#AuZtralia is a very odd game. It combines an economic game, a light war game, Australia, and Cthulu which is a sentence that was likely never uttered before this game was created!
I picked up the game for a song from someone who was clearing it out. It seemed...interesting...and it was by Martin Wallace. It should be at least decent, shouldn't it?
Let's find out!
This game is a follow up to a previous game #A Study in Emerald (Second Edition) which I have never played. The story is that the old ones have conquered humanity and been in charge since around 1000 AD. However it's now the 1900's and humanity managed to overthrow the Old Ones in Europe and Asia.
In the new age of freedom they find the continent of Australia not knowing that it was the last retreat for the Old Ones. As they start to colonize the Old Ones awaken.
In the game the players will take actions on their action board. Different actions take different amounts of time moving their time marker on the time track:
If your marker is last (on top of another marker means last) you keep taking actions until you pass someone else.
For the first few actions the players will be building railroads, mining resources, bulding farms, acquiring different personalities to help them, and building their army. They may choose to attack Old Ones that haven't woken yet to get them early.
At action space 22 waits the marker of the Old Ones. Once all of the players pass that marker the Old Ones start to awaken and come after the players farms and ports.
Every two actions of the Old Ones a Revelation card is flipped and every action space the Old Ones may move towards the players.
Oh, so that's why you don't want to leave temples on the board...
The game ends if a players loses their port or if all of the time markers are on or past space 53.
At the end of the game the players score for Old Ones they have killed, their farms, end game personalities, and any Phosphorus they have acquired. The Old Ones score points for face up Old Ones still alive, double points for face down Old Ones, and points for any blighted farms.
If a player has more points than anyone else they win!
If the Old Ones end up with more points than the players then they win and all the players lose!
There are quite a few actions available on the action board and you can take them in any order and as many times as you like. However, if you take an action where you already have an action cube it costs you one gold per cube. That gold is NOT easy to come by so every once in a while you will find yourself using the reset action to get all of your cubes back.
Generally speaking you will start off building rails. You always get 2 rails for the price of one iron and one coal. However, it costs 3 time if you take the option that allows you to build in to the hills and 2 time otherwise.
If you connect your rails from your port to a resource you can take the mine action to acquire those resources. This is going to be the primary way you get resources although there is an import/export option if you need something you don't have access to on the board.
Here you see three coal waiting to be swept up with a mining action.
You can build farms, up to one of each type and getting a gold for each.
A great way to spend that gold is to buy military units. You can buy 2 infantry or 1 of any other unit per purchase action. The units are limited so you can end up in competition with other players for the juicy ones.
Another critical action is acquiring personalities. These give you one time or ongoing effects that can be really important. For example, Jenny Appleseed, shown below, is the only way you can flip a blighted farm.
Finally, there is the attack action. I really like combat in this game and it's a key element to the experience.
When you attack you will be moving your units down your rail line. Most units can go off rails a certain distance when attacking, except the armoured train of course. The attack itself costs time for each of the "main" unit types you bring (infantry, armoured car, artillery). And some units are better against certain old ones than others.
So it would seem to be a simple solution to only bring the ones that are good against the type of old one you are fighting right? Sure, but even a poor fighter can take a hit thereby saving another unit. So maybe you bring them all and spend the time?
Here's the squad I sent out for my first attack against Cthulu. It takes 15 hits to take down. I sent the whole gang for that one!
Once combat starts it becomes a push your luck affair.
You flip cards over from the Chtulu deck and look at their symbols depending on which monster you are fighting. Cthulu at the top there would take a hit from an air ship and causes 1 insanity.
If I was fighting the zombie (in the white circle) he would take a hit from an armoured car and would inflict 1 hit and 1 insanity on my forces.
You assign hits to the units on the top of your stacks as you like and as all units have 2 or more health you can take a few hits before you start losing units. Some personalities can cure hits or give you automatic hits before combat starts.
At any point before the next card is flipped you can choose to withdraw your forces, remove wounds, and put them back in your barracks. Any damage cubes you put on the Old One Stay there (except for Zombies).
If you hit the Old One takes damage equal to their shield value the Old One is defeated and you get the tile and the purple victory points shown on it. If two or more players have injured the Old One the VP's are shared among them.
However, if you take 3 insanity damage your forces must retreat and any wounded units are killed.
This creates an amazing decision space. You just spent 1 - 3 time to attack this Old One. You have 3 units wounded and 2 sanity gone. The Old One has 1 hit left. Do you flip that next card and potentially lose 3 units? Or do you retreat and spend more time to come back later.
It obviously engages the person in the combat but also everyone around the table gets super interested when those critical decision points come up!
Setup, Art, and Components
One complaint about the game is that setup can take a bit. The positive to that is that it is varied and will make the game different every time. In some ways it can also be a bit fun to see the map develop.
These setup tiles are placed on marked spaces on the board then flipped over. The appropriate Old One tiles and resources are placed. If more than one Old One tile would go in the same space you upgrade it to a higher level Old One tile. This is a great way to randomize the map which I haven't really seen before but it is a bit fiddly and time consuming.
Here you see a setup board:
The players pick their spot for their port in reverse turn order and the board is pretty much set.
One thing to note about that port choice, it is important to know that lower numbered spaces will have their Old Ones flipped first. So if your port is on that side of the board you will want to prioritize armies. You don't want to be caught with no army and an Old One on your door step.
The art work is great! It really invokes the theme of the game with WW1ish era armies going against the Old Ones and the traitor humans. It feels a bit bleak, dry, and dusty. The Old Ones are appropriately Cthulu-y. There are little touches everywhere reinforcing the time, place, and odd genre of the game.
The coal, iron, gold, and phosporus bits are really nice. Well done there.
The tiles, rails, and farms are nice thick cardboard. The cards are nicely finished and appropriately thick. Nothing spectacular but still good.
This game has a solo mode which gives you a solo objective for extra points and some extra starting personalities. You can choose your difficulty by adjusting your starting resources, starting VP, and whether or not tile 14 is setup.
Here was my solo setup.
I have to say that I found solo mode to be quite difficult in my one play through losing 48 - 74. It's not that playing the game was hard or even defeating the old ones. The tricky part is that the Old Ones score DOUBLE the amount for tiles that are not revealed. However, it's quite hard to get to all of the tiles, especially the ones in the back when it's just you.
I still enjoyed the game and I think that more play throughs are needed to see if maybe I missed something in my play through. Too early to give a final judgement.
Other than the setup time which I mentioned above the only other complaint I have with this game is difficulty scaling. I have played it at 1, 3, and 4 player counts.
At 4 players the Old Ones were almost a non-factor by the end of the game. There was no way they were winning.
At 3 players it felt a little better and as I mentioned solo it felt quite hard.
The great variability in player setup is part of the issue. You put random cards in to the Revelation deck and put random Old One tiles down on the board. In a solo game an empty space tile or "nothing happens" revelation can be a helpful break. In a 4 player game it can just feel flat. You aren't even guaranteed to have Cthulu show up at all!
My group agreed in our next 4 player game we'll be taking out all of the "nothing happens" cards and tiles and will also make sure Cthulu is in there as well. I figure that should at least keep things exciting.
Now that I have my biggest complaint out of the way I have to say that I really enjoy this game. I thought it might just be a quirky thing to own that might never get played but to our surprise we really enjoyed it!
There's something about the mixed up genres along with the brain teaser of figuring out the time crunch and the sheer raucus push your luck fun of the combat that really works for me and my group.
The tightness of time looms over everything else in this game. Once you have used 53 "action points" you are done. Early on you have to spend a bunch of time to lay rails and farms to get resources to acquire armies. You might have to consider time in that stage if you are racing against another player to get resources but not a lot.
Once the Old Ones awake you really have to be cognizant of where you are in relation to them. Place 3 farms? The Old Ones might move 4 times before you get a turn again. Do they have anyone close by that could wreck you? Which Old One tile is due to be exposed next?
The other interesting factor is the push your luck combat. From deciding which forces to bring, where to place damage, and when to retreat it's always a bit nerve wracking. Even when it's not your combat it's always fun to ooh, aaah, and ohhh with another player. Sure you don't want them to get those points but they are still humans fighting against the Old Ones and if they fail maybe you're next!
And the game flow makes sense. You land on your port and you have some time to build some rails, farms, personalities, and armies. Then the Old Ones wake and the fight for survival is on!
Overall, I don't know if this game is for everyone. It is NOT a tightly controlled and balanced euro game. The difficulty fluctuates depending on the number of players and the randomness of the setup.
I have had games of it which were ok but not great but I have also had games that were awesome and had tight competition between players and big pushes from the Old Ones. It's the latter that really stick with me. I think a few tweaks to setup which are easy to do can make every game exciting!
For me, this game will be staying in my collection for a long time. I feel like it's a one of a kind mash up. Considering there are expansions in the works I suspect I'm not the only one that enjoys the quirky goodness of... #AuZtralia.