A Designer's Notebook by Serge Laget

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Serge Laget is a French game designer best known for his collaborative work on games such as Shadows over Camelot, Mystery of the Abbey, Mystery Express and Ad Astra as well as his solo-design: Mare Nostrum. Cargo Noir, his new design from Days of Wonder, is set in the shadowy underworld of abandoned docks and darkened warehouses - where powerful families fight for control over the rights to smuggle the most profitable illicit contraband.

Cargo Noir - The Genesis of a Game

Creation is just about everything but what it is not is an exact science. As a result, each game comes up in its own unique way and its genesis is often quite revealing of its true nature. Cargo Noir is no exception to this rule.

Cargo Noir is an auction game at its core, and everything grew up from that - which is unusual for me, because almost all of my game designs evolve through a circle of iterations from theme to mechanics and back, which wasn't the case here.

My guiding principle here was a deep-seated conviction that this core auction mechanism would produce a game so simple that it could be trivial to explain and learn - Few things can be simpler than remembering: you can only bid up; and the last bidder standing gets the goods!

Yet beneath this simplicity lay a great deal of strategic choices: should I go deep, bidding all my money in a single Port to ensure the outcome? Am I better off sprinkling my wealth around many Ports hoping some of them will go through uncontested? Or should I bide my time and then pounce on others once they're all low on cash?

The simplicity of this core auction mechanism also helped the game's fluidity, with each turn's auctions blurring into each other, giving the game a sense of continuity from one player's turn to the next.

From the very first test on, the mechanic just felt right and oh so obvious - it needed no tweaks.


I nonetheless then spent a fair amount of time developing the game, focusing on three areas:

  1. Fine-tuning the game's balance through extensive play-testing to make sure there'd always be multiple paths to victory: The game's Victory cards are split between lower-valued Smuggler's Edge cards, that don't yield many Victory points but immediately confer an in-game advantage; and higher-valued Victory Spoils cards that are worthless in the short-term yet crucial in the final point count. Making sure all these cards were well balanced so that no single path to victory emerged took a fair amount of fine-tuning.
  2. Making sure the game shone with two players, just as well as with five: The mechanics of Cargo Noir are such that it turns out to play equally well with 2 or more players. Given the current public demand (lots of players look for games that play well with their group, yet also really need a game that plays well with 2 to get it on the table as often as they'd like), it would have been a shame not to take advantage of this. Making sure it remained fun and tense throughout required that I got all the parameters (number of Ports open, number of Wild cargo tokens, number of game turns) right for each player configuration.
  3. Finding a theme that would standout yet is evocative for a large audience: My initial prototype was set in the Mediterranean with Phoenician merchants trading their goods and wares during the time of Antiquity. This theme has historically been over-used in games for gamers - obscure and only mildly evocative (at best) to the general public. When you are pushing your Cargo ship (originally it was a trireme) into a Port atop a stack of gold, it doesn't feel like the quaint, plain-vanilla trading of your ancestral grandfather's era. Instead, you feel like you are pouncing - intimidating your opponents or grandstanding with false bravado, trying to bluff your way into getting the goods. A Sheep for two Woods it ain't! This clearly called for more modern times and a fun, yet edgy and evocative theme. The idea of smuggling goods at dawn and trafficking aboard Cargo ships captured it perfectly. Setting it in a comic-like 50s era helped make it palatable and fun to a large audience.

With DoW's help and Miguel Coimbra's illustrations, we managed to sneak in a number of winks and nods to classics of the era - on films and in comics (of the French style) - that made Cargo Noir a perfect fit for this genre.


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