Monday, April 18, 2005

Review: Modern Art

Going once. Going twice. Sold to the highest bidder!

If you're at all interested in auction games then you really need to know about Reiner Knizia's Modern Art.

This is one of Dr. Knizia's earlier games. Originally released in 1992, Modern Art had been out of print, and consequently very difficult to find, for several years before Mayfair reprinted it this last summer. I am quite glad they did because this is probably the best auction game ever made.

Like most Knizia games, the mechanics are quite simple. Players are dealt a hand of cards. Each card has a painting on it by one of five artists (think five suits). Each card also has a symbol on it that dictates which type of auction must be used to auction off that painting.

On your turn you select one of the paintings in your hand to auction. If one of your opponents is the highest bidder then she pays you and collects the painting which she puts face up in front of her in her "gallery". If you are the highest bidder, you pay the bank and the painting goes into your "gallery".

Play continues with the next player until one player plays an artist's fifth painting. At that point the "season" is over and players sell all of the paintings they bought that season. The artists are then ranked according to how many of their paintings were auctioned off that season. The artist with the most paintings becomes the most valued and his paintings sell for $30,000 each. Paintings from the second most popular artist sell for $20,000 and paintings from the third most popular artist sell for $10,000. Paintings from the other two artists are worthless.

The game continues for three more seasons. Each season progresses just like the first except that when it comes time to sell paintings at the end of the season, an artist's paintings are worth the cumulative value from this and all previous seasons. So say an artist came in first in season one and third in season two. His paintings at the end of season two would be worth $40,000 ($30,000 from season one + $10,000 from season two).

At the end of the game, whoever has the most money wins. Since money is kept secret throughout the game, you have to pay attention to who paid what to have some idea of how you are doing relative to the others during the game.

There are four types of auctions in Modern Art. The open auction is the type of auction you are probably most familiar with: players may bid in any order, any number of times, and the highest bidder wins. In the once around auction, each player (including you), beginning with the player to your left, gets to either bid or pass. In the closed auction, players secretly decide how much they are willing to bid and all bids are revealed simultaneously. And in the fixed price auction the auctioneer (you) sets a price and each player in turn can either buy the painting at that price or pass.

Some cards are marked with a fifth symbol that indicates a double auction. If you play a double auction card then you may play a second card from the same artist and both paintings are auctioned off together using the auction type indicated by the second card. If you decide not to play a second card then one of your opponents may play a second card by the same painter. He then becomes the auctioneer and you both share in the profits. If no one elects to play a second card then you get the painting for free.

Modern Art is a relatively simple game but the strategies are not so simple. Obviously, quite a bit depends upon choosing the right amount to bid but what's not so obvious is that it can be just as important to wisely choose which paintings to offer up for auction. Some times it's best to allow one of your opponents to buy your paintings. Other times, you'll want to keep that painting for yourself to prevent them from scoring off of it at the end of the season. There are quite a few levels of complexity hidden beneath the simple mechanics.

If I could think of one negative thing to say about Modern Art, it's that Mayfair kind of skimped on the production values for this edition. The rules look like they were photocopied and the chips used for bidding and keeping score are cheap plastic mini-chips (similar to the chips found in a Yahtzee game). At least the cards are decent enough and that's the most important thing. But don't let that sway you. All of the components are serviceable and while it would have been nice if they'd invested a bit more in the production it doesn't seriously detract from the game.

Modern Art is a masterpiece and it belongs in every serious gamer's collection. It's truly a work of art.


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