at a conceptual level. Enter High Rise and its currency of choice – corruption.
High Rise assumes that you and your pals are the filthiest of the filthy rich in multiple senses of the word. You want to build skyscrapers and money is no object. Want specific building supplies, maybe some futuristic ultraplastic? Of course you can afford it, assuming your pals didn’t beat you to the punch. But not all goods are good to go; you may need to lean on some shady connections and dubiously legal means of acquisition to manifest your desires. Corruption is the true currency of the game, a track that runs parallel to the obligatory victory points. Taking full advantage of any given space on the board requires a bump on the corruption track, with more negative points the further you go. But even more important is your relative position to your fellow financiers. Take more corruption than anyone else and you’ll incur a far greater penalty, turning the game into as much a game of chicken as it is a game of carefully optimized construction.
There is more to the gameplay, quite a bit in fact. Resources are available for selection but just as often drawn from a bag. Buildings are worth as many points as they are stories tall upon construction, at which point they’re plonked down in that borough (or potentially across town if you take a little corruption). A bit of Monopoly even turns up here, in that players build their towers adjacent to spaces and gain free resources whenever opponents use those from that point on. To be clear you aren’t paying rent – the game as a rule is inclined to be generous rather than punishing – this mechanism just demonstrates Hova’s awareness and refinement of prior game ideas. But by far the most significant achievement from a mechanical perspective is the time track.
Let me take a quick digression. Time and time again we see games feature “their” riff on an established mechanism. A thing you know, but with a twist. Some of these iterations manage to inject some novelty into the proceedings. Others only succeed at cluttering the design, getting in the way of what made that mechanism interesting in the first place. But there are a rare handful that manage something truly impressive – they evolve the mechanism. They fundamentally improve on their very foundations, becoming the new reference point for similar upcoming games and raising the bar from that point on. Few games manage to achieve such a feat, and it pleases me greatly to say that High Rise has done so for the time track.
Players make clockwise trips around the board moving as far ahead as they please, with a minimum requirement of moving to the next section of the track. Sectioning the track into chunks seems like such a small rule as to be inconsequential at first, but make no mistake, it’s brilliant. It completely solves the “leapfrog” problem present in most time track games by massively shifting how options are valued throughout. Thanks to the corruption currency there’s almost always a way to get what you want, but if you “outspend” your opponents significantly and take on too much corruption relative to their position you’ll end up eating more negative points in bad press than you’ll have gained, no matter how cool your architecture is. This forces every player to get creative, pivot and adjust their plans on the fly, and read the table for just how desperate their opponents are to complete their current tasks. Basically it’s a game all about making lemonade from an ample supply of lemons, only you’ll need to decide how much wrist strain those few extra drops are worth.
And boy, does the game ever give you more juice-squeezing devices than you could reasonably hope for. High Rise aims to bury you under heaps of resources, options, and means of achieving its win condition, but crucially there is only the one win condition: build. Build taller, build better, build more, and if you’re going to get dirty just be slightly less so than the other moguls. It’s that laser focus that prevents this great big game from ever feeling overwhelming in play. You always know exactly what you should be doing – slamming big honking skyscrapers onto the board – it’s just a question of how. Despite its initially intimidating appearance in play it’s anything but scary, with turns taking mere moments and play moving at a good clip.
That isn’t to say that the game itself is short. You could play a 2 round truncated session during a regular game night and have a good time, but the 3 round expert game is the star of the show and it’s easily going to run you over two hours, possibly three depending on player count. That puts it in a bit of an awkward spot among its contemporaries; most modern euros like to get in and get out somewhere in the 45-90 min range. High Rise demands a dedicated High Rise night for an optimal experience, and I happen to think it absolutely earns that, but know going in that this will not smoothly slide into a “standard” rotation of modern boxes.
While I’m being critical there is the issue of player count. This will prove to be my most quibbly of quibbles – of its 1-4p range I like 3p the best. It keeps the tighter side of the board, forcing players to get in each other’s way more often. 4p is still very good though. 1p is a perfectly serviceable solo variant that serves equally well as a fun puzzle and a practice exercise for future games. At 2p, however, the game’s pressure lessens quite a bit in a way I don’t find to be the most engaging. Both players take turns manipulating a neutral player whenever it’s at the back of the line and have the option to take corruption in order to benefit from its moves. We found this a bit too freeing, making resouces and cards easier to come by than the higher player count games that we loved so much. Tension and tough decisions are major strengths of High Rise and while they certainly aren’t entirely gone at 2p, you’ll be playing more to see how gonzo your scores will be than desperately trying to edge out your friends in a game of architectural chicken.
That being said, I mentioned that I love the high player counts of this and I meant it. I cannot think of another game so ingrained in modern eurogame sensibilities that outperforms High Rise in terms of sheer satisfaction by way of spectacle. The fact that every achievement is marked with a massive metal monument makes every single step of the process feel worth it to a degree that never, ever gets boring. This isn’t just rounding a corner on a score track, no, everyone gets to actually see just how good of a job you did. Let it never be said that carefully considered components aren’t a vitally important part of a game; High Rise’s buildings are brilliant whether you’re grabbing the fabled 15 story monster or stacking a whole bunch of extensions onto the top of what began as a modest tower, and a major part of that is the tactility and spectacle of it all. Rare is the board game that visually awes, even more so one that does so in all 3 dimensions.
If there’s one thing I want folks to take from this review it’s that High Rise is more than just a good game. Playing it is exciting in its own right, make no mistake, but I’m even more intrigued to see its long-term impact on board game design as other designers pick up on its sleek improvements and subtle refinements, adopting and adapting them for their own use. In providing significant improvements to its core mechanisms it towers above many of its predecessors. This is the kind of watershed game that comes along very rarely; a box that simultaneously offers seemingly infinite replayability thanks to its player-driven economy and action selection, while also being so gosh darn gratifying that despite its length you’ll be itching to get it back to the table after each play. Simply put, High Rise isn’t just good. It’s great.
Review copy provided by publisher.