Overview: Are you hot or not? High School Drama takes the high school clique and turns it into a game.
Players: 2 to 5
Age: 13 and up (More for theme than gameplay)
Rating: An enjoyable card game held back by its theme.
Who will like it? Players who like an American style card game with multiple paths to victory will enjoy High School Drama. The game will be at its humorous best for players who enjoy role-playing MTV-style shallow relationships while they play. Players who want a strict euro-style build your own kingdom play experience will be disappointed; attacks on other players are par for the course.
High School Drama reenacts the ever changing cliques and clubs of high school, including various forms of hookups, breakups, and bonding. Whether or not the theme works for you depends upon your relationship to both your memories of high school and your ability to overlook some of the more damaging aspects of the experience. I have my doubts about making a game out of a “spring fling,” “drug bust,” “pregnancy scare,” and “parents away party,” all of which are actions you can take during the game.
The character cards also follow typical high school stereotyping with labels such as Cheerleader, Quarterback, Gay Guy, Goth Chick, Hottie With a Body, and, yes, Game Master. The Game Master is one of the characters who gets the lowest cool rating in the game. (Coolness is important because it is the means by which you attract other students to your clique.) Realistic? Yes, but I will briefly note the marketing challenge of selling a card game about high school coolness to gamers, many of whom were not considered cool in high school. It seems to throw an unnecessary monkey wrench in the whole endeavor.
The theme certainly follows the game play closely. In High School Drama relationships are callously treated as simple utilitarian opportunities to increase one’s own fame, as represented by yearbook signatures. Relationships are often sacrificed for the sake of advancing one’s position on the score board. Also if someone breaks my character’s bonds with a fellow student, I may lose access to a whole circle of school clubs and other students they had brought with them into my clique. This feels true to life. Significant changes in relationships often bring with them wholesale changes in social networks.
I will have more to say about the theme in my conclusion, but I don’t want my readers to lose sight of the good game sitting under the albatross of a theme. Let me say here, I don’t believe the theme is the only theme which would fit the game play. Why not call it Corporate Ladder and go after the grind and insanity of the American work place? Very few potential game buyers would have qualms about a game which mocked corporate politics, and I bet it would sell much better to former high school “Game Masters.”
- 110 Cards
- 90 markers
- Really Cool Packaging!
The game itself consists of four different decks of cards. The characters and the school organizations are playing card size decks. The event and drama decks are smaller. The box also includes colored markers used to represent the bonds between each the player and their fellow students and organizations. All of the components are serviceable, but, proving Jonathan Liu’s point, the standout is the box which is both a great marketing vehicle and also serves as the scoring pad. High School Drama is one of two “Bookshelf Games,” as Catalyst Game Labs labels them, which comes in an easy to store videogame-sized box. I love it because the neat packaging takes a small game and gives it a more standard size, which helps keep the game shelf from becoming a giant Jenga puzzle.
The art is comic book style, almost Manga, and sticks very close to the stereotyping mentioned above. If you’re comfortable with the theme, it works well. I am not such a fan of the theme. To me the art to me seemed to be a little too stereotypical for my tastes, but what can I expect from a game in which a character is named “Hottie With a Body?”
Choose a Character: High School Drama starts fall semester of the player’s freshman year. The first task for players is to choose the characters they each will follow throughout the four years of play. The game ends at the end of the players’ senior year. Which character you choose to play is very important to how easy or difficult it will be to gather clubs and students into your orbit, so players should choose carefully. The choice is limited by the game set up. Players’ choose from among a pool of characters twice as large as the number of people playing the game. For instance, if three people are playing, only six of the characters in the game will be available to play. The rest of the character deck is kept in reserve for future rounds. This can start a player at a steep disadvantage based on the character they choose because some of them are much weaker than others.
Overview: Game play is divided into sixteen rounds, one round for each semester in a school year. These rounds are broken up into groups of four semesters with each group of rounds corresponding to one of the years of high school, freshman, sophomore, junior and senior respectively. While the final semester in each group — summer semester — is largely a scoring semester, the first three rounds of the school year — fall, winter, and spring — follow the same pattern.
Semester Actions: At the beginning of a semester each player draws cards from either their personal deck of Drama cards sitting in front of them, or they take cards from the common Event deck. The cards offer players three different action choices. Players can hook up with a fellow student or school club, strengthen the bonds of an already existing relationship, or break up the bonds of another player’s existing relationship. By drawing cards from their basic deck players guarantee themselves of having the needed actions in their hand for each round. However, choosing cards from the event deck offers more powerful opportunities to take the same actions. They also provide players with “events” which can be used to trade in bonds with school clubs to exchange them for signatures on the scoreboard.
When you start the game as a freshman you have few social opportunities, so you have less choices among your actions. In that year each player only draws two cards per semester. As the years progress, players draw one more card until by their senior year they are drawing five cards each semester. However, no matter how many cards you have in your hand, you are limited to playing only two actions per semester. So holding more cards only improves the quality of your choices, it doesn’t improve their number. Once every player has played their two cards, all remaining cards are either discarded or returned to a player’s personal deck and a new semester begins.
Scoring Each year: Once the three in-class semesters have been completed, the year is scored and points are awarded. Here players are rewarded for having the most bonds with each of the four types of clubs: jock, artsy, geek and popular. There are also rewards for the clique with the most students and the strongest bond between two clique members. Finally, the player with access to the most clubs is rewarded as well.
Resource Scarcity: High School Drama limits the number of available clubs and students each year. This forces players to compete for needed game resources. The number of available resources can be increased if a player can break them away from another player’s clique. This puts these newly liberated students and clubs up for grabs until the end of the year. At the end of a school year all unclaimed resources are discarded and a new limited number of clubs and students are made available for the following year. The resource scarcity makes conflict inevitable. Sometimes the best way to get the resource you need is to try to break it away from someone else, put it back in play, and then pick it up later.
Another form of scarcity comes in that both students and clubs are divided up into the four different categories mentioned above. Students bond more easily with clubs and fellow students of their own type. Students are also able to bond across category lines based on their cool rating. Those with higher coolness can bond with a club or student with an equal or lower cool rating. Students are also rated on their ability to break other bonds and strengthen their own bonds. Again, students with higher ratings accomplish these tasks more easily, thus the need to pick a starting character very carefully.
This is a fine game with reasonably sound mechanics. It is fun to play and offers different paths to victory. However, these sound mechanics are undermined by a theme which revels in the worst aspects of the high school experience, even encouraging players to role-play them.
To win the game a player must create a group of relationships and then strategically break these relationships to further one’s own fame. The person with the most fame wins the game. This is the kind of shallow behavior one might find on a reality show like Jersey Shore or Big Brother.
Obviously these behaviors do not represent the whole of the high school experience. To be fair, the game makers clearly intended to create a caricature of high school with their theme. However, this caricature works so well as a game because it has a grain of truth. I just wonder if the shallow, callous aspects of high school relationships are the ones we want to reinforce with a game. My concerns are somewhat influenced by parenting a twelve year old who attends a sixth through twelfth grade magnet school with integrated classes. Recently, I have been reminding her that chances are one of her fellow classmates will have gotten pregnant by the time she leaves high school, and we talk about the serious consequences of that kind of choice. When I think about it from that angle, I don’t find a “pregnancy scare” for a teen girl funny or an appropriate topic for a card game. Today, she told me a student had been expelled from her school for drug use. He was in eighth grade. I don’t find that funny either. That kid is facing a long up-hill battle to rescue his life, and he is at best 14.
There is a kind of seductive fun in playing out the pecking order of high school in a game. It allows me to indulge in selfish behavior without any apparent harm being done. I enjoy dishing out a good back-stab in a game as much as the next player, and I found myself laughing as my character the Cruelest Girl stole the Class President from the Cheerleader. “Dumb boy,” I thought. I just question whether that response is altogether healthy. I wonder if it helps me become callous to actual students hurt by real-life high school drama.
Wired: A surprising amount of strategy, effective turnabouts and multiple ways to victory.
Tired: A theme which reinforces the stereotypes and worst aspects of the high school experience.
Disclosure: Catalyst Games provided a review copy of this game.