**Editor’s note: As mentioned, this is the first guest post on Baby Brown Bear. The pictures may be mine, but the text is all Jason’s. All I’d like to add is that this beautiful and meaty strategy game has quickly become one of my favorites. If you’re seriously into board games and are willing to invest a little time to set it up and learn it, I almost guarantee you will not regret playing this game.**
Board games nowadays come with any exciting theme you can think of. You can terraform a new planet, navigate your clan in an early-industrial dystopia, battle your viking enemies for favor of the gods, and trade exotic goods along the Silk Road. You can investigate mysteries in the Cthulu mythos, fly X-Wings of your own against the Empire, and prevent the spread of epidemics while desperately searching for cures.
You can also stitch together a quilt, cultivate a farm, run a 1950s-era soda shop, or, the topic of this post, operate an art gallery. All of these themes are in well-regarded games and illustrate that a theme doesn’t have to be flashy to be compelling. So set your viking war helmets aside and put on your turtle neck sweaters for this review of Vital Lacerda’s The Gallerist.
Who made this game, anyway? First, a word on the designer. Residing in Portugal, Mr. Lacerda has made a name for himself in the last decade as a designer of complex games with hits like Vinhos, Kanban, and, most recently, Lisboa. Many gamers consider his designs to be must-buy upon release. Just like when you used to stand in a line around the block for N’SYNC’s latest CD, gamers around the world sign up for pre-orders as soon as they are announced for designers they follow. Though I suspect game designers get far fewer lady undergarments thrown at them.
Lacerda’s games are famous for having seemingly simple actions to choose from, but in reality each action ripples through the entire game space, affecting each player and each future decision. The Gallerist is no exception.
In The Gallerist, each player assumes the role of a gallery operator, tasked with trading art, promoting artists, overseeing employees, and building an international reputation. Whoever accumulates the most money at the end of the game is the winner.
Time: 60-150 minutes
Designer: Vital Lacerda
Artist: Ian O’Toole
BGG Rating: 8.0*
Baby Brown Bear Status: Owned
*The top-ranked games have ratings of ~8.5/10.
I won’t bore you with a complete rules explanation, but I will briefly describe each action spot.
Action spaces from top, going clockwise: sell art/take a contract (4), buy art/discover an artist (1), promote artist/hire assistants (2), international auction/international reputation (3). As you can see here, the orange pawn has just moved to the sell art/take a contract spot and has consequently given the yellow pawn a “kicked-out” action. The two players have a smattering of visitors in their galleries but no one in their lobbies. There are a bunch of VIPs in the plaza. To the left of the board is the international auction area. To the right of the board is the artist area. On the bottom of the board is the reputation track.
1. Buy art / discover an artist
This spot allows you to either buy art from an established artist or commission a piece from an unknown artist. The price of the art is set by the fame level of the artist. However, if you commission a piece, the price of the piece is locked in at the lowest price, no matter how famous the artist is when you fulfill the commission and buy the piece (the benefit of discovering young talent).
2. Promote artist / hire assistants
Here is where you use your influence in the art world, and maybe cash in on a few favors, to promote an artist. This increases that artist’s fame and thus the value of their works. You can also hire assistants, who act as worker bees running errands and as representatives of your empire internationally.
3. International auction / international reputation
Remember those assistants from literally one sentence ago? Put them to work here. At the end of every game, there are artworks from foreign artists awarded to players. However, one player is guaranteed to miss out on a piece of art, so you better get your assistants to place bids in quickly and early! You also use your assistants to earn you reputation abroad, which yields some end-game bonuses for their hard work.
4. Sell art / take a contract
Pretty self-explanatory. Take this action if you wish to sell a piece of art. In order to sell that piece, of course, you first need a contract of that artwork type (there are four types).
A close-up of the photographers and sculptors. Not shown are the painters or digital artists.
That’s not so bad!
Four action spots, each with two choices. Pretty simple right? In order to execute those actions, you use two main currencies in the game. The first is money and the second is influence. Some actions give you more money or influence, others cost money or influence. Even better, you can use influence as money if you’re a few bucks short for an artwork. See? Everything connects with everything else.
So how do you take these actions? This is, quite simply, a worker placement game. If you want that action, just place your pawn on the action spot and take it. The only restriction is you can’t choose the spot on which your pawn is currently standing. Finally, something straightforward!
The last major component in the game is managing your gallery visitors. These visitors come in three types: Collectors, VIPs, and Investors. These visitors give you bonuses in fame (Collectors; white meeples), influence (VIPs; pink meeples), and money (Investors; brown meeples), depending on how many of each type you have in your gallery. You can lure the visitors to your gallery by spending tickets (see pink tickets in the above picture).
The visitors and tickets are also the timing mechanism of the game. The game ends when two of these three events occur: when there are no more tickets, when all the visitors are on the board, and/or when two artists attain the highest fame possible to become celebrities.
Putting It All Together
Easy peasy, right?
There is a lot to manage in this game. Each action has several steps that may affect money, influence, tickets, assistants, reputation tiles, bonuses, fame, contracts, etc. Truly, everything is linked, and unless you are sharp, you risk wasting actions because you don’t have the right resources. You have to make sure you have enough assistants in order to maximize your international presence and get every extra bonus and action you can. You have to have the money to buy the artwork at just the right time. You need to make sure you have the right contract to sell your art. You have to have enough influence to promote your artists and take extra actions when available. And about those extra actions…
Wait, more rules?
Remember when I said that the worker placement aspect of this game was straightforward? Well, I lied. The twist here is that if you are standing on the buy art action spot, and I decide to go there, that means I’ve kicked you out, and you get to perform a “kicked-out” action. With this kicked-out action, you can spend tickets, move assistants on the board, or spend influence to perform the buy art action again, essentially giving you an extra turn. Manipulating your opponents to give you kicked-out actions–while limiting doing so yourself–is a key component to success in this game.
Here you can see the cheat sheet and secret goal cards, plus the player mat with contracts, assistants, gallery art, commissions, and visitor tickets.
So, what do I actually think of the game? Glad you asked!
After my first couple of plays of the game, I was hesitantly impressed. I could tell there was a good game here, but I didn’t fully grasp what I was doing. It almost felt like I was not only playing against my opponents, but also battling the game itself. With each subsequent play, the actions and their ripples became clearer, until my fourth or fifth game, when I finally felt like I was in control of both the game and my actions. Now I’m able to determine a strategy, implement the strategy, and adapt as needed. (Editor’s note: said strategy not guaranteed to win.)
- Complexity (the bad one). Clearly, this game isn’t for the faint of heart. I’m not saying it takes four plays for everyone to fully grasp the game, but your first play, at least, will probably be rough. It’s a common critique among a select few that too many strategy games these days have way too many rules and are too complex for their own good. Though there is a barrier to entry for this game, the investment is well worth it. Yes, there are a lot of different icons, and the some of the actions have seven steps to complete them, but the game provides each player a small rules card that explains many of the icons and summarizes the actions.
- Amount of components. Although the components are nice, there are a lot of them. Be prepared to set aside time for game setup and teardown.
- Two-player artist shortcoming. One of the key parts of the game is increasing the fame level of the artists, thereby increasing the value of their art. In a two-player game, this mechanism falls a little flat. After all, if both of you own one piece from the same artist, why bother increasing that artist’s fame? Any benefit you would get, the other player gets as well, except you spent an action and resources to do it. With more players, this becomes less of an issue because there are only so many artists to choose from, and with a maximum of two pieces available from each artist at a given time, not everyone would get the benefit.
- Two-player auction shortcoming. As mentioned, at the end of the game the international artwork is distributed. The value of these pieces is determined by going rate of the most famous artist of that art type, so they can be quite lucrative. This also means they can greatly swing the outcome of the game, especially with two players. Veterans of The Gallerist will tell you that putting bids on the international auction is an important action throughout the game and that you shouldn’t ignore it. Yes, that’s true, but in a two-player game, it may not be worth the investment for the trailing player. I might but in a bid to combat my opponent, then my opponent puts in a bid, then I do, etc. In the end, I’ve just spent a lot of resources and actions for virtually no gain, other than wasting the resources and actions of my opponent. But my opponent gets the international work, and I get nothing.
- Complexity (the good one). I love the puzzle aspect of this game, I love how interconnected all the actions and resources are. I know I want to do X, and in order to do that, I need to accomplish A-D first, but I need to do it better than my opponents. It’s such an enjoyable strain to map it all out in my head, and during plan execution I’m bound to get distracted by other opportunities and deterred by my opponents. Do I stay the course, or go the alternate route? And for as puzzly as this game is, I appreciate that it only has four action spots.
- Investment. I like investing in an artist by buying their piece and watching that valuation go up, up, up! There are a few ways to get money in this game, but buying low and selling high is the most fun way to do it.
- Quality. The components are top notch. Normally game components don’t move my needle unless they’re so bad they affect the gameplay. But in The Gallerist, the board is very nice. The cardboard components are thick. The artwork has, like, actual art on them from actual artists. It’s simply a pleasure to handle the components and view the board with everything laid out.
- Unique theme. I appreciate that Vital took an uncommon theme and ran with it. Would he have gotten more buyers from a fantasy theme or steampunk setting? It’s possible, but he had a vision and ran with it, and the result is certainly a gem of a game.
The Gallerist is a well-produced game of high strategy with a unique theme. Your brain works on overdrive throughout the game to fit all the pieces of your strategy together. If this kind of game appeals to you, go try it out! As for me, it’s one of the highlights of our collection. It looks great, it plays great, and I can’t wait to explore it more.
That’s still too many words!
Okay! I give it an 8 of 10, with the potential to rise further. Top 20 game.
About the Reviewer
I started out on “designer” games about 10 years ago, but have only been all-in on the hobby for the last three years. I like all sorts of games, not just long complex ones, so please ask if you’d like a recommendation. We have 60 or so games in our collection, but aren’t looking to grow that number until we have more time for games and more space to put them. Well, maybe there’s room for a few more…plus the kids need some games…and I’ve been waiting on a reprint for that one…