Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Dissection of Cargo Noir

Last Friday, after playing Thurn and Taxis, I played Cargo Noir.  I have played this game several times and have really enjoyed it.  It's a simple, elegant game, with a great theme and art style.
Players are smugglers traveling the world and trading in illegal goods.  At the start they each receive  3 ships and 7 coins.    Each player takes his turn by placing all of his ships on locations around the world to make a Bid of no less than 1 coin on the goods located there.  This is called Worker Placement.

The Worker Placement mechanic is very common and there is nothing unique or special here.  In many games, the spaces that workers are placed can only be used once or have limited space requiring players to make the hard choice of choosing one thing over another because, once each player has gone around in order, the thing you want to do might not be available.  However, in this game there is no limit to the number of players that can occupy a spot.

Players may also choose to go to the Casino space or they can go to the Black Market space.  Then it's the next players turn.  That player has the same options of placing his ships where he wants.  But now if he wants to bid on the same cargo as the first player, he must outbid him.  Play continues like this until it is the first players turn again.
The first player, at the start of his next turn, recovers his ships in any order he wants.  If he is the olny bidder in a world region at the start of his turn, he pays his coins to the bank, recovers his ship, and collects the cargo and places it in his warehouse.  If another player has outbid him, he has must choose to up his bid or pull out.  If he ups his bid he must sit there one more round and hope that no one out bits him again.  If he pulls out he gets his ship and his money back.  This is called Bidding.
Games that have a Bidding type of mechanic often do it all in a single turn where all players participate in the bids.  This game has an interesting twist on the Bidding Mechanic because players must decide if they want to spend an action to keep their ship in that spot, increase the bid, and hope they are not outbid again, having to wait until their next turn find out if each player in turn will jump in on the bidding action of that space.  This makes staying in an auction costly and should only be done if you absolutely need the cargo at that location.

If a player's ship is on the Casino he takes his ship back and gets 2 coins for each ship on the Casino. Any ships on the Black Market are recovered and allow him to choose to ether draw a random cargo from a bag or trade any one cargo for any one of the eight cargo there at the black market. Once he has collected all his ships, cargo, and coins, he starts placing his ships in hand back out on the board again like he did on his first turn.
My warehouse has too much in it.  I must spend it or loose two cargo.
Collecting all this Cargo is great, but there is a problem.  You can only hold 6 cargo after our turn is done.  If you dont spend it you loose it.  Before the player's turn ends he may have as much cargo as he wants and he can spend the Cargo before he looses it.  The Cargo value is a little tricky.  In the image above I have collected 3 Jewels, 3 Alcohol, a Uranium and a Gold.  Looking at the chart at the bottom of my Warehouse you see the scoring chart. Three Cargo of the same type is worth 9. Two Cargo of different types are worth 3.  So I have a total of 22 points (3 jewels = 9,3 Alcohol =9, Uranium and Gold = 3) to spend on victory cards.  This mechanic is called Pairing.

Pairing is the act of collecting many of the same type of item, resource, card, etc.  Many games have this and is most familiar in games like Poker.  The interesting thing in this game is that the Pairing mechanic is coupled with a scaling value system applied to it.  This makes it more difficult to collect large number os the same type, but also a lot more valuable if you can do it.  The nice thing is that they have an alternative scoring mechanic if you cant make the more valuable Pairs.
In addition to victory cards there are 3 cards that affect the game.  Syndicate cards give you 2 coins if you are ever outbid.  The Warehouse lets you hold two extra cargo.  Cargo Ship gives you one more ship token to place on your turn increasing your actions each turn.  Each of these cards are great but will not win you the game alone.  This gives some nice perks but if you spend your turn buying these thats one less turn focusing on wining the game.  Its a balancing act that has to be evaluated carefully.

The game is elegant but there are some problems.  As the game progresses it starts to slow down.  Each player that gets more Cargo Ships adds to the duration of their turn and decision making.  In addition it is a perfect information game where you know everything out on the board and in each player's warehouse.  This can create long waits between turns if you have players that are very analytical who evaluate every player's option and likely direction.  This is the one bad thing about this game.
Our game was less than stellar.  Coming off of Thurn and Taxis which didn't go that well for me, and John didn't seem to enjoy it all that much, there were a general feeling of unhappiness.  I thought this game was light enough and it would play fast enough to be OK.  Unfortunately, there was an important rule that we over looked until mid way though the game.  When cargo tokens are removed from the board they are immediately replaced from the bag.  Well, we were mistakenly putting the tokens that we were spending back in the bag.  It should not have been done this way, the rules say to remove the Tokens from game until the bag is empty.  Removing the tokens makes for a more balanced distribution of the cargo allowing players who are collecting one type of cargo know the value of the cargo out on the board.  i.e. if you know there is only one more of a token on the board it can be a lot more valuable depending on if another player is trying to grow his set of that cargo type.  This might encourage other players to out bid him to prevent him from getting a large scoring set of cargo.
This was the worst game of Cargo Noir I have played and I think its because of the mistake we made about putting the cargo tokens back in the bag.   There was another issue that only seemed to be affecting John.  If you are out bid and remove your Ship and Money, you are not allowed to place your ship back on that spot to out bid another player.  John kept forgetting where he pulled his ship from and then got hung up on it.  His frustration was palpable about half way thought the game.  To solve this, we used black wooden cubes from another game as markers.

I love the theme of the game and the art style captures this magical time of 1920's through the 1940's, but at the same time it feels modern.  All of the characters look like they are straight from a movie that I cant quite put my finger on (except the americans...that would be the Godfather).  They do skirt the edge of the offensive racial stereo types...but I also think that adds to the charm.

The last point I am going to make is that while I love the theme, its very abstract.  There is no reason it had to be smuggling.  There is no law officers trying to bust you.  No port authorities you have to bribe. No thugs with guns or attacking other players.  It could just as easily had been a merchant trading and biding game, but the theme makes it much more interesting.  I feel like it's fairly clear that the game was designed, played, and balanced, long before it was a smuggling game.  It just goes to show how a theme can carry a game idea and really make it shine.


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  2. Thanks Robert. I have been working crazy hours so I havent has as much free time to write more Dissections, but i will be doing more as soon as i can. I also got to play my game Taipan last night so I will be doing a write up on the progress this weekend.