Friday, February 11, 2005

Modern Art - The Review

Modern Art - The Review

Ever been to an art auction? If you’re uninitiated, you’ll just go and bid on a piece that you like, without knowing who the artist is or what the painting is (or might be) worth. The only thing that will tip you off that the work is valuable (or might be valuable in the future) is the Japanese gentleman across the room who pushes the price of the painting beyond your budget. So you sit patiently, since there will probably be another piece that strikes your fancy a bit later. Perhaps the Japanese gentleman won’t be into that one…

Modern Art isn’t quite like that, and the angst you feel isn’t usually because someone else purchased something you want, but that rather he paid the auctioneer too much for it. It’s an interesting game, a pure auction, and it should be a one-trick pony. But it isn’t. More on that in a moment.

Mayfair Games and German partner Hans im Glück first published Modern Art in 1992. The original came in a huge box for a card game, with oversized thick cards and a largish board that didn’t have to be quite that large. It was still attractive (though expensive for what it was), as long as you didn’t have anything against the artwork (some people do consider the pieces “ugly”). The game went out of print and was an eBay star for quite a while. In 2004, Mayfair reprinted the game in a smaller form, reducing the cards to about regular playing cards size, and the board to around half its size. I quite like the new presentation, as it makes the game more portable, and the price point more accessible. This is a boon for the people who got into German games too late to be able to acquire Modern Art at a reasonable price. I’d still recommend that anyone who wants their 2004 Mayfair edition to last put transparent sleeves on the cards. The cards are black-bordered and no sturdier than a regular playing card, so they’ll show wear pretty quickly if you play this game frequently (and chance are good that you will).

Modern Art is one of Reiner Knizia’s now-misnamed “auction trilogy”, traditionally along with RA and Medici. The good doctor knows his auctions, however, and many of his better games have included some form of that mechanism – High Society, Dream Factory (Fabrik der Traum), Amun-Re and Taj Mahal are all highly-regarded Knizia designs. If you like Modern Art, you might want to check some of those other games out.

The Game

Well, you’re art dealers as well as collectors, so you are given a stock of pieces to begin the game. There are only five artists in this Modern Art universe, each with unknown potential except relative to each other. There’s the brilliant Lite Metal, the whimsical Yoko, the fastidious Christin P, the futuristic Karl Gitter, and the contemplative Krypto. Each has several paintings on the market, some of which might find their way into your hands to sell off.

In each season, players auction off works in turn. Each work must be sold off according to one of four methods: In the Fist (a blind bid), Once Around (each player gets to raise or pass once), Fixed Price (auctioneer names a price, first to be willing to pay it wins) and Open (your usual going, going, gone). Regardless of the method, someone ends up with the piece. There is a special method – the Double Auction. These works must be sold as a package deal – a matching painting of the same artist must be sold off along with it. If the auctioneer doesn’t have a match, one of the other players gets to match and sell the two as a lot. The proceeds are split. If an auctioneer buys his own piece, he pays the bank (those works are considered to be on consignment I guess). If someone else buys the piece, the auctioneer gets the proceeds (and these ones are from the auctioneer’s own collection I suppose).

Anyway. The season ends when five works of one artist have been offered for auction – the fifth piece (or fourth and fifth in the case of a Double) is not actually sold off. The artist who had his fifth work offered off has all his works valued at $30,000. The artist with the next most works bought is valued at $20,000, and third place is worth $10,000. Only the top three places are “in the money” and pay out in that season. If less than three artists are bought in that season, only they pay out.

Players play for four seasons. Each season (except the last) players get a few more pieces to sell. The twist here is that artists’ work values are cumulative from season to season, and pay out total value as long as that artist finished “in the money” for that season.

Player with the most cash at the end of the game wins!


You might want to skip this if you’re just interested in games and Modern Art for the fun of it. You don’t need to read this part. If you’re interested, read on. Ever heard of the Prisoner’s Dilemma? Go ahead and Google it for a bit. If you’re lazy, here’s the Wikipedia definition:

The prisoner's dilemma is a type of non-zero-sum game. In this game theory problem, as in many others, it is assumed that each individual player is trying to maximise his own advantage, without concern for the well-being of the other player. This Nash equilibrium does not lead to a jointly optimum solution in the prisoner's dilemma; in the equilibrium, each prisoner chooses to defect even though the joint payoff of the players would be higher by cooperating. Unfortunately (for the prisoners), each player has an individual incentive to cheat even after promising to cooperate. This is the heart of the dilemma.

There are some uncommon terms there (“non-zero-sum game”, “Nash equilibrium”). If you want to learn a bit more, see the film “A Beautiful Mind”. Who says gaming isn’t educational?

Ok. Modern Art is like an evolving multiplayer Prisoner’s Dilemma. When a when a buyer purchases a piece from an auctioneer, he wants to make a profit. The problem is, the auctioneer will make a profit too. How much profit each makes is dependent on two things – how much each thinks the painting is going to be worth at the end of the season, and how much of an advantage the buyer is willing to cede to the auctioneer relative to himself. It becomes a game of brinkmanship, depending on how the game group plays. The more of an advantage a player is willing to cede to the auctioneer, the closer he will bid to his expected value. Whatever the final bid ends up as, that’s the profit of the auctioneer. The buyer makes whatever the difference between the expected value and what he paid is. The “looser” the group plays, the more of an advantage the auctioneer gets in each auction. If a group plays “tight” then no buyer should be willing to give the auctioneer much more than he’s getting – ideally 50%+1 of the expected value. But people being people, and people being naturally greedy, this never happens, and someone will be upping the price.

So there are two skills at work here. First is predicting the expected value of a painting with the information on the table, in your hand, and in the words and actions of the other players. Second is evaluating the bidding behavior of the group and maximizing your take as an auctioneer while ceding as little as possible when buying (the latter of course being mostly out of your control – the best you can do is refrain from bidding up but you can’t stop others from doing that).

That’s the basic engine that drives Modern Art. The various auction types serve to keep the game different and not repetitive, and Reiner did a good job there. What can drive you batty is the way your game group bids. Especially if you just read this part of my review. Sorry about that.

Reviewer’s Tilt

Modern Art is one of the best pure auction games out there. If you have any interest in game theory, or just like games where players interact directly and there’s a lot of personality and gut involved in a game, the Modern Art is one of the best games out there. I need to stress that it’s highly group dependent, as this type of game usually is. If you have real “players” among you (the poker nuts usually), Modern Art stands a good chance to captivate them. It works really great with non-gamers as well. I’d be cautious about mixing the two audiences, however. As a mediumweight game, I believe that Modern Art has few peers, and it belongs in the library of most German game enthusiasts.


At Wednesday, February 16, 2005 11:10:00 PM, Anonymous Chester said...

I've never won a game of Modern Art. I'm not sure I've even come close. I always thought I had a decent handle on the concept of not making deals that reward the auctioneer more than they reward me (playing 'tight' as Richard describes it). I've even felt like I do a fairly decent job of successfully predicting (or manipulating) the value of the paintings. I dont' often find myself stuck with trash or losing money on a painting. Often, I make more than I thought I probably would.

Now, I don't think my whole group plays 'tight' at all. In fact, we have one player who will bid past the point where it is mathemetically possible for him to make a profit on the painting. (He always seems to win those bids.)

The thing is....there is one guy in the group who seems to pretty consistently win. It started to dawn on me the huge importance of making money as the auctioneer...maximizing the numbers of times you get to auction paintings that can be income sources for you. Its not enough to just be a shrewd buyer.

What I wonder is, am I playing optimally and the successful guy is, too...and he's just happened to win most of the time (helped by receiving inappropriately high amounts of cash from the REALLY 'loose' player) or is there some flaw in my processing of the deals.

At any rate...I love this game. All of this interesting discussion about game theory neglects the tremendous psychological component that exists in this game, too. That, for me, is what puts it over the top. From very true greatness.

At Sunday, February 20, 2005 7:24:00 PM, Anonymous Mark said...

>All of this interesting discussion about game theory neglects the tremendous psychological component that exists in this game, too

Gamed theory just provides a black box where you feed assumptions and out comes a rational strategy. That's the easy part. Psychological profiling of the other players is what provides you with meaningful assumptions to feed the black box. That's the hard part.
Explains why most mathematicians made lousy poker players. :)


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