Friday, February 4, 2011

Cargo Noir: First Impressions

Cargo Noir
Days of Wonder
2-5 players
Ages 8 and above
30-90 minutes
Designed by Serge Laget

 Note: These comments are based on a single play session, which is insufficient for a complete review. It's just meant as a few quick, fresh-out-of-the-box thoughts, along with a more detailed explanation of the gameplay and rules. When I've put in more time, I'll adapt it as a final review.

Cargo Noir is a set-making game with an auction element and a number of unique characteristics that keep it interesting. The theme is cargo smuggling among exotic ports throughout the world. You play as one of 5 organized crime syndicates, moving a fleet of ships from port to port to collect cargo tokens. These are, in turn, traded for victory spoils, which determine the winner of the game.

Production & Components
The quality of the components is top-notch, as we'd expect from Days of Wonder. The gameboard is created by placing together different ports of call tiles around a large central square representing Macao. The game comes with 25 rubberized ships (5 for each player), 60 plastic cold coins, 131 small cargo tokens on heavy cardboard, 54 victory cards, 5 family sheets, a wooden turn marker, a cardboard ship used to designate the first player, and a cloth bag used for blind drawing of cargo. The main game board is heavy cardboard, while the family sheets are lighter card stock.

The art is wonderful, and the game really embraces its theme throughout every aspect. Even the little boats match the visual style created by Small World's master artist Miguel Coimbra.The art is filled with small, funny details, and loaded with character. No one is doing better game art than Coimbra right now.

Although it's quite possible my brain simply went on vacation last night, I simply was not able to get the pieces back in the box in a satisfactory way. The insert is all carefully sculpted so that I should be able to, but there are so many little cargo tokens, as well as a bulky bag of ships, that I just couldn't make it fit. Am I missing something?

We tested the game once with 4 players, but it uses clever board configuration to scale up to 5 or as low as 2. By flipping certain port tiles, you're able to "close" various ports, thus reducing the locations where people can contend for cargo. This seems like a clever solution to the scaling issue, but I haven't yet tested it in practice.

The game is played over 10 or 11 turns depending upon number of players, with each turn featuring 3 phases. The phases are: 1. Resolve ship actions. 2. Trade cargo for victory cards. 3. Place ships.

The goal is to collect as much cargo as you can from various ports. There are 9 different types of cargo and 5 wild cards. These smuggled goods are cigars, cars, weapons, gold, jewels, uranium, ivory, alcohol, and art. You want to collect as many matching sets of cargo as possible, since sets are worth more in the trading phase. For example, 5 unmatched goods are worth 15 points in trade, but 5 matched goods are worth 25 points in trade. Thus, you want to start building sets of, say, ivory or gold, rather than just grabbing as many different goods as possible.

You also want to build sets because your warehouse capacity (located on your family sheet) is initially limited to 6 slots, which can each hold 1 type of cargo. This can be expanded by two slots for each extra Warehouse card you buy. Any cargo you can't store is lost at the end of the trading phase.

Cargo is acquired by sending your ships into various ports. You start with 3 ships, but can expand this up to 5 ships by buying extra Cargo Ship cards.

Each port is loaded with varying amounts of cargo. Cape Town, for instance, only offers 1 piece of cargo, while Rotterdam has 4. Cargo is captured when you are the only player in a port in the "Resolve ships' actions" phase of the game. In order to be that person, you have to place your ship on top of the number of coins you're willing to spend for the cargo. However, other people may place a ship in the same port, as long as they place that ship with 1 more coin than the highest "bid" for that cargo. The coins are thick plastic and stackable, allowing players to quickly compare the size of their bids.

If you are in the same port with another player's ship, you either have to increase the size of your bid to exceed the highest stack, or withdraw it. The person left with the only ship in a port then collects all the goods and pays his coins to the bank. The game thus becomes a matter of oneupmanship, since you can keep adding coins to your stack in order to get a key piece of cargo or keep an opponent from getting one.

The Macao port at the center of the board provides two extra functions. If you place a ship on the top half, you can either trade one good for another that's already in the Macao Black Market, or pull a random cargo piece from the bag. If you place a ship on the bottom half, you collect 2 gold from the Casino.

The point of coins is to increase your buying capacity for cargo, and the point of cargo is to buy victory spoils. These are things like yachts, villas, night clubs, and dive bars, each costing a certain amount of cargo, and each worth the same amount in victory points when you total your score a the end of the game. (A yacht, for example, costs 20 points to buy, and adds 20 points to your total score.) In addition, there are 6 unique cards which have asymmetrical values. These are things like the Showbiz card, which costs 36 but is worth 40 in victory points. Because they have irregular values, the unique cards help prevent ties.

It's too soon to render a full verdict, but we certainly enjoyed our first, 4-person test game, even though I misunderstood one of the rules. The game is actually surprisingly easy to learn and teach. (It's far easier to play than it is to describe.) The theme carries through all the components and design features, adding a great deal of character and flavor to the experience.

Sending out your ships to collect cargo, not knowing if someone is going to try to snatch them away from you with a higher bid, creates a good deal of tension and player interaction. Balancing ship distribution among cargo purchase, money acquisition, and black market trading adds a nice level of strategy to each turn.

Some house rules can be added to mix things up a bit, such as player-to-player trading for cargo. My son even starting coming up with rules that would allow you to steal or sabotage to increase the player interaction and tension.

Cargo Noir, however, doesn't really need any extra layers to make it work. Quick impression: this is a good game: entertaining, light enough for younger gamers, but with enough meat to allow for some interesting strategic play. I need to put in more time to get a real sense of it, but so far it seems like another winner for Days of Wonder.


Accordeonaire said...

I really enjoy your passion for boardgames. I wish you and I had been friends during my Avalon Hill phase. You would have enjoyed it, too, I think. I loved gaming, then, but was awful at it.

Thomas L. McDonald said...

We did a bit of gaming. I remember playing Red Storm Rising, Up Front, and maybe Family Business. I think my copy of Kingmaker is probably yours.

Gary Chapin said...

THAT'S where it is!

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