"Even if the people here tonight were initially lured into the auction room by a love of art, they find themselves participating in a spectacle where the dollar value of the work has virtually slaughtered its other meanings." -Sarah Thornton.
In the introduction to his book What Are You Looking At?, art writer Will Gompertz offers a reassurance to nervous readers. He states, "As with most seemingly impenetrable subjects, art is like a game; all you really need to know is the basic rules and regulations for the once baffling to start making some sense." He wants folks to know that, despite its reputation for difficulty, they are smart enough and educated enough to make sense of modern art's abstract smears and spattered canvases. You just have to crack through the imposing exterior and you'll find something comprehensible underneath.
Reiner Knizia's Modern Art, on the other hand, might have the opposite problem. Its cheery presentation and simple mechanics hide a dark heart of manipulation, greed, and cutthroat complexity. In it, players take on the role of competing art museums trying to navigate a volatile painting market. Your goal, however, isn't aesthetic. Modern Art doesn't care if you've carefully assembled a gallery of masterpieces-the only metric that matters at the end of the game is your stack of cold, hard cash. For all its gorgeous trappings, this isn't a game about beauty. It's a game about the ugliness of clawing your way to the top, and the things you're willing to do to your friends to get there.
"The auction is the symptom of something much more complex, like a rash. It is vulgar, in the same way that pornography is vulgar." -Keith Tyson
The auction is at the heart of Modern Art. Actually, that's an understatement-the auction is Modern Art. At the beginning of each round, players are dealt a hand of cards, each representing a painting. They then take turns putting a single card from their hand (or occasionally two) up for auction. There is some variation in how the cards are auctioned off-for example, one card might trigger an open auction, with players talking over each other to make the highest offer, while another might start a hidden auction, with players secretly grabbing a fistful of cash and simultaneously revealing their bids. No matter the method, your goal is simple: buy low and sell high. The winner pays the auctioneer and puts the painting in their tableau along with the rest of their collection, which will be sold back to the bank at the end of the round, hopefully for a sizable profit.
It's vintage Eurogames stuff from the era that created Eurogames. The twist-and this is where Modern Art reveals both its genius and its cynical thesis-is that each painting is worthless. They have no value on their own. They only start to become valuable when multiple works from a single artist start to accumulate in the marketplace. There are five artists in the game, and their stock will rise and fall based on nothing more than their popularity. This creates a wonderful arc, with players starting off bidding tentatively, surveying the marketplace in search of the next big thing. Once a few paintings from one artist are sold, players will scramble to get in and profit off them while they're hot, eking out some cash before the bubble bursts.
And the bubble will burst. An artist's career will build from round to round, making their paintings more and more valuable, but there are no sure things in the art world. If an artist isn't one of the top three artists at the end of any given round, their paintings are worth nothing, regardless of previous success. You're only as good as your last show, after all. This creates a delicious sense of desperation, as players must constantly be aware of these shifting tides and be ready to leap from a sinking ship before it takes their fortune down with it. The players that rise to the top will know when to hold 'em, when to fold 'em, and when to unload a pile of worthless paint onto their guileless friends right before the bottom drops out. "Yes, we all know that Silveira just had a bad season, but the time is ripe for his big comeback. Look at this latest masterwork-I think we can all agree that this is worst at least 30,000 dollars, right? Who'll place the first bid?"
"Buying is more American than thinking, and I'm as American as they come." -Andy Warhol
Even though the game is utterly simple, it stays compelling because the puzzle it asks you to solve is ultimately social rather than mechanical. Calculating the potential profit of a given painting is easy-what's challenging is figuring out how to wring out its maximum value while the schemers around you try and do the same. This means the nature of the game changes depending on the people playing it. Play with a group of hardened gamers, and Modern Art feels like a tense duel of razor-thin margins and bold gambles. Whereas with a more casual group, it can feel more like a party game, with folks getting charmed out of their wallets by a particularly striking piece of art or hilarious pitch.
The game can feel the most alive (and at its most frustrating) when you have a combination of veteran and casual gamers sitting at the same table. The vets will often find themselves preying on the newer folks, experienced operatives competing with each other to sweet-talk the dilettantes into crushingly bad deals. While this can be infuriating, especially if you're the type of player who rages when your plans are thwarted by someone else's suboptimal move, this sharks-and-minnows dynamic creates exciting moments of laughter and groaning in equal measure. It's also eerily reminiscent of the Wall Street broker vs. legacy millionaire ecosystem that powers the actual art market.
All of this leads to the reason Modern Art stands head and shoulders over its auction-based brethren, and it's the same reason it's been reprinted a million times since it was first released all the way back in 1992: theme. This may sound strange, especially in an era where "theme" is usually found in endless paragraphs of bland flavor text about orcs or robots or whatever. But in its seamless pairing of subject matter and mechanics, Modern Art masterfully manufactures the feeling of being a player in an industry defined by the fickle and arbitrary tastes of the fabulously wealthy. It both recreates the art world and presents a nervy critique of it-no small feat for a game that essentially consists of a deck of cards and a pile of tokens.
CMON's production does this classic game justice. The components are all stylish and functional, and the deck of paintings presents an array of different styles that pop even when shrunk down to handheld size. CMON made the compelling decision to feature paintings from five contemporary working artists rather than reaching back to known classics. This adds another fascinating layer to your wheeling and dealing-each fake auction is centered around the dreams and livelihood of a real person, which makes the stakes seem even higher. Ultimately, it's this feeling of high stakes, paired with the very human interactions they engender, that ensures that this game will have a well-deserved place on our shelves for decades to come.