An outback tale of steam, sheep and shoggoths
In 2013, designer Martin Wallace released A Study in Emerald. A tabletop adaptation of a short story by author Neil Gaiman, it transported players to an alternate Victorian age where a band of revolutionaries led by Sherlock Holmes conspired to overthrow the tyrannical rule of creatures from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos. Now Wallace is back with a sequel and, while there are still plenty of cosmic horrors to confront, his new game shifts the focus from 19th-century Europe to the Australian outback in the 1930s.
With the rest of the world largely reclaimed by humanity, the tentacled interdimensional beasties have retreated to heart of the Australian continent. You and your fellow players plan to forcibly return them to the cold void of space; while your foes might be eldritch beings with sanity-sapping psychic powers, you’ll be taking them on with crack infantry regiments, airships and heavy artillery.
What’s surprising about AuZtralia, though, is that while its premise revolves around the fight against Cthulhu and his squiggly minions, combat is only one part of its much larger package. As you aim to wipe an assortment of monsters, ghouls and cultists from the map, you’ll also develop the land, building railway networks to transport your troops, mining resources like coal, gold and iron, and establishing farms producing sheep, cattle and corn.
It means that from your very first turn you’ll face a multitude of different tasks, and you’ll need to prioritise them carefully. Should you focus on extending your rail routes deep into the continent, allowing you to strike at distant enemies? Should you concentrate on mining, hoovering up resources before your rivals can claim them? Should you stick to the coastal edges of the board, where the more varied terrain allows you to build a diverse mix of farms and ranches? Or should you build your army, battening down the hatches for the inevitable onslaught of monstrous foes?
You’ll make these choices under some serious pressure. AuZtralia uses a Patchwork-style time track, where each action you take progresses you a different number of spaces depending on its complexity. Once you and your opponents reach a certain point, the ancient horrors lurking in the wastes will start to awaken, moving inexorably towards your carefully-built rail lines, farms and ports, creating an escalating sense of tension as more threats emerge across the board. It’s a deft combination of strategic challenge and mounting threat.
AuZtralia also gets points for the diversity of its artwork, which depicts characters of all genders and ethnicities — something which would have surely horrified the notoriously xenophobic Lovecraft.
If there’s one shortcoming, it’s that its monsters never feel truly terrifying. They creep across the map, blocking your railways and despoiling your farms. Along the way they’ll score points of their own, raising the possibility that the game itself might emerge as the eventual winner. But it turns out that a few well-placed howitzer rounds can stop even the most blasphemous and unspeakable of beings, and the result is that taking them on feels more like pest control than a desperate fight for the fate of humankind.
In just about all other respects, though, AuZtralia is a hell of a ride – a madcap mix of mechanisms that somehow comes together in the most satisfying way.
PLAY IT? – YES
On paper, AuZtralia looks like there’s no way it should work. It throws so many disparate elements into its mechanical melting pot that it seems like it should be a confused mess. But it pulls it all together into a cohesive and compelling whole, and the result is an impressive blend of strategy and tension that sees you competing against the game’s AI antagonists just as much as your human opponents.
Designer: Martin Wallace
Artist: James Colmer
Time: 30-120 minutes
This review originally appeared in the February 2019 issue of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.
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