The backstory of today’s game is a surreal, bleak and dystopian one. You make a deal with a mysterious person, perhaps in a dark back alley. What is now in your possession is a warehouse, empty save for a few dusty machines mounted on the walls. You are told that tomorrow morning a truck will arrive. If you lay some belts from the machines to the platform, they will produce goods, and the driver will take anything, before they take off and leave. Where will they go, what is the purpose of the blobs and the batteries and the purple crystals your machines are suddenly spitting out? It is not for you to know. But every afternoon, another set of fully loaded trucks will park outside your loading docks, and you find that hooking them up to your machines will make them hoover up the bits and bobs as easily as they produce them. Such is the endless cycle. You produce, you ship, you receive, you dismantle. Day in, day out.
Until either you or your opponent ends the game and then VICTORY POINTS!
Curious Cargo, designed by Ryan Courtney and published by Capstone Games, is a 2 player only game of laying pipes *cough* I mean, laying conveyor belts in order to connect platforms to machines, trying to match them up with either empty room in trucks for delivery, or matching goods in trucks coming from your opponent for consumption. As soon as one of you has yeeted enough goods from your player board or one of you earns a star of excellence, the game will end and you’ll tally up points.
A round in Curious Cargo is pretty darn simple.
First, both players will simultaneously perform three actions to improve their pipes. Each action can be used to either draw a random pipe from the bag or to place one of those pipes on your board, anywhere you like. You can even overlay your own tiles, using scaffolding to keep tokens leveled if needed, and if you manage to connect a machine to a platform using a single color of belts, CONGRATULATIONS, you are literally doing your job. Sometimes placing tiles will award you with tiny cogs, and you can spend 1 every turn to take two more actions.
After both players are done messing around with their factory, it is time to truck. Now, each player will either discard a truck card from their hand for even more tiles, discard two leftover tiles to draw a new card from the deck, or they will play 1-2 cards to play some actual trucks down on the table. If you get a truck, it will slide up and along the left hand side of your factory, pushing any trucks ahead of it. Then if any empty spaces of any truck match up with conveyor belts connected to machines, they’ll fill with a matching good from your board. Fill up all the spaces in a truck, and you even get a handy bonus. Ship a one good of each type and you’ll earn a shipping token, which allows you to play even more trucks on a turn.
But what happens when a truck sticks out from over your board? Why, it arrives at your opponent! Like reverse delivery, if they manage to hook up a continuous line of the same color as a good on a platform they suck that bit right up and place it on the right side of their player board. On this magical side everything earns you bonuses. You get cogs, you get shipping tokens, you even get splitters which you can use to fork a single belt onto three different platforms.
The game ends as soon as one of you has delivered 9 or 12 goods, depending on which variant you are playing with, and then delivered and consumed goods, leftover bonus tokens and perhaps your connections will net you points. Most points wins, explanation over. Simple game good, recommended, 7/10, would board again. Go forth, be game, do crime. Nothing more to see here.
OR IS THERE?!
Well, yes. And it is all in the subtle interactions between the rules and the victory conditions. For one, it is not entirely true that whoever has the most points will win. If one of you earns a star, either by hoovering up four of the same good from your opponent or connecting 10 platforms to machines, then that person will just win, no questions asked. However, if a player hasn’t delivered at least two goods of every type, then they lose no matter what, even if they earned that illustrious star. And because the game ends when someone gets a star, this means it is technically possible for both players to be big fat losers with too much un-delivered nonsense in their warehouse.
Now, keep those end-game conditions in mind when I note that hoovering up the goods your opponent produces is waaaay more valuable than producing goods yourself. Every single good you snag away from an incoming truck will earn you a good handful of points, bonus tokens, and nudge you closer to the instant win star. But if you fall too far behind actually producing then your opponent will be laughing because your precious points are useless. They can even force that star upon you, ending the game early before you are ready for it.
So okay, you focus on both delivering and producing, but how much do you do which to outmaneuver your opponent? Do you rush the game to get away from them stealing your things or do you just stop producing when that happens? Do you aim for minimum effort and a star or do you think points is the way to go? And the quality of any of these choices is dependent on your options in the actual heart of the game; the tile puzzle.
I don’t actually mean to make Curious Cargo sound more daunting and obtuse than it is. In reality, it is almost relaxing. The first few turns are often spent just fiddling with the tiles you have to make half-finished lines, and alternating between discarding cards for more tiles and discarding tiles for more cards. You’ll make one or two incidental deliveries, maybe get a bonus from a truck. Eventually you will get to the 2/3-point of the game, and deliveries will start happening in earnest. You might extend a line to steal some of your opponent’s things, or redirect a delivery to a new platform to avoid their snuffle-engine. Not long after someone will make a push for the finish, often delivering 5-6 goods in a single turn, and the game will be finished. It will have taken you 25-45 minutes depending on how the game ended and how many colored goods you played with, you’ll know exactly how you could’ve played better, and you’ll be ready to play it again immediately.
Curious Cargo is an absolutely wonderful head to head puzzle game. In some ways, one can almost call it one-note, because it’s all about getting belts to where they need to be. But the parameters for the puzzle; the tiles, the trucks, your opponent, how your strategies collide, it is constantly changing, nothing is constant. This constant remixing of what you can do and what you should do keeps the game feeling fresh both within and between games. Add to that the six different factory boards that all feel genuinely distinct, and you’ve got a game that is both compelling and has staying power. And there is a whole third color of good you can play with by just flipping the tiles and your player board, which both breathes new life into the game and increases the game-to-game variety (Note: It is less daunting than it seems, but do heed the warning in the rulebook). And while I hope it is obvious even from my pictures, this game is absolutely gorgeous. Kwanchai Moria’s art makes the game look silly and inviting, and takes the edge of what is sometimes a tough and brutal puzzle. Absolutely one to check out.
If the line-making in Curious Cargo looks interesting, but your taste leans more rules-heavy economic simulations than it does 2-player puzzle games, then another one of my favorites, Pipeline, might be one to take a gander at. Also designed by Ryan Courtney and also published by Capstone Games, this was the first entry into what could turn out to be a trilogy of pipe-puzzlers. Pipeline has less puzzly tile laying, but adds a whole world of supply and demand as you utilize your puzzled pipes to refine and sell oil. Backed this time by the art by the wonderful Ian O’Toole, it is also quite the looker.
I guess the moral of the story is: If you like laying tiles with colourful lines, Courtney and Capstone got you covered. And also that you should probably get Curious Cargo, because it is very nice and you should have nice things.