by Lee Valentine
Published by Days of Wonder
Designed by Serge Laget
Contents: game boards of Macao and 8 different ports, 131 Cargo tokens,
54 Victory cards, 5 player reference sheets, 25 Sculpted Cargo ships, 60
Gold coins, Cargo Noir token bag, First Turn and Player markers, and a
full-color rules booklet
Cargo Noir is a new board game by Days of Wonder's go-to designer
Serge Laget. It features a film noir cargo smuggling theme. While this
theme is largely pasted on in terms of mechanics, it is firmly
entrenched in the look of the product.
Cargo Noir is one part worker placement mixed with one part set
collection and a dash of bidding thrown in. Each player is given a
player reference sheet, seven coins, and three ships. The board is
actually built pre-game from multiple separate location-specific
sub-boards. These sub-boards are double-sided, and which side is placed
face up is dependent on the number of players playing the game (from two
to five). With two players fewer locations are available to visit
(keeping competition frequent), while more locations are available with
Your ships function as your "workers" in the worker placement portion of
the game. On your turn, you send each of your ships out to a single
location on the board. Most locations have face-up cargo tokens of
different types. When your ship is placed on a location, you put some
of your coins underneath it, representing your bid on the cargo at the
port. If anyone else wants to compete for the cargo at a given
location, they have to send a ship there and bid more than any other
ship currently visiting the port. When your turn comes around again, if
other ships are still with you at a given port then you can either
increase your bid or leave (taking your bid back). Eventually, only one
ship will remain with a bid, and that ship turns its coins back to the
game box and takes the cargo tokens. Once cargo is purchased, new cargo
tokens are drawn randomly out of a bag and dealt down to replace the
tokens that were just claimed.
There are two other specialized locations you can visit in Cargo
Noir. The casino simply earns you two coins for each ship you send
there. Visits here are frequent, since competitive bidding often drains
your coffers dry. The black market gives you two different options.
First, you can simply draw a cargo token at random out of the cargo bag.
Second, the black market features a variety of face-up cargo tokens and
you can swap any one cargo token that you've previously acquired for one
of the face up tokens in the black market.
Once you've taken all the actions that your ships grant you, you take
back all of your ships that aren't still bidding on cargo. Then you can
trade in some or all of your cargo for Victory cards. Each player
reference sheet has two rows of contraband values listed on them. The
one row is for trading in a set of identically matched cargo tokens
(say, for example, seven uranium tokens). The other scoring reference
row is for trading in a set where every token is different than every
other token. Larger sets of either kind net you substantially more
contraband points than a small set or single token. You can trade in as
many different sets as you are able to, or hold onto your tokens to
build them up to bigger and better sets. Part of the strategy of the
game is learning whether, for example, to trade in a set of two weapons
and five unmatched tokens (which include a weapon) or to cash these
items in as a set of three matched weapons and four unmatched tokens.
If you trade in tokens for contraband points, you must spend those
contraband points immediately for Victory cards (they can't be banked).
Each Victory card has a cost (in contraband points) and a Victory value.
Amassing Victory points is how you win the game. More expensive
Victory cards give you a better return on your investment for the
contraband points that you spend. Three cards grant you few Victory
points but instead grant you a smuggler's edge, a reusable in-game
power, like the ability to store additional cargo tokens beyond the
usual hand limit, or an extra ship for your fleet.
At the end of each of your turns all your spare ships are placed back
onto the board in preparation for the next turn. Each player completes
all of these steps before passing his turn to the next player.
Player-versus-player interaction is entirely indirect, taking place by
outbidding opponents for cargo or taking items from the black market
before someone else can grab them. There is no direct "take that"
mechanic, and indeed you are not allowed to take any actions at all
during your opponents' turns.
Players continue this cycle of turns for a number of total rounds
depending on the number of players. Then Victory cards are totaled up
and the player with the most Victory points wins the game.
Components & Packaging
The game comes with player reference sheets, plastic game coins, plastic
ship miniatures, the game boards, cargo tokens, a bag to draw tokens
from, and a full-color rulebook. While the player reference sheets are
a little thin compared to the cargo tokens and the boards (which are
quite thick and sturdy), the reference sheets are not handled much
during the game, and simply serve as a place to calculate cargo trades
and to store your tokens. The bag is potentially problematic. My bag is
constantly shedding threads and I question how well it is put together.
This must be a problem for other players too because Days of Wonder is
manufacturing replacement bags of sturdier quality. The full-color
rulebook is reasonably clear, easy on the eyes, and has a clean layout.
The art on the game is absolutely stunning. Miguel Coimbra (who also
does the art for Small World) created all the art for this
product. It is among the most beautiful games I have ever laid my eyes
on. The art captures a film noir theme but renders it in a modern comic
book style of drawing and coloring.
The packaging is the downfall of this product. This is one of the most
poorly thought-out package designs I have seen since Heroscape: Rise
of the Valkyrie. The packaging protects the product until it gets
to retail, and it holds some of the components very snugly.
Unfortunately, once you punch out the cargo tokens and put them in the
storage bag you will not find an obvious place to store them. I managed
to flatten out the bag and tokens, remove the insert, and place the bag
in the negative space under the insert. It was not ideal, but it was
the only way that I could get the box lid close to closing with all the
Cargo Noir is a solid game that features incredible film
noir-themed art and simple, sleek core mechanics. When played with
fewer players who go about their business efficiently, the turns seem to
fly by. However, as you are literally doing almost nothing (other than
potentially studying the board) during other players' turns, this might
drag a bit with five players if any of the players suffers from analysis
paralysis. If players do not drag their heels during play, then this is
a good gateway game to get non-gamer geeks interested in Euro-style
games. If you are looking for a gateway game or a light filler game,
this could be a good fit for your collection. If you are looking for
heavier fare with deeper thought, like Ra for a bidding game or
Agricola for a worker placement game, Cargo Noir may not
be the product for you.
Cargo Noir will likely be viewed as a light filler game for the
hardcore board game playing crowd. As such, it may not have as wide of
an appeal in the hobby game market as Small World. If you have
some space to set up Cargo Noir and demo it, then its looks may
help it sell. I do not see this game becoming the next Ticket to
Ride-style sensation for Days of Wonder.
If your store attracts families looking for family games, you may be
able to hand sell this or setup a display in the family game area to
make some sales. Most of the seedier elements of film noir are not
overtly present in this game, so I think it will appeal to parents
bringing up the next generation of junior gamers.
Overall: B (those looking for a filler game or a gateway game might rate this a bit higher)
Gameplay: B (a mechanic offering clean, light fun)
Rules Clarity: A-
Components: B+ (excellent tokens and board, with lighter player reference sheets, and a sub-optimal bag)
Packaging: B- (had I not found some space under the insert to store the bag, this area would rate a C)