Modern Art

Modern Art (1992)

Game Details
NameModern Art (1992)
Accessibility ReportMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.29]
BGG Rank213 [7.51]
Player Count3-5
Designer(s)Reiner Knizia
Buy it!Amazon Link

TL;DR: It's great! You should probably try it if you can!

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a game before where so much effort has been expended in making the thing look so ugly. There is so much misdirected energy here that it’s actually a little upsetting. This is a game of modern art monstrosities and the people that are desperately trying to get rid of them and I relate to that pretty hard. These aren’t paintings I’d hang on my wall – these are paintings I would load into a comedy ACME blunderbus and shoot into the sun. If you told me that these were cursed paintings that were found in a walled up room in a forgotten castle haunted by angry ghosts I wouldn’t be a bit surprised.

Modern Art box

Look, I know – I’m a philistine. I don’t get this flavour of contemporary modern art. I know there are lots of people who go bananas for this stuff but to me the majority of the paintings here look utterly hideous. I wouldn’t give most of them house room, much less actually pay for them. I wouldn’t store them temporarily for a desperate family member in dire need. In fact, when we were sitting down to play this with a friend of ours she said ‘I don’t want to bid on any of these’ and it took some convincing before she would. My own personal perspective here is that you need to play this edition of Modern Art despite the chosen paintings, and that’s pretty unfortunate. Your mileage will vary. Some will be on board instantly. Those that find it too great a barrier to overcome might be better served by the Oink edition of the game where the art is equally inscrutable but at least a touch less aggressively elitist about it.

Hideous modern art

The good news is, you don’t actually need to like anything you buy here. You’re not an art collector. You’re not an art connoisseur. You’re an art speculator, looking to bilk the masses out of their cash. You’re not bidding on these preposterous things for their artistic worth – you’re investing in up and coming artists in the hope you can extract every last ounce of profitability from their passion.

It’s an interesting way to package a game because it makes Modern Art somewhat psychologically unapproachable on two different and competing levels.

The first is – if you hate the art then you need to make a special effort to move beyond it into a mindset where you may as well be bidding on pork futures. In that respect, the framing of the game is largely pointless. The art is immaterial.

On the other hand if you appreciate the artists then you need to make an equally special effort to move beyond it into a mindset where you don’t mind how viciously satirical the game ends up being. When you treat art like a commodity you are stripping it down to an essentialist, Capitalist perception of worth. It’s easy to feel that Modern Art is making fun of you and people like you. At the core of Modern Art is one cutting, biting message – art is valuable only because people act like it’s valuable. It’s like money itself – a collective, useful delusion. Value here is a fairy tale that society tells itself because the alternative is too terrifying to contemplate.

More horrible paintings

Within Modern Art each of us takes control of an art gallery, a basement full of awful paintings, and a small chunk of money. Over the course of four rounds we’ll each present one or more of these paintings up for auction in a series of lots. There are five different artists, and each has dozens of paintings over which you’ll all be competing. Money raised in an auction goes to the auctioneer, except in circumstances where they win the bid. In that case, it goes back to the bank.

Each painting has a specific kind of auction with which it’s associated, and cleverly matching artist to auction is where most of the game lies. There are open auctions which work exactly like you’d imagine – everyone bids and gazumps each other until someone ends up paying more than they wanted for a painting worth less than they’d like. If nobody bids, the auctioneer gets it for free. There are fixed price auctions where the auctioneer states the price tag and the first person to accept gets it. If nobody buys it, the auctioneer must. There are one-offer auctions where it goes once around the table with everyone making one bid which the next person must raise. There are hidden auctions where everyone plays their bid in a closed fist and everyone reveals at once.

Finally there are the double actions where you package up two paintings by the same artist and auction them off according to the requirements of the second entry in the set. Rounds continue until the fifth painting of a particular artist is put up for sale. At that point, you trash that fifth painting (with a palpable sense of relief) and you then move on to the core driver of the game. That’s the phase where you calculate the hype cycle of accumulating value.

First round popularity of artists

The thing is, there’s no reason to own any of these paintings – not inherently. The only reason to own them is in the hope you’ve picked up a set from a hot artist. At the end of every round you count up which artists are selling and the top three get a bonus token placed in their column of the game board. Each painting by the top three artists will inject money into the owner’s coffers – to the tune of the sum of the entire column. Certain artists can become very valuable as time goes by, and the more valuable a painting is the more likely it is to get some excitement going when it comes up for auction.

End of game scoring

It’s not the simplest auction game in the world – High Society, also by Renier Knizia, manages to strip away even more of these systems in search for the purest expression of gamified gambling. However, Modern Art is a beautifully rounded game because each additional dash of complexity introduced by each type of auction has a powerful effect on the treacherous psychological terrain everyone is navigating. They all work together to twist that terrain into new and interesting topologies. You don’t do anything in Modern Art without making everything more complicated for everyone, including yourself.

Let’s say for example everyone has bought a painting in a round each by a different artist. Michael bought the first Rafael Silveira painting that came up because it’s the only one of the five artists he can remotely stand. Pauline picked up a Sigrid Thaler because she likes the creepy aesthetic. Kat bought a Ramon Martins, noting that the bright and psychedelic kaleidoscope of colours was very striking.

Then Roz plays down two cards. A double auction for Daniel Melim paintings.

Up until this point, everyone was going to get something for their paintings. Now though whoever wins this auction is almost certainly going to be in a position to have two pieces by the hottest artist of the round. Someone else is going to lose out, because only three artists per round will be worth anything. Nobody was collecting Melim paintings, and now suddenly everyone is collecting Melim paintings. That’d result in an auction phase that progressed with relatively dull predictability except that everyone has a different view on how sensible that’s going to be. Someone sitting with a hand of Melim cards for auction might be wary, knowing they have the ability to heavily influence how many more will appear. Someone sitting with none might reasonably expect to have more chances at the pie as time goes by.

It’s at these times that the role-playing aspect of Modern Art starts to really come to the fore. The game encourages you to say a little something about each piece as you present it up for auction, and I recommend that wholeheartedly because it’s where the funniest part of the game tends to live.

Daniel Melim paintings

‘I’m selling these two lovely Melim paintings’, says Roz – casually lying about how utterly hideous they are. ‘This one is called, uh… “photoshopped woman on a random background”. The other is called… “weird graffiti on white and it’s a bit washed out, um”. They are beautiful and highly sought after’

Here the auctioneer is not just placing paintings up for sale, but doing a bit of hype-work to get people to bid. It’s not mandatory, but I think much of the fun of Modern Art comes from the psychological element of value estimation. The auctioneer’s part in that is trying to get people all riled up – force them to discount their own cool, deliberate capitalist calculations as a consequence of the financial chum you throw into the waters.

‘Now, I appreciate this artist hasn’t been on your radar up until now’, Roz says, ‘But I happen to know for a fact that more of these paintings are going to be making their way into the market very soon. I have a client who is looking to offload a large number of Original Melims and I can guarantee enthusiastic interest. It’s a fixed price auction, so I’m looking for $40k for the pair’

Everyone looks at the game board, evaluating how much that would mean for them. There’s no guarantee that Daniel Melim is going to be the hottest artist of the round, but if he is each of those paintings will be worth $30k. If he’s only the second hottest artist, the worst you do is break even. Two of his paintings being out there means it’s unlikely (but certainly possible) he’ll be lower than third, but that would mean you lose $20k on the deal.

So – what do you do?

And it’s here that all the depth of Modern Art starts to unpack because this is a dense question dripping with estimation and second guessing. Does Roz have the paintings she claims she has, and if she does will she even sell them?

See, the auctioneer has an impossible tightrope to walk here – they want to get the best price for the paintings because the money comes to them. They also want to make sure that the paintings other people buy don’t earn what they’re worth because in the end the winner of the game is the one with the most money. Nobody will pay more for a hot artist than they think they’ll get back, but also they won’t pay what you’d like because what’s the point in breaking even? Every painting you sell is potentially an own goal so you don’t really want to be offering a sure thing to anyone. Still though, you want the most money you can get because that’ll let you bid on the really good stuff that might be coming up later.

Money in Modern Art

Ah, but the other players – they have their own considerations. In the first round that painting is worth a maximum of $30k. However, if Daniel Melim remains a consistently popular artist over the course of the game they might be in a position where a Melim is worth $100k or more. They might look at the Melim paintings in their hand with an eye to the long term – they might want them to be popular now purely because they have a stockpile that will reap great benefits in the future.

Every bid you make in Modern Art is laden with implication. On the surface it’s purely algorithmic – projected returns versus capital costs. At the level beneath it’s risk versus reward where you are partially but not entirely in charge of both sides of the equation. At the level beneath that is a deep sea of influences where you are playing a long game of manipulation where the only tangible mark of value is belief. It’s like getting on the ground floor of Bitcon. I mean, Bitcoin. You’re not really an art dealer – you’re a snake oil salesperson trying to sell your fake cures to people in the hope they’re a bit less savvy than you.

It’s never quite that simple though because even the greatest trade is only speculative. Nobody can engineer this tight, taut ecology of distrust and deceit. You can grab it and twist it but in the end it’s going to writhe out from under your fingers more regularly than it’s going to willingly yield. You’ll get burned on deals simply because everything changes in the simple act of committing. Hermeticism suggests that magic is the act of changing the world by altering our perception of reality. If that’s true then engaging with Modern Art is an act of naked sorcery. The utterance of a number will coruscate through everyone’s mind like an electric current of potential. The revelation of a painting can turn monarchs into paupers and vice versa. If you’re good at maths and economics you’ll have a bit of an edge in Modern Art, but not as much as you might like. Purchasing a painting here is, in many cases, an act of faith. There’s a marvel in here. It’s that simple rules and predictable outcomes still sum up to a puzzle too complicated, and too interconnected, to unravel in any useful way. I’ve played games where the person that won hadn’t bought a single painting, and how clever is that? Sometimes the winning play is to just con everyone else out of their cash without them working out that’s happening.

Auction types

For all of this though, I still have some reservations. That puzzle is rich and redolent, scented with promise and opportunity. It’s also psychologically incapacitating and I find it hard to convince myself that there’s enough skill as opposed to sheer luck in the outcome. You certainly feel like you reap the rewards of your efforts but I wonder if that might in itself not be an illusion. It’s hard to know with a system as chaotic as this whether the results you achieve are due to what you put in or just the sheer agitation that comes from the number of variables in the system.

The speculation aspect too is a little thin, never offering you the opportunity to really work for or against the market. The sphere of influence you have is within a round – at the end of each you clear away all your purchased paintings and all you’re left with is the cash they generated. I could imagine a much more exciting game where you decide at the time whether to sell or bank them, allowing you to really earn the rewards in the future that your market manipulation earned you. As it is your speculation opportunities are limited to the hand of cards you can curate over the course of the game and that’s more down to fate than skill. Again, you have to wonder how much credit you can claim for a final round triumph if you’re just playing cards you kept from your initial deal.

As you come into the final round too, it starts to feel like it has overstayed its welcome. As the value of paintings increases, so too does an inflexibility in the auctions. It becomes less about speculation and more about a naked capitalist return on investment. There’s still some risk, but not enough for the game to retain the vibrancy it exhibits earlier. There’s a massive difference between a painting being worth 10k-30k and it being worth between 100k and 120k. The swing in the auction gets less significant and the need for everyone to maximise cash means that you rarely see the most popular artist being worth nothing. It becomes more about cashing out than cashing in and that’s never an exciting way to end a game. Again, something to really double down on the thrill of speculation would have been wonderful here. It’s an unfortunate disconnect that the game loses much of its energy exactly at the time the stakes get at their highest. That’s purely because those high stakes are also reliably predictable.

And yeesh, that art.

Those early rounds though are wonderful. They’re full of the palpable sense of power that comes with shaping an economy with nothing more than a number and a can-do attitude. It’s perhaps more remarkable that a game that should be repetitive manages to fill almost every corner of its playtime with the raw energy of uncertainty Modern Art is frequently funny, regularly fascinating, and furious in its satire. Finally, I have found a Knizia game with which I can happily make a deal.