2015’s crazy max: Fury Road lit up the big screen with his post-apocalyptic road trip to thunderous percussion and a wailing guitar/flamethrower. Now we might just have a good board game to go with the soundtrack.
The post-apocalyptic world is not a new setting for cardboard lovers; the Mad Max-inspired game Thunder Road by Milton Bradley still stands as a light action game with nice components. However, contemporary efforts have often fallen short, lacking the necessary focus found in that first mass-market game. New title Wasteland Express Delivery Service tries to address this problem by welding an over-the-top Armageddon setting to a lightweight pickup-and-deliver frame.
In terms of theme, the designers have it all done here. Great illustrations coupled with an attractive graphic design make for some attractive components. As a physical product, love does not stop at the work of art. Wasteland Express has four different plastic trays, each custom designed to store each part. From the game’s fantastic truck miniatures to the 20 large tiles that make up the game’s playing surface, everything is broken down and given a home. The overall impression is of a luxury product – indeed it is not far from the high standards set by the recent Mechs vs Minions.
In Wasteland Express, you work in the badlands as a truck driver transporting goods across countries where others don’t. For example, you make money by getting some water from Attica and cutting through the raider-occupied desert to drop it off in New New York. This “move goods from point A to point B” playstyle is classically derived from train games and is also used in adventure titles such as xia, Merchants and lootersand the glowworm board game. Wasteland Express takes the proven pick-and-deliver formula and focuses on incremental improvements.
Wasteland Express takes that vintage core and wraps an interesting economy around it. There is an intriguing feedback loop where you perform tasks on public or private contracts. Most jobs earn money and allies grant special abilities, but a smaller selection offers first-class seals that lead you to victory. At its core, the game is a race to achieve three of these end goals.
In addition to assigning tasks, the contracts themselves provide much of the game’s peripheral context. The post-apocalyptic world here is home to a collection of factions with different personalities. The gun-toting New Republic, the hippie-esque Oracles of Ceres, and the technology-reclaiming Archivists all provide work, and you take jobs from each of their individual stacks.
In addition to those private tasks, each game starts with three priority first-class contracts that offer a more narratively different set of tasks. These contracts are face-up and available to everyone. Options include digging up buried treasure, transporting an atomic bomb through the skeleton land, and storing floppy disks for the Technocrats. The public courts are the key element in shifting the dynamics from game to game.
All of this leads to a compelling cyclical pattern of completing smaller tasks to earn money, upgrading your delivery rig to improve performance, then forging back to complete larger tasks. Progression can be similar to a role-playing game as you personalize your vehicle with individual components from the mod shop. Tinkering with different builds – better machine guns or more cargo space? – offers a bit of nostalgia for those of us who grew up playing Steve Jackson’s car wars. A solid variety is offered with a number of different offensive upgrades, armor, economic boosters and even a turbo unit that boosts your speed. There’s a definite kid-in-a-candy-store vibe to the customization process.
Besides the delightful upgrade process, the other major achievement here is the action system. A common problem with this kind of game design is oppressive downtime; contestants quickly lose interest when two-digit minutes break your interactions with the game.
To prevent this, Wasteland Express cuts everything into micro-actions. When it’s your turn, you perform one simple task, such as move, fight an NPC robber, or deliver a few bullets. The system avoids sacrificing power and speed by using a smart momentum process; successive movement actions yield increasingly better results. So your first move of the turn can be three squares, but if your next action is also a move, you can go four spaces. You can also break that momentum to immediately follow up after you’ve advanced. This uses the action point you spend on the move itself, allowing you to double your efficiency every turn (but at the cost of that momentum). It’s a smart way to lend authority and enable impactful micro-turns while riding those thematic elements.