Modern Art - Accessibility Teardown

Modern Art (1992) – Accessibility Teardown

Game Details
NameModern Art (1992)
ReviewMeeple Like Us
ComplexityMedium Light [2.31]
BGG Rank218 [7.38]
Player Count3-5
Designer(s)Reiner Knizia
Artist(s)Carole Carrion, Manuel Carvalho, Chen Cheng-po, Mike Doyle (I), Pete Fenlon, Paul Laane, Ramon Martins, Daniel Melim, Rafael Silveira, Sigrid Thaler and Zeilbeck & Natzeck Design Company
Buy it!Amazon Link (Commisions earned)

Version Reviewed

English Edition 2017

Introduction

A ridiculous amount of work went into making Modern Art look hideous, but it wasn’t enough to keep it from achieving four stars in our review. Your mileage will certainly vary on the art though – I can imagine some people thinking it looks lovely simply because they ‘get’ art in a way I don’t. I just don’t understand why we couldn’t have been bidding over nice paintings of some flowers in a vase. A woman sitting in a chair. A landscape full of daffodils. You know… ART.

Anyway, let’s talk about the accessibility of Modern Art before I am ritually disembowelled atop a stretched canvas by legions of angry art connoisseurs. Bob Ross would not approve, and that’s reason enough surely for us to behave ourselves.

Colour Blindness

On first glance Modern Art shares a feature with Dixit and Mysterium – the artwork looks dramatically different for all classes of colour blindness and this has a major impact on the aesthetics of the game.

Colour Blindness and Modern Art paintings

However, this similarity is only superficial since beyond its thematic framing the art simply doesn’t matter here. The unit you work with is the intersection of artist and auction type – everything else is functionally irrelevant. As such, while the game looks different there’s no role for interpreting or analysing the use of colour in the art you purchase.

Colour Blindness and Player Board

The score board does not make use of colour as the only channel of information. Colour is used to accentuate the difference between some tokens but they are fully accessible in any case.

We strongly recommend Modern Art in this category.

Visual Accessibility

As mentioned above, the only thing you need to play Modern Art is an appreciation of the artist and the type of auction. There’s some information that is presented only visually but there’s not much and it changes at a glacial pace. Specifically, the value of each artist and the number of paintings that have been bought.

Modern Art player board

There’s nice, chunky cardboard currency that’s used but unfortunately it is not possible to distinguish by touch because it all shares a form factor. It’s a shame because if it didn’t it would have been a textbook example of how money should work – it’s got a lot of the merits of paper money with the accessibility (at least for the visually impaired) of physical currency. It’s a missed opportunity. You can substitute accessible currency though, and you’d have to because it’s necessary for the money each player has to be hidden information. The game does provide a screen for that, so it doesn’t really matter what alternative you use. The fact that money has to be hidden though means you can’t simply inquire of the table as to the current total you have.

Money in modern art

Each player will be working with a hand of cards, and the number of cards will vary depending on the player count and the current round. Of these all a player needs to know is the name of the artist and the type of auction. This is information that is reasonably well contrasted but with a few paintings and a few artists there are some problems. You see this especially in the Daniel Melim paintings where red backgrounds and red letterboxing are overlaid.

Daniel Melim art

The board of artist value too is incredibly busy, and it can be difficult to make out tokens against the backdrop of each artist. This is at least information that doesn’t change much but still – the clutter of the board can obscure this information.

For players with total blindness, the key inaccessibility is the need to identify cards in hand. Everything else in the game state is easily verbalizable. A player would need to keep in mind their current cash reserves, the value of each artist, how many of each painting is in play, and what the current auction details are. That’s all possible to encode into the rhythm of turns. There’s no easy fix to the issue of in-hand identification though without support of another player in cases where visual information is unavailable. While your hand of cards is supposed to be secret, I’m not 100% sure that all that much is lost if it’s not – there are so many of each artist that you pretty much need to work on the assumption that everyone has a mix of them anyway.

For those that can make out the header on a card, the game should be fully playable.

With those caveats, we recommend Modern Art in this category for those with minor to moderate visual impairments, and tentatively recommend it for everyone else based on having someone available to assist with in-hand identification.

Cognitive Accessibility

There’s an awful lot that you can contemplate during a bidding round of Modern Art. When someone puts up a painting for an artist you first have to ask the question ‘why?’. The simplest answer is ‘They think that will earn them the most money from this auction’, but there are deeper considerations beyond that. How are they trying to stack the marketplace so they make the most money in the long term? What does it mean for the balance of artists out on the table? What does it imply about what they have in their hand?

On top of that you need to think about the way money circulates around the economy – when someone sells a painting the money goes directly to them. If you sell a $60k painting to someone for $50k you essentially just transferred $10k right to them. If you sell a painting that is maybe worth $60k but might be worth nothing then it’s a bit more difficult to assess. A good deal means getting guaranteed money sent your way while speculative money disappears. It’s all about hardening your reserves, and that’s a task of some analytical sophistication.

As you might imagine, the numeracy requirements here are quite high and sophisticated. Let’s say there are six paintings out – two Daniel Melim paintings, a Rafael Silveira, a Roman Martins and two Sigrid Thaler paintings. Let’s say we’re on round three, and this is the player board:

Player board - round two

Now, bear with me because there are going to be a lot of tables here. Based on the way the scoring works, where ties are broken to the left on the artist track, the paintings are potentially worth the following:

RoundCarvalho (0)Thaler (2)Melim (2)Martins (1) Silveira (1)
101020030
230001050
304040200

 

Let’s say someone does a double auction and two Carvalho paintings come out. That changes everything above:

RoundCarvalho (2)Thaler (2)Melim (2) Martins (1) Silveira (1)
101020030
230001050
360403000

 

Or! Let’s say instead a single new Melim comes out:

RoundCarvalho (0)Thaler (2)Melim (3)Martins (1) Silveira (1)
101020030
230001050
304050200

 

Every new auction is shifting the value of every single painting and adjusting the value of ones bought as well as ones still to come. An early investment disincentivises others from making you rich too so they’ll be trying to play out cards in a way that ensures they earn and you don’t.

So here’s the question – how much should you bid for a Melim painting?

The answer is ‘I have no idea’ because it depends on what cards you have, how close you are to the end of the round (which in itself is never certain) and the likelihood others will be playing cards to devalue a Melim card. Let’s say you buy the next Melim card for $35k, reasoning at this point it’s going to be worth a minimum of $30k and probably more. Next there’s an auction for two Carvalhos:

RoundCarvalho (2)Thaler (2)Melim (3)Martins (1) Silveira (1)
101020030
230001050
350205000

And then another:

RoundCarvalho (3)Thaler (2)Melim (3)Martins (1)Silveira (1)
101020030
230001050
360204000

And then someone plays down two Thaler cards.

RoundCarvalho (3)Thaler (4)Melim (3)Martins (1)Silveira (1)
101020030
230001050
350403000

And finally another Melim card comes out.

How much is it worth?

And again, who knows? Another Melim card will change its value back to 40, but two other artists are serious contenders for being the hotness.

RoundCarvalho (3)Thaler (4)Melim (4)Martins (1)Silveira (1)
101020030
230001050
340404000

And now the next player plays down two Silveira cards and nothing changes.

RoundCarvalho (3)Thaler (4)Melim (4)Martins (1)Silveira (3)
101020030
230001050
340404000

And then the next player drops down a forth Silveira card.

RoundCarvalho (3)Thaler (4)Melim (4)Martins (1)Silveira (4)
101020030
230001050
304040060

And look, it just takes a couple of auctions before Carvalho is worthless and Silveira, previously not a contender, is the best bet.

But that’s only part of the story, because those players backing Melim would have paid much more for the paintings than the first three did for Silveira who previously looked like he wasn’t going to be worth anything. Everything in Modern Art has a perception of value and there’s no guarantee it will line up to the reality. Imagine being the player that backed Carvalho at $50k a painting only to find that money completely wasted at the end. You need to be able to plan your expenditure in line with the way you think the cards are going to go. That’s numeracy at a reasonably advanced level because everything is constantly shifting in value and you’re an instigator as well as a victim of the variation created as a result. The cognitive requirements here are sophisticated.

The question then becomes ‘To what extent do you need to do this to play well’, and my honest answer is ‘I don’t know’. There’s so much going on in here that I’m not sure anyone is really in control of the system. The rules of the game are simple but the predictability of the interlocking mechanisms is still low. There’s a great scene in the pilot to the TV show the West Wing where Leo asks two economists where they see the Dow in a year. ‘Fantastic, up a thousand’ says one. ‘Terrible, down a thousand’ says the other. ‘A year from now’, says Leo, ‘at least one of you is going to look pretty stupid’. Modern Art doesn’t have the complexity and sophistication of a real economy but it’s still very difficult to evaluate the economic impact of what you do.

I think with this in mind it’s possible to play an enjoyable game of Modern Art just by selling paintings and engaging a little in the roleplay. While an appreciation of the specific artists probably helps in getting really invested in what’s going on you can have a lot of fun simply bluffing your way through the introduction of a piece. ‘This is one of Thaler’s finest works, called Gloomy Creepy Nonsense Number Eighteen. The bidding starts at $30k!’. To a certain extent, the auction itself will mean you get something approximating a good price in any case.

Beyond the need for numeracy, there’s little need for formal literacy – there are five artists but it’s not necessary to take that too seriously. They each have distinctive styles that could be informally described while still being meaningful. If I say ‘weird colours’ you can think ‘Ramon Martins’ and you’re probably right. ‘Creepy’ would lead you to Thaler. ‘Pop Art’ would lead you to Melim and so on.

The different kind of auctions add another layer of cognitive complexity, but I think you could probably do the paintings all with an open auction and the game would retain a lot of its fun. You might in such circumstances want to shorten the game to take account of the lack of variety but there’s something inherently fun about auctions. The scoring at the end of each round is a little unintuitive because of the need for an artist to have scored in order to have any value, but scoring in any case can be handled by the table rather than any individual player.

For those with memory considerations, there’s nothing particularly in the game that would be inaccessible – all the game state a player needs to know is represented openly and the stuff that would be linked to memory (for example, how much money another player is likely to have) is supposed to be hidden anyway. However, players with good memories will have something of an advantage in working out who is likely to be able to outbid them.

We’ll tentatively recommend Modern Art in both of our categories of cognitive accessibility, but some modifications to the game are likely to be needed in many circumstances.

Emotional Accessibility

It can be frustrating to spend a lot of money on an expensive painting (or set of paintings) only for it to be worth nothing at the end. It can be equally frustrating to sell paintings cheaply only for them to suddenly rocket up in value. Your ability to compete is going to be based on the money you have available, and as such your desire for something can be overruled by someone else with deeper pockets. There’s no trading of paintings, so if you backed a winner that became a loser the money you invested is just – gone. You can’t undo your mistakes within a round, and by the time the next round begins it doesn’t matter – everyone gets a clean slate except for the money in their pocketses.

Here it’s not just possible for a table to gang up on someone, it’s incentivised by the structure of the game. If you have four Melim paintings, it’s the job of everyone else to make sure nobody plays out the fifth and that other artists get a chance at ranking. If you have a Melim painting of your own you can prevent that happening entirely by ending the round but if not you’re at the mercy of everyone else. However, while this is possible and incentivised there’s no easy way to co-ordinate it. It’s an emergent property of the game but it’s rarely wilfully directed.

As a result of this, score disparities can be very high. You might end the game with $100k while everyone else has half a million or more. A lot of that money too will actually be yours – specifically money you gave them. Imagine someone led you along selling you Thaler paintings at $50k a pop and then as soon as they reached the $100k value everyone started dumping Silveira onto the market until your Thalers were worth nothing. You might have given a total of $200k to players that worked in concert to devalue you investment, and they were able to outspend you in all other auctions because of the money you gave them. That’s the nature of an auction system like this, but the interim round scoring really does create opportunities for spectacular moments of unfairness.

However, it’s not that this is an unpleasant game – just that Capitalism inherently has winners and losers and this is a game of Capitalist systems. If everyone goes in with the right mindset and enjoys the thrill that comes with an occasional pivot from rich to poor there shouldn’t be problems. There are after all occasionally pivots that work the other way, when another player is deprived of riches they earned because of what you did.

We’ll tentatively recommend Modern Art in this category.

Physical Accessibility

You have a hidden deck of cards and a pile of money. The latter of these you could track through any number of alternative systems but it’s important that they be covert. A card holder will be useful, but you’ll need several because each card is large and the information you need is in a header rather than along the side. You can’t easily compress them although the stylistic differences between artists mean you don’t necessarily need to see the whole thing all the time. Verbalisation is as simple as saying which card(s) you want to auction and occasionally a price tag – everything else is going to follow from there.

Modern art screens

Each player has a screen behind which they are going to be holding their cash reserves, and these are tremendously easy to knock away revealing important secret game information. The screens though are purely thematic and there is no requirement to use them. Other alternatives are possible.

Physical interaction with the game consists of trading cash, collecting won auctions, and placing a card out for auction. The rest of the game is almost entirely verbal. One auction is a ‘closed fist’ auction where everyone reveals a sum of money at the same time, with the largest sum winning. This may not be appropriate for players with physical impairments, but the only thing that’s necessary here is that the amount committed to a bid is sealed. The simultaneous revelation is atmospheric rather than critical for gameplay – it’s not like in Rock Paper Wizard where asynchronous revelation can change the outcome. Placing some money in an envelope or in a closed container or a cup would work equally well.

We’ll recommend Modern Art in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

There’s a bit of a socioeconomic barrier here in that this kind of art is sometimes perceived as being elitist. Players when first confronted with what are occasionally, I assume, ‘challenging’ pieces of art might feel a little intimidated. You might think ‘Oh no, I’m going to reveal how uncultured I am’. There’s no equivalent in art for ‘The problem with Arsenal is they always try to walk it in’, and if you’re playing with an art snob you might feel unprepared for the challenge. The game being brought out by itself might make you think that someone you know is an unexpected snob. When you see the paintings themselves, you might react more viscerally than you expected.

Paintings in Modern art

However, all of that is perceptual and nothing in the game actually requires anyone to know anything about art. I confessed this right up in the review – I am a philistine as far as this kind of thing goes. I think it’s all pretentious, meaningless nonsense. Others will disagree, and they are absolutely welcome to debate the point. With someone else. There are artists I love, but none of them are here and it doesn’t impact on my enjoyment of the game. It has though been something I’ve had to encourage people to look beyond when playing. There is an inaccessibility about modern art (the school of painting) and this game brushes against it. The people with whom I’ve played have been slightly skeptical at the idea that that every card in Modern art is a real paining in the real world, but have generally appreciated this approach in the end. .

It’s a massive shame that of the five artists only one (Sigrid Thaler) is a woman. A quick google search revealed dozens of women who would have been interesting inclusions in the set. I appreciate here though that there are licencing issues that mean it’s not quite as simple as commissioning an artist to produce spec work from an inclusive brief. Within the art itself, some of it is very lightly eroticised but overall the paintings selected are representative of a wide range of people and perspectives. They’re also reasonably uncontroversial I assume. I don’t know, perhaps Daniel Melim is a firebrand and his work is hugely politicised. I wouldn’t know because to me it just looks like someone using copy and paste in Microsoft Paint. I honestly don’t get any of this. In any case, none of it is in your face and it might even be educational. The manual after all comes with a significant chunk of text about each of the artists in the back, and it adopts a third person perspective that is gender neutral.

As to price, it has an RRP of £30 and that strikes me as very reasonable. It supports five players out of the box and honestly I don’t see why you couldn’t play with larger counts if people were willing to improvise a screen. There are seventy painting cards, and all exhibit high production values. I don’t know how much it cost to get the reproduction rights to so many pieces of art but given the likely external costs it seems like a bargain.

We’ll recommend Modern Art in this category, although bear in mind some people may be wary when they see that they’re going to be bidding on reproductions of real paintings.

Communication

Literacy levels required are not high, but there is an expectation of some conversation and role-playing around participating in an auction. The presentation of a painting isn’t actually required but you will occasionally want to direct the attention of the table towards particular factors. ‘This is an artist who, if only a couple more paintings come out, will be worth a fortune’ or ‘This is the hottest artist on the scene at the moment and her paintings are estimated to bring about $80k each. You can imagine I will be looking for a good price’. Your pitch for the auction is your chance to anchor perspectives and a bit of convincing chat around the value will be important in pegging it to something you’d be willing to accept. However, the nature of the auctions themselves can be conducted without much discussion. If communication is likely to be an issue you could get something to represent the paddles you’d see at a Sothebys auction and come up with a system of incrementing value. ‘Eighty, do I hear eighty? Ninety? The bid is ninety to the young lady over at the Madrid Museum of Modern Art’.

Actually, that sounds great. That might be how I insist we play it next time.

We’ll recommend, just, Modern Art here – it’s playable if communication impairments make discussion difficult. It’s not impossible even in cases where there is no ability for people to communicate provided there’s some way to reach a consensus regarding things like implied meaning.

Intersectional Accessibility

Physical accessibility issues paired with communication impairments may make some kinds of compensations difficult, but even then it need not be impossible. Exhaustive indication of cards for auction is entirely feasible, as is the initial pegging of value for fixed prices. Indicating interest in an auction just requires some way to demonstrate it – a single raised finger or noise is enough to keep things going for the most part. If that’s not possible, even eye contact can be sufficient.

While the game doesn’t have a lot of state that would need to be memorised for a visually impaired player, we’d be hesitant to offer even our tentative recommendation in the circumstance that visual impairments intersect with a cognitive impairment. I’d also be hesitant about saying we definitely wouldn’t recommend it. A lot more focus would need to be given to the scaffolding and simplifying of the experience than would be the case for cognitive impairments alone. Similarly if cognitive impairments intersect with emotional impairments it would be a good idea to consider whether the cruelty of the scoring system should be muted a little – perhaps by allowing artists to keep their previous values even if they don’t rank in the current round. The game is amenable to all of these modifications but they may not retain all of the excitement of the experience.

The box of Modern Art has an estimated playtime of sixty minutes, and I think that might be optimistic especially if players are enjoying the roleplaying aspect. However, the length of play is configurable by changing the number of rounds over which it is running. The only thing there is that everyone should know well in advance because declaring ‘Let’s end it here’ means that the scoring system will act against those players that may have been thinking a round ahead. However, the game also cleanly supports players dropping out of play provided the minimum player count is met – everything resets between rounds except the money a player has and the cards in their hand. For the latter they can be shuffled back into the deck with little direct game impact.

Conclusion

Modern Art is surprisingly accessible, although occasionally with a significant need for modification. There’s something just inherently enjoyable about the act of an auction though and you can keep an awful lot of the fun of Modern Art even as you strip back some of its layers.

Modern Art, Meeple Like Us, [CC-BY 4.0]
CategoryGrade
Colour BlindnessA
Visual AccessibilityB-
Fluid IntelligenceC
MemoryC+
Physical AccessibilityB
Emotional AccessibilityC
Socioeconomic AccessibilityB-
CommunicationB-

Our tentative grades in the cognitive category are mostly only because Modern Art encourages a Machiavellian approach to the marketplace that requires you to think around corners and around bends. I’m not convinced that any of that has as much impact on the game as the design suggests, but I also can’t entirely discount it. In any case, there’s a lot of flexibility for scaffolding that can be brought to bear to make it a more manageable beast. For those with emotional accessibility concerns, well – Capitalism isn’t kind and there’s not much we can do about that. In order for some people to win, everyone else must lose.

Modern Art is a very enjoyable game – four stars worth of fun in any guide to the arts you might consult. There’s good reason to believe that some meaningful version of it would be playable with pretty much any group, and if you fancy it you could do a lot worse with your money than picking it up in one shape or form.


A Disclaimer About Teardowns

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then this will not be the blog for you. We will not debate with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

Teardowns are provided under a CC-BY 4.0 license. However, recommendation grades in teardowns are usually subjective and based primarily on heuristic analysis rather than embodied experience. No guarantee is made as to their correctness. Bear that in mind if adopting them.

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