Cargo Noir

Days of Wonder
2-5 players, 30-90 minutes
designed by Serge Laget
reviewed by John Butitta

Cargo Noir is a 2 to 5 person game by Serge Laget. Each player heads of a gang of smugglers whose goal is to collect sets of illicit goods which they turn into the luxury items that give Victory Points. The game is listed at 60 minutes but our games have been closer to 75 to 80 minutes.

The game board is a central square that represents Macao with smaller surrounding panels that portray other ports, such as New York, Hong Kong, Panama or Rio de Janeiro. The outside panels are two sided. Which side is face up depends on the number of players. The ports have spaces for 1 to 4 available goods tiles. There are 14 tiles in each of nine types of goods plus
one wild card tile for each player. To start the game, goods tiles are drawn randomly out of an included bag and placed on the available spaces on the ports in the outer ring.

Each player starts with 3 ships, 7 coins and a warehouse with spaces for 6 collected goods. A player’s turn consists of 3 parts:

1) resolving the collection status at each port where they have a ship,
2) turning in sets of goods for victory point cards (luxury goods cards)
and
3) sending out their ships again.

To understand the game, it easiest to look at the turn in reverse order. On turn 1, the first 2 phases don’t apply as players have no ships on the board, so each player starts with phase 3 – sending ships out to the port spaces. A player can place one of their 3 ships on any of the ports on the outer ring of the board. If no opponent’s ships are present, the player can place a ship and, if they choose, any number of coins under the ship. If opponents’ ships are present, then the player must place at least one more coin under their ship than the current highest number of coins under another player’s ship.

Starting in a player’s second turn, all 3 phases are performed in order. In phase 1, each location where a player has a ship is checked. For ports on the outer ring, if they have the highest number of coins under their ship, the player claims all the goods, takes their ship back and the coins under the ship go to the bank. Any other players with ships there take them and any coins back
to their warehouse. Replacement goods tiles are then drawn randomly to restock the port.

However, if the player doesn’t have the highest number of coins under their ship, the player must either add enough coins to beat the highest total by at least one or withdraw. If a player withdraws, they take their ship and coins back to their warehouse. As this is done one port at a time in any order, a player could use coins from one area from which they withdrew to add to
another area where they want to exceed the coins committed by an opponent.

Macao, the central board, is special. It has two locations, the Casino and the Market. There is no competition at Macao. Any number of players can place any number of ships at either or both of the two locations. At the Casino, a player earns 2 coins for each of their ships present. At the market, there are always 6 goods available. For each of their ships present, a player can either
switch one good from their warehouse for a good available or draw a random good from the bag. After each action at either location, the player moves their ship back to the warehouse card.

Phase 2 starts once the status of the each ship is resolved. In phase 2, players can turn in sets of goods for Luxury (Victory point) cards. These cards come in 3 types: Smuggler’s Edge, common Luxury cards and unique Luxury cards. The 3 Smuggler’s edge cards, the Syndicate, the Warehouse expansion and the Cargo ship, cost either 10 and 15, are worth 5 victory points and each gives a special advantage. The Syndicate gives a player 2 extra coins each type they
withdraw from an area. The Warehouse card adds 2 extra storage spaces. The Cargo ship gives an additional ship. There are 8 of each and a player is limited to owning 2 of each type.

The 3 types of common luxuries, the Villa, the Yacht and the Dive Bar, cost either 15, 20 or 25 and are worth the same number of victory points. They have no other value. There are 6 of each and players are not limited to how many they can own. The 7 unique luxury cards cost 30 to 81 and return an increasing number of victory points as the price goes up with the 30 point card
worth 30 vps and the 81 cost card worth 90 vps.

Players purchase the luxuries by turning in sets of identical goods or sets of goods where each one is different. A set of identical goods is worth more that a set of all different goods. Only the values of the sets are used to buy the luxury cards – coins can only be used on a player’s last turn to increase the value of the sets turned in. For sets of identical goods, their value is the square of the number of cards in the set. So 1 good is worth 1, 2 are worth 4, 3 are worth 9 and so on. Each set of different goods is worth the sum of the number of cards in the set. So 1 is worth 1, 2 is worth 1 + 2 = 3, 3 different is worth 1 + 2 + 3 = 6 and so on. Each gang starts out with a warehouse that can hold up to 6 goods. If there are ever more than 6 goods in the warehouse in phase 2, excess goods can be discarded or sets turned in for luxury good (victory point) cards.
The value of all the turned in sets must equal or exceed the cost of the chosen luxury card. There is no change given.

Finally, in phase 3 players send all the ships on their warehouse card out to the port tiles using the placement rules outlined above.

The game lasts 10 or 11 turns depending on the number of players. The game is very easy to explain, player turns move quickly and there are tough decisions every turn.

A player’s coin supply needs to be spent carefully. There are only 2 ways to get more coins: the Casino at Macao or buying a Syndicates which gives 2 coins every time a player withdraws from a contested port (if a player gets the maximum of 2 syndicates they can earn 4 extra coins). These coins can only be used to contest areas but it is very easy to overpay for a set of goods, leaving
the player with too few coins to contest for goods in the ports for 1-2 subsequent turns. Choosing when and how many coins to commit to an area is critical. At the same time, it is important to be mindful of collecting the most valuable sets. Since the value of the sets is fixed and there is no change given, it helps to have the right number and type of sets for the planned purchase.

The early purchases are always Smuggler’s Edge cards, but which ones to buy and in what order is always a difficult decision. As there are only 7 rare luxury goods, the end game planning is especially important, since a player may have enough money to purchase one of the luxuries only to have it purchased by a prior player and then have the frustration of not being able to afford the next higher cost luxury.

The quality of the components is excellent. The boards and pieces are heavy cardboard with slightly cartoony but attractive artwork. Plus Days of Wonder has really provided some nice extras. There is a bag to draw the goods tiles included. The ships are colorful molded plastic which look like cargo freighters and have a nice tactile feel. The coins have the size and weight of good poker chips. This is a superlative extra as most game publishers, in my opinion, really
skimp on the money/vp chits. My only complaint about the components is the poor design of the tray for holding the playing pieces. There isn’t enough room to hold all the goods tiles. The slots could have easily been made big enough to hold all the game pieces.

I have a few other minor issues with the game. The theme of smuggling gems, art cars, cigars etc. is slightly distasteful but smuggling uranium and arms is more so. At least the author didn’t add drugs to the list of available goods. However, the theme of smuggling goods then using the proceeds to buy luxuries does fit the game fairly well. There are some realism gaps that could be
open to criticism. After all, a set of 3 cigars has the same value as a set of 3 cars or 3 jewels.

But adding more realism would add more rules, complexity decision time to a game that is simple to explain, quick to play and challenging. It has only taken about 10 minutes to explain the rules and get new players into the game. Every turn is challenging but there rarely is analysis paralysis because the decisions are tough but players don’t involve juggling a huge number of factors. This
game succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do and is a very fun in the process. It doesn’t have any ground breaking mechanics but is a very good, middle-weight game that is plays quickly and well for gamers of many different levels.

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3 comments

  1. Richard Vickery

    I wonder if you are playing this right? There seems to be a comon flaw because the game flow is unusual…
    The turns are rolling – one player does his ship actions including resolving ports he is at, and then sells goods, and buys; then the next player has her turn. This means that this “For ports on the outer ring, if they have the highest number of coins under their ship, the player claims all the goods, takes their ship back and the coins under the ship go to the bank. Any other players with ships there take them and any coins back” can’t happen. The reason is that when the turn comes back to you, you are either there alone as everyone has pulled out, or you will be the smallest stack, because anyone who went there after your placement must have been a bigger stack.

  2. Roger

    I don’t understand your comment, of course players take back their ships and coins. Example, in step 3, the red player sends out his ships, one of those ships he places on New York harbor which happens to be empty and he places one coin. Then blue performs his first 2 steps of the game (resolve ships, trade in cargo) and then he sends out his ships. He decides to place a ship on New York where red is currently located, and he places 2 coins (to increase the one coin bid from the red ship.) Now it’s red’s turn. He first resolves his ships, he decides New York is too expensive and he withdraws his 1 coin and his ship.

    • Richard Vickery

      Yes – but red takes the ship back on red’s turn. It cannot happen as described in the review, that “the player claims all the goods, takes their ship back and the coins under the ship go to the bank. Any other players with ships there take them and any coins back”. When blue comes to claim the goods in your (correct) example, there will be no other ships there….

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