Reiner Knizia is a boardgame god. While the German-born designer has lived in England for many years, he comes from a culture that reveres the form far more than we do in this country; in Germany, as in much of Europe, playing tabletop games remains a mainstream form of social interaction. Knizia, who holds a Ph.D. in mathematics, has designed more than 30 games, including Lord of the Rings, which requires players to adopt a cooperative strategy, and Tigris and Euphrates. Most of his games reward abstract strategies, and many, like Ra and Modern Art have an auction or bidding mechanic. Modern Art is my favorite of these games.
The basic conceit is that you’re a gallery owner and you’re bidding on the works of up-and-coming artists, in the hopes of cornering the market on the Next Big Thing. It’s a game for 3-5 players, and while it’s neither as long nor as complicated as Ra, success in the game is almost entirely dependent on a strong bidding strategy. Modern Art is sometimes referred to as a boardgame, but the board itself is really just a method for scoring, as it is in the classic game Cribbage. In terms of actual gameplay, it’s a card game. Here’s how it works:
Each "gallery owner" receives 8-10 cards, depending on the number of players, and gets $100,000 in chips, to start things off. Each player also has a screen with the name of a city, used to hide his or her hand. Cities represented are London, Chicago, New York, Boston, Paris and Los Angeles; Williamsburg is not an option. Cards represent the name and individual work of one of one of the five fictitious artists up for auction: Yoko, Christin P. Karl Glitter, Krypto, and Lite Metal each have distinctive styles, and the works represented are impressively pretty for playing cards. Each card also has a symbol representing the type of auction required for the particular work: open, sealed, fixed price, double or once around.
The rules specify that the first auctioneer is the youngest player, but I hate to ask adults their age. However you decide who goes first, the auctioneer picks a card from his or her hand and offers it to the other players. Players bid (or pass) as specified, and when the bidding is complete, the player to the left becomes the new auctioneer. Bidding continues clockwise until the round is complete, and only the three most popular artists, as determined by bids, have any worth. In the second, third and fourth rounds, the value of an artists’ worth depends not only on current bids, but the cumulative status of previous rounds. The player with the most money (most valuable art) at the end of the fourth round is the winner
The rules are well written and easy to follow, and in addition to "information" about the artists, the booklet contains "quotes" about each artist’s work. For instance, Karl Glitter is described as "Light yet fruity, with a rich, full-bodied bouquet." The game is clever, fun, and takes about an hour to play. Personally, I favor bidding card games and it’s a wonder that I never became a Bridge player, but not everyone does. If you like the form, Modern Art is one of the best I’ve ever played. If you don’t care for that kind of game, you should still pick up something designed by Reiner Knizia. With over 30 to choose from, you’re bound to find one to your liking.