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Subject: A review of Cargo Noir--with bonus conspiracy theory! rss

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Soren
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Falls Church
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The desire to duplicate a hit must be one of the most difficult things in the world to resist, and in their lust for a payoff, companies tend to misunderstand what spawned that initial success. Days of Wonder's Cargo Noir might be just such a case. Playing what is otherwise a perfectly good game, I couldn't help but feel that DOW was not so much interested in giving us a truly inspired creation as in trying to merely duplicate many of the aspects of Ticket to Ride that sent it financially skyward: easy gameplay with just a few pages of rules, friendly but never cutthroat competition, nice artwork with vivid colors. But I think they made one crucial mistake which has resulted in many many mehs from gamers, including me--though that doesn't mean this one's not hitting my tabletop with impressive frequency.

Cargo Noir is a set collection and auction affair that takes about ten minutes to learn. It's great to look at--the cartoony art is tinged with a cool element of faux noir realism. Rain falls on a Rotterdam night as a mysterious sedan approaches, a woman in fatigues looks through binoculars down on a boat navigating a jungle river, rough-looking men exchange handshakes on a dock.  As with Small World, the board changes with the number of players to keep competition tight--but not too tight, as this is a total family game. A very modest and introductory worker placement mechanic has you putting ships in harbors where you'll bid for cargo tokens to be converted into cards worth victory points or privileges, or perhaps go elsewhere to raise more money or trade.

You'll always be thinking, but the depth of that thought is up to you: you can lose yourself in a bit of AP if you like, considering every possible angle and strategy,  or just roll with the cheerful vibe the game gives off by going for the cargo you like best--guns, jewels, cigars, alcohol, etc., none having any individual identity--and seeing what happens. There'll be snickering and smiling when you buy cargo that someone else needs to fill their warehouse, and good-natured ribbing over how close you came to buying that yacht, night club, or crony influence worth X amount of VP, only to fail because you were one coin short thanks to someone's one-upsmanship.

The game runs about an hour, it's colorful, it's light, it's fun if a little dry and repetitive. Colosseum is a good comparison with its emphasis on a routine of building sets and winning bids; this is a stripped-down version but otherwise quite similar.

The reason Cargo Noir bums me out a little is the same reason you'll see rightfully peppering other reviews: the disappointing thematic breakdown. The game's theme is so inviting, and so well depicted visually, that it's a heartbreaker when you realize that there's not a single dang element of noir in the mechanics: no cops after you for your misdeeds, no opportunity for you to truly swindle or steal from anyone, no secrecy or deception. It would have been so very very easy to offer just a taste of that world--one rule, one lousy rule!--that I believe DOW may have let marketing win out over inspiration. I imagine them comparing Cargo Noir with Ticket to Ride and deciding that TTW's unthreatening themelessness must have been one key to its success, so they figured they'd just stick with a similarly pleasant and hollow atmosphere. The difference is that there's nothing about building train routes on a dry map that gets people really excited when you set down the board, while the pieces of Cargo Noir laid out bring an expectation of something awesome. The awesomeness, though, is nowhere to be found. (Another reason my friends might always prefer Ticket to Ride is that it gradually gives you a visual sense of building something with those lines of trains that accumulating Cargo Noir's victory point cards does not.) Maybe DOW also looked at Colosseum and thought, "Yes, people want this; we just had a few too many rules the first time around, so if we take those out and subtract some components to make the price point better, bingo!" Marketing, marketing.

Thematic failure aside, Cargo Noir is already becoming a bit of an evergreen around my place, a solid gateway offering easily grasped by anyone, whose bits are lovely enough so that their empty nature is forgotten two turns in. If a game company can simply buy theme by hiring great artists and graphic designers, Days of Wonder has done it. I just wish it didn't feel so much like this one was all corporate calculation and no imagination, developed in a boardroom instead of an eager and playful mind.

Twitter: @SorenNarnia
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Patrick C.
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Milford
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Try The Boss. A very simple game with the same theme that is actually thematic.

I agree with your review. Gorgeous art. The game can pull you in. I think I traded it away just out of spite because the lack of genuine connection to the theme annoyed too much. I have other gateways that do a better job than this. I'll take a game like Jamaica over this if I want a gateway.
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Roger Howell
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Lenexa
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Very well written review, thank you! Yes, a lot of gamers were disappointed with Cargo Noir. I do admit it does lack the "noir," however, I still find it a fun game. I was hoping DoW would release an expansion but as time ticks on I have a feeling it isn't going to happen.

Edit: Is Jamaica good with 2 players? I have had my eye on it for some time but some comments say not so good with two.
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Anthony Harlan
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Bert, what utter nonsense!
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Jamaica does not play well with only two, IMHO. You have to add a NPC "Ghost Ship" which makes the game too clunky and fiddly for the simple family game it's intended to be.

Sorry if I'm not supposed to post this here since it's about a different game. I was just responding to a questions.
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Patrick C.
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If you're looking for a basic box game (e.g. not a game specifically for 2 players) that plays well with 2, IME a good choice is Thurn and Taxis.

A bit closer to the ship theme is also Rum & Pirates which I have not played, but has gotten some positive reviews for 2 players.

Sorry to hijack the comments about the review. Just another ditto - this review I think is quite fair in addressing both the negatives and positives. Cargo Noir is not a bad game. If you find that well made chrome is sufficient to draw you into the theme of a game then you'll probably like it. And it plays just fine with two. However, like all auction type games, it suffers from a lack of tension. If you demand more - the mechanics address the theme - you'll be sorely disappointed.
 
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