Highest Bidder: Review

There’s been a lot of “bidding” and “auction games lately. The general idea is that players use some form of currency to outbid your opponents to win a thing and score more points. In a departure from the more traditional bidding game, Fairway picks up Highest Bidder which introduces programmed actions into the bidding framework. 

Highest Bidder is an abstract, two- to five-player, bidding game in which players are attempting to collect the most points by placing winning bids for point cards. The game is played over a series of rounds which consist of three different bids. Any given round only takes a few minutes.

Initial Impressions ^

  1. This game is essential a theme-less, abstract game. You’re using denomination-less “bid” cards to try to capture denomination-less “point” cards.
  2. Not much to look at. The cards are essentially decorated with black lines on white background or white lines on black background.
  3. The use of action programming as a bid mechanic can create some interesting game play.
  4. It’s pretty quick, low-commitment game. There’s really no reason you could just end the game after a round or two.

Game Play ^

In Highest Bidder, players are completing to score as many points as possible. Players earn points by being the player with the highest bid on point cards in the middle.  At the end of the game, the  winner is the one with the highest total value of point cards.

To start, the black point cards and white bid cards are separated into two different piles.  At the start of each round, three point cards are turned face up forming the pool of cards on which the players will be bidding.

Each player is dealt a hand of bid cards.  There are two kinds of bid cards: numbers and effects.  The numbered bid cards add to your total bid to one of the point cards. The effect cards are usually one-time effects that, when played, are resolved immediate. They includ things like halving or doubling the value of the point card, adding random cards from the deck to a bid, and so on.

At the start of the round, each player takes their dealt bid cards and formulates a sort of bid plan. The bid plan assigns one or more cards to each face up point card in an order. The only requirement is that by the end of the round, you’ve used all your cards. The rules say that bids are placed on a per-point-card basis and players place their cards face down simultaneously.

Note, we found that placing bids on one point card at a time was less dramatic than it could be. Instead, after several rounds, we started just requiring the players to assign all their bid cards simultaneously all at the start and place all cards face down.  The result was much more interesting.

After each player’s bid plan is complete, the cards are revealed one at a time, in order, in player order.  This means that when an effect card is revealed it could be useful or not depending on how everyone else’s bids work.

Once all the bid cards for a point card are revealed, the player with the highest bid takes that card and adds it to a scoring deck. Once this has been done for all face up point cards, new ones are turned over and a new hand of bid cards is dealt.

On the green ^

Action Programming and Simultaneous Actions.  If this game has one thing going for it, it’s that the game creates a lot of unexpected results when you’re forced to guess what order your opponents are going to bid and how much. The longer the chain of cards that will run, the more interesting the outcomes. In this sense, Highest Bidder is conceptually an intriguing game.

As I mentioned, we ended up just playing all cards face down at the start of each round, rather than on a per-bid basis–we modified the rules of “return to hand” cards to mean you can insert a card in a later portion of the program. It kept the game moving and made for some fun choices. It also meant that you’d occasionally get situations where your “remove the next bid” card took out your own bid.

Not too random.  There was generally enough cards dealt and a number of opportunities to use them that no one felt shorted because of a bad hand.  This was mostly because, with the three face up point cards, there’s probably just enough information to make it more than just random guessing. And, if you had a weak hand, you could focus on the lower point cards and still win something.

The overall randomness also varied with player count, though. The more players, the less control players felt over their own destiny. Too few players and it didn’t create a lot of tension. The sweet spot seemed to be like three players.

Interesting outcomes.  Because of how the game pits players against each other, it created interesting market dynamics.  For example, when high point cards show up, the game becomes an prisoner’s dilemma riddle: do I spend a lot of bid cards to take the five pointer knowing the other players are going to do the same? Do I use an action card to minimize its value and aim for a lower one?

Play time. This game goes by pretty quickly. And even if you only wanted to play a few rounds, you could do that too.

Where it comes up short ^

This game certainly has its issues.

Picture from The Game Crafter

Art and graphic design. One of the first things players noticed is that there’s no unifying theme for art or design of the cards. The cards look like the outcome of a Spirograph or computer generated pattern. At first, we thought that the swirling line art was meant to do something like create a tableau if all laid out, but it doesn’t. It’s a bit of a distraction and, on some of the cards, created a low contrast situation (white text against white lines) that didn’t help.  The coloring on bid cards did double encode the value (E.g., pink is five), but that didn’t really “help” further anything.

There were other questionable things, like fonts and orientation of values on the cards, long blocks of text for somewhat self-explanatory effects.

Effect distribution.  The effects were probably the most interesting aspect of the game, but we had two things that happened more than one would think: hands dominated by effects and hands without effects at all.  They might have just been terrible shuffles, but there wasn’t anything you could have done. One fix we thought about and it worked: we separated the “effects” from the numbers and dealing four effects and six numbers to each player each round.

Picture from The Game Crafter

Theme.  I don’t mind abstract games. But this game is bereft of anything to tie the objectives of gathering points together with the mechanics. What am I spending? Why am I spending it? Are the points just points and not something of other value? Even if checkers is just a red v. black battle, I feel like there’s an objective. A battle. A war. A raison d’être. This game takes abstract to the extreme and I think needlessly limits its appeal.

Replay.  I just don’t see too much replay. The game is simple enough, small enough, and easy enough to play, but it’s lacking a hook. It’s lacking a reason to come back and play it again.  There’s a good number of bidding games out there and even games with programmatic actions that offer more in terms of game play.

Mathematical, auction-style game?   This is the game’s self-billing. I’m not sure that any part of the game is deeply mathematical short of the simple addition or occasional doubling or halving of values. I’m not sure that that’s how I’d style it. I feel like there could be a stronger mathematical tie-in for the game, but it’s not currently present.

In the hole ^

Highest Bidder is an abstract entry into the bidding game genre. By combining programmatic actions with a bidding mechanic, the game creates some entertaining and tense moments when revealing those actions.  The lack of any sense of purpose, engaging art, or real theme or story holds the game back. I’m also not sure who the audience is for this game. It’s not quite a game usable in a classroom as there’s no substantial educational component. It doesn’t quite have enough meat on the bones to appeal to someone looking to pick up a card game. And it doesn’t have the mass market hook to grab entry-level players. That said, its portability, quick play, easy rules and interesting programmatic action mechanic make it something to look at if you’re a fan of bidding games, especially if you like abstract games.

The game is available as Print on Demand from The Game Crafter or via Stickman Games’ website.

Highest Bidder is in the hole for One over Par. ^

Fairway was provided a copy of Highest Bidder in order to write this review. He was not otherwise compensated for it.

One thought on “Highest Bidder: Review”

  1. Thank you for the thorough review 😀 I’m happy to say that in the new year an upgraded version will be released. It will include real art and a theme: buying art at an auction. Simple but a lot more effective than the abstractness of the current version. It will introduce new effect cards that I’ve already play tested for a while now, as well as two new types of point cards: one that you don’t want to win because you’ll lose points (creates some interesting strategic dilemmas) and one where whoever is closest to a specific bid value (guess the value of the painting) scores the point. Also, the cards will be larger as I’ve always been torn about the smaller size of the current cards.

    It will no longer be called “mathematical” – I always regretted putting that on the box.

    I like the idea of playing all your cards on all three point cards from the start, not in three turns, but I’m not convinced that it’s “better” as the current official way of doing it means you get some opportunities to rethink your strategy based on the outcome of the previous bid. But I can see the excitement of your way as well.

    The only thing I disagree with is the replay value. With each time I play I keep discovering new ways and encounter interesting situations and dilemmas. But perhaps that’s because I’m playing with the new cards, which add a new layer of depth to the game. Regardless, I’m excited to send you a new copy in a few month if you’re interested in giving an updated review then 🙂

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