Friday, October 14, 2011

Cargo Noir - First Impressions

Last night I played my first game of Cargo Noir, a recent release from Days of Wonder (as a side note, off to the right you can see the three most recent games I've played). For those that don't know, Days of Wonder is the publisher of some very well-regarded games that have quickly solidified their position as "classics". Chief among these is 2004's Ticket to Ride, but not far behind are games like Memoir '44 (2004) and Small World (2009). As a general rule of thumb, if a game says "Days of Wonder" on it, it's probably a good game. Cargo Noir is their most recent release. From their website, this is how they describe the theme behind the game:
Cargo Noir is a game of illicit trading in which players run "families" who traffic in smuggled goods. Designed by Serge Laget, the game takes place in the thrilling and evocative setting of 1950's film noir.
Now this is a cool theme for a game! It isn't cliché, and therefore a refreshing change from the run-of-the-mill fantasy and sci-fi games (though I still love me some fantasy and sci-fi games!). It's also a nice change in that everyone plays a "bad guy", but without the dark overtones of a game like Chaos in the Old World. Cargo Noir is essentially a family-friendly way to be a bad guy.

I played the game with my 9-year old son, who has been an avid gamer since he was 5 and easily grasps most games we play, and my wife, who rarely and only hesitantly ventures into the world of designer board games. She's fairly at ease with the aforementioned Ticket to Ride and also Carcassonne, and will occasionally dabble in Dominion. When I opened the box, the first thing that struck me was the high-quality of all the components. The bright colors, the great artwork, and the quality materials really make it feel like the game is worth what you paid for it. Of course, high production values are to be expected from a company like Days of Wonder, and they usually don't disappoint.

All of the components of Cargo Noir

I won't go into all the details of how the game is played, because I personally hate reviews that recite the rules. I want an impression of the game, not all the details. However, if you are interested in the rules, Days of Wonder has them available for free on their website.

To start, each player picks one of 5 crime families - Casa Nostra (Italian), Al Kabash (Middle Eastern), Ti Pot Tong (Chinese), Tres Sombreros (Mexican), or Kali Pakora (Indian). There is no gameplay difference between the families except for artwork and the color of your ships, so just pick whatever you like best.

The board has the Black Market and a Casino, both in Macao, in the center, surrounded by several other ports. The number of ports that are "open" (used in the game) vs. "closed" (not used) depends on the number of players.

There is also a variety of illicit cargo, such as cars, weapons, alcohol, gold, jewels, cigarettes, etc. Each player starts with some cargo, some money, and three cargo ships.

The goal of the game is to collect the most victory points, through Victory Cards, before a set number of rounds ends the game. You gain Victory Cards by trading in your illicit cargo in sets that are either all the same (all uranium, for example) or all different. The more items that are in your set, the more it's worth. So how do you get your illicit cargo to start this process? You try to outbid other players for it, and this is where you get to the meat of Cargo Noir, which is, at it's heart, an auction game.

Every turn, you dispatch each of your ships either to a port, along with a stack of coins, or to Macao. If you go to the casino in Macao, you simply get 2 coins, whereas if you go to the Black Market in Macao you have a choice of either 1) drawing one illicit cargo tile at random from the draw bag or 2) trading one your illicit cargo tokens for one that is visible in the Black Market.

As for the ships and coins on the ports, it turns into a bidding war until everyone drops out but one, at which point that person wins all of the cargo at the port. There is a delicate balance here between trying to get the cargo you need, denying your opponents the cargo they need, not spending too much money, and trying to force your opponents into spending too much money. This mechanic adds a lot of strategy and tension to the game, without the necessity of overcomplicated rules and mechanics. And while this bidding/auction mechanic is nothing new or innovative, it just plain seems more fun with this game. Perhaps it's the cool noir theme...

Close-up of the cargo ships in Cargo Noir
That's pretty much the whole game, except for a few Victory Cards that grant certain privileges during gameplay, such as a warehouse that increases your storage capacity of illicit cargo, or additional cargo ships to add to your fleet. Gameplay takes 30-60 minutes, depending on the number of players, and goes fairly quickly. There is very little waiting around for other people to play, especially since it really pays to watch your opponents move in order to plan your own. It is also quite easy to learn, and all of us quickly had all the rules down by the second round of the game.

Cargo Noir has a simple elegance to it that makes playing the game a very enjoyable experience. While some people have criticized the lack of theme in the gameplay (or more accurately, they have criticized the lack of connection between the theme and the game's mechanics), I tend to disagree. It very much had the feel of "civilized criminals" that were unwilling to go into all-out war with each other, but at the same time had no qualms about screwing each other over financially and strategically. To misquote Star Wars, this kind of crime war reminded me of a more elegant war from a more civilized age. And that, I believe, is a very cool thing in a board game.

Overall, I give Cargo Noire 4 out of 5 meeples. The only thing I think could have possibly enhanced the game would be if each family had one special ability that set them apart from the others, in order to add a bit of strategy into the choice of family at the start of the game. Also, it might have been interesting to include other combinations for trading in illicit cargo besides "all the same" or "all different", maybe something akin to poker hands. That being said, I can definitely understand Serge Lagent's decision to  keep things simple and more elegant. If you like Eurogames, your money will be well spent on Cargo Noir.

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