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One game that still leaves me stumped for good strategy is Reiner Knizia's auction game Modern Art. The last time it hit our table, I noticed that when it was my turn to auction a painting early in the round, I had no clue which of my paintings to select first.

  • Do you play cards of an artist that you have fewer of (hoping someone will buy it because they have some to sell as well), or one you have a lot of (and run the risk that nobody else is interested in it)?
  • How much is the artist tiebreak worth thinking about? If all else is equal, sure, play a Lite Metal over a Krypto, but is it more important than that?
  • What kind of auction do you play? I would think that an open auction would generate the most interest, but is that the case, and is it worth worrying about?
  • Do you play a double painting to saturate the market, or do you hold out and try to cash the double in later, hopefully as the third and fourth painting of the round?
  • In later rounds, how much do the carryover values from the previous rounds matter? Sure, they are worth more, but conversely there are less of them left to sell and people may not be interested anymore?

Does anyone have a better feel for this game, and can provide some insight? I'd love to have a couple rules of thumb ready for when I play this game next.

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up vote 2 down vote accepted

There are no hard and fast rules about Modern Art, as so much depends on the mentality of the fellow players. However, general rules of psychology, bidding games, and trading can help.

To start with consider these things:

1) The threat of being out-bid is more powerful than outbidding someone. This means you always want to have more money than your fellow players. Too often newer players will buy up paintings that will score early, then allow the remaining players to get the same artists at lower prices (since they're out of money). Try playing with losing every auction first round, to see how it feels to be really rich. With this strategy, you'll want to end round one as quickly as possible.

2) Don't overpay. It sounds simple, but there's an opportunity cost (to buy something else) whenever you buy something. Here's some math to estimate prices. In an optimal game, every round consists of 3 artists only in proportions of 5/4/4 (=13) with an aggregate 'price' of 5*30 + 4*20 + 4*10 = 270 / 13 = ~20. This means all things equal, don't pay more than 20 for a card, first round.

3) Keep track of # of remaining artist cards! This is a game of psychology. It's important to know what your opponents are likely to have in the their hand. Likewise, keep track of your opponent's play styles over rounds or multiple games.

4) Tips on auctions:

  • In Free Auctions, psychology tells us that players tend to overbid. This is due to 'loss aversion' and the mistaken belief that you're denying an opponent something he wants. Try to bid up your opponent, if you have the guts, to make him outbid you and pay too much.
  • In one-round auctions, you have the advantage as the auctioneer if and only if you have a big pile of cash (see #1 above). If the last player bids too high, let him have it, else take it for yourself.
  • In secret auctions, players are trying to read each other, and tend to overbid because they think that adding 'just a few extra' will win them the auction. Try lowballing these auctions just in case someone gives up with nothing (bidding nothing is a terrible idea)
  • The fixed price auction is your best opportunity to play strategically. Only play one of these when you know an opponent will overpay. No one will let you buy it too low, so never offer these under-value (unless you have ALL the money).
  • The dual auctions are wonderful ways to grab art. Try using it only late in the round with the one-round auction. If you have a pile of cash no doubt this is an opportunity to get a lot cheap, or get a pile of money for next round.

To answer your specific bullet points:

  • As for which artist to play, you want to 'team-up' with a specific other player. A win for you and one other player means a relative gain against two other players (assuming a 4 player game). Concurrently, this means that you play cards already in play and hoard artists that haven't been seen yet (they will later).
  • The artist tie-break is game balance, but doesn't quite fully balance things. The artists with the more cards are therefore slightly more valuable.
  • Play most auctions to well-below value, and play the one-rounds to win as auctioneer.
  • Doubles are more powerful later in the rounds, but only if you have a cash advantage.
  • 4 rounds * 3 winners per round / 5 artists = 2.4 So, each artist, on average places 2-3 times a game. That's quite significant. Keep track of the artist and place: if the 12-card artist places first, forget about him scoring the rest of the game, but if the 16-card artist places 2nd or 3rd, that's a good bet to try to win in subsequent rounds.

Hope that helps!

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Quick question about your point about one-round auctions (and auctions in general). I've always played that you should never buy your own auctions (unless the price is ridiculously low), since it's so easy to make a guaranteed profit. Even in a scenario where you sell a painting for 16 that cashes in for 30, you've made 16, the buyer made 14, and everyone else makes 0. If you had bought it for 16, you'd make only the 14 while everyone else makes 0. Is this the right way to look at this? How aggressive should you be in your own auctions? –  dpmattingly Jun 24 '11 at 13:51
    
Buying your own auctions is tricky, since the price needs to be lower to count the opportunity cost of (1) not getting the money from your opponent (2) having your opponent lose the money. When I said 'big pile of cash' above, I'm assuming that you have enough control of cash that your opponent isn't bidding anywhere near value –  Neal Tibrewala Jun 24 '11 at 15:01
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