Review of Cargo Noir

Review Summary
Comped Playtest Review
Written Review

May 18, 2011

by: Shannon Appelcline

Style: 4 (Classy & Well Done)
Substance: 4 (Meaty)

An attractive game of auctions and set collection for the casual gamer or family.

Shannon Appelcline has written 689 reviews, with average style of 4.03 and average substance of 3.84 The reviewer's previous review was of Zombie in my Pocket.

This review has been read 3502 times.

Product Summary
Name: Cargo Noir
Publisher: Days of Wonder
Author: Serge Laget
Category: Board/Tactical Game

Cost: $50.00
Year: 2011

SKU: 8201

Review of Cargo Noir
Cargo Noir is a game of ongoing auctions by Serge Laget, published by Days of Wonder.

Players: 2-5
Playing Time: 90 minutes

Summary of the Components

As is typical for Days of Wonder, Cargo Noir comes with a luscious set of full-color cardboard and cardstock components, plus various well-sculpted plastic bits. This includes: a multi-part cardboard board, cardboard cargo tiles (plus a bag to draw them from), cardstock victory point cards, cardstock family sheets, and plastic ships and coins.

Quality: Everything is excellent quality. The plastic coins are nicely molded plastic, while the plastic ships are actually two-part models. The cardboard is all linen-textured, while the cardstock is quite stiff. I had some problems with the bag in my copy of the game coming apart, but I suspect that's a one-off problem. 5 out of 5.

Beauty: The artwork in the game is all by Miguel Coimbra. It's cartoony but attractive. It's also got quite a neat details and fun easter eggs. The graphic design work, seen in places like the player aid sheet, is also well done. 5 out of 5.

Usability: Cargo Noir helpfully lists the couple of most relevant rules on the player aid sheets. You don't even have to think about things like your hand size, because there are clearly just 6 places for tiles on your player sheet. Some of the victory cards provide in-game effects, and those are clearly listed on the cards too.

I do have one complaint about the usability, which has to do with the gameboard. It's constructed from nine different tiles, one for each place you can visit. With fewer players, some tiles are flipped over, taking some of the locales out of the game--which is an elegant way to modify the board based on player count. However, the gameboard always looks sloppy because it's just a bunch of pieces tiles each other, and some of the tiles are a little warped, adding to the problem.

Overall, there's nonethless a lot to like in the way the components are presented for use by the players. 4 out of 5.

Theming: The idea behind Cargo Noir is that you're smuggling goods on a fleet of ships. Though the theme is well-carried across the components (which include goods like uranium and alcohol, plus a clearly criminal family for each player), there's still some abstractness in the play of this set-collection game. 4 out of 5.

Overall: Cargo Noir is another attractive game from a company who makes great components one of their central precepts. I've given it a high "4" out of "5" for Style.

Summary of the Gameplay

In Cargo Noir you bid in auctions for 9 types of goods, then turn those goods in as sets of similar or different elements to earn points.

The Auction: Cargo Noir centers on an auction which is handled in a somewhat unusual (and innovative) manner. Individual auctions are held at locations, each of which holds 1-4 goods. On your turn, you can choose to participate in an auction by placing one of your three ships atop a pile of coins at a locale. If other players are already there, you must use more coins than any other player has.

Then, on your next turn, you check to see if you've won. If you're now the only player at the locale, you get all the goods (and pay your coins). However, if other people are still there, you must either withdraw or increase the number of coins you're bidding.

Thus, auctions sort of occur in real-time, with their length determined by how high people are willing to bid things. (Though auctions rarely go for more than a round or two, because an increase of even a couple of coins is a lot in the game.)

After an auction is completed, new goods are put at the locale.

Other Actions: Each of your three ships represents an action you can take. Most of the time you'll use them to bid in auctions, but you can alternatively send them to the casino at Macao (where you earn 2 coins) or to the black market at Macao (where you can exchange a good with one from a face-up set; or else draw a good blindly from the bag).

Making Sets: The whole object of the game is to collect sets of goods. Sets that are composed of all different goods (e.g., ivory, cars, alcohol, gold, and jewels, which would be worth 15) are less valuable. Sets that are composed of all the same good (e.g., gold, gold, gold, gold, and gold, which would be worth 25) are more valuable.

You can turn in one or more sets of goods and then immediately convert those points into victory spoils, which are victory-point cards representing things like villas and principalities, which are worth victory points.

You can also turn them in for "smuggler's edge" cards, which are worth fewer victory points, but give you in-game bonuses. The cargo ship gives you an extra ship to play each turn; the syndicate rewards you for abandoning auctions; and the warehouse gives you more spaces to store goods.

What's this about storing goods? You can actually only carry over 6 goods from one turn to another--which can sometimes force you to turn in sets which are worth less than you'd like.

Ending Games: The game goes for a set number of turns. Because of the way that the auctions are structured, some auctions will never end. At the end of the game, whoever has the most points of Smuggler's Edge and Victory Spoils cards wins the game.

Relationship to Other Games

Cargo Noir is an auction game, which is a pretty common sort of gameplay among eurogames. It's nonetheless relatively unique in two ways. The first is the way that you can have up to 8 auctions going simultaneously, one for each locale. The second is that auctions don't have a specified length within the game, but instead go on until everyone is done--while the rest of the game simultaneously goes on about it.

I suspect I could find other examples of these two relatively unique elements in other games, but they're nonetheless not common, and I'd love to see more games that stretch auctions in this way.

I've written elsewhere that auctions games have a lot in common with majority-control games. I think this game offers a fine example. What I call an auction in Cargo Noir you could instead say was a majority-control contest where majority-control pieces are removed from their location when the player falls behind and removed from the game(!) when a player wins with them.

The Game Design

The auction design of Cargo Noir is not just unique, but also compelling. There's a lot of tension in whether other players will abandon their bids opposing yours and similarly the decision to raise can be a tough one.

The set-collection of the game works well with the auction. Different players value items in different ways, meaning that there's both considerable competition and considerable ability to get a deal if you're lucky (and bid thoughtfully).

With that all said, the game is relatively light. I suspect it's directed more toward the family audience than the gamer audience. I did enjoy both of my games, but I did feel that the depth was ultimately limited.

Overall, Cargo Noir is an enjoyable and relatively unique design that works well and thus I've given it a "4" out of "5" for Substance.


Cargo Noir takes auctions and amps them up to the next level by allowing a player to simultaneously bid on several items. This connects up with some resource management and set collection that together produce an interesting game. It is slightly light, and thus it will probably be appreciated best by families and casual gamers.

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