Cargo Noir is a beautifully rendered, fast-paced resource management game for 2-5 players ages eight and up. The game is a light-hearted simulation of a dark topic: criminal black marketeering.
Players take on the role of a smuggling crime family, bidding on piles of contraband and accumulating them into even more valuable collections before cashing them in on luxury purchases like yachts, politicians, and even your own principality.
Cargo Noir was designed by Serge Laget and was first published in 2011 by Days of Wonder. As a game publisher, Days of Wonder has a real streak going; they don’t have that many games but pretty much every one they put out is a winner.
Cargo Noir has a unique game play that is hard to describe in a few words. Efficient use of resources is key, there is resource management, but it is not really a resource management game. There is set collecting, and a form of bidding, but it is not really an auctioning game either.
It is a stylish game, very stylish, and colorfully illustrated, with gaming bits of an exceptionally high quality. The ships are a formed of a hardened rubber that is superior to the usual injection molding pieces and seems impervious to damage. Game board pieces are super-sturdy stock. Cards are over-sized, thick, and varnished (not plastic-coated, but still, sealed, if only slightly). Even the money is quality; big poker chip-looking plastic coins that are viscerally interesting and beg to be stacked and shuffled.
It is quite striking just how nicely this game is put together. The best production values I have yet encountered in a hobby board game.
There are nine different types of cargo, and fourteen instances of each cargo type. Cargo takes the form of thick pasteboard counters. Players attempt to build sets of cargo, either all the same (worth the most) or all different (worth less but still valuable), accumulating as many in a set as possible. The values of sets go up geometrically based on the size of the set: a four-cargo combination is worth more than two pairs.
All of the cargo types are illicit, naturally, but the designers work at making this a family game by focusing largely on less blazingly awful material. You smuggle Cigars and Gold and Alcohol, all unsavory, but only to a point: there are no drugs, and no human trafficking (yet there are Weapons).
You buy things when you trade in sets. You can buy position improvements, like another ship(!), or more cargo storage space, or another way to earn Coins. Or you can buy victory points which come in a variety of denominations. You cannot “save up” between trade-ins; when you turn in a set you must spend it all, and you do not get change.
You start each turn by resolving the movements from previous turns. This causes more mental twisting than one would expect; it just seems like resolving movement should go along with the movement itself. But it does not. Once you’ve mastered this wrinkle (and it is not easily mastered) then the rest of the game flows smoothly and quickly.
During each turn, you:
- Resolve movements and bids (if any) from the previous turn to acquire cargo
- Trade in sets of cargo for a variety of position-building cards or victory points
- Position your ships and make bids for the following turn
Movement consists of placing one of your ships on a port, or at the black market, or at the casino. Each ship placed at the casino will yield two coins during the next movement resolution. Each ship at the Black Market will be able to draw a random cargo, or trade an already-owned cargo for one of eight that are on display.
Each port contains one, two or three cargoes. Placing your ship on a port is the meaty part of movement in that you don’t just claim the port, you bid for it, by placing a stack of coins along with the ship. No one else can put a ship on the same port (i.e. bid for the same cargoes) unless they place a larger stack of coins.
Trading in Cargo Sets
Bidding happens in slow motion; players may only increase their bid when it is their turn, and only during the movement resolution phase. Players do not have to increase bids, they may instead surrender the port, retrieving their ship and their stack of coins. The port is only “won” when there is a single ship remaining, although whether that happens on the turn where everyone else surrenders or on the following turn is an accident of player turn order.
That last sentence is hard to follow. Here’s another crack at the concept: if there is a bidding war for a port, and you win, you will become the last ship at the port during someone else’s turn. You can only cash in when it is your turn again, even if that means waiting until the next game turn.
Nice Guys Come in Last
Whoever goes first has an advantage in that they place their ships on a “clean” board; the presence of an existing ship at a port can be intimidating, especially if you are low on coins.
Whoever goes last has even more of an advantage, in that often there will be ports with no one on them at all, and the last player can cherry-pick those cargoes on the cheap for a single coin.
Every time we’ve played this game we’ve wondered why the turn order doesn’t change each round. It seems like it should, they even include a first-player token. But no. First stays first, last stays last, and that is that.
It is especially important during the last two turns; movements made in the last turn will never be resolved, meaning it is often more important to “block” opponents by placing a bid on a port than it is to grow your own position.
White Hat versus Black Hat
Which brings us to a question that comes up in every game that my Gamer Girl and I try; is this a game where you build your position? Do you play your own game and win by being good at it? Or is this a game where you screw your opponent and the winner is the best at being bad?
There is absolutely an element of “screw your neighbor” in Cargo Noir. It is a bidding game, and you may place a bid where you are not trying to win but just to block others. Blocking others is not the driving force of the game the way it is in, say Illuminati, where the only way to win is to counter or destroy your opponent. In Cargo Noir, blocking slows you down; it is still an action, and one that has no positive benefit on your position. Nonetheless, letting your opponent acquire a nine-card set may be a game winner all by itself.
You do not have to interact with your opponent at all; you can win entirely by playing within your own position if you want. But you will be more effective if you are aware of the ability to block, and are willing to use that ability if and when a key opportunity arises.
Cargo Noir is a fast-paced and fun game with minimal player vs. player and enough strategy and foresight to satisfy even a serious gamer. Yet it plays in about an hour (once mastered).
More importantly, it passes the “comes out of the gaming closet” test. Not just once but several times, including again last night. Nothing is more telling than the question “What do you feel like playing tonight?” Any game that is (at least sometimes) the answer to that question is totally worth having. And Cargo Noir fits the bill.
My Gamer Girl likes it too. “It’s different, but plays fast”. She enjoys playing it, and would buy it if we didn’t already have it.
Boardgamegeek.com rates Cargo Noir as 6.5 of ten, which sounds bad, but in fact is in the top 20% of all rated games. Boardgamegeeks must rank on a curve.
I too rate Cargo Noir as a buy. Lovely game, lovely bits, fun game play. Not a super-serious game, but not beer-and-pretzels simplicity either. It has substance. I would buy it again if I didn’t already have it. Two thumbs up.