As many of you may know, I really like Days of Wonder. Because of this, I was incredibly excited when they announced the release of Cargo Noir.
In Cargo Noir, each player takes on the role of a smuggler that is attempting to trade his smuggled goods for power and prestige. Each turn every player will place all of his cargo ships to either collect coins, collect a random good, trade a good with the "black market", or attempt to purchase all of the goods at one of the outer ports (which will range from 1-4 goods). (This is the only thing that happens on the first turn, but happens last every other turn.) On the second through last turns, the players will also collect everything they have acquired from the previous turns (and may add extra coins at outer ports in which other players have outbid them). After collecting all of their goods and before placing their ships back out, players will also have the option of trading in goods to purchase victory points. This continues for a designated number of turns and then the player with the most victory points is declared the winner.
The first thing that I like about Cargo Noir is the auction aspect of the game. At each outer port, the goods go to the highest bidder. However, instead of there being an auction phase in each round of the game, in Cargo Noir each player must determine how many coins they are willing to commit to a port from one turn to another - and only collects the goods on his turn if he still has the most coins at that port. If a player wants to purchase the goods at an outer port, they must place one of their ships (you start the game with 3) alongside the number of coins that they are willing to spend at the outer port. After that, each other player may (on their own turn) place one of their own ships on that same outer port, as long as they place more coins than the previous player. Once it gets back to the original player, if he is the only person with a ship in that port, he collects all of the goods. However, if he is not the only player with a ship, he can choose either to withdraw from that port (thus conceding the goods to the other players) or place more coins under his ship. The reason that I like this mechanic so much is that the players must determine not only how much they are willing to spend on the goods in question, but must also determine how much they are willing to spend to scare off the other players. After all, if you get outbid, then your ship was essentially unproductive for a round; and with the limited number of ships available, it is important to make them productive as often as possible.
The next reason that I like the bidding mechanic is because of the interaction it allows between players. The fact that I can adjust how other players play by forcing them to bid different amounts helps the game to be replayable. If I play the same way every time, then my opponents will learn how much they have to bid to defeat me. Because of this, it forces players to subtly adjust their strategies including their opening and maximum bids so that they will have a greater chance of winning the goods that they need (and forcing their opponents to overspend).
The next part of the game that I enjoy is how players acquire upgrades to their smuggling operation. When trading in goods for victory points, some of the options are "Smuggler's Edge" cards; these cards allow players to gain extra ships, store extra goods, or collect coins when they are outbid at outer ports. However, the Smuggler's Edge cards are not worth very many victory points. This forces the players to determine which bonus they most need at any given point in the game, and also whether it is more valuable long-term for a player to gain an advantage in the game or to gain more victory points. I always enjoy decision making aspects like this in games.
A final brief pro that I will mention is the ability to teach this game to anybody. As with most of Days of Wonder's games, Cargo Noir is a game that could easily be taught to non-gamers. My personal term for this is a "Gateway Game", and Cargo Noir definitely fits into this mold.
An aspect of the game worth mentioning that I'm not sure if I really like or not is how trading goods works. When you trade goods, you get points based on the number of the same kind of goods you trade (you get the number squared; ie 3 "Cars" get you 9 points to spend), or you get points for the number of different kinds of goods (every extra kind you trade gives you one more point than the previous one; ie the points go 1, 3, 6, 10, 15...) I think I like this mechanic, but it also encourages hoarding. My main concern is that winning the game can be based a bit too much on luck - if you have 8 "Jewels" and are saving up for the victory point card that requires 9 of a kind, whether or not you have a "Jewels" available is based on what is drawn out of the bag of available goods. Which leads us into the cons.
One of my concerns with Cargo Noir is that there is too much luck involved in the game. When I say this, I realize that there is very little luck in the game - the problem is that if a player is lucky in those small areas, they can have a significant advantage. One of the things that a player can use his ships to do each turn is pull a random cargo from the bag. If a player has 7 of a kind and pulls 2 of the type they need, they suddenly have a huge advantage in the game. The other luck aspect in the game is what I mentioned in the previous paragraph - if the goods you are collecting stop appearing on the board, then you aren't able to get as many points and there is nothing you can do about it in the game.
The next concern that I have about Cargo Noir is the replayability. The simplicity of this game makes it hard for me to envision playing this game too often. There are really only a handful of decisions that a player must make - which ports to go to, when to trade, and how much (and when) to overbid your opponents. The major aspect that adds to the replayability of the game, however is the player interaction; that is the saving grace that allows me to consider playing this game on a more frequent basis than some other games that have a similar level of complexity.
Overall, I give Cargo Noir an 8.0/10. It is a solid title from Days of Wonder, but I honestly don't know how often I will play it due to the simplicity of the game itself. However, the player interaction may keep pulling me back in - and it will definitely be a good option when looking for a gateway game to teach to a non-gamer.
Do you like Days of Wonder games? You may also want to read about Pirate's Cove, Shadows Over Camelot, and Ticket to Ride.