Tension Wagon: INFERNAL WAGON review

I want my $5 back.

No, dear reader, I did not spend $5 on the game that I’m covering today. I’m talking about the $5 I spent renting Jurassic World: Dominion this weekend. What a lifeless way to end a tepid trilogy. Thirty years after the original Jurassic Park thrilled audiences with amazing scenery, funny quips, and tense moments that scared my family even on multiple viewings, this third installment in the second trilogy limped its way to the finish line.

So why am I describing this dumpster fire of a movie before talking about today’s game? Because there is an art to building tension in entertainment that the masters like Spielberg and Hitchcock had that very rarely translates to the gaming space. Obviously, big story driven games with high player interaction — I’m looking squarely at you BSG or TI4 or Game of Thrones — know how to ratchet up the intensity during a game. Even some euros can create tension, too. Think about the last few turns in Concordia, when everyone is staring at the board or staring at each other wondering who is going to buy which card or build a house before you can sneak your way to victory.

But the biggest genre in creating tension in tabletop are, unfortunately, the games that I’m just not that big a fan. I’m talking about real time games. Games with a timer. Games with a soundtrack. Games with a finite point where everyone is scrambling to do things while an internal or external clock ticks toward doom. Easy examples are games like Pendulum and Escape: Curse of the Temple that just didn’t do it for me.

To be fair, there are some cardboard creations that are worthy of being played in the Gumbo Pot. I love playing We’re Doomed with the right group. )If you ever get a chance to play We’re Doomed at a con with Alex Goldsmith as the emcee do not miss out!) I love Steam Park, because the real time aspect is very short and tactical, and let’s face it, it’s fun to build robot theme parks. I’m a big fan of Ready Set Bet, because the real time aspect has some tension but is more played for the laughs and thrills.

Recently, Iello Games sent us a review copy of a game that seems to have gotten the tricky balance of tension and fun just right.

But not for the reasons you might think.

I’m talking about Infernal Wagon, a game designed by Alexandre Emerit and Florian Fay, with art by Thomas Brissot. It’s a 2022 release from Iello that plays from two to five players in under eight minutes. It’s part of their so-called “Mini Games” line. I looked it up on BoardGameGeek and learned that “IELLO’s Mini Games series includes minimalist games by designers from around the world.”

Infernal Games packaging certainly fits the minimalist moniker, although there was a lot more game than I expected from the back-of-the-box description.

I played a lot of Infernal Wagon this weekend with SneauxBunny. She’s off on Monday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Day holiday, and had a half day on Friday for a speech tourney, and we had grand baby duty. We had nothing else on the docket, so this is one of those rare weekends where gaming rises to one of the higher priorities for us as a couple. (Let’s not talk about that LSU – ‘Bama debacle on the hardwood). Infernal Wagon, in fact, is so short that we were easily able to fit it in multiple times between naps and just hanging out in the living room with little man. But during the last game we played, a funny thing happened.

We were about halfway through our game. Suddenly, the game froze in my mind for a split second. In that second, in time that seemed to stretch out for what seemed like minutes, I glanced at SneauxBunny who was frantically scanning her hand of cards. She was muttering words that would not be registered by other humans as comprehensible sentences. “Gotta blue, gotta hat, no snakes, what you got?” She never looked once at me, just stared intently at her cards, and then to the table, and then back to the cards. A potential card offer extended from her left hand while she waited for me to respond. I’ve known her so long that I could tell just in a glance her way that her heart was pounding just as much as mine. I sneaked a peek at the computer monitor displaying the timer, which was frozen on one minute, twelve seconds, and counting down.

And then time started again.

Let’s talk about how it plays, so the preceding paragraph will make more sense. In Infernal Wagon, players have seven minutes exactly to escape out of a dangerous mine that is blowing up behind us. Infernal Wagon seeks to recreate the famous trope in many movies of a runaway mine cart careening through the underbelly of a mountain while a series of explosions rattle their way ever closer to us. (Is it a spoiler to say that Infernal Wagon is my favorite games about mine carts that could have been themed to a certain Walt Disney World attraction ever?)

Players start with a deck of cards, seeded on the bottom with the escape card. The deck looks impossibly thick to cover in just seven minutes, but that’s the object of the game, to play every single card in the deck before the timer runs out. (Trust me, seven minutes is VERY short in real-time.) There are no turns, per se. Players each have a hand of cards representing potential tracks to be laid, and they just play cards as quickly as possible next to the one just played.

Each card has symbols representing familiar icons to wild western mine movies — boots, snakes, gold, bags of money, etc. Each card has a symbol on the top and bottom, sometimes matching, sometimes not. The object is to play a card that matches the open face of the card previously played. If so, the little wooden mine cart moves one space closer to freedom.

If the symbols do not match (which happens a lot), well pardnah, complications ensue.

If the player has played a regular mine track card whose symbols do not match up to the one before, that card will have an explosion symbol on the top with a number inside. The penalty? Players have to discard that number of cards from the start of the mine train, in effect, simulating the explosion in the mine that you were trying to leave behind is rapidly catching up to you. In fact, if ever you have to discard the card where the mine cart is, you lose. Toasted mine-mallow!

If the card you play is one of the special red cards, then it’s real trouble for you and your teammates. These cards can have multiple bad effects — they might cause you to skip the next draw phase permanently, giving you one less card to choose from in your hand. They might cause a huge explosion in the mine discarding tons of cards. But by far my favorite bad effect is the diabolical “play again” card, which forces you to draw and play the very next card in the deck, meaning you could have even more bad effects if that card doesn’t match up.

I’ll stop and give you a caveat in the rules — in two player games, it is even harder because each player can only play two cards in a row (not counting effects). That doesn’t seem that difficult to overcome at first, but it really takes effective communication to know when to play and what to play on that second card, because after that, you are out until the other player plays a card. If the other player can’t play, then again, you lose.

If, dear reader, it sounds like that should be enough ways to lose, DON’T FORGET THE TIMER. If ever the timer hits “boom”, well, boom time it is.

In a genius move, Iello uploaded a seven minute track to YouTube for players to use instead of a regular clock timer. Use it! It starts out with a laconic guitar laden melody, melancholy in nature in its western motif, but the tune slowly gets faster and faster all the while keeping the Wild West setting intact. As it played, I could almost smell the campfire crackling amidst the red rocks of Arizona or New Mexico, or the desert scrub in west Texas shivering in the cold January wind. As you get closer to the “boom”, the music gets faster and faster and faster, and by the time you get close to the end of the seven minutes, the bell that rings each minute to remind you of the upcoming end is long forgotten as you and your group throws down cards, moves the mine cart, yell for help, and discards cars with wild abandon.

If this description sounds frantic and panic-inducing, if it is creating tension just reading it, then best stay away. For me, the never-fan of realtime games, the fact that we are cooperating together with easy to understand cards in our hand, and not relying on a fiddly and complicated system of escape like in Escape or speed-it-up-slow-it-down worker placement in Pendulum is the difference. I cannot say I loved Infernal Wagon, but I can say I liked it better and better with each play.

I think the designer must have purposely geared the game for the short seven minute interval that takes place, because it is the Goldilocks of tense experiences: just long enough to hold me and SneauxBunny’s interest but just short enough not to overstay its welcome. I might also be biased by the sound effects in the soundtrack, because coupling that driving melody with the booms and bells and thunder effects really matched up the tension in good ways.

There’s some lagniappe, too: the designer threw in three other small decks of cards to flesh out the experience. One deck is a boon and a godsend to terrible players. Each card has stars on the entrance and exit to the track meaning they can match up with anything and keep you going. But the other decks are all problems for you to solve, like silencing the group until the next card comes out to end the damper, or curse cards that have to be met to win the game. We loved following the suggestions of the designer to add friendly cards when we lost, or harder modules when we won to keep the game fresh all weekend. Adding more star-laden track was a no-brainer, and contrary to my initial thought, made the game a lot more fun as it gave us a breather every couple of minutes or so.

If you are a fan of real-time games, this is a no-brainer. The harder match is for those that are not fans. I’d like to think your experience will be similar to mine. The first game or two will be rough, as you struggle to synch the rules and the symbols into something resembling a smooth game experience. Hey, it only takes 15 minutes to play two games, so stick it out to the third (with the requisite friendly cards added) and see if the short nature of the game and the tense nature of the game make it a better entry into this genre than other games.

Now, if we could just get Universal Pictures to commission Alexandre Emeril and Florian Fay to write the inevitable next trilogy of Jurassic Park movies (Jurassic Universe, anyone?), and bring back the combination of tight, thrilling action and comedic relief that marked the original movie, maybe, just maybe I’ll spend $5 on the next entry.

Maybe.

Until next time, laissez les bon temps rouler!

— BJ from Board Game Gumbo

A complimentary copy of the game was provided by the publisher.

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