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Modern Art

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Doug Adams writes:

Modern Art

Modern Art is a fascinating game for 3 to 5 players about buying and selling pieces of ... modern art. During the course of the game, art will be bought and sold, and players will earn cash for both selling the art as well as possibly holding art at the end of a round of transactions. At the end of 4 rounds the player with the most cash wins.

The components consist of a deck of 70 cards, each card representing a piece of art by one of 5 aspiring artists. The number of cards for each artist differs and varies from 12 for Lite Metal to 16 for Krypto. This variable number of cards for each artist has a subtle effect on play.

Also included in the box are money counters - these are plastic in the English edition, and cardboard in the German edition. As usual, the German version is the better produced of the two, but the differences are minor.

Each player is given a screen to hide his money behind, and a game board is placed in the centre of the table to track which artists have been the most popular each round.

How is the game played ? Each player is given $100000 in chips and dealt a hand of cards, which represents the art that player has for sale in round 1. Each card has two distinct features; the artist who painted the piece, and the type of auction that must be performed to sell the piece of art.

When a player has a turn, he selects a piece of art from his hand, places it on the table and proceeds to auction it in the method indicated on the card. It's a lot of fun if the players give a little auctioneers speech before opening the bidding, describing the merits of their piece of art, it's potential worth, and therefore it's collect-ability.

The auction then commences, and there are four possible types of auction:

  • open auction: this is your typical screaming match, with the highest bidder winning the art.
  • closed bid: everybody secretly places an amount of cash in their hand and all reveal simultaneously. Highest total wins the art.
  • once around: starting with the player on the seller's left, each player makes or raises the offer. The bid goes once around the table and the highest bidder wins the art.
  • reserve price: the seller can set the price, and starting with the player to the sellers left, each player has the opportunity to buy the art at that price. The first player to accept the price wins the art. If no one accepts, the seller must buy it.

Typically the player who auctions the art is paid the buying price, however it is possible for the auctioneer to buy his own art, in which case that player pays the bank.

There are also pieces of art that have a special 'double' symbol on them. This means that another piece of art by the same artist is also placed for sale. The auction type on this second card governs the style of auction (i.e.. it will be one of the above). Double auctions cards can be powerful income earners if played correctly.

Sold art is given to the buyer, who displays the card or cards face up in front of them.

Every player will, in turn, auction a piece of art until the current round ends. A round will end when an artist sells their fifth piece of art for the round. The fifth card is not in fact auctioned, it just closes the current round of purchasing. At this point there will be pieces of art in front of players on the table. The artist who sold the most pieces of art has a '$30000' token placed next to his name on the game board. The second and third best selling artists get $20000 and $10000 tokens respectively. The players who are holding art by these artist will receive a payment equal to the artists value per card.

The secret to this game is to buy art that will be amongst the round's top sellers, and to sell your art at a good price. It is usually pointless buying your own art as you are losing money instead of making money (off a potential buyer), unless you are dead certain you will make a profit at the end of a round.

The second, third and fourth rounds are conducted in the same fashion as the first round. However, cards that have been bought are discarded from the game at the end of a round, so artists that were popular early start to dry up as their cards are removed. Scoring accelerates in the later rounds as well. If an artist makes the 'top 3' at the end of a later round, all previous tokens are cumulative, and payouts of $70000 and higher per piece of art for an artist is quite common.

The game ends after the fourth round, and players total their cash behind their screens. The highest total wins.

This is a game that is very simple to play, but very hard to play well. To do well, you have to understand the implications of both your buying and selling actions, and you must be able to determine the potential worth of a piece of art. Given this, you will be able to determine what's a good selling price, or a good buying price for the art in question, and this information will enable you to come out on top.

I've played games of this where I've won the game by only buying art once for the game, and making all my cash from selling. The other players had been actively buying and selling, but in the process not making enough money to ensure the win. I'm not claiming to be an expert player, I'm not by any means, but it's the kind of game where the more you play, the more you appreciate what a clever piece of design it is.

Any bad points ? Well, thematically the game is a bit dry and clinical, which doesn't bother me because the system is the star here. The game is definitely better with five players too, although it claims to be a three to five player game.

Until recently I would have claimed this was Reiner Knizia's best design, and would have been hard to beat. However, Euphrat & Tigris was released a few weeks ago at Essen '97, and that is a very intriguing game as well. Whether it tops Modern Art remains to be seen, in the meantime, this game is one of the best. A true delight for the serious boardgamer.

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