I’ve been playing Curious Cargo a lot in the last two weeks. And I mean a lot a lot. There are some games that immediately trigger something in my brain to go “yeeees” and make it difficult to stop wanting to play it. I’m thinking of games like SET or Ricochet Robots, games that most of my friends won’t play more than once with me, either because they don’t like the abstract thinky nature or there is not a good way to handicap someone who has already played it over and over and over again. Luckily, in the case of Curious Cargo, Ryan Courtney has been working on an official solo mode which gave me the opportunity to dig deeper when the obsession hit me and no one was around.
I’ve first heard of Curious Cargo in the Shut Up & Sit Down Review. It brought back fond memories of the old C64 computer game Pipemania but didn’t really convince me to follow up on it. It looked fun, but not thaaaat much fun, and most of all: who would I be playing this with? It took a spurious opportunity in a board game cafe to finally have a reason to give it a go. So if you’ve been on the fence as well, hopefully I’ll be able to convince you to give it a try … or run screaming for the hills. It’s not a game for everyone after all.
It takes a bit to set everything up, but there’s nothing too strenuous. Above all, the initial impression is one of surprise how much content is in this small box. There are 3 two-sided pairs of player boards that are plastic rather than cardboard (map 1-6). Two additional pairs (P1-P4) were available as an extra for pre-orders as far as I know. On each board, there is a set of machines with outlets and shipping/receiving docks on the left and right side. The maps mainly vary in where those machines are located and which docks are not available. It may seem like minor tweaks at first but the different maps actually do produce a different feel.
Regardless of which map you choose, both players play on the same side. You also get a storage board per player (again plastic) that allows you to play the standard game where you have to ship 9 goods out of two types of goods or the advanced game where you have to ship 12 goods out of three types.
The goods themselves are small, screen printed wooden tokens which each player places on the left side of their board, the shipping area. You also get three truck cards (more on them later) and a large, also screen-printed fork lift token that is used as your marker on the turn order track. Finally, spread out the available (in this case cardboard) trucks, gear token and trucking tokens so they are easy to grab.
A round of Curious Cargo works in two phases: a construction phase and a trucking phase. First, the player that’s in front on the the order track performs their construction phase in which they draw conveyer tiles (=pipes) from the bag and place them on their board, followed by the other player. The goal is to connect one of the outlets of your machines to a loading dock on either side of the board. Docks on the left side are used for shipping out your goods, docks on the right side are used for receiving goods your opponent shipped out. The rules for placing conveyer tiles are surprisingly liberal: you can place anywhere you want, overbuild at will, do not have to color match pipes, and if you would produce an overhang, there are 5 single-square scaffolding tiles.
There are four general types of tiles: straights, L-shapes, S-shapes, and U-shapes. In general, the former two are the more desirable because they allow for more straight forward construction but the others can be helpful, too. Create a connection from a machine port to a dock that is of a single color and the connection will pump out goods of that colour to any trucks that happen to end up next to that dock (or pump in goods for the receiving side on the right, more on that later).
On your turn, you have 3 action points. For each point, you can either draw a new tile or place one on your board. Any excess tiles have to be placed into two storage slots on your storage board at the end of your turn. Creating connections isn’t just necessary to ship goods but also determines turn order. The track shows the maximum active connections you had at any point in time. And advancing on the turn order track gives you nice bonuses like additional build action points in the form of gear tokens or additional truck cards.
Once both players have finished their construction phase, it is checked if one of the 4 end game criteria has been reached and if it not the game proceeds to the trucking phase. Here, you have 4 choices: play truck cards for new trucks, play truck cards to get more conveyer tiles, exchange conveyer tiles in your storage for new truck cards, or pass and do nothing. Each truck card has a particular truck shown as indicated by its length (=shipping capacity) and the number of crates already on it. When you play a truck card, you search for the pictured truck among the set of included cardboard trucks and move it from the bottom of your board along the left side, shifting any other trucks upward. If an empty loading area of a truck ends up next to a single-colour connection to a machine, you take one of your goods of that color from your storage board and gulp, gulp, gulp move it onto the truck. That good has been shipped and you are one step closer to victory.
So far, so straight forward: draw tiles, build connection, play trucks, ship goods. In comes the brilliance of Curious Cargo. First, there are bonuses! If you manage to fill all areas of a truck, you get the bonus printed on its driver house. This can be tiles, gear tokens, trucking tokens or even a powerful splitter tile that allows you to create even more connections. If you manage to empty a column of goods on your storage board, there might be an additional bonus in for you. Larger trucks have more powerful bonuses but are harder to fill. Smaller trucks have weaker bonuses but allow you push other trucks forward more slowly, increasing the chance they end up next to the same active connection multiple times.
Not enough? Well, you also can play trucks on your opponents shipping side. Why should you do that? Well, if the truck has lots of crates printed on it, you might be able to use it to push around your opponents trucks so they never ended up next to their active connections. Or you can use them to rush through your opponents shipping area and more quickly and up on your receiving area. As described before, there are docks on both sides of your board. If you build a connection to a dock on the left, that’s used for shipping out goods. If you build a connection to the right and an opponents truck ends up with a good of that type next to it, you gulp, gulp, gulp suck it up and put it onto the right side of your storage board. Not only are received goods worth a ton of points but also each one gives you another bonus.
End of Game
The game ends when one of four criteria is fulfilled: someone has shipped 9 (or 12 on the 3-color side) goods, someone earned a star, the bag of tiles is empty or the deck of truck cards is empty. The former two are more likely, the latter two are rather edge cases as a typical game lasts between 7-12 rounds. So what about those stars? There are two ways to earn a star: have 10 active connections or receive four goods of the same type. So they are hard to get, but that’s for a reason.
Once the game ends, both players first check if they have shipped at least two of each type of good. If not, that player is automatically disqualified and looses. If both players have fulfilled this, it is checked if either one has earned a star. If so, that player wins regardless of victory points. Only if both players have the same amount of stars (typically none as they are hard to come by) are victory points counted. The more stuff you have shipped or received, the more points you get. You also get additional points for each bonus token you haven’t spend. Add it all up and the player with the most points wins.
Solo and Promo Boards
The Solo Mode mentioned is being developed by the author and seems to be complete at this stage. It will be part of an upcoming expansion – something that will be an insta-buy for me and I hope will see the light of day soon! It is surprisingly short on rules: the building phase is managed by a deck of cards and the bot creates connections in a different, simplified way. The trucking phase has the bot play its truck cards and sometimes push a truck on your shipping side. It’s like two pages of rules plus some explanation on the cards and that’s it. It’s a great puzzle and should open up Curious Cargo to a whole new audience like me: people that are really into the game but have no one to play it with.
I haven’t tried the mentioned promo boards yet as I still have only progressed to map 4 despite two dozens of plays. They look interesting though and have splitters printed on them. Definitely worth getting if you have the chance.
Here comes the typical disclaimer: I’ve glossed over a number of things to focus on the feel but all in all it’s not a complex set of rules. It will take a while though before you play Curious Cargo without errors because it’s easy to forget updating the turn order track or awarding bonuses, but the general concept of placing tiles, building connections, and moving trucks is quite intuitive. What will hit you first is the amount of randomness/luck in this game. Straight conveyer tiles are definitely better than S- or U-shapes, and if you draw a truck card you’re up to chance what length of truck you draw. You can spend large parts of the game drawing one crappy tile after the other or wait for a 2-length truck but only draw 4-length or up. With increased skill you manage to compensate for this but still, if you have a bad game you have a bad game.
Where Curious Cargo really shines is the intervowenness (is that even a word?) of it all. There are so many different ways to get a bonus awarded, you quite often can do some form of chaining. It’s not unusual that you build a conveyer tile over a gear symbol printed on the board to get 2 more action points to draw and build another tile that allows you to create a new connection that automatically ships a good to a truck standing next to the dock (which gives you a bonus because you completed it) and also allows you to advance on the turn order track awarding you another gear token that allows you to create another connection which has you advance again and give you a new truck card you need for the upcoming trucking phase. Sounds complicated? It actually isn’t. It reminded me a bit of Praga Caput Regni in how you really have to plan your turns for maximising your bonus yield as you otherwise lose too much momentum. In your first play, the game can easily take 20 rounds and with repeated plays you see how you can cut corners over and over again until you rush through the game in 7 rounds.
Another aspect I really like is the dance you have with your opponent due to the receiving mechanism. Receiving is really strong because it produces big points and gives you bonuses as well. If your opponent has a red connection to dock 3, it can be very valuable for you to also create a red connection to your receiving dock 3 and automatically pumping up pretty much everything they produce. Remember, it only takes 4 goods of one type to get a star and end the game, plus a star beats any amount of VP your opponent may have acquired from shipping goods. So if someone has a shipping connection, the other player is incentivised to create a matching receiving connection which incentivises the first player to overbuild that connection and move it to another dock, and … Initially players will start with a rush strategy of pushing out goods as quickly as possible. But more advanced players will either try to receive or block their opponent from receiving goods. You don’t even necessarily reach the star for receiving. The number of points produced by receiving goods is so large that receiving a few items can counteract a large number of goods your opponent is ahead of you in terms of shipping out.
The brilliance in design can also be seen by the simple fact that you do not automatically draw truck cards. You either have to earn them via bonuses or gather conveyer tiles and then spend your trucking phase to exchange two for a new card. It would have been so easy for another author to just let you draw a card each turn but Ryan cleverly used this limitation to even more strongly force you to work with the bonuses. Sometimes the quickest way to get a truck card is to build another connection you don’t really need, just for the bonus of a truck card. Or you completely fill a truck that gives you a trucking token you can exchange for a card.
As is probably obvious, I really like Curious Cargo and it gets better the more I play it. I think it’s a shame that most people will probably play it only once or twice and then move on. In that initial phase, the randomness is a let down and it takes 4-5 plays for new players to really get efficient in using bonuses and reaching the stage where you even think about actively matching your opponents connections with receiving connections. The production is lovely with all the bits and bobs, one of the rare cases of spot UV I actually like, and a quirky graphic theme I adore. You don’t just have a few conveyer tiles but an included bag and a ton of tiles in it. Plus the multiple boards and having two different modes of play (2 and 3 color) puts a lot of punch into a small box. This might very likely be my favourite 2 player game I’ve discovered in years… which I will probably never really have the right the people to play with. If you’ve held out because you’re in the same boat, definitely check the BGG forum for Ryan’s solo mode!
Finally, dear Capstone Games: please, pretty please publish that expansion box (and thus the solo mode) soon! I can’t wait!