Review of Cargo Noir
Designer: Serge Laget
Artist: Miguel Coimbra
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Time: 30-90 minutes
Times played: 7 (all with advance copy provided by Days of Wonder)
Review by: Dale Yu
There was once a time when every Days of Wonder release seemed to be a big event. The combination of great gameplay, superb production quality and beautiful artwork made me want to try out every new Days of Wonder release as soon as I could get my hands on a copy. Ticket to Ride and Memoir ’44 were the two releases that started this trend and brought the company’s games to my attention. Multiple followup games to Ticket to Ride always kept me coming back to the games. Now, admittedly, there were a few along the way that I didn’t care for, but some of the more recent releases, including Small World and Cargo Noir, have me believing that DoW is on the rise yet again.
The newest offering from the company is Cargo Noir – a set collection game designed by Serge Laget. In what seems to be a trend amongst publishers, Monsieur Laget has become, in a sense, the “house designer” for DoW – as this is his fifth major game for the company, and second in two years. This is, to me, very similar to the relationship seen between Dirk Henn/Queen Games or Uwe Rosenberg/Lookout Games. Laget has designed a diverse portfolio over his career, and Cargo Noir uses a different central mechanic than the deduction seen in many of his previous games.
Desciption of the game
Cargo Noir is set in the world of smuggled goods – players act as the heads of a smuggling organizations (with names such as the Casa Nostra or Tres Sombreros) whose goal is to collect goods, represented on tiles, at various ports scattered around the globe and then turn these goods in for cards, such as island villas, night clubs, and yachts, which are worth victory points.
The board is a modular affair – made up of a number of cardboard tiles. These tiles can be flipped over depending on the number of players in the game to provide a “customized” board which is suitable for however many players you have in the game. There is a central area, represents Macao and houses the casino and the Black Market, which is available in every game. Surrounding this central square are up to 8 ports (again, the actual ports available will depend on the number of players in your game) – which have anywhere from one to four goods available for your smuggling pleasure. Each player starts the game with 3 ships and 7 coins. Though the 10 or 11 turns of the game, you will use these tools to acquire the goods that you need.
On the first turn of the game, the only thing each player does is to place his ships on the board. There are essentially three options available for each ship:
- Place a ship in the Casino
- Place a ship in the Black Market
- Place a ship (on top of a stack of coins) in any of the ports – if there is an opponent’s ship in that port already, you will need to play at least enough coins so that your stack is the largest.
The flow of each subsequent turn is simple enough to follow – with only three phases to play through. In the first phase, you resolve all of your ships on the board. Ships in the casino return to you with 2 coins. (Note to self – if I could find a casino where I always returned with a guaranteed profit – I’d move there!). If you have a ship in a port, and it is the only ship at that port, you collect all the goods at that port, and put the coins bid there into the bank. If there is another ship in the port (which will have a stack bigger than yours), there are two options: add coins to your stack so that you now have the largest stack OR give up trying at that port and take back your ship and money. Ships in the Black Market have two options: you can either draw a tile at random from the bag of goods OR you can trade in an already collected tile from your player mat with one of the eight face-up tiles in the Black Market.
In the second phase of the turn, you can exchange your goods tiles for victory point cards. There is a little bit of math involved in figuring out how much your goods tiles are worth. For tiles of the same type – the value increases geometrically: so for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 tiles of the same type, you would receive 1, 4, 9, 16, 25, 36, 49, 64, or 81 in value. For tiles of different type, the value increases arithmetically: so for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, or 9 tiles of the same type, you would receive 1, 3, 6, 10, 15, 21, 28, 36, or 45 in value. You are able to combine any number of sets of either type in order to buy the desired cards.
There are three different sorts of cards available for purchase. The first are the basic VP cards – their cost ranges from 15 to 30 and they provide an equal amount of VPs as their cost. There are multiple copies of each of these cards. The second are the special VP cards. These cards are unique and range in cost from 36 to 81. However, unlike the basic VP cards, these cards offer a slight premium in cost to VP production – the Paparazzi card which costs 36 yields 40 VP and the Principality which costs 81 gives you 90 VP.
The final type of card is the “Smuggler’s Edge” cards. These three cards give a reduced VP value at the end of the game, but they also grant special benefits to the player which are used in the course of the game. There are three different Smuggler’s Edge cards, and you may only ever purchase 2 of each type. The Cargo Ship card adds an extra ship to your fleet – and if you have more ships, you then have more possible actions each turn. The Warehouse card allows you to store two additional goods between turns – you start the game being able to hold 6 goods, but you can max this out at 10 if you have two Warehouses. Finally, the Syndicate gives you a 2 coin payment once per turn when you leave a port without winning the bid for the goods there.
When you buy cards (in every turn but the last) – you can only use value generated from trading in goods, and no change is given. You are able to total up as many goods as you like to determine the amount that you spend, and then buy as many cards as you can with that value. When you turn in your goods, they are discarded from the game. As there are only 14 goods of each type, paying attention to what other people have collected and spent can become somewhat important in the endgame as you try to collect larger sets.
In the third and final phase of the turn, you place your ships back out on the board, with the same three options available as described in the setup. Once you are done with all three phases, the game then moves to the next player clockwise who then goes through the three phases of his turn. The game continues on for a total of 10 turns (for 4 or 5 players) or 11 turns (for 2 or 3 players). In the final turn, players are able to purchase cards – using both their collected goods as well as using coins left in their supply. Scores from the cards are then tallied, and the player with the most wins the game. If there is a tie, the player with the highest valued VP card wins the game.
My thoughts on the game
Overall, I like the game. I think that it is a great entry-level game which is easy to learn and can be enjoyed by all levels of gamers. In this way, Cargo Noir is very similar to Ticket to Ride which I feel is still the pinnacle of entry-level games (and the current DoW flagship title). Do I love the game? At this point, I don’t think so – while it’s a great family game, I don’t know if there is enough there for the heavier gamer. And, by no means am I saying that all games need to have that extra level, but the ability for Ticket to Ride to play for both gaming novices and experts is what sets that game apart from the crowd and allows me to pull it off the shelf in any sort of gaming situation.
But, back to Cargo Noir. I think that the game is extremely easy to learn. I had no problems getting through the rules on my own, and I was able to get my two children playing the game in under 10 minutes. I might have one quibble with the rules – and this is the somewhat confusing layout. In the description of the turn phases, the rules have you jump forward to the third phase, placing ships, because that’s the only thing you do in the first turn on the game. Then, once you have placed ships, knowing what’s involved in the first two phases of the turn make more sense. To me, it seems like it would have been easier to just make the initial ship placement be a part of setup, and then you could have just gone through the rules without asking the players to jump all over the rules manual.
Other than this minor issue, the rules are easy to follow with with plenty of examples to clear up most questions that would arise. Additionally, setup is made easy with a nice two-page graphic that helps identify all of the important pieces in the game and what the game should look like when setup. This is something which has become more prevalent in rulebooks in the past few years, and it is something that I find very helpful when first setting up a game.
The presentation and graphics are on par with what you would normally expect from Days of Wonder. The art is fantastic, done by Miguel Coimbra. The quality of the art is on par with some other games that Coimbra has done including 7 Wonders, Battle Lore and Small World. Despite the potentially dark theme of smuggling and crime, the well-done artwork and caricatures used make this a cheerful appearing game. The plastic ships are cute, and the cards have handled repeated play (and handling by young children) and seem to be quite sturdy. The vac-tray in the box fits most of the components, though there isn’t a place for the bag of chits. I have found that if you lift the insert out of the box bottom, the bag of chits will fit snugly underneath the tray and allow the box top to fully close. The plastic insert tray feels thick enough to withstand repeated handling, so this is likely a long term solution for me for storage.
From my perspective after 7 plays, the trick to the game seems to be figuring out how to collect as many tiles as you can as quickly as possible. While sets of identical tiles are worth much more, there is still good value to be had if you are able to collect 5 or more different tiles. If you go to the black market, you’re able to guarantee yourself a return of 1 tile per ship if you draw or guarantee yourself a better tile if you choose to trade. When you go to the ports, you run the risk of being out-bid by your opponents – and while you always have the option to increase your bid, each time you do this costs you a full turn in the game because you now have to wait for the following turn in order to collect those tiles. And, in a game that only has 9 or 10 functional rounds (since the first round is merely placing your ships), that can be a huge loss. In a game that you can have as few as 30 actions or as many as 49 – each lost bid or re-bid costs you between 2-3% of your total action pool… If this happens to you 3 times in a game, you’ve put yourself possibly at a 10% disadvantage to an opponent who didn’t have to give up those actions. Of course, if you end up bidding more coins in order to not to be overbid, you’ll run out of money faster which could result in you sending ships to the casino instead to get more money to make more bids. Figuring out the sweetspot of bidding has been the big challenge for me in my plays of Cargo Noir.
As I mentioned earlier, the game itself is straightforward to teach/learn, and it is also pretty easy to play. The options available to you on any given turn are limited, so most turns should go quickly. The limited number of options is also one of the reasons that I feel the game will appeal to novices as they should never feel overwhelmed by the game. That being said, there are a few areas which can be potentially slow – trying to figure out how much buying power you have from your different tiles can take a bit of time, especially if you’re 7 years old… Furthermore, for some people, the decision of where to place ships can be somewhat AP-prone if you really take the time to see what is available at each port and see what each player is trying to collect, etc. Luckily, neither of my children nor those adults in my local game group have those tendencies, and as a result, Cargo Noir is a light game played at a quick pace. I’d say that in my 3- or 4-player games, the average game length has been 40-45 minutes including setup. You can add on about 10 minutes to go over the rules.
Finally, there are a few questions that I still want to consider in future games…
First, I have thought about a possible strategy where you just go to the Black Market each turn with the majority of your ships – by doing this, you never risk “losing” your action as you can always draw from the bag and guarantee a tile per ship. If things work out well in the display, you might be able to trade in a tile for one that grows a set in your collection. The downside to this is that you have very little control over the tiles you acquire as the majority of them will be randomly drawn from the bag. I think that you would need a lot of luck for this to be successful – as well as counting on the other players to squabble with each other at the ports. If there are not too many overbids, I think the Black Market only strategy would not fare as well if other players are able to collect more than one tile per ship AND they have the added advantage of being able to choose some of the tiles that they pick up. The place where this strategy would fail is that the larger VP cards are most easily bought with sets of matching tiles, and the random draw strategy would not fare as well as those players who were choosing specific ports to match up to existing tile holdings. Even if this strategy were to work (and I am going to definitely try it in my next game), I think that it would be too luck dependent to ever work regularly – which is a good thing… [Partial answer to my own question – I have now tried this strategy again since originally writing the review… and this strategy failed miserably — the random draws did not go my way. Not only was I stuck picking up random tiles, my opponents were getting the benefit of cheaper and less-often contested bids at the ports because I was not helping to push prices up or compete for lots of goods tiles. To make matters worse, since I was not helping compete at the ports, my opponents were able to gain tiles at a rate higher than my 1 tile per ship rate at the Black Market AND they had the added advantage of being able to choose the tiles they were collecting!]
Second, is it necessary to maximize the size of your shipping fleet or warehouse size in order to be successful. In my limited number of plays thus far, I’ve always tried to get 5 ships, so I can’t judge how well I might do with only three or four. Again, looking at the math, if you never gain an extra ship, you will have 30 total actions (i.e. ship placements) in a 4p game. If you add ships to your fleet early on – say in rounds 2 and 3, you will end up with 47 actions in the same game. I simply do not see any way that a player with 17 fewer actions (over a third fewer than a player with a full fleet) could ever manage to win. As I’ve not played with 5p yet, I cannot answer the follow-up question which is: Is it necessary to be one of the players to get 5 ships in order to win a 5p game? This is important because there are only 8 extra ship cards, so you can possibly be shut out of a full fleet – ONLY in the 5p game. Over the course of the 5p game, a player with 5 ships is likely to have at least 10% more actions than a player with 4 ships — and again, I feel that this is likely a significant advantage.
I have done some experimenting with buying one or no warehouses, and if the timing works out OK, you don’t necessarily need to have a larger warehouse. However, when it doesn’t work out well, you end up having to discard tiles or perhaps spend your tiles earlier than expected because you don’t have the capacity to hold them. The risk-reward ratio for warehouses seems higher than ships, but again, I’m not sure if I’ve played it enough to have a great feel for it. I have yet to see how the syndicate would be as valuable as either of the other two Smuggler’s Edge cards. I have still purchased them from time to time – when I’ve had to spend tiles, and I only had 10 to spend… but, I’ve not seen usage of the Syndicate ever be significant.
Third, how much does randomly decided turn order affect the overall outcome of the game – notably in the last round? At the start of the game, a start player is chosen, and the game simply goes clockwise around the table throughout the entire duration. All players get an equal number of turns, and for the most part, I don’t think turn order matters. There is a slight bias towards the start player in obtaining the high value VP cards as there is only one of each available, and the first player will always get the first crack at picking up one of those cards. (Of course, in a game of this weight and duration, this advantage is probably best ignored as minimal.) The second area where turn order can become a problem is in the last turn. Ostensibly, each player’s final turn should be spent collecting tiles and then spending all of those tiles (and coins remaining) for the best possible card that can be bought. However, the rules do not specify a shortening of the final turn — i.e. the players are still required to place their ships. If they have enough coins left over, they could then block an opponent later in turn order from winning a port – and I can see situations where preventing a player from picking up a particularly needed set of tiles would be more beneficial than using those coins to purchase cards. The problem that I see is that the first player has a distinct advantage in his increased ability to block tile acquisition in the last turn which the last player never gets. Finally, in a 5p game, which I have yet to play, the 1st player has a distinct advantage in having access to the extra ship cards (which is an advantage I believe to be meaningful due to the extra actions).
Perhaps this advantage towards the first player is balanced out by the fact that the last player has a higher probability of having all of the spent tiles shuffled back into the bag (which happens if the bag is exhausted of tiles). Thus, the later players in turn order have a slightly higher chance of making a match to an existing set? I doubt that the math here works out, but again, I don’t have enough experience or computing power to figure this out. My guess is that for a lighter game, this is more analysis and worry than should be put into what is likely a small difference. I’m sure that the playtesting has shown my worries to be a non-issue – or else they would have tried to balance the starting setup with a few more coins to those later in turn order… I’ve always felt that DoW games have been well developed and play-tested, so there’s no reason to think that Cargo Noir hasn’t received the same treatment. But since the perceived starting player advantage has come up in post-game discussion when played with gamers, I felt that I should at least mention it here. I honestly doubt that folks playing this game as a gateway game or a light-weight game will get too worked up about it or even consider it at all.
Fourth, is the two player game the sweetspot for me? I’ve now played the game at least once with 2, 3, 4, and 5 players — and thus far, though I’ve only played it once with 2p, I think that this was the best arrangement for me. Most importantly, there was almost no downtime – you’re pretty much involved at all points in the game. The game also moves along quickly – we finished our game in just over 20 minutes. There seemed to be more tension in the game as blocking became a bit more important — and I think some of this is because it’s easier to track what a single opponent is trying to collect as opposed to trying to watch 4 opponents! There was a nice ebb and flow of tile collecting… if one player spent a lot of coins on one turn to pick up some auctions, he would then almost be obligated to spend a turn in the future picking up some coins in the casino. It was also easier to make a clever (and lowball) bid when you could figure out how much money your opponent was going to have on his next turn. I felt that the strategic options were the highest when only facing one opponent.
In the final analysis, Cargo Noir is a game that I have definitely enjoyed playing over the past two weeks. It has been received very well by novice gamers and enjoyed (mostly) by my more serious gaming group. My kids love it and have been requesting it non-stop for the past two weeks — and I’ve found that this is always a good sign. The game plays quickly (under an hour), and, given the modular board, it seems to scale very well through the range of two to five players. The easily taught and understood rules make this a great candidate for a “gateway” or introductory game, though there are some questions in my mind whether or not there is enough game there for the “serious” gamer, I have already played in seven times and am still looking forward to playing it when it hits the table next. I think that this game certainly has the makings of a SdJ nominated game given the artwork, accessibility to gamers of all levels and production quality.
My opinion: I like it.
Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers
Greg Schloesser: Cargo Noir is a pleasant game, one nicely suited for families. It is easy to learn and play, with simple mechanisms. There are decisions to be made throughout the game, but none of them are terribly taxing or too complicated for even moderately young children. There are opportunities to hinder the efforts of your opponents, primarily by sending ships to ports they covet, but there is little overt nastiness. It is a light, pleasant affair, which may disappoint folks expecting a more challenging and cutthroat experience.
While the game works just fine, it lacks excitement. The theme is enticing, evoking images of persistent danger, cutthroat tactics, and uneasy alliances. Sadly, none of these are present. The harshest assault is simply outbidding an opponent. Further, the game has a repetitive feel. Each turn is very similar to the previous. Even though turns are fairly quick, weariness sets in after five or six turns. There is a desire for the game to end, and that is never a good thing.
Cargo Noir is a basic and familiar set-collecting game wrapped in an intriguing theme that the game fails to do justice. What is here has been done before. That is disappointing. While the game will undoubtedly receive widespread play do to the admirable reputation of both Days of Wonder and Serge Laget, it probably won’t make much of a splash in gaming circles. Perhaps this isn’t the market for which Days of Wonder is aiming. That’s perfectly fine, but I am still a bit disappointed, as I eagerly await each company release and generally enjoy most of their games. This one falls a bit short.
Ted Cheatham: I only had one play of this one and, that was quite enough. The game works fine, I just found no joy and was glad for it to be over. It takes that rather interesting bidding system that is much more enticing in Communi and uses that as the heart of the game. As a family game it also fell flat for two spouses that tried it with us. Result, don’t care for it.
Jonathan Franklin: I have played it four times and like it. It is a good family game and fine with gamers as an opener or closer. My concern is that as a main course, people will put too much thought into it and it will lose its luster. People who put more effort into the game will have a better chance to win it, but will suck all the fun out of it in the process.
To be honest, I am a bit tired of set collection that does not have another twist. If anything, this is an engine building game where you are trying to get the number of actions and other smuggler’s edge cards to get the high point cards by the final few turns. You cannot afford to go for the biggies from the start because then you won’t get the extra ships. In addition the game is too short to wait too long, so I worry it might feel scripted after 8-10 plays. That would be fine for a card game, but for a game in the DoW price range, I hope for more replayability. I look forward to being proven wrong on this point.
I have played in two games where the final round determined the winner. For a game this short, that is fine, and you can certainly improve your luck through the smuggler’s edge cards, but if you don’t want the winner to be determined by what you each draw in the Black Market, this might not be the game for you.
One important rule that I missed in the first play – Along with only using each syndicate card once per turn, you may not use your two syndicate cards at the same port. If you have two syndicate cards, you have to withdraw from two different ports per turn to get your extra four coins.
Valerie Putman: I think this game has Spiel des Jahres potential. While I prefer Ticket to Ride as a gateway game (because I prefer train games to auction games), I think that this is the perfect game for introducing new gamers to the hobby or for a family fun filled game night. No, it’s not the game I would pick to play with other hard core gamers, but it fills the bill for an easy to teach, fun to play, entry level game.
Mark Jackson: I’ve played 4 times – one each with 2, 3, 4 & 5 players. As a two player game, it feels very similar to the Kosmos 2-player line… though with a much larger box. Five players works kind of like a Geo Metro works for driving in the Rocky Mountains – it’ll get you there but you can hear the engine straining. I think the sweet spot for the game is 3-4 players.
We’re still debating about sending ships back out on the final turn – I’d like to see an official ruling on that.
I agree with Valerie – I think the game will at least be nominated due to the clean gameplay & high-quality components. I’m not sure there is substantial depth here – but it’s been requested each week by someone at our gaming group, so there’s a definite magnetism to the design.
Mary Prasad: I’ve played the game twice with three players (first time with the syndicate card rule wrong – hey, someone else was teaching!). While this is not my type of game, I think it is a good gateway or family game. I wouldn’t mind playing it again but it’s not going to be a favorite. The game play is solid, rules are good, and components and artwork are excellent.
Doug Garrett: I have now played the game three times, twice with 4 players and once with 2. I like the fact that the modular board means the game scales well for different player numbers and I agree with Dale that this is a game that fits nicely in the ‘gateway’ category, though it doesn’t surpass DoW’s Ticket to Ride. In fact, Ticket to Ride remains a game that we will occasionally pull off the shelf and enjoy 2-player, while Cargo Noir will see some more plays, but I don’t see Shelley and me pulling it off the shelf to play just the two of us again. Great art & a solid rules set maintain the DoW quality we have come to expect.
Rick Thornquist: Downtime, Downtime, Downtime!
You know, I get so tired of harping about the same design flaws over and over in games, yet they keep appearing. You’d think designers would have learned by now, but here it is again…
There is too much freaking downtime in this game. So much downtime, in fact, that later in our game the other players left the table to kibitz while the current player did their thing – alone. We played with four players – I shudder to think how much downtime there would be with five.
Yes, you could take quick turns and not pay much attention to actually winning the game, but who wants to do that? I didn’t think people were anywhere near overanalyzing in our game yet there was still way too much downtime.
And if that’s not enough, the mechanisms are hackneyed to say the least. Let’s see, you bid on stuff, collect sets, and then trade them in for victory points? Wow, how original. The only redeeming feature was the ability to get cards with a reduced victory point value but to compensate, they have a power. That was interesting. The rest of the game was not.
Patrick Korner: I wanted to like this game. The theme is reasonably unique, the bits are very nice, and the gameplay seemed solid, if not that original or complex (this is an entry-level game, after all, and so I didn’t expect much strategic layering or opacity). Sadly, I have to agree with Rick: the game just takes too long and the level of interaction between players is nearly nil. Take your turn, then sit and wait. If you got outbid somewhere, oh well, take your bid back and try again. And that’s it. I expect non-gamers to walk away from this somewhat confused, thinking that much of modern gaming involves sitting around waiting for your turn. A good, solid entry-level game needs to have little bite-sized turns to keep everyone’s interest and a good deal of interaction (even if it’s of the take-that variety), and unfortunately Cargo Noir fails on both counts, at least for me.
Ratings Summary from the Opinionated Gamers:
I love it!
I like it. (6) Dale Yu, Mark Jackson, Valerie Putman, Jonathan Franklin, Brian Yu, Doug Garrett
Neutral. (3) Greg Schloesser, Lucas Hedgren, John Palagyi
Not for me… (4) Mary Prasad, Rick Thornquist, Ted Cheatham, Patrick Korner