Modern Art

Hans im Gluck, £23
Designed by Reiner Knizia
2-5 players, about 60 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins

Reiner Knizia has had a steady build up to the rank of master game designer. Serving his apprenticeship on games such as Digging, Res Publica and Die Romer, he is now producing games that clearly impress a lot of people and that will offer extended play and generate big sales. Modern Art is almost certainly his best game to date and it was a surefire hit at Essen, curbed only by a slight problem with the components and an inflated price. Thankfully, as one who wonders at the mentality of modern art buyers, there is no real need to be partial to the form to enjoy the game.

Modern Art is a game of auctions, valuation and card play. The players take the role of art speculators and collectors, both selling and buying works by five upcoming artists with the aim of making the most geld by spotting trends, making shrewd valuations and by competitive bidding. Card counting also helps, but it is going to cost you in Paracetamol. Modern Art is a fairly abstract system deep down, but the theme is appropriate to the system and strong enough to lift it above any sense of being grafted on after the design. For me, the empathy with the subject matter is good, if not a total immersion job on this occasion.

When I say that Modern Art is a difficult game, I mean it in the sense of being hard to play competently, as well as being a major cause of brainache. Although the mechanics do appear simple on the surface, in fact almost everything you do in the game is pivotal and is likely to have a marked impact on your final score. It is in every respect a game for gamers and will not, I suspect, be entirely appropriate for novices playing experienced players or for family duties. That in itself is no bad thing, but I feel you should be warned.

Each player is dealt a hand of cards that will contain a spread of each of the five uneven suits, representing the five artists. Each card displays a unique modern art picture, in one of five styles. One suit for instance features Lichtenstein lookalikes, one is pointillist, another computer graphics and so on. Apart from the rather indistinguishable border colours, these are otherwise well done and add a lot of flavour to the game. Considering each one is unique, this must have run up the costs by a large margin, both in design and presumably printing.

The play involves playing these cards into auction, which once bought are laid openly in front of the purchasing player. These represent his collection and thus establish trends visible to other players and which will hopefully earn you cash at the end of the round. The rationalisation, as far as I can see it, is that the cards in your hand are the whispers in the market that gives you a guide, but not the certainty, of those artists coming up for sale and becoming or remaining popular. You have the choice of which pictures come up for auction in the market, perhaps depicting your promotion of a protege, but other pictures will appear for sale beyond your control. Finally, any pictures bought for collections show that artist as an established item who might generate short and long term investment gains.

Cards are put up for auction in sequence and a round is of indeterminate length. It could be that a number of artists appear, all in contention, perhaps representing a buoyant market, whereas at other times just half a dozen paintings will be sold. This is because a round ends when the fifth picture of any suit is added to a collection. At that point, the top three artists (in terms of popularity within collections) are assessed and each picture is assigned values of 30,000, 20,000 and 10,000 respectively. Cash is paid out to any player displaying these fashionable artists, collections are removed to start the next round from scratch and cards in the hand are supplemented by a few new canvasses.

It should be noted here that the picture values are logged on a master display and if the same artist should feature later in the game as a top three trendy, the values become cumulative. For example, in the first round Yoko is the most popular artist and is worth 30,000 per picture. In the second he doesn't place (perhaps he has a disagreement with a gallery owner), but in the third round he comes second, making those pictures worth 50,000 each. The artists, having 'made it' once, thus retain their residual value into future rounds but because of the restricted number of cards they are very unlikely to figure in every round, most likely dropping out of fashion and then making a comeback. Those that do perform consistently well inevitably attract some interestingly high bids towards game end.

But enough of the end results, the key mechanic is the auction system. Each card, as well as an identifying colour, has one of five small symbols which means it has to be auctioned in a certain way. The symbols are 'Open Auction', 'In the Fist', 'Once Around', 'Name a Price' and 'Double Sale'. Open Auction is a free for all with the highest bidder paying money to the seller. In the Fist is, despite its bawdy connotations, a secret bid where players put coins in their hand and reveal simultaneously. Once Around is where each player gets just one bid in sequence, the seller going last and able to buy his own card. Name a Price is just that, the seller sets a level and each player in turn is offered the deal, though the seller must pay the bank if no-one bites. Finally, Double is a powerful option. Basically, it can either be played with another card allowing a double sale, it can be used to force a card out from another player or even, in some circumstances, be taken as a freebie by the person laying it.

It is quite easy, as I did, to play the game the first time thinking that there is no real difference between any of these methods and that they are there purely for variety. Wrong. As you play the game, some subtle differences appear such that if you are sitting on three cards of the same type in your collection and you play a double, that will often close the round with you in the lead. Alternatively, you might spot a card in your hand that could be highly sought after by one or two players only, so you might sell In the Fist, hoping that one of them will go unnecessarily high.

The best timing of selling which artist and by which auction method is obviously dictated by the cards available to you, but it still takes a lot of thought and makes for fascinating game play. There is a constant threat of another player closing out the round (by laying the fifth card) before it gets back to you and your tactics must reflect this possibility. Consequentially, the varied auction techniques will probably generate strategy articles in the future, but suffice to say for now that there is constant decision making and a need to play the odds.

Next up in the Modern Art repertoire is the requirement to price pictures correctly. It is no good buying in everything in sight as you will not only run out of money, but everyone else will spot you for a big payer and milk you accordingly. As a rule, even after several games, players will bid a little too high and it seems far better to sit and accept high cash bids from speculators rather than being a speculator yourself. It is vital to be able to step back from a bid that has gone too high; remembering that the information (in the shape of cards in your hand) is different for each player. Conversely, it is important to know when to push the price up - a double sale of a popular artist should not be missed out on but there are other considerations.

That is, the important point of the auction is that most of the time another player will receive the money you are handing over, rather than the bank as is common in many games. This means each sale has a double edged effect. It gives you a picture potentially worth 30,000 upwards, but it gives the seller money, and cash is king in Modern Art. If that seller chooses consistently not to collect but to sell the right pictures at the right time, he will quietly build up a pile of cash. The more canny players will spot this and the game can then shift up another gear where not only are you trying to maximise your own position, but you are all trying to close another player out, especially if he is sitting on three or four of a suit. The combinations get a bit much for the brain at times, but it is all engrossing stuff.

This type of examination leads to a series of involved assessments concerning reasonable values for pictures, whether to buy for investment or simply sell for profit and a constant watch on who is the hot artist and who is paying whom how much. It is, as a result, a game in which you can get very confused, thinking that a player is a contender when he isn't and failing to spot the winner. The beauty of it all is that the system is stable and self correcting, such that if prices are out of line with demand and supply, the player paying needlessly high prices will suffer long term. I'd love to see Paul Oakes, with his trading skills, playing this game.

On this point, if there is a flaw in the game, it is that we have noticed, with inexperienced players involved, there can easily be the possibility of doing very little in the game yet amassing a respectable, if not always winning, score. This is again due to other players paying over the odds for pictures and unwitting, or clever, players being on the receiving end of these payouts. I tried 'selling only' at as a strategy in the last game and despite large volumes of cash being paid out on collections to other players, I ended up with a narrow win. I think either the buying or selling strategy, or more likely a considered mix of the two, is tenable. With knowledgeable gamers, all familiar with the system (and that will be after only a couple of games), this problem should fade and a tight tussle is much more likely. This really is a game that seems to achieve the magic combination of easy to learn, difficult to master.

The problem on production, which applies to all the games released, is that the money counters fall apart due to the glue not having set properly. This really isn't good enough and it will take ages to stick them back together, so I suggest poker chips for the interim until you can get your replacements from Hans im Gluck, which I sincerely hope they intend to provide. That aside, Modern Art doesn't look a lot for the money. Apart from the cards, which are undoubtedly of high quality, there is just a board and some flimsy screens. It could have all fitted into a much smaller box and if it had been £8 cheaper at £15, it would still have been expensive for what amounts to a card game. Considerably overpriced then, but nevertheless a purchase that you shouldn't miss.

Modern Art is an impressive release. Although I had some doubts after my first game, I thought each one through and came up with either a good answer or explanation, not least of which was that I was very tired when I played. This certainly isn't a game you can tackle at anything below your best. If you are going to play it well, it represents hard, analytical work and those that say this formula doesn't make for much of a fun game are spot on - it is just a touch dry and I suggest you play it early on in a session while the mind is still sharp and the beer hasn't taken effect. I think the game length of an hour is about the limit one could expect to survive such mental gymnastics and if this was spotted, it is another house point for Herr Knizia.

As for play depth, the system seems to have all the angles covered with new tactics and implications appearing each time out and one is very tempted to keep playing it to test out new wrinkles. In that respect it is very close to ideal strategy-wise but without the sterility of Adel, making for a true gamer's game that is likely to be around for a while. One of the best for a long time and if there is any justice, it will be this and Elfenroads up for Game of the Year in '93.

Mike Siggins

On to the review of Fastcard Soccer or back to the review of Elfenroads.

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