I hurt and it is all Ryan Courtney's fault! ?
In cahoots with Capstone Games, a sweet, innocent looking small-box game has hit our table, and it is nothing like what we were expecting.
Actually, that's not entirely true. We were expecting pipes (Ryan Courtney's Pipeline was an obvious hint!) and tiles. We were also expecting top notch production values. Undoubtedly, we got all of this. An entire box chock full of boards and chunky, sturdy little tiles.
But, aside from the conveyor belts (which are pipelines of sort), opening the lid revealed some weird looking factory floors, trucks, cogs, forklifts, cards, and a heap of other strange things…… curious cargo, in fact.
We also received a very slim, friendly looking rule book. Which was the most duplicitous trick of them all. For that diminutive document doesn't even begin to describe the exquisite two player pain that was about to be inflicted upon our brains.
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 a tricky, prickly, strategic, spatial puzzle that pits you against your opponent in a head-to-head battle. 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 your creative problem solving skills. I should say that a tough skin also helps. Because, without those to counter the incredibly crunchy combination of strategic decision making and luck of the draw, the teeth grinding tension could end you.
Health Warning: 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. After our initial game, we put the box away and stared into space for half an hour, wondering what on earth just happened. It looked 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.
You're trying to connect your factory machine ports to your loading docks. This is achieved through Active Connections which are unbroken conveyor belts going from ports to docks. This is done by randomly drawing and placing up to three tiles on your factory floor player board.
Because there's no need to lay a new tile adjacent to another tile, you'll think that Construction is going to be easy peasy lemon squeezy. As this step can be done simultaneously, you are also forgiven for thinking that it will be over in a jiffy. Wrong! Freedom of choice does not help you here.
You and I both know that Ryan is one incredibly smart cookie. Something is rustling under all of those cardboard boxes, waiting to pounce. As a result, you are torn between laying a tile on faith and trying to work out if you are about to fall into a trap. AP-nerve-shredding action from the get-go!
You have to break through the uncertainty and push on through. Mainly because your factory will be foreclosing before it has even started operating 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.
However, even knowing that you can keep a few tiles in storage for future connections gives little comfort. 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…….
Having hopefully worked out a way to get at least some conveyors connected on your board, you then have to get those goods shipping out.
You'll have noticed loading bays on either side of player boards. This isn't to enable the boards to be played either way up. Ryan wouldn't let us off that easy. No, this is the way by which players get to seriously mess with each other.
Using truck cards, you can buy different sized trucks with combinations of empty and blocked compartments. 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, a matching coloured piece of curious cargo goes on that free space on your truck.
As you buy and place more trucks, every new one moves your existing trucks up. 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 what you want to happen when it results in more Active Connections allowing more cargo loading.
When the lead truck extends beyond your 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. 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.
If you can't see any loading bays working for you, you can instead choose to place a truck on your opponent's loading bay. Oh yes, you can shunt their trucks up and there's not a single thing they can do about it. Directly meddling with another player's plans is possible. I guarantee you won't be able to help yourself!
I cannot begin to describe how sneaky-cheeky 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 as I inflict a mismatch upon my husband. It's a cardboard gut-punch.
Karma hits like a house brick, however, when it happens back to me, it's soul-destroying. Because if you can meddle with your opponent's loading bays, then it's only fair that get to do it right back. They will if it stops you loading cargo/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 can give up a truck to get more conveyor tiles to build out more connections next turn. Or, if 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. 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!
The Game That Broke My Brain!
Curious Cargo; a game of constructing and trucking. Goods in. Goods out.
However, that simple sentence doesn't 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. Actually, when it happens to me.
In this game, nothing is straightforward. Your mind rebels but then it draws you in. Like a curious cardboard onion, every move you make is impacted by layer upon layer of innocent 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.
Like all desirous things, there's a hook. In this game, they come in the form of bonuses. These little get-out-of-trouble tokens provide lifelines that keep you connecting. Keep you trucking. But so too does your opponent. That's what makes it brilliantly challenging. There is no room for cruising.
Sure, laying tiles may get you an immediate connection and an in-game bonus, 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 game can be triggered in many ways, and it is worth becoming familiar with them all quickly or you could get caught out! Regardless of the means, whoever has earned the most points through Active Connections, loading, unloading, and bonuses when the final factory whistle blows, wins. Unless that person has failed to ship two of each colour cargo - in that case they take the road straight down to loser town.
Ultimately, Curious Cargo is a major league think-off in a minor league sized box. And I love how much it makes my head hurt. Like an art-house film, or a Chaucerian tome, it challenges me to do better, strategise better, game better. It won't always be a comfortable ride, and it is unlikely to appeal hugely to players wanting an easy, no-brainer game (and in fact shines brightest when both sides are evenly matched in terms of skill set). But every game of Curious Cargo teaches me something. And, with a selection of harder factory floor layouts to try as well, as well as a third curiously purple good to add into the mix, it is a game that is going to keep on challenging me in the best possible way.