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.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Dead Space 2: Stupid Advertising

Once I get a little further in the game, I plan to write about Dead Space 2. Short version: I'm liking it a lot. It's certainly sick and gross, but in a good way!

Right now, however, I want to write about the stupid "Your Mom Hates This" advertising campaign, in which EA shows clips from the game to unsuspecting middle aged women and films their horrified reactions. It is wrong on so many levels I don't know where to begin.

First, this is an M-rated game, which means it's not supposed to be sold or marketed to people under the age of 17. So who exactly is the target audience for this ad? Are there that many 17-and-ups who still want to cheese off Mom with a violent video game? What exactly is the message they're sending? Are the game companies serious about keeping violent content out of the hands of minors, or just "serious" in a wink-wink, you-really-need-this-game-to-be-cool way. The question answers itself.

Second, there's the idea that EA targeted "conservative" women for the ad. Here's their own description:
A mom’s disapproval has always been an accurate barometer of what is cool. So Dead Space 2 was put to the test.
At an undisclosed focus group facility in the heart of conservative America, over 200 moms were recruited to participate in market research. Only, this wasn't market research. The facility was rigged with hidden cameras, microphones, and a crew sitting behind the glass ready to document very single reaction, opinion, and emotion.
Upon arrival, the moms were individually ushered into a room and confronted with three massive monitors, a single chair, and a disembodied voice coming over the speaker system. They didn’t know what they were going to see. They were only instructed to be completely honest.
We then subjected each mom to the most action-packed, violent, disturbing footage Dead Space 2 has to offer.
Some were disgusted. Some were shocked. Others couldn't believe what they were seeing. And every single mom hated it.
It's so nice when hipster marketing twats stereotype an entire region, class, gender and political ideology in order to hawk their products.

Third, it plays on the most trite methods of reinforcing a generation's sense of their own coolness. Rational adults should balk at such shameless manipulation. Attempting to exploit the generational divide in order to sell a few more copies of a game is crass marketing at its worst.

Fourth, I'm frankly not all that keen on surprise "shock video" reactions. I remember when "2 girls 1 cup" reaction videos were going around, and thinking, "That's just wrong." Some little punk showed it to his grandmother, who looked like she was pushing 100, and the woman just seemed to fall apart. She shouted "What's wrong with you?" and it wasn't an idle question: she really wanted to know how and why such things could be, and why a child she had loved would subject her to it. (Little did she know that he would post it to Youtube in order to hold her horror up to the world for mockery.) It was heartbreaking. What is the value in this? What does it say about our humanity?

Fifth, it simply reinforces the stereotype that games are only for hip kids. We've come a long way in mainstreaming electronic entertainment. Many gamers are adults, women, and, yes, moms. The entire campaign just reinforces the notion that games are silly, offensive kid stuff. This is particularly odd for Dead Space 2, which not only has visceral, violent content, but also some mature psychological and character elements. It's the opposite of a cheap exploitation game, yet that's how it's being sold.

Finally, it's just dumb and cruel. There's a "pulling wings off flies" quality to it that speaks to the worst aspects of our personalities. It's one thing to enjoy certain kinds of mature entertainment, but quite another to drag them out into the public square and then jeer at those who are offended.

Here's the whole stupid ad for your perusal.

Crazy Machines Elements Coming This Spring

Given the popularity of physics gaming (particularly on mobile platforms) it was about time for Crazy Machines to stage a comeback. Crazy Machines Element is due in spring as download for both Xbox Live and the PlayStation Network. No word yet on an app version, but they'd be crazy not to make one. (Sorry about that one...)

Crazy Machines was the original chain reaction, Rube Goldberg puzzler, and it actually still gets a heavy workout from the junior gamers of Casa McD. This time, Crazy Machines is adding the four elements--fire, water, air, and earth--to the mix. There are also plenty of new parts, including flamethrowers and cloud machines.

I'll let the PR folks take it from here:

Crazy Machines Elements has three game modes. In Puzzle mode, players must finish 100 partially-built chain reaction machines using the parts specified to accomplish the various tasks. Inventors can create true chain reaction marvels that obey the laws of physics and not only satisfy the requirements of the task, but also demand some serious brain power, inventiveness and physical out-of-the-box thinking. 
An example of the fun: A ball knocks a candle over which then heats the water in a steam boiler, which in turn slowly starts moving a rope attached to it. The action of the rope rotates a grindstone tied to the other end, which rubs against another stone to generate a spark which lights the fireworks. Players can tinker with a variety of other crazy machines awaiting them in each chapter. 
Budding inventors can unlock numerous challenges by solving puzzles where they complete tasks using the fewest number of parts in the shortest time; there are as many ways to achieve a particular task as there are parts available. Crazy Machines also has an editor in which players can build and try out their own crazy machines!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

HeroClix Surfaces in Middle Earth

My son and I have amassed a fairly sizable collection of Heroclix over the years, so I was saddened to see that Topps had killed the entire Wizkids operation, including Heroclix, in order to "align our gaming initiatives more closely with Topps current sports and entertainment offerings." 

I see this kind of corporate-speak all the time, and it always strikes me as the kind of short-sighted, unimaginative decision that gets made by accountants. Heroclix is a popular niche brand with a killer license. There are creative ways to make that work within any company. If you've grown to a point that your management is too lazy or stupid to find those creative ways, then you're running your company wrong.

Apparently, a merchandising company named NECA, located in my home state of New Jersey, bought the Heroclix assets and are attempting to breathe fresh life into them.  First step? Add Lord of the Rings to the lineup.

Late in 2011, the new WizKids will publish "a HeroClix miniatures game followed by a HeroClix strategic board game."

Here's the official line:
"The Lord of the Rings" HeroClix miniatures game will be sold in two different packages: a campaign style box set and the traditional booster format. The all-in-one campaign style box set will include everything a player needs, including NEW epic level rules and maps. The booster format includes the figures, similar to other previous HeroClix releases. With whichever format chosen, all of the twenty or more figures will be compatible with other HeroClix miniatures games.
The second release is a unique semi cooperative HeroClix board game, following in the similar format of our other HeroClix board game products. HeroClix figures, a gameboard and several decks of cards provide all the components needed to play this unique take on "The Lord of the Rings" story. The fun twist in the game is that players get to play as the Nazgul working with and against other Nazgul trying to capture the One Ring before it reaches Mount Doom.

Bicycle Fan Backs (Vintage)

 I picked up this old example of a Bicycle "Fan Back" in the same auction with the USPC swastika cards. I can't possibly date them, since they seemed to have either been used heavily or perhaps put through the wash a few times. That said, I'm pretty confident in calling them "really old."

Click to enlarge

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Windows 7 and Gaming

Yesterday was a column day, and it only took me 5 minutes to realize that my planned topic (Windows 7 and gaming) was going to be a dud. I was hoping that Windows 7 would do ... something for gamers. I don't know what. Maybe make them bacon and eggs.

What it did was a little bit of jack and a whole lotta squat. I'm not even getting higher benchmarks on Windows 7 than I did on Vista. It performs about the same. The Games Explorer allows you to access all your games from one handy place, which is a nice feature that cuts down on desktop clutter, but that's about it.

Even though I'm seeing few real gaming benefits, the OS is a welcome improvement over Vista. It runs well, the various Mac-ish graphical and navigational features are welcome, it's more stable, and the entire experience is just better.

The Windows Media Center remains a total clusterfark, of course. It runs like a sloth stuck in tar, and every time I start it up my laptop fan kicks into high gear. When I try to load my list of MP3s, the entire utility sees this as an opportunity to pop over to the neighbors for a cuppa and a little chat. It returns about 5 minutes later to offer me the single worst media interface I've encountered this side of DOS. Styling it after the Xbox interface might have been a good idea if a) this wasn't a computer OS, and b) the Xbox interface didn't already bite the wax tadpole.

On the positive side, the upgrade to Windows gave me some excuse to dig around in the native Windows games, which I'd never bothered to do with Vista. I'm actually pretty impressed.

The Games Explorer includes internet versions of Backgammon, Spades, and Checkers. These work marvelously well, anonymously matching players from around in the world in quick pickup games. Aside from the occasional drop-out player, I had no problems with these at all. They're simple, user-friendly, and work exactly as advertised. As a painless bit of light multiplayer, it's a terrific feature.

The versions of solitaire, chess, and hearts are fine, but certainly the last two would benefit from the same online matchmaking provided for backgammon, spades, and checkers.

Overall, a nice experience, but not one that can really sustain a full column. Instead, I wrote about horror gaming, with some thoughts on Dead Space 2 and Amnesia: The Dark Descent, both of which I plan to discuss in the future.

How to Make a Portable GamesChest Out of An Altoids Tin

Created by 'airship.' Check out the full picture to see tagged details of what it includes. I'll overlook the disgraceful lack of D20s, but maybe you can punch little holes in it for Cribbage?

h/t Julie D.  More great Altoids tin ideas can be found on the invaluable Art of Manliness site. (Seriously, spend some time on this site. Society has already slipped past the "Beta Male" stage and into the "Gamma Male" stage. Men need all the advice they can get.)