27th Dec2018

‘Auztralia’ Board Game Review

by Matthew Smail

auztralia-box

Trains, vital resources and the race of ancient demons that H.P. Lovecraft dubbed The Old Ones – could a game be any more Martin Wallace? Well, perhaps if it was card driven, which Auztralia surprisingly isn’t. Even so, this modern hybrid of A Study in Emerald and Brass takes a number of classic Wallace systems and delivers a tense, thematic experience that begins as a rush for gold, coal and steel before switching to a desperate game of resource management and running defense as Cthulhu’s minions awaken and pour forth.

Auztralia is actually marketed as the first game in a series that publisher SchilMil Games is calling “The Great Designers”, so it’s no surprise that a lot of what the game delivers feels focused on what Martin Wallace does best. Even so, Auztralia is fast paced, deep and fairly unique in both its setting and the way it plays. The setup is variable to the point of breaking (on rare occasions) and it can be lengthy, but it’s one of the things that makes Auztralia so interesting. Survey tiles are placed on a number of locations and then flipped, revealing resources and monster that must be placed accordingly.

The board is double sided to further vary possible ways to play, but whilst this might seem like it results in completely random outputs, Auztralia ensures that only weaker monsters are present at the edges of the board. The deeper into Australia’s interior the survey tile is, the higher the likelihood is that a level two or three monster will be spawned, rather than one of the basic zombies. Problems with this mechanism only occur due to resources being poorly located or because a stacking system (where multiple monster spawns overlap) will mean that higher level monsters can appear closer to the shore.

When setup is complete, Auztralia‘s board is usually littered with pockets of coal, iron, gold and phosphorous, as well as face down monsters labelled one to three based on their level. The player or players (and there is a fully featured solo mode here) will then choose a starting location to position their port and take turns to perform actions one after another. Each turn, on average, takes about twenty seconds in Auztralia, assuming that you’re not struggling with the range of decisions available and the possible onward consequences.

This, at least partly, is because everything in Auztralia advances the time track and when one of the players passes twenty two time spent, then Cthulhu and his minions begin to retaliate. The gameplay loop up until this point is all about building infrastructure, armaments and allies, ideally, in as time efficient a manner as possible. Building railroads uses time and materials, with high terrain taking longer than flat to work through. Mining is quick, but the benefits are fleeting – since all of a mines resources will be depleted in a single action. Armed forces can take different amounts of time and money, depending on their power level, but you’ll need to make sure you have them all the same.

There’s also farming, importing and exporting goods, gathering allies and more to do in Auztralia and there are no useless actions. There’s also an action that resets a players board for one time (essentially skipping their turn) since every action is tracked with a cube. Players can repeat the same action more than once, but for each cube already on an action they wish to take, they must pay a gold. This is exactly the kind of classic Wallace gameplay that layers up alongside other mechanisms to make Auztralia thinkier than it initially appears.

Whilst slumbering Cthulians can be attacked prior to their grand awakening, it’s always a risky strategy. Taking time and using resources to fight when you could be expanding your rail network and gathering resources is a big decision, but similarly it can at least mean that the fighting happens on your terms. When Cthulhu and crew does awaken, they take a turn much like the players do, moving across the map and acting in a manner that is clearly defined in the manual. Acting on behalf of an automated opponent can be new to some players, but in Auztralia the automa rules are simple to follow and create little downtime.

Playing Auztralia feels like an adventure every single time. I think that this is partly because it’s set on a continent that is almost never featured in games (and which is inherently interesting) but also because of the random setup. Cthulhu’s monsters range from being not very dangerous to quite deadly, but all of them will wreck farms and disrupt transport infrastructure regardless of whether or not they are actually dangerous to fight.

At the end of the game, the players will win not only against each other, but also when comparing their score to that of The Old Ones, which means that tactics such as pure evasion just don’t work. Auztralia offers the best kind of semi-cooperative experience I think, because it never professes to be a cooperative game – instead it simply forces players to form fleeting alliances and act temporarily with the greater good in mind. In the solo mode, success is measured as a series of scoring ranges compared against a table – but there are also specific solo objectives to complete which help to make things even more interesting.

The components in Auztralia (I’ve played the retail version) are also excellent and SchilMil Games have done an excellent job with what I understand is their first “big budget” game. Each of the resources is represented by moulded pieces that look awesome on the board, whilst the card stock throughout is thick and printed with vibrant colours and a clear font. The player boards remind me (again) of Brass and the symbology used throughout is very clear.

Overall, if you’re interested in Martin Wallace games generally then I think Auztralia is a must buy. For people unfamiliar with his games, I’d suggest that Auztralia is on the lighter end of his design spectrum, mechanically speaking, yet it has one of the most thematically engaging worlds that I think he’s ever created. I’m not saying that Auztralia is my favourite Martin Wallace game, but I do think it’s one that I will return to time and time again. The ease of teaching it and the speed at which it plays are very attractive, but I don’t feel it lacks any of the depth of Brass, for example.

****½  4.5/5

Auztralia is available online at 365Games.co.uk, or at your local games store. Don’t know where yours is? Try this handy games store locator.

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