Retro Review - Masterpiece By Parker Brothers (1970)
Antony Brown, co-founder of Dice Maestro, is a games analyst and inventor who writes regularly on board games. His Retro Reviews take a nostalgic look at games of the past. This article looks at Masterpiece by Parker.
A masterpiece is going under the hammer. How high should you bid against your rivals? It's Constable's The Cornfield. Is it worth a fortune or is it worthless forgery? This is the premise of Masterpiece, the art auction game that was originally published by Parker in 1970.
Masterpiece is a game for wheelers and dealers. Players bid for paintings but do not know the value of the painting until after each auction, when a value card is secretly taken and clipped (using the special clips provided) to the back of the painting card. Thus, the buyer is the only player who knows the true value of the painting.
The value cards range from nothing (i.e. forgery) to £1,000,000. Not surprisingly this dates the game to 1970 when Velazquez's Portrait of Juan de Pareja became the first work of art to sell for over £1 million. Today the value cards would have to range from $10 million to $100 million.
Although luck plays a part in the game, players can win through shrewd buying and selling. A forgery may be sold back to the bank for a profit or another player may buy it during a private auction. Players may have to cut their losses on some paintings but may be able to snap up a £1 million masterpiece on the cheap. Your task then is to try and hold on to it.
The deck of 24 painting cards are placed face up on the board next to the deck of value cards that are placed face down. Players move around the beautiful and striking board by throwing two dice. Squares may force a player to sell a painting to the bank for a specified amount, initiate a bank or private auction, buy a painting from the bank for a specified amount or even inherit a painting for free.
The game ends when the last painting is acquired. The winner of the game is the player with largest fortune in cash and paintings.
The game includes six character cards. These allow each player to take on a persona such as Millicent Friendly, the spinster librarian, or the Baron Dietrich von Oberlitzer, a high-rolling gambler with a suspicious past. This is a nice touch as it enables Masterpiece to be played as a party game, in the same vein as a murder mystery party that would become fashionable later.
As the game is about wheeling and dealing it is enjoyable for most people and not just art lovers. Indeed, the game mechanism could have been adapted for buying and selling vintage cars as for works of art. But the theme works well. It can even generate philosophical discussion. For example, why should a fake be worth so much less than the original? For example, the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren sold $60 million worth of fake Vermeers although he never wanted to be a forger but recognized as a legitimate artist. His forgeries sold, his own did not; arguably the painting talent was similar in each. But even forgeries can become collectable such as those of Elmyr de Hory.
The paintings are presented on postcards in the game and include masterpieces by Cezanne, Hogarth, Van Gogh, Monet, Rubens, Da Vinci, Renoir and Vermeer but none by Picasso. However, since me original article was published, a gamer has informed me that the 1970 US edition did include a Picasso (Sylvette, 1954).
In 1996 Parker produced its most recent US edition of the game when its look and feel was updated. Not surprisingly the denominations of the value cards had increased, the highest being $10million. The board aesthetic also changed but it is not as striking as the original, which had Rembrandt's Old Man with a Gold Chain as its centrepiece. A nice addition to this edition was the plastic easel onto which the auctioned painting can be placed. The works of art are different from the original but still no Picasso. The value cards are far smaller and are placed under the paintings rather than clipped together and the character cards were removed. Strangely six new characters were printed on the box inlay but the rules fail to mention them. In terms of game play the two editions are identical. It terms of style the original is better.
Verdict: A beautifully presented and fun game that itself is something of a masterpiece.