TM Games, £29
Designed by Klaus Teuber
3-5 players, 90 minutes
Reviewed by Mike Siggins
Together with the ubiquitous Reiner Knizia, Klaus Teuber has one of the best track records in game design at the moment. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised to find major game companies queuing up to take on his new titles in the hope of obtaining yet another Game of the Year. It is a little puzzling then to find Vernissage, his latest, published by TM Games - a new company at least partially owned by Herr Teuber himself. I am not sure why he has gone the luxury self publishing route, but presume it is to cut out the middle men and cream off a larger share himself (and why not) or to get a game published that may not have suited the other companies. The downside of course is that he eschews the publicity clout of the major players and, depending on your viewpoint, possibly the eye of the Spiel des Jahres judges. The other drawback is that he seems to have been deprived of third party input on the design, so compared with the lean and mean Flying Dutchman or Drunter & Druber, Vernissage is a little overwrought. It is however still a damn good game.
Vernissage is a game about the art market. While it may appear that Modern Art has stolen some of its thunder, it is a completely different beast to Herr Knizia's little gem. Vernissage moves the emphasis away from the abstract pricing of Modern Art and uses a number of tricks to represent something of the flavour of the art world, the agents and its trendsetting artists. It is perhaps a measure of my transformation over the last few years, but even though Vernissage is more the simulation of the two, I am quite happy playing either.
The game is essentially a series of sub systems that mesh together to force the many decisions in the game. In the same vein as Modern Art, the idea is to spot which artists are going to be the most popular during the game and, importantly, at game end. Unlike Modern Art, where the role of the player is nebulous to say the least, each player take the role of a gallery owner, employing agents to scout out the new talents and to conduct dirty tricks campaigns against rivals. The players also buy in artwork which they can choose to display at the right time (earning instant rewards) or they can hold them back to surprise the other players at game end. The key point is that once bought, you are in for the ride as pictures cannot be sold.
Artists come in five flavours but their style and names are largely irrelevant. This doesn't stop the TM art department having a field day in producing the artist cards, pictures, gallery logos and so on. What counts is whether they are in or out of favour in the art world and whether they can garner sufficient volumes of work, scandal and publicity to make a name on the exhibition circuit. And like a new theatre production, they also need to avoid the critic's pen.
The board features two tracks which monitor the progress of the artists. The large staircase in the middle might be said to monitor their personal development whereas the outside track, marked in sections from Out to In, measures their fame and acceptability to the art market and thus the value of their paintings. Success or failure on the stairs leads to movement on the fame track: a fortunate artist will move towards the 'In' section which earns money for anyone displaying their pictures. Conversely, should an artist drift out of favour and go 'Out', the pictures on your wall become a liability. If two of the five artists go Out, the game is over. The game can also end when any artist makes it to the top of the stairs. No idea what this represents, but it seems like a reasonable time after which to finish.
So, you have five budding artists, any one of whom could be the next Hockney and any two of which could be Young Unknowns. At the start, they are all equal so you could take a gamble on buying one only to see him falter, or you might wait to see who is developing the quickest. Portfolio management is interesting as I won the first game with all one artist's work, but clearly a less risky tactic would be to hold a mix of up to three - more than three means one of your artists stands a very good chance of being out, to the detriment of your wallet. Aiding your efforts to decide which painters to buy are your agents who stand on the stairs and exert influence over any artist on the same step. To be able to move an artist's fame (up or down) you must have influence which means you need the right movement cards in hand to move your agents on the stairs, following your protegee's progress.
Influence established, you roll the special dice which allows you to place a fate counter ahead of the targeted artist. This will be one of three types of marker, either a picture (the artist has completed a work), a camera (he has appeared in Hello) or a paintbrush (he has realised that painting is easier using one). Each of these can be positive (moving the fame marker forward) or negative. The counter is placed and can then be challenged by any other player with influence, so the agents are also useful to protect your man from other players. If challenged, it can be amicably resolved by negotiation (player one lays a -5, the challenger might settle for -2) but if the two parties can't agree, a trial of strength takes place which gets a bit nasty for both players. All of this activity can of course be a big bluff, especially early in the game when few pictures are hanging in galleries for all to see.
In this way, the artists steadily move up the stairs and, more importantly, take up their relative positions on the fame track. Trends start to form and one or more artists may even start to slip towards Out. It is at this point when you need to start buying in pictures. This is crucial to winning as they are the only way of earning cash, either by having them on display or claiming for them at the end. The considerations, apart from the obvious fame rating, are the influences you currently exert, where your agents can get to and which fate counters you are likely to be able to play on the artists. In the first game I opted to buy into the artist sitting a distant third. I knew that if I went for an open strategy and played some strong fate counters, I could bring him along to a couple of good exhibitions and pull him up into first or at least the big money. The cleverest element in the game is how you obtain the paintings.
Each player starts by being dealt three pieces of art. Most of the remaining art cards, mixed in with critic and agent movement cards, are randomly concealed in seven piles on the board. Any cards left over are returned to the box, creating arbitrary shortages (unlike the known picture distribution of Modern Art). The stacks are priced on a sliding scale so players with the opportunity to buy early take the cheapest stack, look through it, and take the card they want - a big advantage, this. The catch is that the artworks you want may not be in there, so you then have to wait until two or more players have had their turn. This often means you go for a more expensive stack next time in search of the artists you are collecting or perhaps a rare critic card.
Throughout the game, players gradually move further along the stacks, sometimes jumping ahead to get a scoop or to switch into a newly popular artist, with the intent of building up a balanced, valuable holding. I see this as either paying more and more to get the works coming out of studios or snaffling those already out on the market. This is popularly known as the Saatchi phase. The net result of this otherwise inventive sub-system is that, in extreme cases, luck can play a noticeable role - if you can't ever find the pieces you want or grab the sole picture of a valuable artist, you would have a strong case for arguing its randomness. In reality, the law of averages and being first to at least one stack smooths this possibility out. I haven't yet decided whether, at its worst, this luck element outbalances skilled play or if it represents just another challenge, but after four game's data it seems to be containable if you know what you are doing. I would appreciate your views on this.
Once three fate counters with different symbols have been laid in front of an artist, it is time for an exhibition. The artist jumps ahead three spaces or more and if this lands him in first place on the stairs, he holds a major exhibition and collects lots of fame, usually leading to big payouts for all the galleries showing his works. If it only lands him in second or third he gets just a low key show and commensurate renown. The main use of the jump is to get the fame, move the artist further up the stairs (to put the time pressure on) and to raise cash on paintings held - if the artist occupies the In section of the fame track, or is just outside, a major exhibition will push him right up to the highest cash spaces (from which he slides back immediately) so anyone with pictures can claim their dividend.
The critic's pen is a major hassle if it lands on one of your artists. It means an instant reduction of fame (ignoring the 'any publicity is good publicity' concept) and any fate markers placed on the artist are negatively modified making it difficult to recover. If you get the pen while down at the bottom of the track, chances are you will stay there or go Out rapidly. It is possible to shift the focus of the critics but it is dependent on having another card and well placed agents. Also, very much like Kremlin, bringing your main man back from Siberia tends to tip your hand somewhat if you are holding face down pictures.
As you will have spotted, I have not gone into great detail on many of the mechanisms as they are somewhat involved and work well enough. Most of the systems run off cards and cash payments in the usual way. As with the earlier Adel, there are just two or three set things to do each turn which does make it feel a little mechanical. Everything is logical and within the constraints of the gameplan it is easy enough to spot how the systems interlink. However, taking all these sub systems on board is quite bewildering at first. Unless you are in an unusually receptive mood, the first game is very much a learning experience and none too exciting, it must be said. This game is definitely of no interest to the type of gamer who must understand every nuance of play before he begins (presumably so he might win?) and even experienced gamers have been known to glaze over. The initial game will certainly take you longer than usual and might feel rather confusing but while some games simply aren't good enough to tempt you into playing a second time, thankfully Vernissage isn't one of them.
Because of the large number of elements, Vernissage does promote the feeling that everything was added to the design, carefully worked on and included, with little being taken out. In that respect it gets close to the point where it just feels too much, and in the early stages of familiarity almost blows it. Fortunately, I think the game is appealing and strong enough to handle this and, as I've said, it gets much better the more you play. Whatever, I can't help feeling that some of the component systems might have been simplified or slimmed down, detracting little from the overall experience and improving the time required - we took two hours for the first game, reducing to 90 minutes with experience which is just a tad long. Oops, sounds like an Amadeus 'Too Many Notes' criticism to me.
In weight, Vernissage is pushing towards heavy and, dare I say it, even approaches simulation in parts. As a counterpoint to the other lighter games so prevalent at the moment, this is quite welcome. I found the theme strong and in many ways more true to life than Modern Art (without in any way denigrating that superb game) but also rather lacking in atmosphere. I put this down a general teutonic sensation (that reminds me very much of Adel) and also the production that, while professionally done, adds little to the feel for some reason - possibly because it is so very loud. I would have used pastels personally to counterbalance the chunky systems. Gawd, I sound like an interior designer.
These slight concerns aside, Vernissage is an excellent game. It is full of bluff and decisions as to whether to hold back or reveal, buy or wait, which artist in going to be in and can you get hold of enough paintings quickly and cheaply enough? The balance is near perfect and wins tend to be by the smallest of margins once familiarity is established, though holding Out paintings really hits the final cash balance, perhaps disproportionately. Pricing is consequently important and you need to assess every purchase and struggle that you undertake in relation to the potential value of the paintings.
Vernissage undoubtedly falls at the high end of the European genre and will probably appeal to gamers far more than the general public, though I might be mistaken. It may be considered a little dry for some tastes and the width of decision making could be too much to keep it enjoyable and 'fun'. However, as the early meat of a game session or as a slightly more cerebral game, this fits the bill perfectly. It is involved rather than complex, and it doesn't generate headaches, but still manages to offer a definite challenge for good players. I appreciate that each Teuber game seems to appear to acclaim in Sumo, but this is simply because he consistently releases original games of a high standard. Vernissage does nothing to divert me from that trend.
On to the review of En Garde or back to the review of Lords of the Sierra Madre.
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