An Old Game About the New Thing

This image makes me hungry.

Modern Art is about so much more than just modern art. Oh, it’s about that too, and CMON’s latest edition of Reiner Knizia’s 1992 classic is lavishly produced with work by genuine artists, each with their own distinctive style that makes the identifying colors on each piece’s header almost unnecessary. Does it matter that Rafael Silveira is the orange artist when his portraiture is so unsettling? Or that Ramon Martins is designated by green when he has such a slick take on Asian traditionalism?

Maybe. Especially when Martins defies his oeuvre with something from left field. That’s the thing about Modern Art. It’s a game about maybes and could-have-beens and taste-making and guessing the value of a thing before it’s a Thing.

It also happens to be a sublime merger of play and theme.

Wait, so somebody told me that this is controversial? What? Surely that isn't the case. This is great stuff!

Actual modern art!

On the surface, Modern Art is a game about running auctions. As the curator of a hoity-toity museum, you begin with a smattering of artworks and a decent wallet of cash. Every turn revolves around a single auction, wherein a seller puts something up, everybody gets a stab at it, and most of the time the seller takes home the cash from the highest bidder. Sounds as boring as German Romanticism, right?

The thing is, these auctions are immediately as disruptive to bog-standard game design as contemporary art strives to be to culture. First of all, there are five different types of auction, each accompanied by their own subtle strategies. Even the simplest, the fixed offer auction — in which the auctioneer announces a price and everybody gets the opportunity to cough up the cash or pass over the work entirely — is all about the gulf between the auctioneer’s perceived value of a piece and how much everybody else is willing to pay a premium for something that might not be worth that much. Or, if everyone is in a clever mood, passing just might ruin the auctioneer’s day, since now he has to pay that cash straight to the bank. So it goes. What did you think this was, art?

The other varieties of auction are similarly cutthroat. The free-for-all is appropriately hectic for the first few moments, then grows tense as fewer and fewer bids come stuttering in. Hidden auctions are exercises in tricking an opponent into paying quadruple a piece’s value, while single-offer auctions are all about your place in the turn order and how much is too much when you’re trying to ensure that the next person in line won’t outbid you on a premium portrait.

Then there are the double auctions. These babies are masterclasses in design. Not only do they splash two works onto the table — the auction type determined by whatever is accompanying the double auction — but they also stand the best chance of totally flipping the game on its head.

Like a balloon with too much air in it. Wait, no, that isn't part of the game.

The value of an artist’s work may inflate over time.

In order to understand their impact, you need to know that the value of art in Modern Art isn’t static. Each round, the most popular artists — those who sold the most pieces — watch as the value of their paintings skyrockets. Just like that, each Manuel Carvalho is worth thirty grand, while Daniel Melim pulls twenty and a Sigrid Thaler is only worth ten. Next round, each of Carvalho’s works will be worth thirty grand plus the bonus from that next round’s sales. And so on across four rounds.

Right up front, this means that the game’s stakes grow higher with every passing minute. Within a round, every card on the table is not only something purchased by a player, but a bid to broadcast that artist’s merits into the stratosphere. Beyond the confines of a single round, you’re playing with fire every time you bump an artist’s worth. By the end of the game, a single painting could be worth as much as some poor loser’s final score. Is that something you’re willing to do? Is it something you’re capable of doing? Are you holding paintings that you can sell later, or do you need to sell them right this minute to properly massage an artist’s public appeal?

Back to double auctions. Each round’s length is indeterminate; it ends as soon as the table has seen five of an artist’s works. Note that I said seen, not purchased. In order to bring a round to its conclusion, somebody is going to need to plop down a card that will manipulate an artist’s popularity without actually earning any cash. That’s a big deal, especially since that’s the artist who will be most popular that round.

And in some cases, thanks to double auctions, it can mean they’re playing two of that artist’s paintings, and possibly leaping one artist’s value over another’s. Just like that, your buddy who was banking on all those Melims netting a small country’s GDP won’t be earning quite the payday he was hoping. Meanwhile, you’re out the value of whichever card you just played, and, if you were smart about it, poised for a total bank-buster next round.

Dirty dollars. Same as Sons of Anarchy, really. Two sides of the same coin. Or a mirror, if the surface is convex.

The real value of art.

As is the case with my other favorite Reiner Knizia title, Tigris & Euphrates, Modern Art is one of the most beautifully subtle games on the market. It utilizes a bone-simple set of rules, swats your hand when you reach out to be guided gently along some imagined correct path, and sets you loose in a playground of player-driven friction and strategy. Your museum curators can be bullies, smooth talkers, auction sharks, or even last-minute tricksters, the international art scene molded like putty in their hands. Or like fine porcelain that they’re determined to smash.

For that reason alone, Modern Art is the sort of game that would-be aficionados really ought to play at least once. Here is the sort of game that defies the more-is-more culture that currently dominates the world of cardboard. There are no stretch goals or variants to be found here; only pure gameplay, a soft statement about the financial realities of cultural popularity, and an entire family’s worth of fierce drama.

Posted on February 7, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Alexandre Limoges

    Modern Art is such a classic. I have played dozens of games and I still can’t figure it out entirely. It’s a fluid, intelligent and fast evolving game with the simplest premises. Thanks for revisiting it, Dan.

  2. Stephen Thompson

    I played this game several times a few years ago with 2 friends and I enjoyed it. The mechanics are pretty simple, but as with all Reiner Knizia games, mastering it is journey to be sure. I also played Tigris and Euphrates around the same time and thoroughly enjoyed that game. Thanks for the great review – I’ll have to see if I can get my friend to pull out Modern Art again in the near future!

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