Overview: Cargo Noir, the latest board game from Days of Wonder, pits five Families against each other as they smuggle cargo into their warehouses and then sell the cargo to acquire things like villas, yachts and militia. It’s scheduled to ship out this Friday (March 4), and can be pre-ordered from Days of Wonder or Amazon, or check at your local game store this weekend.
Players: 2 to 5 players
Ages: 8 and up
Playing Time: 30 to 90 minutes (depending on number of players)
Rating: Dark theme but light strategy.
Who Will Like It? Do you dream of trafficking in illicit goods like weapons and ivory, swapping uranium and cigars on the black market? Well, this game probably won’t satisfy those urges. But if you want a medium-weight bidding-based strategy game, you might enjoy Cargo Noir.
The illustrations throughout Cargo Noir depict all sorts of shady dealings and disreputable characters, from pinstripe-suited head of the Casa Nostra to the scarred and turbaned leader of Al Kabash. Apparently cigars are an excellent way to identify crooks because there are plenty of those around. The board depicts a series of ports around the world, and in the center is Macao, home to the black market and a casino. The illicit cargo consists of things like art and automobiles, jewels and alcohol. Some victory point cards will give you an edge in smuggling like extra cargo ships and warehouses; most are purely for points: dive bars, paparazzi, cronies or the ultimate goal—your very own principality.
Although smuggling is a somewhat dark theme, the artwork is colorful and caricatured and there isn’t really much that happens in the game that feels violent and ugly. I’m a bit torn on this one. I’ve played Bootleggers which is all about making moonshine and running it to the speakeasies, using your muscle to shove out competitors. That one feels a bit more like actual participating in questionable activities. Cargo Noir, for all its smuggling-related paraphernalia, feels more like a friendly resource-management game.
However, because of the theme—and details in the illustrations like smoking and alcohol and femme fatales—I’m not sure that the game is great for young kids, either, despite the fact that they could handle the mechanics. I suppose it’s up to you whether you feel like explaining smuggling to your 8-year-old.
Cargo Noir comes with a huge pile of stuff:
- 131 Cargo tokens (14 each of 9 types of cargo, plus 5 wild tokens)
- Cloth drawstring bag for Cargo tokens
- 54 Victory cards
- 5 Family sheets
- 25 Cargo ships (in 5 colors)
- 60 Gold coins (plastic poker chip-sized discs)
- 1 wooden turn marker
- 1 first player marker
- 9-piece game board (Macao and 8 ports)
The board and cargo tokens are all sturdy cardboard, and the cards (seen above) are a nice quality, just a little oversized which is great for the artwork but will take up a lot of room—we had to lay them out on a separate card table to the side. The board is a clever design—depending on the number of players, you flip some of the port boards over. The reverse side still has the illustration but no cargo area so it just becomes a placeholder and isn’t actually used in the game. It’s a clever way to adjust the effective size of the board for the number of players without having to print several full boards (as in Small World).
The cloth bag seems like a good idea—you put all the cargo tokens inside to mix them all up—but the fabric is pretty flimsy and frayed rather quickly. After my first full game, I noticed that the side had torn open and the chips were falling out the side. I’ll probably make my own bag to replace it.
I really liked the plastic chips, though—although they’re not absolutely necessary, they’re still a nice touch. The chips are a lot easier to deal with than paper money, and when you start bidding on cargo at the ports it’s easy to tell at a glance how much each player has bid by the height of the stack.
This video trailer for the game doesn’t show any of the gameplay but is intended to set the mood for the game—but what it’s really good for is to get an idea of the artwork in the game. All of the images here are from the game itself, whether from the board or the cards or the Family sheets.
The mechanics of the game are fairly simple and quick to learn. The first time I played I hadn’t actually read the rules beforehand so I was reading as we set up, and we were able to pick up the procedures after a sample round of play. In case you’re interested, the full rules can be downloaded from the Days of Wonder website.
The game turn consists of three actions, though in the first round you’ll skip to Step 3, sending ships out to new destinations.
Your ships can go to three types of places: the casino or the black market in Macao, or any of the ports. If you send a ship to a port, you must also include a stack of coins representing your bid for the available cargo that’s higher than any of the other players’ bids already present.
Once everyone is through the first round, each player’s turn goes in this order:
Step 1: Resolve ships’ actions. You retrieve each of your ships in any order desired and take the appropriate action. A ship in Macao’s casino earns you two coins from the bank. (I can’t imagine Macao’s casino is making them any money.) A ship in the black market gives you a choice: take one cargo token at random from the bag OR trade a cargo token you own with any one in the market. For ships in a port: if you are the only one remaining in the port, then you pay your stack of coins to the bank, take all the cargo from that port and retrieve your ship. The port is replenished with new cargo from the bag. If there are still other ships present then it means they have outbid you—you can either abandon the port, reclaiming your ship and coins, or you can increase your bid so that it is the highest at that port.
Step 2: Trade cargo. Once you have cargo, you can trade it in at this phase for Victory cards or store it on your Family sheet—but there is only room for six tokens, so anything you can’t store at the end of this phase is discarded. There is a chart on the Family sheet showing how much cargo is worth. Having many tokens of the same type is worth more than tokens that are all different—for instance, 4 of the same type is worth 16, but 4 of different types is worth 10. You can trade in any number in various combinations to maximize the value. The cargo is traded directly for Victory cards—they cannot be exchanged for coins and you do not get any change for unspent value.
The Victory cards themselves have two types: there are three “Smuggler’s Edge” cards which will give you additional abilities (but are worth fewer points than they cost), and the rest are purely point value cards but cost more. The Smuggler’s Edge cards are: the Cargo Ship, which gives you an extra ship to use; the Warehouse, which gives you two more spaces to store goods; the Syndicate, which gives you two coins each time you abandon a bid at a port. You can only have two of each Smuggler’s Edge card—and in a 5 player game, there aren’t enough for everyone to have two so you may have to act quickly to get them. Of the rest, there are plenty of Common Cards (Villas, Yachts, Dive Bars and Night Clubs) whose worth is equal to their cost, and then six Unique Cards which are worth more than they cost, but are quite expensive and hard to buy.
Step 3: Send out ships. This is carried out the same way as listed above for the first round of play, with the additional note that you cannot bid on a port which you just abandoned this turn in Step 1.
The game lasts 10 or 11 rounds, depending on number of players. During the last round, players can also use cash towards purchasing Victory cards. (Leftover cash isn’t worth any points.) The player with the most victory points wins. In case of a tie, the player who has the highest-value Victory card is the winner (which makes the Unique Cards quite valuable).
I’ve enjoyed playing Cargo Noir, but I feel like there’s something of a disconnect between the theme and the gameplay. Some of the high schoolers I’ve played with got into it a little more and talked about collecting some particular type of good or favoring a specific port (sometimes to their own disadvantage). My wife tried it and said it felt more like playing a resource-management game, figuring out how to use the right number of actions to get the required resources to convert into some number of victory points. This may be a good or bad thing, depending on how you look at it: if you have kids who want to play the game, you may prefer that the mechanics don’t resemble too closely the seedy behavior of real smugglers; on the other hand, if you’re playing with adult friends and are looking for something with a hint of criminal tendencies, you may be a bit disappointed.
I’d say that Cargo Noir is a medium-weight game, about on the level of Settlers of Catan or perhaps slightly lighter. It’s not a heavy brain-burner; instead it’s more about watching what other players are bidding on and trying to get yourself the best deal without letting the other players score a big haul cheaply. I thought that they did a really good job with the values of cargo and prices of cards—quite often I found myself a single dollar away from being able to afford a card, and had to scale back down to the next level and lose the excess value, so you have to work pretty hard to get the right amount. So far nobody has come close to being able to buy the Principality (worth 90 points but costs 81), which takes nine of the same type of cargo (or quite a lot of mixed cargo).
Both my wife and some of my gaming group (separately) said they enjoyed the game and would be interested in playing some more. I think it offers some interesting gameplay and I enjoyed it; however, the theme may present a tricky issue for younger players.
Wired: Good medium-weight strategy game; easy-to-learn bidding mechanics; lots and lots of components.
Tired: Gameplay doesn’t really reflect the theme; token bag is flimsy.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.