Cost: $35.00 From: Hans Im Gluck, 8000 Munich 40 Players: 3-5 Playing Time: Type of game: Family Strategy Complexity: 6 Skill level: 8 Reviewed by: Peter Sarrett, Issue 2.1, Fall 1993
Of all the games I brought home from Europe, this was the one I unwrapped most eagerly. Modern Art caused quite a buzz among European gaming circles. Many players believed it was one of the best games of 1992, and most people who tried it seemed to enjoy it. After repeated plays, I have definitely joined that group.
Although a deck of cards is at the heart of Modern Art, it plays unlike any card game I've encountered. Players assume the roles of speculators in the unpredictable world of modern art. By buying low, selling high and investing in the most popular artists, players try to accumulate the most money and win the game. This is accomplished through four rounds of auctions, wherein players offer up works of art for sale.
Opening the rather loud game box reveals two perforated sheets of three lightweight "screens" each, used to shield your cash from the view of other players. Each screen represents a major world city from which you presumably hail. Another sheet, this time of much thicker stock, contains punch-out "coins" ranging in value from 5,000 to 100,000. Each denomination is of a different color and diameter, with the higher value coins being of larger size. This simplifies the task of ordering and counting your cash. A sturdy score board depicts a self portrait of each artist, with a column of four spaces for value markers beneath each. The deck of cards is slightly larger than a standard deck, and contains a total of 70 cards in five suits. Each suit is actually a different artist, and each card features a unique work of art in that artist's distinctive style (Lite Metal's work are all computer-enhanced faces, Yoko's pieces look like Lichtensteins, etc). Each card also has one of five symbols indicating how that card may be sold.
Players start the game with randomly dealt hands and an equal cash supply. The first round of auctions begins when the first player chooses a card from his hand and puts it up for sale according to the symbol on that card: open auction is a standard auction process, with players bidding in any order until nobody wants to top the current bid; in your fist means that players secretly put their cash bids in their hands and reveal them simultaneously; once around lets each player bid only once, in order, starting to the auctioning player's left and ending with the auctioning player himself; reserved price lets the auctioning player announce the price he wants to receive for the card-- but if nobody is willing to pay, the auctioning player must buy it for that price himself. The fifth symbol, another card, is the most valuable method of all. A card with this symbol must be auctioned together with a second card of the same artist (but different symbol), and the auction is performed according to the symbol on that second card.
Whoever buys a card pays the person who auctioned it. If a seller buys her own card, she pays the bank instead. Purchased cards are kept face up in front of their new owners. After each auction the next player gets to auction off one of his paintings, and so on until someone offers the fifth card of one artist. When this happens the round immediately ends and the artists are valued.
The artist with the most paintings currently showing (that is, offered up for sale during that round) gets a 30,000 marker placed in his column on the board. The second place artist gets a 20,000 marker and the third place artist gets a 10,000 marker. If a player owns a painting from one of these artists, she now sells it to the bank for its value. Thus, if Yoko came in first and Lite Metal placed second, a player owning two Yokos and one Lite Metal would sell them for a total of 80,000. Paintings by artists who didn't place are worthless, and are sold to the bank for nothing (ouch!). Players discard all the cards they bought that round (but keep any remaining cards in their hands), replenish their hands and begin the next round of auctions.
The values of artists are cumulative. That is, if an artist receives a marker in a round, that artist's paintings are worth the sum of all the markers in that artist's column. Continuing the example from above, if Yoko placed second in the next round and Lite Metal failed to place at all, all Yoko's paintings sold in round 2 would be worth 50,000 each (30,000 from the first round plus 20,000 from this round). Lite Metal's art, however, would be worthless. If Lite Metal places in the third round (let's say he comes in third), his paintings would be worth 10,000 from the third round plus 20,000 from the first round, for a total of 30,000 each. It sounds confusing, but it's actually quite simple in practice.
Whoever has the most cash at the end of four rounds of auctions wins the game. So how does the game play? Very well indeed. There are a wide variety of possible strategies. It's possible to win the game without buying a single painting if you're able to sell the cards from your hand for high prices. Since paintings fetch higher prices in the later rounds, predicting which artists will be popular and holding on to them until later in the game can net you big bucks. On the other hand, purchasing works by up-and-coming artists can be just as profitable. As artists gain in popularity, auctions can get heated and exciting. Since paintings tend to be auctioned off at lower prices during the first one or two rounds, a balanced strategy of speculation in the early game and selling in the later game can also be a winner.
Since whenever you buy a piece of art you're not only depleting your own cash supply but adding to someone else's (unless you buy your own card), purchases have to be weighed carefully. If you can buy for 13,000 a painting which might fetch 30,000 at the end of the round, is the potential 17,000 profit worth the 26,000 relative swing in cash between you and the seller? If the painting does earn you 30,000 at the end of the round, you'll wind up 4,000 ahead of the seller and 17,000 ahead of everyone else. If it only gets you 20,000, you're still up 7,000 on everyone except the seller, who is now 6,000 ahead of you. And if disaster hits and that artist places third or worse, you've lost money relative to all other players. One really poor bid could easily cost you the game.
There's also a tremendous difference among the various auctioning methods. Open auctions seem to be the best, since players can keep bidding the price higher and higher. Open auctions for two cards at once are especially lucrative. Reserved price auctions are the riskiest, since if you name too high a price you'll be stuck having to pay it yourself. You have to keep a close eye on the number of paintings each artist has showing to make sure you can protect your investments. There's nothing quite so frustrating as when you pay for a piece that looks like it's going to be worth big money, only to have other players put out enough paintings from other artists to knock your favorite out of the running. In the fist auctions can be unpredictable. Someone might bid much more than they need to via such an auction, but everyone might bid low hoping to snatch it for a song. Since once around auctions let the seller bid last, you can often buy your own painting cheaply this way.
Some players might be frightened by the importance and ramifications for later success most decisions carry in the game, but I don't think it's a big issue. Although mistakes can be costly, they won't knock you out of the game. That is, you can enjoy the game to the very end, when you'll ultimately slap yourself in the forehead and groan over the big one you let get away that would have given you the game, or bemoan the worthless painting that cost you the win. I always find that the best games are the ones where all players think they have a chance right up to the wire, and Modern Art is such a game.
The game components are of high quality. It's especially impressive that each card features a unique painting-- it seems like it would have been cheaper for Hans im Gluck to use the same painting for each artist. Instead, we get a more interesting deck. And a nice deck it is, too-- die cut (not perforated) card stock, not the cheap variety prone to creasing and fraying as in, say, Mayfair's Bridgette or Cosmic Encounter. The thick cardboard coins, a pleasure to use, are a welcome reprieve from paper bills. The box also includes a plastic storage tray molded to fit the components, although I suggest using a Ziploc for the coins-- mine don't stay in their compartment when I store the game on its edge.
As with most games in which an auction plays a major role, Modern Art is most enjoyable with a full complement of players. The game claims to be for 3-5 players, but I wouldn't want to play with less than four. Five is certainly best, as this maximizes the interaction and volatility of the auction process.
Modern Art carries a hefty price tag considering it's essentially a deck of cards and some cardboard tokens. A smaller box and lower cost would have been welcomed. Nevertheless, it is a top- notch game with high replay value. Your first game will probably be somewhat abnormal as players get comfortable with the system, learn what are reasonable bids for paintings, and figure out the best times to use the various auctioning methods. Once these basics are mastered (which shouldn't take more than a game or two), you'll find that Modern Art is a quick, engrossing game well worth going out of your way to locate and add to your collection.