Modern Art was created by Reiner Knizia, known as one of the world’s most prolific game designers. He is best known for his abstract games, like Indigo and Ingenious, but he has also produced a plethora of games ostensibly built around a wide variety of themes. The one criticism most often levelled against Knizia is that, when he does produce a themed game, the theme is often paper thin. This means that a game like Tower of Babel about building the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World can rematerialise a decade later as Planet Rush, where it is all about space colonisation.
This version of Modern Art is also a reskin of an earlier game. In both its editions, however, the theme of trading in the art world is very strong and feels central to the game. Modern Art is a game about markets and the way in which they operate. Art intrinsically works as the theme because the commodity being bought and sold is varying in price not because of its actual value but directly due to the impact of the supply and demand generated in the game.
Isn’t Modern Art one of those games that you see listed on Amazon for some absurdly inflated price? It was…
Modern Art first appeared in 1992. It has been hard to get for some time, and for many it has been ‘grail game’: like the Holy Grail, highly sought after by collectors and with second-hand copies selling for eye-wateringly high prices. Be warned that the title was used by Reiner Knizia for a seemingly similar game, known as Modern Art – The Card Game. This was actually a rethemed version of the 2009 game Masters Gallery (which featured Impressionist paintings). These alternatives play quite differently because they dispense with an auction mechanic…
It is the auction phase that was largely responsible for the popularity of the original version of Modern Art. It meant the game was considered to form something of a trilogy with other auction games by the same designer: Medici and Ra. Arguably, two other of Reiner Knizia’s games – High Society and Dream Factory – could also be considered as part of the same ‘set’.
Now Modern Art is back, and, true to the title, the art in the game has been further modernised…
So is it all about the art? No, Modern Art is about making the most money!
In Modern Art, players each take on the role of gallery curators trying to buy and sell paintings for the best price. It’s all about the money rather than the art, however. Nobody ends up owning any of the paintings: the winner is the player who has accumulated the most money at the end of the four rounds of play.
The art in Modern Art is represented by cards showing individual works by five different artists. These are real artists, each with a quite distinctive style. It adds greatly to the appeal of the game that you are actually playing with ‘real’ representations of modern works of art by actual living artists; although it is unfortunate that the painting the publishers (CMON) have chosen for the box lid is (in my view at least) one of the least interesting works of the 70 in the game. When I’ve brought out this game for play with different groups, the cover art has led folk to jump wrongly to conclusions over what this game is all about. Trust me, if your head explodes in a nuclear blast, as in the cover illustration, you are playing the game wrong.
The cards, by the way, are Dixit sized. And featuring modern art, with mostly off-beat designs, you could at a push press them into service and use them in a game of Dixit: an extra bonus for those who buy this game.
Dixit caption: “Parting is such sweet sorrow”…
Modern Art’s rulebook incorporates gallery notes on each of the artists, including biographical details and information on where they have worked and exhibited. One of the five is Italian, the other four all have strong Brazilian connections.
What about the auctions? Is Modern Art like Flog It?
Players each start the game with a hand of cards representing individual works of art. These are the works each player will be auctioning. Players also each start with $100,000. The money in the game comes in small cardboard tokens curiously numbered 1, 5, 10, 20, 50 and 100, so you are asked to imagine that each is worth 1000 times the value printed on the token.
Auctions in Modern Art are run in five different ways, with a symbol on each work indicating the type of auction through which that picture must be sold.
The different types of auction add variety to the game. For example, some paintings will be sold through an open auction, with players calling out bids; others will be sold through a hidden auction, where players do not know who else is competing for ownership or how much they are prepared to pay… In every case, the auctioneer is able themselves to bid in the auction. If the auctioneer wins the bid, he has to pay the bank. If another player wins, their cash is paid to the auctioneer.
In play, you’ll find yourself quickly slipping into role-play. It’s funny how easily folk fall into their notion of an auctioneer’s patter as they puff the paintings they put under the hammer. With its daily fare of Cash In the Attic, Bargain Hunt, Flog It! and Antiques Road Trip, the BBC’s daytime TV output seems mostly to comprise programmes about auctions, so I suppose it was inevitable that some of that will have rubbed off. For those who like props with the role-play, you’ll be pleased to learn that the game comes with its own cardboard cutout auctioneer’s gavel. If you are seriously into role-play, you’ll want to substitute something more substantial: try, for example, the solid wooden gavel that comes with Democracy: Majority Rules.
So where does the strategy come in? Modern Art isn’t just about getting the best price at auction
Important as the auction phase is to play, the strategy in Modern Art goes beyond merely trying to buy and sell individual works for the best price. That’s because there is a key element of hand management and set collection in this game. Works of art are valued at the end of each round solely by ranking the artists according to the number of their works that were sold in that round. The values for these rankings are cumulative over the four rounds of the game but payments are only made by the bank for the three most popular artists; other works are deemed worthless… The art market can be a cruel world.
The end of round valuation means that players will be deploying a degree of guile not merely to snag works at a decent price but also to try to push an artist into a better scoring position by getting more of their works sold in the round. Players’ hands are concealed, so we don’t know what artists the other players have for auction, and screens also conceal players’ money. Canny players will try to keep a mental note of how much cash each of their opponents has because that can directly affect how much they will be able to bid for a particular work.
You’ll also find players making sneaky use of special ‘double auction’ cards that push out two works by the same artist. Through running a double auction, a player can skew the market while also hastening the end of a round, because a round ends as soon as a fifth painting by any single artist is played.
Does Modern Art work as a three-player game? Not as well as with four or five
The box lists Modern Art as a game for 3 to 5 players. If your experience is like mine, you’ll find it is a bit of a push playing this game with just three. If you play Modern Art with fewer than four players, you’ll probably find the game falls a little flat. The rules acknowledge this by including an optional variant when playing with three so as to make a three-player game a trifle tenser and more enjoyable. This “mystery hand” option is helpful, but you are still better off playing this game with four or five players.
If you are a fan of Reiner Knizia’s work, or if you are especially fond of games that utilise an auction mechanic, then Modern Art will probably already be on your wants list. Some will also be attracted by the theme and the fact that the game is dealing with living but not yet well-known artists; making the game seem more real and helping to bring it to life. The artwork is reproduced well, so even if you don’t like the one work featured prominently on the box lid, don’t let that put you off. Modern Art is a solid game that I rate 6/10. It’s not a game you’ll be breaking out at every gaming session but it’s one that will give you an entertaining hour when brought to the table with the right group.
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Selwyn has been playing, collecting and writing about board games for more years than he readily admits to. He has written about and reviewed games for Games & Puzzles, Spielbox and Tabletop Gaming, and his Board's Eye View page on Facebook includes short reviews and commentary on both old and new games.