Publisher: Capstone Games
Designer: Ryan Courtney
Artist: Kwanchai Moriya
Release date: 2020
45 – 60 mins
Favouritefoe score: 9/10
Please click below to be taken to a 1 minute Rapid Review video.
No denying this state of being; I hurt and it’s Ryan Courtney’s fault! 😉
Having captivated Capstone Games with his sweet, innocent looking small-box game, it turns out that it is NOTHING like what we were expecting.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I expected pipes (Ryan Courtney’s Pipeline was an obvious hint!) and some tiles. I also anticipated the highest production values, and we got all of this. An entire box chock full of boards and chunky, sturdy little tiles in fact.
But, aside from the conveyor belts (which are pipelines of sort), opening the lid revealed some very strange things indeed. Odd looking factory floors, trucks, cogs, forklifts, cards, and a heap of other strange things…… curious cargo, in fact.
We also received a very slim rule boo; the biggest trick of them all. For that diminutive document doesn’t even begin to describe the exquisite two player pain that this game inflicts!
But, if you are anything like me, that should intrigue you more than hot ice-cream. Because Curious Cargo is going to get under your skin. But you won’t understand why. It hurts. Every move is a hammer blow to the head.
You see, at its very core, this game is tricky, prickly, strategic, spatial puzzle that pits you against your opponen. And in our house, this mind muddling mixture is top tier level gaming.
Forget wagers, this game is all about the size of your wits and creative problem solving skills. I should say that a tough skin also helps. Because, trust me when I say this; the teeth grinding tension could end you.
Sneaky Side Note; After your first play, you may very well curse Curious Cargo. Loudly. With plenty of fist shaking and strange noises. I did. My husband did. Game 1 down, we put the box away and stared into space, wondering what on earth just happened. It looked simple. It should have been simple. But Curious Cargo is simple like chemical engineering is simple.
However, once our eye-balls de-steamed and we had scooped up what was left of our melted-marshmallow minds, we wanted to play Curious Cargo again. And again. We wanted to prove to ourselves and to each other that we could and would run the best factories in town!
We like the fact that this game isn’t easy. This game makes us think outside of the cardboard box, exercising ours brain like a hamster high on too many Skittles. And I would expect nothing less from Capstone Games whose reputation for simply complex games is well done and truly deserved.
Played over a series of rounds, each one has two phases. The first is Construction.
Here, you are trying to connect your factory machine ports to your loading docks. This is achieved through Active Connections which are unbroken single colour conveyor belts going from one to the other. And this is done by randomly drawing and placing up to three tiles on your factory floor player board (note that tiles can be overlayed if the new tile can lie flat and special scaffolding tiles help with this).
Now, because there’s no need to lay a new tile adjacent to another tile, and you can overlay, you think that Construction is going to be a no-brainer. And, as this step can be done simultaneously, you are also forgiven for thinking that it will be done in a jiffy. Wrong and Wrong! Freedom of choice is of no help!
You see, everyone knows Mr. Courtney is one smart cookie. And so your brain has already cottoned on to the fact that this game isn’t what it seems. Something is hiding under those cardboard boxes. As a result, you are torn between laying a tile on faith, and trying to work out if (and when) you are about to fall into a trap. AP-nerve-shredding action indeed!
But you have to push on through. Mainly because your factory will be doomed if it doesn’t have any working conveyor belts. Even the turn-order each round is determined by the number of Active Connections each player has rigged up. So you lay a tile or two, or three, and it feels good to have done something – you are off the starting blocks and into the game.
But, in truth, even knowing that you can keep a few tiles in storage for future connections (or to remedy a mess up made now) gives little comfort. Because, without knowing how the board is going to develop on future turns, you have to stack these unused tiles in the order you are going to want to use them……but that’s ok because you have a crystal ball on hand….oh, hang on…….
Phase 2 then clicks into gear: Trucking.
Having worked out a way to get some conveyors connected on your board, you then have to get those goods out!
Not only that but you are also going to want to unload goods from your rival’s factory; stealing their cargo en-route to its ultimate destination. Hang on, what????
Yarp. This mini beast is starting to show its claws.
So, you will have noticed loading bays on either side of both player boards. This isn’t so that the boards can be played either way up. Ryan wouldn’t let us off that easy (plus there are about eleventy billion different boards in the box to keep you in the mind melting zone). No, no, no. This is the way by which players get to seriously mess with each other. Prepare yourself……
For now, however, let’s focus on you. The side on the left of your board shows your loading docks. Using truck cards, you can buy different sized trucks with combinations of empty and blocked compartments. And when you buy a new truck, you can place it on the left side of your board. If an empty compartment on the truck lines up with an Active Connection (i.e. completed conveyor belt), a matching coloured piece of curious cargo goes on that free space on your truck.
But, because this game is, well, this game, that is not the only thing that can or will happen in the trucking phase. Like every move in Curious Cargo, it triggers something else. Something, well, curious!
You see, as you buy and place more trucks, every new one moves up your existing trucks. The result being that the back of the newest truck always lines up with loading bay 1. This shunting effect means the empty/blocked compartments on existing trucks now line up with different loading bays in your factory. This is of course what you want to happen when it results in more Active Connections allowing more cargo loading (and potentially more bonuses too).
But, when the lead truck extends beyond you last loading bay, it then moves over to the unloading side of your opponent’s board. Now effectively in the hands of your biggest rival. And if they have an active connection which matches the colour of any cargo on that truck as it sidles up close and personal with one of their goods-in loading bays, your opponent is going to be handling stolen goods (and getting points in the process!).
Now, if the above revelation hasn’t floored you, prepare yourself. Because, if you can’t see any loading bays working for you during a trucking phase, you can instead choose to place a truck on your opponent’s own loading bay. You can shunt their trucks up and there’s not a single thing they can do about it. Directly meddling with another player’s plan, and you won’t be able to help yourself!
I cannot begin to describe how meany-pants it feels when you obliterate a well-planned conveyor connection that was just about to pay out for the person across the table! The dark angel sitting on my shoulder cackles with delight when I inflict a mismatch upon my husband. It is a cardboard gut-punch.
Karma hits like a house brick, however. As, when it happens to me, I want to cry. But, those tears must stay hidden because if you can meddle with your opponent’s loading bays, then it is only fair thatthey get to do it right back. And they will if it stops you loading cargo and getting bonuses.
Seeing my goods stall and not trundle off my conveyor belt as planned is frustration of the highest order. And that pure take-that moment may be too cruel for some. But, we love it. And, remembering the bump in your loading road is as short as it is sharp, definitely takes the sting out for me. After all, lost loading ground can always be reclaimed with some smart tactical retaliation.
Alternatively, you don’t have to add a truck to either side. You can instead give up a truck to get more conveyor tiles which go into storage ready for you to build out more connections next turn. Or, if you want trucks but you have nothing to buy them with, you can discard 2 conveyor tiles to buy more truck cards. Surprisingly, you can also do nothing at all. Which sounds a little strange when you need to counter so many possible actions and events. But sometimes you just aren’t ready to upset the curious cargo cart…. yet!
Curious Cargo Broke My Brain!
And that’s it. Curious Cargo; a game of constructing and trucking. Goods in. Goods out.
But of course that doesn’t even begin to describe the mental experience I go through when playing. Nothing prepares me for just how crunchy and complex the interplay of those two phases feels when it happens to me.
In this game, nothing is straightforward. Nothing comes easy. Your mind rebels but the can’t resist. Like a cardboard onion, every move you make (or you think you are going to make or should make) is impacted by layer upon layer of innocent (initially at least!) sounding possibilities, consequences, restrictions, effects, options, and decisions. Effects cascade down and give you more options to ponder. Hope and doubt smash into each other as my synapses misfire.
But like all desirous things, there is a hook. And in this game, they come in the form of bonuses. These little get-out-of-trouble tokens provide lifelines which keep you connecting. Keep you trucking. But so too does your opponent. And that is what makes it brilliantly challenging. There is no room for cruising in this game.
Sure, laying tiles may get you an immediate connection and an in-game bonus (cogs and splitters golden!). But, what opportunities are you missing? What are you giving away in terms of strategy and forward planning? What will you need in your factory armoury to counter the passive aggressive powerhouse that is your opponent’s latest move? You won’t know. You can only guess, predict, and prepare to do serious damage control.
The End of the Line!
The end of the game can be triggered in a number of ways, and it is worth becoming familiar with them all pretty quickly. Regardless of the means, however, whoever has earned the most points when when the final factory whistle blows, wins. Unless (and there is always an unless in this game!) that person has failed to ship two of each colour cargo throughout the game – in that case they take the road straight down to loser town.
Ultimately, this game is a major league think-off in a minor league box. And I love how much it makes my head hurt. Like a foreign language film, it challenges me to do better, strategise better, game better. It won’t always be a comfortable ride. It is also unlikely to appeal hugely to players wanting an easy, no-brainer game. Honestly, this game shines brightest when both sides are evenly matched in terms of skill set. But every game teaches me something. And, with a selection of harder factory floor layouts to try as well, as well as a third curious good to add into the mix, Curious Cargo is going to keep challenging me in the best possible way.