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The Best Auction Game: Modern Art

Sometimes I think that Modern Art could have been called the Ebay game. Not really, but just like Ebay, the bidding can sometimes get a bit….odd. My brother and I, for example, like to start bidding prime numbers or the Fibonacci sequence..

There’s a lot of variety in auction games out there; the boardgamegeek database has about 2000 games tagged as auction/bidding, and I’ve played quite a few of them. In my opinion,Modern Art is the best of the lot (although many people prefer Knizia’s other big auction game, Ra). The game is based on the simple premise that art is worth whatever you can convince someone to pay for it. Over the course of four rounds, you’ll buy and sell paintings by five not very talented artists; if you’re lucky, you’ll strike it rich by investing in artists right before they become popular..

You start the game with a handful of paintings, and get more in the second and third rounds (the fourth round you just use whatever’s left over from the previous rounds); each one has a color denoting the artist and a symbol denoting the type of auction. There are four types, none of which are particularly esoteric. First off is the standard open auction: people keep bidding until all but one person drops you. There’s the sealed auction: everyone hides some auction chips in his hand and the high big wins. (Ties are broken from the seller’s left). In a once around, everyone starting from the seller’s left (and ending with the seller) gets one chance to bid. In a fixed price auction, the seller sets the price he wants…but if nobody takes it, he has to buy it! Finally, a double auction lets you auction off two paintings by the same artist, with the second painting determining the auction type. You can also put the double auction painting down by itself and let somebody else put down the second one, in which case you’ll split the profits; if nobody puts down a second, you just keep the double painting for free!

If you buy somebody else’s painting, you pay them; if you buy your own painting, you pay the bank (so you usually prefer not to buy your own paintings, as auctioning off a painting is the main way to get money). Paintings that you win at auction are placed in front of you until the end of the round, which happens when the 5th painting by the same artist is placed up for auction. That painting is discarded without being auctioned; every remaining painting by that artist is worth a whopping 30 grand. Whichever artist has the second most paintings out is worth $20k apiece, third most is $10k, and the others are not popular this season and are worth nothing. In future rounds, an artist that comes in fourth or fifth is still worth nothing, but if he places in the top three, you get to add up the sales prices…so if a painting comes in 2nd the first round, then doesn’t place in the 2nd, it’ll be worth nothing the second round…but if it comes in first in the third, each of those paintings will now be worth $50k! You sell off all of your paintings (tossing the worthless ones in the trash) and start the next round with no paintings in front of you.

After four rounds, whoever has the most money wins. Modern Art takes 3-5 players and retails for around $30.

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The Best Strategy Board Games, Part III: Light Games

Heavy, brain-burner games are great (and are my preference) but sometimes you just want something light, whether that be to play with non-gamers, to kill time until more people show up, or to recover from a heavier game. What are some great ways to fill the time?

Hey! That’s My Fish!

This simple tile-laying game takes two to four players, but becomes more chaotic as more players are added, Each player controls a set of penguins competing for fish trapped in the ice. The board consists of a number of hexagonal tiles, each of which shows one to three fish; each penguin starts on a one-fish tile. On your turn, you pick up one of your penguins and move it as far as you want in any direction, provided it does not move into another penguin or a hole in the ice; you then take the tile it started on. Play continues until nobody has any moves left, at which time you take the pieces your penguins were left standing on and add up your score; most fish wins.

While this is a quick, simple game, it’s a nice tactical exercise with two players, as each person attempts to block off large chunks of ice for his penguins and small chunks for his opponent’s penguins; with more players, planning ahead becomes much more difficult.


Clans is another game that takes two to four; with more than two, it helps for the players to be equally matched in strength, as otherwise a weak player has a good chance of inadvertently helping the player to his left.

The board consists of five types of regions and five colors of huts; each player (secretly) draws a tile telling him which color is his. On a player’s turn, he picks one group of one or more huts in a region and moves it into an adjacent region that also contains huts; if at any point a region with huts is completely isolated (has no adjacent regions with huts), it is scored. While you get a point marker for causing a scoring, the actual scoring during the game is done for the colors, so you may not know which color each person is trying to help! The type of region makes a difference in how many points are scored, so you’ll generally want to put your huts in the regions that will score better, but the regions that get bonuses change over time; additionally, since everyone who participates in a scoring gets the same number of points, you’ll want to cram as many of your opponent’s huts into the scoring as possible so that many of them are wasted.

Both Hey, That’s My Fish! and Clans have a semi-random setup and then no randomness for the rest of the game; any chaos is caused entirely by the players!

Felix: The Cat in the Sack

I’ll leave the backstory behind the title and theme of Felix to the rules, which are fun to read and explain, and skip right to the basic idea. This is a blind bidding game. Each player hasa┬áhand full of cards, which include good cats (worth positive points), bad cats (worth negative points), dogs (which chase away cats), and a bunny (which is cute). Each turn, players secretly place a cat (or dogs, or bunnies) into the bag; the first card (put down by the starting player) is revealed, and players bid mice for the bag in a round robin auction. Anytime a player drops out, he takes some mice from the bag (the amount increases with each player, so waiting is more profitable but also more risky) and another card is turned over; when every player but one has dropped out, the last player must pay his bid and take the bag…whether he wants it or not! After all cards are auctioned, players add up their cats and mice and the high score wins.


Cartagena falls in the margins between light and medium games; it’s a card-driven game where you control a group of six pirates attempting to escape from a prison island. Each turn you get three actions, each of which can be one of two things: play a card (which contains one of six symbols) to move one of your pirates to the next open symbol of that type, or move a pirate backwards to the first space that contains either one or two other pirates (which don’t have to be yours) and draw that many cards.

This is resource management and set collection game: you want to avoid wasting actions drawing two many cards, but you need to get enough cards that you can set up a chain, blocking off a number of the same symbol so that a single card play can send one of your pirates the length of the island. While the game appears light, the play is a lot more strategic than many people give it credit for, and the players who plan ahead will usually win.

Want to read more? This article is part three of a series:
Part I: The Best Heavy Strategy Board Games
Part II: The Best Medium Strategy Board Games
Part II: The Best Light Strategy Board Games

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