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Jul 01

Modern Art: Description and Review

Modern Art, by Reiner Knizia, is an auction based game in which players try to gain the most money through buying and selling works of art over the course of four seasons.  Modern Art can be played by groups ranging in size from 3-5 players.  While the game works well with any of those group sizes, it does change how the game plays tactically quite a bit.  Some people love the chaos of the five player game, while others prefer the greater level of control each player has in a smaller 3-4 player game.

The game begins with each player taking $100,000 in chips, a hand of paintings by various artists, and an auction house screen with which to keep their money secret.  On a players turn he places a painting up for auction and the action begins.  Each painting is marked as one of five different types of auction, with each having its own unique rules.  First, there is the “open auction”.  This is what most people think of when they think auctions.  All players may bid by shouting out the next amount they are willing to pay.  This continues until one player has made a bid that no one else wishes to top.  At this point the player pays the money to the auctioneer, or if the auctioneer had the highest bid he pays the money to the bank.  The next type of auction is called a “once around auction”.  Starting with the player to the left of the auctioneer, each player, in turn, has the opportunity to make one bid or pass.  This ends with the auctioneer who has the last bid.  With the highest bidder gaining the painting and paying the auctioneer or as always, if the auctioneer wins he pays the bank. The third type is a “sealed auction”.  In a sealed auction each player places the amount he wishes to bid in his hand and places the closed fist in the middle of the table when ready.  Once all players have done so, hands are opened and the player with the highest bid wins.  In the event that there is a tie, the auctioneer or the player closest to his right that is involved in the tie wins.  The fourth type is a “fixed price auction”.  The auctioneer names a price and in a clockwise order players have one chance to buy it or pass.  If the first player to the left of the auctioneer wants to buy it than no other players even get a chance.  However, should none of the other players choose to pay the price the auctioneer must buy it.  The final type of auction is called a “double auction”.  It is somewhat different from the others as it will most likely result in two paintings being up for bid at the same time.  When a player plays a double auction he may play another painting by the same artist that is not a double auction and now both will be up for bid.  The second painting determines what type of auction is run and the winner receives both paintings.  However, a player playing a double auction may choose not to play a second one and thus in clockwise order each player has the chance to add a second painting to the first.  If anyone does so they are now the auctioneer and receive the winning bid or pay the bank should they win.  If no one adds another painting then the auctioneer gets the first one for free.  It is very rare for a player to play a double auction without another one to cover it, but sometimes depending on the circumstances, it can be an excellent tactical play.  Using the various types of auctions on the artwork in their hands, players try to manipulate the market during each season in attempt to make the greatest profit.

The game is played over four seasons, with each season continuing until the fifth painting by the same artist is placed up for auction.  When this happens the season ends immediately without the final auction taking place.  At season’s end the three most popular artist(i.e. the ones with the most works) are ranked in order of first to third based on the number of paintings each has in play.  If there is a tie the artist closest to the left on the season tracking board wins the tie.

The artist whose paintings are most popular gains a $30,000 chip, second a $20,000 chip, and third a $10,000 chip.  These indicate how much money each painting by the appropriate artist is worth.  Once players receive payment for the round all paintings are discarded, new paintings are dealt out to replenish players hands, and a new season begins.  After each future season when the value of paintings are calculated the chips it earned from previous seasons, if any, are added to the total.  Needless to say, the more chips an artist’s work has in future seasons, the higher the prices will go in auctions.  This mechanism is how value for the paintings is determined.  Based on where they think an artist will end a round, where the artist has ended previous rounds, and how much profit the player can earn relative to his opponents are the factors that drive decisions in Modern Art.

My Review

Ahh Modern Art!  This is one of my all time favorite light games!  Out of a possible 10, I rate Modern Art a strong 9!  There are so many wonderful things to say about this great little game.  First off, the simplicity of the rules.  My wife and I taught the kids to play in about 15 minutes and they were ages 11 and 12 at the time.  Secondly, although a simple game to teach, there is tremendous depth in Modern Art.  It possibly should have been called Hedge Fund Manger or some such name because market manipulation is king.  Yes it is an auction game.  Yes every single turn of the game is an auction.  I am here to tell you this game is about distorting demand, hiding the true value, tricking opponents in to investing in dead-end artists, and yes even some collusion.  Oh, how congress would cry for more economic regulations if they ever saw what goes on in this gem!  Herein lies the genius of this design.  From a tiny box with next to no pieces, an 8 page rule book, a deck of cards with REALLY bad art, and one small board, players are able to play a game that is never the same twice.  Depending on your group it can be played as a light family game that is fun for all, or a cutthroat game of speculation, number crunching, and a ruthlessly competitive battle of wits.  Modern Art also has tremendous replay value as the distribution of cards at the beginning is random, forcing players to review their hands and then plan accordingly.  With the hidden money you are never quite sure after the first few auctions just how much the opposition has(unless you are playing with Rain Man) and more importantly, just how far they are willing to go in pursuit of the painting up for bid.  Some auctions devolve into desperate battles of will as players know they must acquire the painting, but the price goes ever higher.  All of these factors combine and you have a game that require skills of understanding valuation, psychology, bluffing, math, adaptive tactical play, and nerves of steel.  Truly a wonderful design from a legendary designer!

If I had to level any negative criticism at Modern Art it would be that double auctions can be a little overpowered.  Given the ability to play two auctions at once and thus raise an artist’s ranking in a round considerably or even to end the round by surprise.  It is very helpful to have several double auctions come through your hands over the course of the game.  However, given that card distribution is random, the double auctions do not always come out in equal, or even close to equal numbers to each player.  This can result in a player or players having a serious advantage.  While this does not make it impossible for those players with few or next to no double auctions, it does greatly increase the challenge they will face in winning the game.

In conclusion, I would highly recommend Modern Art to virtually any gaming group.  Modern Art is a terrific game, that is simplistic in rules, but possesses immense depth.  Truly a game that all can enjoy for many seasons to come!

 

Oh, and by the way, should you ever find yourself in a game of Modern Art with Heather or myself, beware as I like Lite Metal and she is a Christin P admirer!

 

If you are interested in purchasing a copy of Modern Art please consider Gryphon Gaming.

 

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