Board Game Review: Modern Art – Tense, Delicious Auctions | Giant Fire Breathing Robot

Board Game Review: Modern Art – Tense, Delicious Auctions

MA - Game

Knizia is at his best with auction games. And Modern Art is distilled auctiony goodness. The players are art dealers buying and selling pieces among themselves. But success requires not just shrewd purchasing, but also careful forecasting of which artists will be in demand.

The Basics. Modern Art is played over four rounds. In each round, the players are given a hand of cards each of which features a work from one of five different artists. Each card also delineates how it will be auctioned. Starting with the first player, he selects one card to sell and places it face up.

If it’s an open auction, then anyone can bid at any time, jumping in with any price. A closed auction requires each player to submit a bid in their fist and simultaneously reveal, with only the highest bid winning. There are once around auctions, set price sales, and even double auctions.

The work of Karl Gitter

The work of Karl Gitter

The player with the winning bid then pays that bid to the player auctioning the card. So, by selling cards, you actually make money. The winning player places the card in front of them and then the next person sells a painting. The round continues until five cards of one artist have been sold.

At the end of the round, you look to see which artists have seen the most works sold. The artist with the most works sold is worth the most and each player with a work from that artist gets a bonus. Same for second and third most. And, if one of those three was popular in a previous round, you get the previous rounds’ bonuses as well.

At the end of four rounds, the player with the most money wins.

MA - Krypto

Krypto artwork

The Feel. Modern Art is intense because of one simple rules quirk – you pay your money not to the bank, but to the auctioning player. This opens up several strategic considerations. First, when you buy a painting, you’re essentially splitting the value of it with the auctioneer. He or she gets some money for the purchase and you’re hopeful you’ll get more because that artist will be popular that round.

But that makes bidding critical. Overbidding doesn’t only hurt you by depleting your funds, it directly helps your opponents by increasing their reserves. That gives them more bidding power and, ultimately, more points at the end of the game.

Paintings by Yoko

Paintings by Yoko

But it breeds careful consideration when auctioning as well. Sometimes, you may want to auction something less likely to be popular because you’re hoping to keep good stuff from your opponents. But more often, you are trying to auction something that will get you a good return.  That’s where closed and once-around auctions really come in handy. They force players to make their best bid regardless of what other players do.

And more than just the financial gain, you have to take popularity into consideration. Every time an artist’s work is introduced for sale, that artist becomes more popular. So as you look at your hand, you might see that you have a lot of works from one artist. You can probably force his popularity by consistently putting his works up for auction. But, if the other players don’t do the same, he might seem less popular and you won’t get much money for them.

MA - Lite

Lite Metal’s pieces

Because you get money both from auctioning and from buying the paintings of popular artists, you have to manage both sides. After all, it’s money that wins the game – not paintings.

And the fun thing is that, invariably, everybody’s money increases over the course of the game. So no one feels like they failed or completely blew it. Sure, other players might do even better, but you generally get to feel some level of success no matter the outcome.

Put it all together and this is a tight and sometimes cutthroat title. Like many auction games, you try to manipulate the market, force others into spending too much (although, that extra money goes to an opponent and not the bank), and reap the best return on your investments. Plus, the market is completely player driven. Sometimes one artist will be hot the whole game. Other times, that same artist will only flirt with popularity while others take center stage.

Keeping track of which artists are popular

Keeping track of which artists are popular

Components: 2.5 of 5. There have been many different editions and versions of Modern Art. Mine is the Mayfair white box version, so this score only applies to that edition. The cards are good – I really appreciate their oversized nature. But the money is cheap little plastic tokens (still better than paper!) and the insert seems clearly designed for some other title. The player screens are also flimsy. None of it is terrible or mars the gaming experience, but there’s nothing to get excited about, either.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 4.5 of 5. Undoubtedly, there is some luck in what cards you draw. Sometimes, you’d prefer to have one type of auction or a card from a specific artist. But most of the time the draw is superfluous. No cards are strictly better than others and it all depends on the game state and group dynamic. To that end, Modern Art places you squarely in control and allows you to make clever plays without the whims of fate interfering.

Mechanics: 5 of 5. Modern Art is simply brilliant. It’s such a small tweak, but having the winning bids go to the player instead of the bank opens up a ton of new considerations. And the player-driven market for paintings is superb. The game doesn’t tell you that certain artists are worth more. Instead, the game lets the players decide what is hot and what is not.

Replayability: 5 of 5. Thanks largely to the open nature of the game, where players can auction and bid anything they want, the replay value on Modern Art is through the roof. The popular artists will necessarily change from play to play and it’s always a fun experience to try to manipulate that market with your cards and to hop on to the opinions of others.

Spite: 1.5 of 5. Spite is very low here. There are no “take that” cards and no way to make someone lose something they’ve bought. Like all auction games, you can bid something up to make an opponent pay more, although that payment often just goes to another opponent. The major spite area is in ending the round. Sometimes a player has a choice to end a round or not, and that choice can dramatically impact popularity and the prices players get paid.

Original work by Christian P.

Original work by Christian P.

Overall: 4.5 of 5. Modern Art is a stand-out title, and probably one of Knizia’s top 5 designs. The game provides a framework in which players can compete, but doesn’t force any choices. It allows the players to develop the market and, in so doing, creates a system with a ton of replay value and one where it’s not always easy to make an optimal move.

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