Reviewed by Herb Levy

CARGO NOIR (Days of Wonder, 2-5 players, ages 8 and up, 60 minutes; $50)


Cargo noir is the French term for contraband and it’s contraband that players will be attempting to collect in Cargo Noir, the new, big box game from Days of Wonder, designed by Serge Laget.

The board is created by placing Macao (the centerpiece) on the table and then surrounding it with the other ports (New York, Rio, Panama etc.). Victory Point cards (which include “Smuggler’s Edge” cards – more on them later) are stacked alongside the board. The cargo tokens are placed in a black bag(with a number of “Wild” tokens equal to the number of players joining them) and are then drawn to fill in the empty spaces on the board.cargonoir

Most (although not necessarily all, depending on the number of players) ports contain one or more spaces ready to be filled with drawn cargo tokens. The cargo tokens show one of the 9 different types of contraband (alcohol, weapons, art, cars, cigars, ivory, jewels, gold and uranium). Macao is a little different as this port is divided into two sections: the top section (which holds 8 randomly drawn cargo tokens) and the Casino (which serves a totally different function). Each player begins with a fleet of five ships (in his chosen color) although, at the beginning of the game, only three are active. They also receive their own “Family” sheet which will track their holdings (including a starting bankroll of 7 coins), act as a storage area for cargo tokens (able to hold as much as six) as well as serve as a play aid.

Each turn consists of three phases and, on the first turn of the game, play starts with phase 3.

In phase 3, ships are sent to port. They may go to any port. If travelling to any of the outer ports, a player must place at least 1 coin under his ship. This is his “bid” to take all of the tokens present there. In Macao, no bidding is necessary. A ship in Macao may either travel to the top section (aka the Black Market) or the bottom portion (the Casino). Once initial deployment is done, the second turn begins in “regular order” with phase 1.

Phase 1 is the phase when ship actions/auctions are resolved and these may be resolved in any order. Ships in the Black Market may exchange one of the cargo tokens held for any on display there OR make a blind draw from the cargo token bag. Ships in Macao’s Casino get 2 coins per ship. But the critical action of the game takes place in the outer ports.

Should a ship be the only ship in port during Phase 1, that ship may claim ALL cargo tokens there. Coins bid (and placed under that ship) go back to the bank and collected tokens are placed in the slots on that player’s Family sheet. A sheet can hold up to six tokens (one per slot). But should more than one ship occupy a port, the active player has a choice: retreat (and get his coins back) OR raise the bid (by placing more coins under his ship). A raise keeps the ship in port, waiting for the situation to be resolved on a following turn. Once this is done, phase 2 begins.

During phase 2, players may cash in their cargo tokens for Victory Point cards. Cargo tokens are exchanged as sets. Sets of the same type of token are worth more than sets of different tokens. (For example, a set of six different tokens is worth 21; a set of six of the same is worth 36!)

Most Victory Point cards trade on an equal value. For example, a “Villa” cost 15 and is worth 15 VPs. The more expensive cards (only one of each of these) offer more value. “Militia” costs 45 but is worth 50 while the biggest card available, Principality, costs 81 but is worth 90 VPs. Smuggler’s Edge Victory Point cards cost more than they’re worth (in VPs) but bring something else to the table.

Smuggler’s Edge cards come in three varieties. Cargo Ship cards cost 15 but are only worth 5 VPs. However, they allow you to add one more ship to your fleet, in effect, granting you an additional action. Warehouse cards cost 10, are only worth 5 VPs, but allow you to hold two more additional cargo tokens. Syndicate cards also cost 10 and are worth 5 VPs but they allow you to collect 2 coins when you retreat from a contested port. (This may only be done once per round per card.) In all cases, no more than two of each of these special cards may be held by any player. Once tokens are exchanged (or held) and cards bought (or not), the third phase (of deploying ships) occurs again.

Play continues until the final turn (determined by the number of players in the game). During the last turn (and only during the last turn), players may use coins to help purchase Victory Points cards. (So, if you’re short by 4 to purchase a card and have 4 coins in your holdings, those coins can make up the difference.) Otherwise, coins have no value when victory is calculated. Once the final turn is completed, players total the values of the Victory Point cards. The player with the highest total wins. (Tie? Then the player with the most “high valued” Victory Cards wins.)

Cargo Noir has a nice look, particularly with its cartoony artwork and colorful plastic ships but the core of the gameplay centers on the auctions, staking claims at ports by committing coins there and having players either commit more funds or retreat until a high bidder at each port is determined. This method of bidding has been done before, most notably in Evo (Summer 2001 GA REPORT) and Vegas Showdown (Winter 2006 GA Report) and, although a tried and true mechanism, it doesn’t work quite as well here. This might be due to the fact that some of the ports in play only hold 1 cargo token. Because of this, interest in those ports is sporadic and minimal, only becoming important when a player is collecting that particular cargo. That two (or more) players would, at the same time, be committed to that one type of token to trigger a fierce bidding war is unlikely. It is easier (and FREE) for players to simply go to Macao and exchange a token for another one or just make a blind draw.

An oddity is the way the game begins. It begins with phase 3! Why? Why not simply begin the turn with ship deployment? As it is, there is no phase 3 on the final game turn which completely shifts strategy for the final play. Throughout the game, players tend to play offensively, placing coins with an eye to getting the necessary tokens to exchange to purchase valuable Victory Point cards. On the last turn, although you are still trying to get cargo tokens, no ships will be deployed so coin usage takes on a whole new dimension. Coin use must be balanced between using them to assist in buying additional VP cards or, in a defensive mode, to stymie an opponent from getting those last few tokens to rack up a large score. While this shift in emphasis is not necessarily a bad thing, it is a change you need to keep in mind.

A questionable design decision arises from the Smuggler’s Edge cards. There are 8 each of the three types and players are not allowed to have more than 2 of each. With five players, this means that one or more players will be shut out of one or more of these cards. This helps create some tension and puts pressure on players to make sure they get the cards needed. With four or fewer players, however, that tension is defused as NO cards are removed from the game! This allows EVERYONE to have easy access to these cards. Although Cargo Noir fits into the genre known as “family games” (as evidenced by the light artwork and the absence of illicit drugs among the types of contraband) and family games are supposed to be “friendly”, this situation seems to be too “friendly”, tending to eliminate competition for these cards and the advantages they bestow. We suggest either having two cards less of each type of Smuggler’s Edge card than there are players OR further restrict ownership of these cards to a maximum of 4 in total (with no more than 2 of the same type) to put back some “edge” into gameplay.

By name, Cargo Noir evokes a sense of dark and mystery, a kind of film noir at the gaming table. Certainly, the opportunity for such a game is here. But if you’re looking for that, you will need to look elsewhere. The game sets its sights on much less demanding, family fare as Cargo Noir offers Euro-style, gateway level gaming via set collection and bidding for an evening of light entertainment. – – – – – – – – – – – – Herb Levy


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