Posted by: gschloesser | August 9, 2011

Modern Art

Designed by:  Reiner Knizia
Released by:  Mayfair Games
3 – 5 Players, 45 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser  

Modern Art, designed by prolific game designer Reiner Knizia, was first released in Germany back in 1993, with a subsequent English edition released by Mayfair Games in 1996.  After a brief period of being out-of-print, art is back in vogue. 

Players participate in a series of auctions, acquiring works from five up-and-coming artists.  Which one will become the next Picasso, the next Rembrandt?  The more paintings an artist sells, the more popular he becomes and the more valuable his paintings.  The key is to time your purchases and offerings wisely, and as in the stock market, buy low and sell high. 

The original Mayfair edition was released in a bookcase game format.  The components featured a mounted scoreboard, along with oversized cards depicting the paintings.  The new version is compact – smaller box, smaller cards and less air.  Changed also in the new edition are the names on the player screens.  Gone are Chicago, Los Angeles, London and Boston, replaced by Berlin, Tokyo, Bilbao and a blank screen, which can be personalized.  All of this is fine, but the board is no longer mounted.  Rather, it is simply constructed of thick cardboard.  Functional, but it somehow feels “cheaper” … which I’m sure is the overall objective.  I don’t recall the price of the game back in 1996, but this new version sells for under $20.  Not a bad price for what is a very good and engaging game.


The central mechanism in the game is auctions … loads of ‘em.  Normally, I do not like bidding games and the subject matter of art doesn’t interest me at all. However, this game is different. The type of bidding used varies with each card played. There are five potential bidding styles: Open bidding (a wild, free-for-all, auction house style bidding); Once-Around (every player gets one opportunity to bid in a clockwise fashion); Fixed bid (the auctioneer sets the price and each player gets a chance to purchase it at that price); Sealed bid (everyone secretly places his bid); and the Double bid (two cards from the same artist are auctioned at once utilizing one of the styles above).

This variance in the bidding systems makes the game infinitely more interesting than most auction games.  In addition, the value of an artist’s work can vary dramatically from round to round, depending upon the number of his pieces that were purchased during that … and preceding rounds. 

During the course of the game, players take turns offering a painting from their collection (hand of cards) for bid. There are paintings representing works of five artists, and the cards determine the type of bid that must be held. The player bidding the highest amount must pay the auctioneer, unless he, himself, bought the painting, in which case the money goes to the bank.  Play continues in this manner until a fifth painting by an artist has been offered. At this point, the bidding ceases and the value of the sold paintings are determined. Only paintings of those three artists who had the most paintings purchased that round are of any value. Any paintings by the remaining two artists that have been purchased are worthless. Each painting of the highest-selling artist is worth $30, the second-highest artist is worth $20 and third-highest $10 apiece.

A second, third and fourth round of bidding is held. Each player receives a few more paintings to add to their hand prior to the second and third rounds.  The same auction procedure is followed in each round; only the scoring is different. Artists who remain in the ‘top three’ in terms of paintings sold in subsequent rounds have their previous rounds’ paintings value added to the current rounds value. Thus, if ‘Yoko’ finished first in round 1 and third in round 2, each painting sold by her would be worth $40 in round 2 ($30 + $10). However, should an artist fail to place in a subsequent round, then his paintings are worthless that round.  Harsh.

This makes the decision on which paintings to offer for auction a tough one. One must balance the desire to offer desirable paintings in order to earn cash versus the threat of a round ending early before you can make your own desired purchases.  There is also the desire to purchase the painting that you have offered.  Unfortunately, if you do this, it means that you won’t receive any cash from your opponents.  Often, it is wiser to let your opponents purchase the painting you offer, provided the bid is lucrative enough.  Further, all cash held by the players is kept secret, so the front-runner is difficult to determine (which is a good thing with our group … being anonymous is always best).  

Some have complained that Modern Art is flawed in that a player or two who are unable to properly assess the value of a painting can skewer the game.  Perhaps when playing with a group of experienced players who are all adept at such assessments, then this may, indeed, be the case.   I certainly have played with a couple of players who made bids that were seemingly too high … sometimes blatantly so.  However, this has never ruined the game experience for me.  I’ve always enjoyed the game and the challenges it presents.  As such, I cannot be counted as one who feels the game is flawed.  Rather, I consider Modern Art to be one of the best auction games designed.


  1. It is harder to imagine a more pure auction game than Modern Art. However, without a side game (or main game) to be affected by the auction, the whole affair comes off a little dry for my tastes. It is still fun. (7/10)

  2. Very real in that the prices for art are based on everyone’s manipulations of the market. 8/10

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