Modern Art is a brilliant strategic board game for three to five players based around the idea of art auctions. It takes forty five minutes or so to play and is available at better hobby stores everywhere. There is also a nearly identical version that can be played with a standard deck of cards, a few poker chips, and the money stripped from a Monopoly game (I'll describe the rules for this version at the end). There's a gorgeous version of this game available from Mayfair Games for around $20-$25 that I own, although when I'm playing with friends very familiar with the game, we usually play the deck-and-Monopoly-money version instead.
Modern Art is based on the idea of art auctions, and this game actually does a very good (and enjoyable) job of simulating them. Each player is a competing art dealer who wants to maximize the value of his or her own art portfolio. A player does this by acquiring paintings by more popular artists and ditching paintings by less popular artists.
Rules for Modern Art
In the published version of the game, there is a deck of seventy cards, each depicting upon it a painting by one of five artists (there are fourteen paintings per artist). Each player has a hand of these cards that he/she can auction off; much of the strategy comes from choosing which cards to auction off. The player who auctions off the card can participate in these auctions.
Now, each card also has a specific type of auction, of which there are five:
- Open - all players can bid freely, much like a regular auction
- Once Around - bids progress to the left, once around the table; you have to beat the highest bid or pass
- Sealed - every player makes a sealed bid; highest bid wins the auction
- Fixed Price - bids progress to the left; first player to pay the fixed price wins the painting
- Double - another painting may added to the auction; it must be by the same artist. If the auctioneer chooses not to add a painting, other players (in order to the left) may choose to add a painting; if that player does, he/she becomes the auctioneer and that player and the original auctioneer split the proceeds of the auction. Then it is played as an open auction. The auction winner gets both paintings.
The type of auction is marked on the card. A player auctions off one of his or her cards each turn, with play progressing to the left.
Each player starts with a fixed hand size based on the number of players. No cards are drawn except at the end of the first and second of the four phases (and the hand is only built up a small amount then), so a good part of the strategy is maximizing what you can get out of the cards you have in hand. A player also starts with $100,000 in chips.
A phase ends when the fifth painting by any one artist is sold. At that point, the artists are ranked based on the number of paintings he/she has sold (if there are ties, both are treated as having the same, higher placement). Each painting by that artist is then assigned a value based on that artist's ranking. The first place artist has paintings worth $30,000 a pop, second place artist has paintings worth $20,000, third place artist has paintings worth $10,000, and the paintings by the other artists are worthless.
Now, here's the interesting part: the money itself is represented as chips with values of $30,000, $20,000, and $10,000. The board itself shows the five artists. Now, the players put the chips on the board (from the bank, of course) based on the value of the artist's paintings along with the chips already there from previous phases. So, if at the end of the third phase, one of the artists has two $30,000 chips and one $10,000 chip on his space on the board, his paintings can be sold at $70,000. This is how the game keeps track of an artist's previous popularity.
At the end of a phase, all players then sell all the paintings they have purchased to the bank for their value. That's not the only way to make money, though; when a painting is bought at auction, the player who auctioned it off gets the money from that painting (if you win your own auction, though, you have to pay the bank). So, pretty much every move in the game is loaded with strategic decisions.
All players keep their money chips hidden throughout the game; the only thing you can see from each player is the paintings he/she has purchased in the current round. At the end of the game, each player counts up his/her money chips, and the player with the most chips wins the game.
Rules for "homebrew" Modern Art
Rather than using money chips, players use money stripped from Monopoly. All values above are divided by 100, meaning each player starts with $1,000 and the artists have values of $300, $200, and $100.
Obviously, in this version there are four artists (the suits) with thirteen paintings per artist (the ranks). The auctions are done according to the ranks:
- Open: Ace, 2, 3
- Once Around: 4, 5, 6
- Sealed: 7, 8, 9
- Fixed Price: 10, J
- Double: Q, K
Also, these are the number of cards each player should draw and add to their auction hand at the start of the game and after each auction phase.
| Start of game | After Phase 1 | After Phase 2 | After Phase 3 |
3 players | 10 | 4 | 3 | 0 |
4 players | 7 | 3 | 3 | 0 |
5 players | 5 | 3 | 2 | 0 |
After each phase, when all the paintings are sold, take a card of each suit and mark its value in the middle of the table with $100 bills; that way, each player is reminded of the value of each artist much in the same way the board does in the regular game.
The homebrew version plays much the same as the "real" version, but doesn't have the same flavor without the art. It's nice for learning the flow of the game or for longtime players who know the exquisite published version forward and backward; otherwise, the published one is better.
These strategic points work for both versions of the game, as they are very similar in terms of play.
When you get your opening hand, sort them by artist. If you have multiple once around auctions by the same artist, focus on this artist as much as you can, as these are the easiest for the dealer to win. Fixed price and sealed auctions are very dangerous, as you may never get the chance to bid. In other words, pick the artist in your hand with the most once around, open, and double auctions and try as hard as you can to win auctions by that artist. Although there's not much subtlety, this will keep you in contention.
An alternate strategy is to wait on pushing this artist until the second round, especially if that artist is considered worthless after the first round. The other players will be competing for the more valuable artists, so you can often scoop up two or three paintings at very cheap prices. This is a routine strategy with the people I've played with; often, a worthless artist after the first round is the most valuable one after the last round. We sarcastically call it the "Van Gogh effect."
I am admittedly a board game fan, and this is one of the best I've ever played. It ranks up there with Torres, Twixt, Acquire, and Carcassonne as my favorite games of all time. It plays rather quickly (usually under an hour), yet it has a certain "something" that just makes it a thorough joy to play.