The idea of forming cliques in high school is foolish and idiotic –
once you get out of school, anyway. Yet that’s the theme in this
oddly compelling game, High School Drama (Shifting Skies Games, 2006 –
Boyan Radakovich). I first heard of High School Drama when I saw that
it was nominated for an Origins award. Since that award has no
meaning whatsoever, I wasn’t tremendously impressed and thought that
the theme was most likely aimed at the younger set.
As I taught the rules to the other players, I was rather skeptical –
the game seemed fluffy and juvenile. However, as the game began, I
saw how ingenious the game play worked. I’m not sure the game is
perfectly balanced (in fact, I’m positive that it’s not), but it does
work extremely well with the theme and is very fun. The game can be
played both congenially or aggressively, and strategy plays a much
larger role than I initially thought. I’m becoming quite fond of the
game – a fun, easygoing card game.
A board resembling a yearbook is placed on the table, which is really
just an enhanced scoring and time track. Players take a set of chips
of their color, placing one on the lowest space of the scoring track.
Three stacks of cards (number equal to the number of players) are
placed face up on the table: Hookup, Breakup, and Bond. Another deck
of event cards is shuffled and placed near the board, as well as a
deck of Student and a deck of Organization cards. Student and
Organization cards equal to twice the number of players are drawn and
placed face up on the table. Each player then chooses the student
that they will have for their main character for each game. The
player who picks their student last gets a pawn, delineating that they
go first in the fall of the freshman year. (They are the semester leader.)
The game takes place over four years, each year consisting of all
four seasons – beginning with fall (although summer is simply a
scoring round). Students have three attributes: Cool, Cruel, and
Heart – and are also one of four types (Jocks – green border; Artsy
kids – purple border; Popular kids – pink border; or Geeks – gray
border). A few students are dual types. The first fall round is
ready to begin.
Each player, starting with the player with the pawn, draws one card
into their hand – either from one of the face-up piles (hookup,
breakup, and bond) or the event deck. This continues until the player
has the maximum number of cards for that year (two cards in the
freshman year, three in sophomore, four in junior, and five in the
senior year.) Then, starting with the semester leader, each player
will play one card at a time – two cards in total – for the round.
The cards played do different things:
- Hookups: When a player plays a hookup card, they can take one of
the face-up organization or student cards and attach it to one of
their students in front of them. To do this, however, the student’s
cool factor must equal or exceed the cool factor of the student or
organization being added. If the student is the same type, then their
coolness factor is doubled. The new student or organization card is
attached using one of the arrows on the card, and the player places
one chip between the cards to show the “bond” between the two cards.
- Bonds: These cards allow the player to strengthen an existing bond
by adding a chip between the two cards. Each pair of cards has a
maximum number of chips allowed between them, which are the total sum
of their heart values.
- Breakups: These cards allow a player to take one bond chip off the
table from another player’s setup, as long as they have a student who
has a cruel factor that equals or exceeds the amount of chips in the
bond. If the last chip is taken from a bond, then the bond is gone;
and the attached card is lost back to the face up piles on the table.
A player will never lose their main character but could lose a lot of
cards if they are only attached to the card that is lost when a bond
- Events: Event cards are random, and a player never knows what they
could entail. Some are more powerful versions of bonds, hookups, and
breakups, while others give special abilities to those who control
different organizations. For example, the “Prom” card gives two
yearbook signatures (points) to the player who controls the cheer
squad and also allows players to discard as many bonds between one
couple of students for yearbook signatures. Many of these cards
affect all players – regardless of who plays them.
At the end of the year, all students or organizations still face up
are discarded, and new ones are drawn. Also, each player has the
chance to get bonus points, such as “Most Athletic (one signature to
the player who has a character with the most bonds to jock
organizations). Players then all get one free bond to place on any
existing relationship – all cards are discarded, and the Event deck
reshuffled, and the next phase begins. After the senior year, the
player with the most yearbook signatures is the winner!
Some comments on the game…
- Components: The game comes in a small box with a nice plastic
insert. The event and drama cards are small – but easily useable –
especially as the different types are color coded so that a player can
quickly identify them. The student and organization cards are large,
with their main characteristics easily recognizable, along with a bit
of color added in the form of a quote. The chips are clear
tiddly-wink pieces, and the pawns are simply plastic pawns. The small
scoring board is made to look like an open yearbook – and it’s very
realistic, because I was ready to get annoyed at someone for writing
all over it – when I realized that it’s simply part of the design.
The artwork, by Joel Sigua, is very well done – cartooney enough to
present each of the stereotypical high school types, but very clean
- Rules: The eleven-page rulebook is nicely designed, with
everything shown in full color with illustrations and examples. I
still had a few questions – many regarding placement and destruction
of bonds, which I had to email the designer about. These answers are
found online, but the rulebook is vague in a few places that it really
shouldn’t be. As for teaching the game, the theme fits it so well
that everyone understands easily, as long as a player explains the
bonuses between rounds (a reference card for this part would have been
- Balance: Some students are most certainly better than others.
The dual-color students are very nice; and if a player gets one of
them as their main character, it’s a good advantage and is not
something I’m sure is offset by allowing the other players to go
first. At the same time, there isn’t any student who is too powerful;
the highest any number goes is “4”; and if a student is very “cool”,
they are likely to have lower heart, or cruelty, etc. The
organizations are something else, however. Many of them have
different ratings, but some of them are vastly more useful than
others. For example, the drama club has three event cards that
directly reference it, while other organizations have only one. This
might take a few plays, but it’s obviously nice to have the
organizations that have more event cards that give them bonuses.
Perhaps this is meant to be – it certainly isn’t game-breaking, but
it’s noticeable enough that I hope they address it in the promised
- Cards: The best part of the game, to me, is the part in which
players draw cards. If you need a “hookup”, “bond”, or “breakup”
card, you are guaranteed one of them – but what if you want two? What
is the best card type to draw? In the beginning, drawing event cards
is a real random event -- as a player must play the two cards they
draw; and if the event card favors someone else, that’s a problem.
However, as time goes by, you will see players drawing more and more
event cards, as the points they give out can be game deciding. A
super strong relationship can also award a lot of points at the right
time (see the “prom” card I mentioned in the rules above. Players can
attempt to have only a few strong bonds, or a wide, sprawling network,
attempting to get many of the bonuses between turns.
- Nastiness: I’ve played a game in which the breakup cards were
used twice, and never to any great affect. This is the “friendly”
style in which one can play High School Drama! However, if used
properly, a player can devastate half of another player’s network with
a breakup card, turning this friendly little game into a stab-fest.
It all really depends on player’s moods and strategy – is utilizing a
card to attack your opponent really worth giving up building your own
network? The threat is always there, however – and players must watch
for weak bonds in their own clique, which can be severed by opponents.
You want a mean game – High School Drama is for you. But it need not
be this way.
- Fun Factor: Collecting signatures is a good theme, and the whole
“network” of students is an interesting idea. Players can easily slip
into the roles of the stereotypes provided in the game (the young
poet, the meat head, the dumb blonde, the game master (hey!), the
pretty rich girl, the mathlete, the gothic chick, etc.) I suppose the
game mechanics could be matched to many themes, but they are married
well here; and players will enjoy the game, as it lets them make quick
choices to build up their networks (hey – it’s Facebook, the game!)
Sure, the game has a juvenile theme (it’s high school, after all), but
it works well; and I enjoyed playing it a lot more than I thought.
From ecstatically devastating an opponent’s clique, to building up
your own powerhouse of a school network, High School Drama is a
well-themed game that I think will surprise many gamers with just how
good it is. Future expansions may flesh the game out more, although
I’m content with its current incarnation. It’s not perfect, due to
some small imbalances between groups, but it’s enjoyable enough for
several players (up to five) and packs a decent amount of game in the
small box. Don’t let the theme fool you – it’s a game that will be
fun for anyone currently in high school or who still remembers those
“Real men play board games”