I’m not all that into playing contact sports. After breaking a big toenail in half, taking a few shots to the groin, and witnessing plenty of other people’s injuries (from broken bones to haunting concussions), I prefer to stick with sports and competitions that keep the bodily wear and tear to a minimum. I’m not sure why someone would want to submit themselves to being wrecked by a lacrosse stick or rocked by a sprinting tackle, but it sure is fun to watch!
Oddly enough, I have much different preferences when the game is played on a tabletop rather than a field. Board games where players get curb-stomped by opponents or the puzzly challenge itself are right up my alley. In previous blog posts, I’ve given loads of examples of games that hurt so good, they’re fun to lose. I’ve explored why Salty Player Interaction is usually an essential ingredient for a game to keep a spot in my collection. And I’ve observed how things can quickly become boring without a Spicy Tension to reel me in. Indeed, when it comes to board games, I’m a glutton for punishment!
The reason I bring this topic up again is because I’ve observed an interesting polarization of opinions around the recent release, Curious Cargo. Board game critic, Dan Thurot (Space-Biff), describes it as “entirely unpleasant,” while the British folks of Shut Up & Sit Down labeled it “Dinky and Devilish Perfection for Two.” Meanwhile, SU&SD’s friends over at No Pun Included shared that they “didn’t like Curious Cargo at all” before I praised it as “living up to high expectations” and being “a gorgeous game, a top-notch production, and a frighteningly deep puzzle.” The comments on Board Game Geek show a similar contrast of opinions.
So what’s the deal with Curious Cargo? Why is it fueling such passionate reactions in both directions? I’ve thought about this quite a bit as I’ve listened to both sides of the spectrum. If I had to boil down my answer to one word, I would select ADVERSITY.
Against the Current
Curious Cargo fits into the widely popular and ever-expanding board game genre of spatial puzzles. These games require an ability to visualize objects in different arrangements and orientations as players seek the optimal placement of tiles. Classic examples of this include the evergreen Carcassonne, where players are connecting square tiles together in a central area by aligning matching borders, or Blokus, an abstract strategy game of placing Tetris-like polyomino pieces on a board to cut off opponents and hog more space for yourself. More recent examples of spatial puzzles include the colorful, quilt building Calico that sees players arranging hexagonal tiles on their personal board in a quest for maximum points, or the various versions of Railroad Ink that challenge participants to connect exits and spaces via bending railroads and highways.
For most popular spatial puzzles on the market, the interesting challenge of these designs is determining which tile you should place next and/or where you should place it. Furthermore, many games of this type set players up to wait for the perfect tile or card or roll to emerge that they’ve built their entire strategy around. Usually, these games give you those singular needs quite readily and swiftly. Curious Cargo flies in the face of this style of design, and this is the element that seemingly makes the game so polarizing.
Curious Cargo hands players a few conveyer tiles randomly drawn from a bag and truck cards drawn from a deck and says, “Now go figure it out!” It challenges two rivals to visualize a path along their individual player boards from the loading docks to the machine ports and then buries this path deep within a tangled web of spatial combinations and essential exchanges. While drawing the convenient tile to complete your connection of focus is certainly possible in Curious Cargo, obtaining such a tile is far more rare than your average route builder.
Some people apparently hate the amount of adaptation and thinking outside the box that Curious Cargo frequently requires when the easiest option doesn’t come out of the bag or deck. I’m on the other end of the spectrum, where with more experience and a willingness to step outside my comfort zone, I’m finding this punishing style of puzzle to be much more rewarding. I’ve found that the design provides plenty of flexibility for me to work around luck-of-the-draw, though I can see where players may quickly become frustrated if they neglect or forget their privileges.
Every deceptively minor rule in this design is essential to success. At first glance, some conveyor tiles that land in your lap may seem entirely worthless. It can be easy to burn your turns away digging into the bag for that perfect tile while even better options pile up under your very nose. You see, most board games have lulled our brains into this sense of permanence that punishes an inefficient arrangement and immortalizes a perfect placement. The challenge of optimization has embedded itself into nearly every game on the market. So when a game like Curious Cargo comes around, one that prioritizes adaptation over optimization, it seems that players can sometimes struggle to thrive.
Despite making its players victim to “luck of draw,” Curious Cargo follows the mantra of “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” Participants have all the tools they need to succeed in this spatial puzzle, most notably the freedom to cover the segments of previously placed tiles. Covering up a perfect connection may seem like a bad idea until you consider that such a move might allow for the establishment of a more important connection or prevent your opponent from piggy backing off your success. And frequently, when short-term objectives feel just out of reach, a spent construction token or shipping token provides that extra slack needed to succeed.
In addition to asking which tile should be placed next and where it should go, Curious Cargo adds an extra layer to its spatial puzzle by asking its players how its pieces and cards should be used. Cards and tiles can be spent toward a wide variety of benefits. 2 discarded conveyor tiles can become 1 truck card. 1 discarded truck card can become 1-3 new conveyor tiles. In the standard game, tiles can be put to use as routes to ship blue goods, ship red goods, receive blue goods, receive red goods, or a combination of these things. Trucks can be used to push your opponent’s goods to your receiving docks or deliver your own goods from your shipping docks. But it can be difficult to remember all of those great uses for 1 tile or 1 card when you desperately just want to establish a red connection to shipping dock 4 in order to deliver red cargo onto the empty space of your truck.
A Game That Bites
I do wonder if some players could have avoided their unpleasant collisions with Curious Cargo with the help of player aids or tutorial modes. Perhaps more obvious reminders of the possible uses and exchanges between tiles, cards, and especially bonus tokens would do the trick. And maybe some sort of introductory scenarios that lead players by the hand through building, overbuilding, routing, and rerouting their connections would help them to be more flexible with the main game. But even with just a great teacher, a bit of patience, and a couple eagerly adaptable players, you’re bound to find the good stuff within Curious Cargo.
One would be wise to follow the council within its rulebook and quick tip guide. While I eventually found myself ready to take on the expert 3-color mode, I was mistaken in assuming that my opponent was also ready to take the leap. Our first play of this “Night Shift” variant was deliciously challenging for me and excruciatingly difficult for my opponent. As the rulebook cautions, this mode is only for those who are “thoroughly proficient” in the 2-color version.
Yet the adaptability required by Curious Cargo might be an acquired taste in addition to being a developed skill. I’ve observed how many designers, publishers, and gamers prefer designs that maximize the feel-goods and minimize the feel-bads. I understand how some people prefer games that soothe their stresses and stimulate dopamine release rather tangle their brains and trip up their steps. But against the backdrop of adversity, one’s successes shine all the brighter. And I can’t help but feel that Curious Cargo pummels its competition in the category of replayability.
Ryan Courtney’s design is a game where the setbacks feel bad, but clearing those obstacles feels amazing. The skill ceiling is breathlessly high, and the puzzly challenge is tantalizingly deep. This ever-present difficulty is why the thought of playing Curious Cargo again still thrills me even after several recent plays. In comparison to this, the game Calico quickly lost steam as its challenge diminished over our first few plays. By our third session, I had found my optimal play style and had no reason to budge from it. Meanwhile, Curious Cargo is still forcing me outside of my comfort zone and into exciting new depths.
Despite the emotional cuts, bruises, and occasional broken bones that this design doles out, I’ve found Curious Cargo to be one heck of a satisfying game.
This concludes my Curious Cargo review! Have you tried this challenging game yet? Does the allure of delicious pain entice you? Share your thoughts in the comments below!