What do we get from a marriage of overused themes of Cthulhu mythos, railway building and zombies? Surprisingly a game that feels fresh, exciting and tense.... AuZtralia! Who would’ve thought?
How does it Play?
AuZtralia begins very inconspicuously. Players take control of the brave adventurers exploring the uncharted lands of Eastern Australia, building railways and farms to extract resources, and recruiting interesting personalities met along the way. As the Z in the title suggests however, players will eventually have to face zombies, and other far more terrifying monsters lurking in the depths. As a result we receive two and perhaps even three games in one. From the initial railway building and resource management, to the latter full out war and a race against time. And time in this game is everything.
Every action performed in the game costs time. Some actions will cost more time than others and some will also cost additional resources. For example, building railways through mountains costs more time than building them through other types of land, which makes sense and brings the theme to life. But, it also means that players wishing to go through the mountains will have fewer turns before the time runs out. Managing this limited time wisely is the main part of AuZtralia. Once players reach or exceed number 53 on the Time Track they may no longer perform any action.
This makes for a tense game where every decision needs to be weighed as the position on the Track also indicates whose turn it is. The last player on the Time Track is the player to go (if a few players are on the same spot the turn goes from top to bottom). Once a player has gone past another one, they then need to wait until they are the last player on the Track again. It may happen that one player will go a few times in a row, or that after performing an action they’ll have to sit and patiently wait as all the other players take multiple turns.
Cthulhu himself awaits his turn on the eerie number 22 of the Track, and becomes an active player whenever he is last on the Track. It adds a great level of strategy, tension and anticipation. Players know when the Old Ones will awake and they need to race to prepare as best they can for the impending doom.
AuZtralia is not a co-operative game however. Although the game ends immediately if any player’s harbour is destroyed, in the end there can only be one winner, including Cthulhu. Players collect victory points along the way - awarded for phosphates, farms, vanquished Old Ones, and personality cards bonuses. Whereas Cthulhu scores victory points for Old Ones left on the board and blighted farms. The placement of resources and the Old Ones is random, ensuring each play through is different and feels fresh. In fact, the way the two are distributed across the map is one of the clearest and more elegant systems I’ve seen in a board game.
The board of AuZtralia itself and the individual player boards are also very clear and easy to understand. Even though there is a lot going on and the map feels crammed at times, everything is well labelled and feels intuitive after a few turns. For example, the land on each hex is easily distinguishable and is numbered so there is no confusion as to which farm needs placing or which Old One needs revealing. Likewise, the additional iconography and layout, like the cost of the army units, the compass or the text on the player boards, serve a useful purpose and add to the feeling of a well thought out game.
Furthermore, the combat uses a push your luck mechanic, which adds an extra layer of uncertainty and excitement. It can sometimes prove frustrating, though fighting the Old Ones could never be easy. It isn’t completely luck based either, as every Old One has weaknesses and is more prone to attacks by specific units, giving players a certain level of control. Hence, combat feels appropriate and throws a tense mini-game into the already rich combination of game variants, mechanics and clever setup systems that make for an incredibly tempting package making AuZtralia a joy to play every time.
If the above wasn’t enough, AuZtralia comes with a number of different modes and variants. To begin with, the board is double-sided, challenging players with alternative set-up and rules. The difficulty, too, can be adjusted by removing empty Old One tiles or by adding particularly nasty spawning temples, which fill the board with Old Ones in no time. There is also a full co-operative mode, a solo mode and a two-player variant.
Unfortunately, the sheer number of pieces and options results in a trade-off for a lengthy set-up. It won’t be until 20 minutes after the box has been opened when the game actually begins. I am certain that with experience and a better division of pieces this can be reduced, but it’s likely that other games will be chosen over it for this reason alone.
The game also has a relatively high entry point and the rule book doesn’t help either. I have repeatedly found myself looking up errata online and even after a few plays I kept discovering things I’ve been doing wrong. Hopefully, with future reprints of the game, the FAQ section will be expanded.
Moreover, each player in turn chooses the location of their harbour on the map, placing them at least two hexes away from one another. There are many things to consider, like starting in the region free from a mountain chain, closest to resources, or furthest away from any Old Ones. Therefore, the positioning of the harbour plays a vital role, and it often feels that players new to the game, as well as the last ones to choose their spot, are being put at a disadvantage.
Additionally, although the game is playable from one to four players, it plays best with at least three. The two-player game feels too much like a race for victory points and takes away from the military aspect of the game. The additional two-player variant in the core box is helping with this issue by introducing a bunch of extra win conditions, but three to four is still the preferred player count.
I both praised and complained about the number of components, but are they actually any good?
Well yes, the overall quality of the product holds a very high standard. The board and the rest of the cardboard pieces are thick and sturdy. The main board, the player boards and the cards have a linen finish, whereas the smaller Old Ones, player army units, and farm pieces have a nice glossy finish that makes the art pop out. All pieces are still holding up well after several plays.
The art is also fantastic throughout. Aside from providing the aforementioned clarity, it truly helps to bring the theme to life. The scorched land of Australia is prevalent, and a great design on the main board makes players feel like generals commanding pieces on the battlefield.
Lastly, we also get a lot of wooden and plastic tokens. The wooden tokens are as expected, simple and functional, but it’s the realistic plastic resources that take the main stage when scattered across the map. The deep black coal and the glittering gold pieces look great and add a nice touch to further immerse players in the theme. Whereas the big sun-bleached phosphates are constantly tempting players to abandon other – equally important – tasks and instead build tracks to get to them first.
Final Thoughts on AuZtralia
By merging a few different games together and throwing several mechanics into the mix, Martin Wallace created an exhilarating Frankenstein of a board game. It may take a few turns to get a hang of it, and it may have a few rough edges, but the sum of its parts puts a breath of fresh air into both the train and Cthulhu genre. AuZtralia offers a tonne of replay-ability, tense moments, and strategic decisions while keeping the playtime relatively short. It’s unlike anything else I have ever played and is a must have for any board game collection!
You Might Like
- Pick any; train, Cthulhu, Martin Wallace.
- Deep and immersive experience.
- Intense combat.
- Strategic resource management.
- Race against time.
You Might Not Like
- Long set-up.
- A lot of elements - a busy board.
- Some unclear rules.