The Gallerist Review
It seems like a crazy thing to say, but here I am reviewing an old Vital Lacerda game. That’s right, I’m saying eight years old is old. The Gallerist pitches players in a head-to-head battle for art gallery supremacy, in a game of action selection where timing is everything. The Gallerist epitomises everything that makes a Lacerda game, resulting in a streamlined game with fantastic depth. This is the game I’d recommend to anyone wanting to take their first tentative steps into Vital’s microcosm of game design. Let me explain why.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see” – Edgar Degas
As the titular gallerists, the aim of the game is to make your mark in the art world. The quality of art is subjective though, so the way to win isn’t necessarily by having the best art, but by having the most money when the game ends. You do this by flitting between action spaces like a butterfly and choosing one of the two actions available at each of those four spaces. Rinse and repeat until someone triggers the end of the game. If you’re reading this and think I’m over-simplifying things to indoctrinate more people into the Cult of Lacerda, then you’re wrong.
Vital’s games have this false shroud of inaccessibility draped over them. People hear about the depth and complexity of his games and it makes them seem too heavy to play. It all adds to the mystique and leaves people thinking that being able to play one of his games symbolises some kind of zenith of being a board gamer. Put simply, that’s a lie. Lacerda games are involved and can be complex, but learning to play them is absolutely in most hobbyists’ wheelhouse. The Gallerist is a perfect example of what I’m talking about.
The entire game is contained in eight available actions. Does that sound like some kind of impenetrable nightmare to you?
What makes The Gallerist’s design so clever and so enthralling are the options this octet of actions throws at you. Sticking with the artistic metaphors, it’s like being given eight different colours and a huge, blank canvas. There are a lot of ways to approach what you’re trying to create, but how you choose to use those colours to paint your picture is the key.
Essentially you’ll spend the game discovering artists, buying and displaying their artwork in your gallery, then promoting the artists before selling their work to make your name and your fortune. You’ve got some assistants to help you, but ultimately about getting the art, getting visitors in your gallery to appreciate the art, and hopefully having some of them take something home with them.
“There is no must in art because art is free” – Wassily Kandinsky
Not in The Gallerist, mate. Art is anything but free. It buys into that classic economic game concept of “buy low, sell high” in order to make the most money. The difficulty with this is that up to four of you are all trying to do the same thing at the same time. The board is meant to represent the artistic quarter of some nameless metropolis, where your four galleries surround a central plaza. Art-appreciating visitors of three different kinds enter the game at the plaza, and it’s your job to entice them toward your gallery and away from the galleries of your rivals. Think of it like a connoisseur version of Hungry Hungry Hippos.
It makes for a game which is more confrontational than most modern Euro games. Some games focus on doing the best you can on a shared board (e.g. On Mars – read my review here), while others have a small amount of battling for space on a shared board while concentrating on developing your own player board (e.g. Revive – review here). The Gallerist’s board is the sole battleground and it makes no bones about the fact that you’re fighting over the visitors. There’s a set number in the draw bag for each game, and once they’re on the board they never leave. Much of what you can accomplish in the game (increasing influence and generating money) depends on visitors being in your gallery, and by spending the various tickets you collect in-game, you can move visitors of matching colours one step towards your own gallery. Outside of each gallery is a lobby, and to get a visitor from the central plaza to your gallery requires two tickets. While they’re in the lobby, kicking their heels and checking their phones, they’re fair game and can be lured away. Spend some tickets and you can move them out of someone else’s lobby and towards your own!
This sort of mechanism in a game makes me happy. It reminds me of games like Troyes, where if I don’t have the thing I need, I can just take it from someone else and deny them at the same time. Once the visitors are in your gallery they’re safe from all this body-snatching, but the action you need to perform to win the game (i.e. selling art) requires you to kick someone out of your gallery and back to the plaza. Fresh meat, just waiting to be claimed again.
“Simplicity is the greatest adornment of art” – Albrecht Dürer
Right back at the top of this review, I asserted that The Gallerist is a great entry point into Vital’s big box games. Part of that comes from the limited number of options you have on any one turn (a maximum of six), but another important factor is the lack of fiddly things to manage. You have a player board, admittedly, just like in On Mars, but it does very little. It’s somewhere to put the contracts and art you collect, as well as housing your assistant meeples. Other than awarding some small bonuses at some point – that’s it. The only resources you ever need to keep track of are your money, your influence (a marker on a track on the board), and any tickets you currently have. Those tickets are what you spend to move visitors to your gallery.
By keeping things simple in this way, you’re free to focus your attention on planning what you want to do, not spending precious brain energy doing the mental gymnastics to see if you can do it. There’s still an interconnectedness of all things (to quote Dirk Gently), but it’s easier to see. You only have to scrape a little of the gouache away to see the sketching underneath and understand the relationships between the various dependencies.
It leaves new players with a sensation that becomes so important when they graduate to heavier games. After a first game there’s a palpable Yin feeling of “That wasn’t as hard as I imagined. It’s actually pretty easy to play!” coupled with the Yang of “Next time I’ll have to do this thing differently so that I can do those other things at the right time”. That latter feeling – the infuriating planning your brain is doing while you’re desperately trying to get some sleep before work the next day – that’s the hallmark of a good, heavy game, and it’s something Vital has got down to a tee. The game is so finely balanced that it can be really small differences which mean the difference between winning and losing, and that’s what I love.
The Gallerist isn’t for everyone. It is a big, intimidating game and it costs a lot of money. It’s not necessarily the kind of game you’re going to play with kids, grandparents, or people new to the hobby. If you’ve gotten as far as finding my review and have an interest in the game in the first place, however, you probably don’t need me to tell you that. What is ostensibly a game about art could easily have the art stripped out and re-skinned with just about any other industry, and that’s okay. Art is the theme du jour, and the presentation all feeds into the theming. For example, it’s very cool to add bought artwork to your gallery board and to see how they all line up with the illustration printed on the board. Look everyone, look how pretty my gallery is.
I really like the interaction in the game. It’s bedded in everywhere, from the push-and-pull of the visitors, down to the way you can kick other players’ pieces out of the spot you want to take, but with the understanding that they’ll get to take an extra turn if they can afford it. It means you’re never completely blocked from doing the thing you want to do, and it transforms it from a game of “Can I do this?” to a game of “Is it really worth doing this?”. You get a genuine sense of investment in the nameless, faceless artists you discover too, which surprised me. When someone I discover gets their fame pushed all the way up to celebrity level, I can’t help feeling the smug self-satisfaction that comes along with “I remember when they were a nobody. They owe it all to me”.
There’s a small chance that you’ll be disappointed by the way the game turns out to be about rampant capitalism instead of art appreciation, but if you go into the game forewarned, this shouldn’t be an issue. The Gallerist, even eight years on from its original release, remains a must-play for me. I would say ‘must-have’ here, but being a Lacerda/Eagle-Gryphon game, there’s a big cost to consider. You’re still looking at the wrong side of £100 here in the UK to purchase a copy when it’s in print. It’s a huge, lush box full of beautiful components and Ian O’Toole’s exemplary art and graphic design, but it comes with a cost. It’s a cost I shouldered when I bought the game a couple of years ago, but it’s a game I can safely say won’t be leaving my collection any time soon. What a superb game, bravo Vital.
You can buy this game from my retail partner, Kienda. Remember to sign-up for your account at kienda.co.uk/punchboard for a 5% discount on your first order of £60 or more.
If you enjoyed this review and would like to read more like this, consider supporting the site by joining my supporters’ membership at either Patreon or Ko-fi. It starts from £1 per month, offers member benefits, and lets me know you’re enjoying what I’m doing.
The Gallerist (2015)
Design: Vital Lacerda
Publisher: Eagle-Gryphon Games
Art: Ian O’Toole
Playing time: 90-120 mins