The Cargo Isn’t All That’s Curious About It
It’s no secret that my favorite part of Ryan Courtney’s Pipeline was the pipe-laying. Scoring, automation, loans — no thanks. Give me Donnelly nut spacing and cracked system rim-riding grip configurations using a field of half-seized sprats and brass-fitted nickel slits. The McMillan way. That’s all it takes to make me happy.
Curious Cargo is Courtney’s follow-up to Pipeline, although its shaky proximity to its predecessor has me doubting the term “follow-up.” As before, piping is a major feature. More so, even, than in Pipeline. But despite that similarity, it’s very much its own thing, right down to the husk nuts bolstered to each girdle jerry.
My eldest daughter receives a magazine for kids that features “mazes,” little clusters of yarn that would make for an impenetrable knot were their ends pulled tight. By following the threads with her fingertip, she can trace each one to its source, sometimes winding over or under threads or other obstructions, until she finds the one she was looking for all along.
Curious Cargo’s pipe-fitting is about that sort of puzzle built in reverse. Tiles are drawn from a bag. When placed onto your factory floor, they make such a tangle that it isn’t uncommon to find yourself needing to trace back their route. This act is simple. Pleasurable, even, in that childlike way that derives satisfaction from connecting A to B despite any number of twists and turns. Crucially, it’s also a difficult process. When Courtney designed Curious Cargo, he helpfully gave each tile two sides, one easy and one hard. In easy mode, you’re only tasked with connecting red and blue threads. Flip the tiles over and now there are three colors, purple crowding the red and blue for your attention.
What makes this interesting, of course, is the sheer horror of how poorly these particular threads have been sorted. Not only do they turn every which way, but when arranged next to one another — or, as soon becomes necessary, stacked with the occasional help from a scaffolding tile — they become as frustratingly interwoven as a bowl of spaghetti, or a child’s hair after rolling in the leaves, or the components of a marble drop that have been half-disassembled and thrown haphazardly back into the bin. From chaos, you must make order. Not even a particularly orderly order. Rather, an order of imposition, marginal order, a visible strand running through a snarl.
The second layer of Curious Cargo provides an all-important context for the presence of these threads. Rather than pipes, these are conveyors; rather than delivering oil, you are delivering — well, things. Objects. Batteries, gelatinous blobs, crystals. Cargo of the curious sort. Every round is divided into two phases: first construction, then shipping. The first almost explains itself. The second sees you playing truck cards, which enter along the left side of your factory. If your conveyors line up from A to B, with A being your “machines” and B being the trucks, cargo spills from one to the other.
This process contains complications. Fusses, more like. The membrane between phases is sometimes thin, and often requires one player to wait for the other despite the simultaneous nature of play, and it isn’t uncommon to move along to your trucking phase without quite realizing that your opponent is still trying to decide where a tile might fit. It isn’t uncommon to skip a phase altogether, or to pause because “play order” suddenly matters, or to gently remind your partner that “action points” are only a thing when playing trucking cards for trucks, not when playing them for conveyor tiles, not when exchanging those same tiles for those same cards, not even when loading cargo. Fusses. But at least minor ones. The remedy is a sort of verbal rhythm. “I’m done constructing. Can I begin the trucking phase? No? Then I’ll wait.”
When trucks move away from your factory, they slide across the table to enter your opponent’s factory. This time A and B are inverted: A is the truck with cargo, B is the “machine.” If connected by the proper color, the cargo spills, again, from one to the other. Why, the pedant asks, are we shipping and receiving the same cargo? Who cares. The answer is right there in the title: it’s a curiosity. The process itself is the point. Shipping cargo yields points and other bonuses. The same goes for receiving cargo. Both require conveyors. So we arrange the conveyors and play the trucks.
You can play trucks to your opponent’s factory as well. This hastens along their process, sometimes even clogging it up, and nudges their trucks toward your receiving side. It’s important to mention, because it’s entirely possible to win by receiving goods more than shipping them. Except this is where the whole game becomes so bogged down with fusses that the pleasurable arrangement of threads and the careful arrival of trucks takes a backseat. Or gets gagged and thrown into the trunk.
I mentioned earlier the wavering line between phases. Curious Cargo also contains an entire second economy, one that has nothing to do with gelatinous cubes or spiky crystals, but rather with bonus tokens.
This second economy functions according to its own logic. When constructing conveyors, you receive three action points. Pulling a conveyor from the bag costs a point. Placing a conveyor onto the factory costs a point. This isn’t enough to assemble a network, so your factory must be built over many rounds. Fortunately, you can hasten the process with gear tokens. Each gear bestows two additional action points, letting you get a jump on your opponent. This alone would be a helpful bonus, but gears are joined by trucking tokens, which let you draw a trucking card and gain two action points. This action point is used for playing trucks, not for construction. These are also the action points from earlier, which only kick in when playing trucking cards for trucks and not when playing them for tiles. When playing a trucking token, it’s also mandatory to use one of its two bonus action points, so don’t use them willy-nilly. Meanwhile, two gear tokens can be exchanged for a trucking token; in turn, two trucking tokens yield a splitter, which forks a conveyor into multiple outputs. Except you can’t use this splitter without playing a gear. Some back of the envelope calculation produces a rough conversion rate of five gears for one splitter.
But the conversion isn’t a problem. It’s that darn fussiness again. We’ve now attained two levels of fussiness. First the baseline, the good stuff about building conveyors and loading trucks and shipping cargo, with its own minor phase and action-counting fusses. And then the second economy, with its provisos and exchange rate fusses. And that’s before we broach the third level, which makes the first two levels seem like splinter fusses that have yet to reunite with the Demiurge of fussiness. But they intend to. Because the third level is the Demiurge itself, the Father of Fusses.
I’m talking about none other than how the game scores.
Following the norm, there are plenty of ways to bring home points. Goods shipped, goods received, number of concurrent connections, spare tokens — a tidy set, and reasonable as categories if perhaps questionable when it comes to their exact distributions. Whether that’s the case is beyond my ability to assess. It’s rather easy to win via cargo received, for example, but that strikes me as an oddity rather than a misstep, likely included to encourage players to push rival trucks into their loading bays.
Instead, the problem is the sequence of checks leading up to victory. Points matter, but only if somebody hasn’t earned a star by completing one of their incoming cargo tracks or by having ten simultaneous connections. If that happens, the most stars wins — unless you’ve failed to ship two of every cargo type, which spells immediate disqualification. That’s three separate checks for victory. And to further muddy the issue, failing to ship that initial cargo means failure, but meeting the same condition still awards points. As far as scoring goals go it’s superfluous, instead serving as an illustration of Curious Cargo’s scatterbrained approach. Ideas are piled atop other ideas with little apparent care for how they interact: flimsy phases, contrasting action points, a fussy secondary economy, and a convoluted scoring system. It’s the sort of complexity one could easily mistake for intricacy, when in fact it’s unnecessarily fiddly.
The result is a game that’s more enjoyable on the surface than one or two inches down. Which is unfortunate, because the parts that catch the eye are solid. When you’re untangling those threads to forge functioning connections and successfully loading and unloading trucks, Curious Cargo feels just right. Then it continues to heap on additional layers and provisos and caveats. The feeling it evokes is less like mastering a complex system and more like placating the whims of a fussy child: you’ve stopped the crying, but this bedtime ritual includes a few too many steps to be worth repeating.
A complimentary copy was provided.