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Serge Laget Talks about Cargo Noir, Game Design & How to Design for Days of Wonder

W. Eric Martin
United States
North Carolina
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U.S./French publisher Days of Wonder releases only one or two standalone games annually, and given the company's track record of hits – Mystery of the Abbey, Ticket to Ride, Memoir '44, Shadows over Camelot, BattleLore, Colosseum, Small World – each new release commands attention from gamers wondering whether the company can please both casual and intense gamers yet again.

Looking at Days of Wonder's publishing record to see who's designing all these hits, three names stand out more frequently than others: Alan R. Moon (Ticket to Ride), Richard Borg (Memoir '44, BattleLore) and Serge Laget, co-designer of Mystery of the Abbey, Shadows over Camelot and Mystery Express and solo designer of DoW's forthcoming Cargo Noir, which hits stores in March 2011.

Cargo Noir puts players in the role of "families" – i.e., gangsters – who want to profit from goods they acquire for a price from ports around the world. The more goods of the same type they can assemble – or conversely the wider variety of goods – the more they'll earn, which is profit they can put toward buying yachts, night clubs, a bank or even their own principality. Some purchases – collectively dubbed "the smuggler's edge" – provide protection from others who want to intrude on your turf, an additional action, or additional warehouse space to hold the ill-gotten gains. All of these purchases are worth victory points, and the player with the most points at the end of the game wins.

Game play is simplicity itself. At the end of each turn, you place your ships in one of three types of locations: the casino, the black market, or a port that holds 1-4 randomly drawn goods. If you travel to a port, you need to make an offer for the goods by placing money under your ship. At the start of a turn, you earn two money for each ship at the casino, draw a random good or swap goods at the black market, and collect goods (or not) in the port, paying the money you offered. The exception in a port is if another player has placed a ship and offered more money; in this case, you either take back your ship and money or put more funds in the offer, pushing the "stay-or-go" decision back on the opponent. You then have an opportunity to sell goods and buy things.

With game play boiled down to this level of simplicity, it might not surprise you to learn that Cargo Noir originated with the bidding mechnism, not the theme. Says Laget, "Basing a game on a mechanism is rather unusual for me as I often prefer to choose a theme or historical period, then read many books about it before beginning to work. I have been thinking about this bid mechanism for some time, but was unable to find a place for it in my games. Convinced that this mechanism would work well, I finally decided to build a game based on it. What is even more unusual is that I don't often play bidding games and have never designed one. In short, Cargo Noir is a real break from my own usual way of designing games."

While reminiscent of the bidding mechanism used by Philippe Keyaerts in Evo (and tweaked by Reiner Knizia in Amun-Re), in which players want to stand alone on a lot in order to buy it, the bidding in Cargo Noir plays out much differently. In Evo or Amun-Re, if you're outbid, you make another bid elsewhere (or bow out) and the process continues until everyone stands alone; in Cargo Noir, players don't have the luxury of bidding low and hoping for a bargain. If someone steps in with a bigger offer, that blown bid is generally a wasted turn. You either have to slink away or up the bid to what you likely should have offered in the first place.

Of course you can't bid top dollar on everything or else you'll nab only a few lots and waste lots of turns building up your financial reserves. And this conflict – the desire for bargains and particular goods while needing to fend off other buyers – drives everything in the game, with you needing to watch your wallet and time your bids so that you can grab what you need when you need it to put together a huge haul.

Two VP cards and one Smuggler's Edge card w/ the costs in red and VP values in blue

For more on the origins and development of Cargo Noir, let's turn to the designer himself, Serge Laget, who was kind enough to a few questions about his general approach to game design as well:

WEM: Can you describe your early playtest process? Do you test a game solo or with a group? Make changes during the game or just take notes?

Laget: In the beginning, I work through the game in my mind, waiting a long time before making a prototype. Then I test the game solo, just to see if there are no big bugs that make it unusable. After that I test with a group of very good friends who understand that the first plays are often interrupted with changes made during the game. Finally, I test it with a lot of different types of players (hard core gamers, occasional gamers, non-gamers, adults, children, etc.) under different conditions; sometimes I might explain the rules, other times I'll have the players read them, etc. The most difficult part, of course, is deciding when testing is over!

WEM: How has your playtest process evolved from the days of Mystère à l'Abbaye and Castel to today? What do you know now that you wish you knew years ago in terms of designing and testing games?

Laget: Over time I'm sure I have learned many things (at least I hope so!) but the most important is that there comes a time when I must cut out every rule that isn't fundamentally indispensable to making the game work well! So, in my designing process, there is a first phase, during which I allow myself to add a lot of ideas that I find interesting. After that in the second phase, I look for testers' reactions and I delete all that is not completely approved by a large number of them.

WEM: Other than Mare Nostrum, I believe Cargo Noir is your only other published solo design. How does the design process differ when you're on your own? What are the advantages and disadvantages? Do you look for partners, or do the partnerships just spring from brainstorming? (Antoine Bauza, for example, mentioned to me that he approached you with a very basic idea for a deduction game with mini-actions and you added the idea of there being two of each card in play – one of the defining elements in what became Mystery Express!)

Laget: I like to work with other designers because I think we have our own vision of what games should be and often the different points of view add quite a bit to the final game. We have a great chance to do this in our business because the relationships between most of us are very good and we are not afraid to speak about our ideas with each other. We are not really looking for partners, but it's often at this point that cooperative projects begin.

But working alone is a real pleasure, too! When we create with another designer, we have to make concessions and sometimes it's hard to do! Designing solo means you are sure to control all parts of the game and come up with a final result that looks like what you want.

As a designer, one of my particular objectives is to design strategic games that are accessible to occasional gamers. I'm sure this is due to my own personal experience as a gamer. I came into gaming during a time when there weren't a lot of people at gaming conventions and almost never any women sitting at a game table! I am happy to see that is no longer the case today.

WEM: How has Cargo Noir changed from its origin to publication? Can you give examples of what has changed and why?

Laget: CN has changed in two different ways. First, some mechanisms have evolved to provide a better balance between different strategic options. For example, the number of game turns was carefully adjusted to make possible both the race for victory points (without buying Smuggler's Edge cards) and the race for equipment (before looking for victory points).

Second, there was a big thematic transformation as we passed from the trade of ancient civilizations to trafficking crime families! This work is largely due to DoW and I find it very nice. This new look works better with the game mechanic and the very funny illustrations of Miguel Coimbra are completely appropriate.

WEM: Was the game always for 2-5 players, or did you start with one number of players and alter the game from that point to accommodate different numbers of players?

Laget: In many case, games designed for four or five players aren't really fun with two players, even when special rules allow it. Sorry for my lack of modesty :o) but I think it's a real advantage of CN to be as interesting for two players as it is for five. Of course, some elements of two-player games are specific, e.g., with only one other player, you can't risk running out of cash because your opponent can buy any goods he wants!

WEM: I haven't played all of your games, but offhand I can't think of another design of yours similar to Cargo Noir. Can you compare it to an earlier design of yours? How would you describe your style of game design, if that's possible?

Laget: As I said at the beginning of this interview, CN is not a typical example according to my own favorite way of designing games. That said, there is a similar point with Mare Nostrum: in both cases you have to trade combinations made with goods that are all of the same type or that are each of different type. But it's just a resemblance and the feeling of these two games is completely different. In my mind, the real similarity between Mare Nostrum and CN is in the will, in both cases, to make a game easy to learn (according to the rules) but not so easy to master (according to the strategy).

WEM: At first glance, Cargo Noir brings to mind Kramer and Lübke's Colosseum, also published by Days of Wonder. To simplify, in both games you collect things, then turn in those things for points with larger sets allowing you to collect larger goals worth more points. Does that make sense? From your point of view, how would you compare the games?

Laget: I really like the general idea, the look, and most of the mechanisms in Colosseum, but it requires some complex planning to buy the right things that will be useful for all of your future spectacles. In CN, the objectives are more flexible and allow players to find their way with more opportunism. You have to build a plan to reach victory, but you can change your mind during the game without losing the chance to win.

WEM: Cargo Noir marks your fourth standalone game from Days of Wonder. What's your secret? Any suggestions for other designers trying to create a game that's both family-friendly, yet good for gamers?

Laget: My secret?!? You want to know my secret and tell it to everybody? You're crazy! I keep my secret safe! :o)

More seriously, I am very aware that's a great chance to work with such a prestigious publisher. It's very pleasant to work with them because they make only one or two games by a year and they take time to do it well. In addition, when they decide to publish a game, they completely believe in its success and they involve the entire team in the project. That's great for a designer!

Personally, I am not extremely hungry to make a lot of games. I prefer to take time and propose to the public only games of which I am proud. For their part, I believe that DoW likes two things in my games: first, they match with their editorial line (publish interesting games accessible to a large public) and second, they mix with equal importance the strategic mechanisms and elements of atmosphere. If I were to give any suggestion to beginning designers trying to make a DoW game, it should be to break up their design process into two parts: the first where they don't censure any idea in touch with the theme and the second, a time of simplification when they mercilessly cut all superfluous details. It's easy to say, but hard to accomplish!

But it's completely clear: In all cases, a designer needs a lot of stubbornness to publish his game!!!

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