For my birthday my girlfriend and I bought a new board-game for our small but growing collection. An important factor in this purchase-decision was the fact that the box boasted that the game was one of the few auction-based games that work as well for two players as with a larger group. As we sometimes play with just the two of us this was interesting for us so we gave it a shot. Did it hold up? Find out in this review!
Cargo Noir is a game designed by Serge Laget, published by Days of Wonder. It’s an auction-based game with a couple of simple mechanics that have the players competing in auctions for wares of which they must gather as many of one type as possible. They can then exchange their wares for cards that are either boni for gameplay or simply victory-points for the ultimate counting for winning after the last round was done. It's all rather simple and elegant, it takes less than ten minutes to explain the game to a new player and all the mechanics are quite intuitive and obvious. The game features two different kinds of currency, coins and cargo. Coins are used in conjunction with ships, the play-pieces, to bid on batches of cargo. Cargo, unlike coins, is used to actually buy things like more ships, additional storage space, slight economic advantages when being overbid or simply victory-points.
The games manual has only four pages of actual rules and that is completely sufficient. The game length is limited to a set amount of turns (depending on the number of players) and the individual turns are quite simple: Resolve the ships you sent out last turn (with the possible decision on whether you want to keep bidding where you've been overbid), send ships back out, buy stuff, next turn. The interesting aspect is that you never have much money to handle, in the eight or nine games we've played so far, with two and sometimes three players, I've never had to handle more than eight coins or nine freight-tokens at a time, making this game much less daunting than many other auctioning-games.
The game scales up or down in scope depending on the number of players. As the board is modular, some ports and thus possible auctions on batches of wares are only accessible with four or five players, forcing a small number of players to compete over wares rather than simply getting along and ignoring one another. In our first round of playing it (with three people at the time), we barely interfered with each others trades and found that to be rather disappointing, making it seem like we were playing three single-player-games around the same game-board but with a couple of more games under our belts we started to learn that not interfering with someone who know what they're doing is letting them win. The freight-mix is what makes this interesting as multiple freight-tokens of the same time are much more valuable than a mixed batch so every player will try to collect more freight of a type they have already sitting in their warehouse while other players will have to consider buying the same freight just to throw a spanner in their workings. It's quite helpful that the game features no hidden cards and no randomness except for the freight drawn to replace bought batches, making this a very cerebral experience besides the simple mechanics behind it.
The theme is fun and nicely visualized with every player controlling an international crime syndicate made up of a bunch of stereotypical gangsters from different corners of the world. You have the Italian mafia, the Chinese triads, an Indian crime dynasty, south American revolutionary smugglers and an Oriental group to choose from, though it is ultimately only a question of the color of your game-pieces. Besides the broad ethnic stereotypes the game is, despite its theme of international shipping of contraband, surprisingly P.C. so I would actually say that its very simplicity makes it a game that can be played with and by children. Of course you are a bunch of criminals smuggling weapons, stolen artwork, ivory and plutonium. But then again there are things conspicuously absent from the list and I think that, while detracting from the theme, makes the game less of a guilty pleasure to play. You do not smuggle underage prostitutes, illegal immigrants, drugs or black market-organs. The theme is, after all, the world of gangsters from 1950s movies, not the world of real-life smugglers and that choice is a good one.
I would definitely recommend this game as a light auctioning-game that can be played in under an hour and works with two people almost as well as with more. It may not seem like there is too much player interaction at first but once everyone knows what the game is about (MONEY doesn't buy you anything - cargo does!) it can become fierce enough. It's a good entry-game for auctioning games and also works for people who don't much care for economy-based games (such as myself) as the levity of its mechanics makes it a quick and easy game to play.