Cargo Noir (Game Review)

Cargo Noir boxWhile bidding games are incredibly common in the current board gaming scene, Cargo Noir manages to find a new twist on the mechanic. Each turn, a player has a few ships that they can send out to offer money for a set of tiles. Those tiles won’t actually be purchased until the player’s next turn, which gives every other player a chance to make a higher offer on those same tiles. If the initial offer is outbid, the player who made it will need to either withdraw or raise their bid on their next turn. Because this is a new offer, it will be yet another time around the table before the tiles are actually won.

The result is a game in which many potential auctions are taking place at once, but most of them only receive a single bid. When someone is outbid, it’s a big deal: At a minimum, that person has just wasted one of their limited actions from the prior turn, and if they still want those tiles, they will need to wait at least another round to get them. The game lasts a mere 10 or 11 turns (depending on the number of players), so a one-round delay can be pretty significant.

Most people find this system a little unintuitive at first – they expect this to be a standard auction game, in which players get a chance to bid back and forth on a contested item within one turn. But once everyone understands the concept, it’s simple and elegant. The goal is to bid high enough to discourage other players from getting involved in the auction at all, but not so high that money is wasted: Earning more money requires a ship action. Wasting money effectively means that later actions will be lost to pay for it.

The red player outbids the blue player for the tiles in Bombay

The red player outbids the blue player for the tiles in Bombay

The flow of the game is very natural. Start your turn by seeing which of your bids from the last turn have survived uncontested, collect those tiles, and then send your ships out for new bids. Additionally, decide whether to cash those tiles in for points, or keep them for a later turn. (Yes, this is a classic “earn one resource, and then use it to buy points” Euro-game.) Turns move fast, and the fact that each action takes a round to resolve means that there is a feeling of continuity from round to round.

This system has a few flaws, too. Most notably, outbidding someone sometimes feels like too powerful an attack. Even if the other player is willing to bid higher for the tiles, they are still forced to lose an action and wait longer for the goods. Attacks in bidding games don’t usually feel so direct. Worse, they can sometimes feel arbitrary. You may find yourself willing to spend three coins to buy three tiles, and see that two other players have each made a bid of two coins for three tiles. With the way tiles are valued, it often makes no practical difference to you which auction you bid on, but the choice will have huge repercussions for the player who gets blocked! Expect accusations of “king-making” to come up a time or two each game.

The way the tiles are valued is interesting, but probably a little too simple. There are nine types of goods, and the most points can be earned by cashing in a set of matching ones. Sets of all-different ones can be cashed in as well. In either case, sets become much more valuable as they get larger, but only a limited number of tiles can be saved from turn to turn. Players will usually do best with the simple task of collecting different tiles, but matching sets are necessary to reach the highest-point cards. This choice creates a nice tension, but I do wish there was a little more to it. Too often, the different sets of tiles available feel more or less the same as each other, which leads back to the problem in which deciding where to bid has less to do with its value to you and more to do with which other player you want to hurt. Cargo Noir is a good game, but if it could have found a scoring system with the variety of Ra’s, the bidding choices would be much more interesting.

The game is published by Days of Wonder, which means that despite the pasted-on theme, it comes with high-quality bits and detailed artwork. This is nice, even if it is a little more extravagant than needed. For all the attention to the game’s appearance, though, it seems that someone could have put some effort into making  sure that all the pieces fit back in the box easily. There are ways to squeeze everything in there, but none of them are as simple as they should be.

All that said, Cargo Noir is a better game than many of Days of Wonder’s recent offerings. I don’t find the auctions themselves compelling enough to return to this one regularly, but the auction system is original and elegant enough to ensure that it won’t be forgotten.

Grade: B

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