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Subject: A Study in Squamous: A Look at AuZtralia (a Space-Biff! preview) rss

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Daniel Thurot
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A Study in Squamous: A Look at AuZtralia

AuZtralia is not a zombie game, despite that big blocky Z in the middle of its title. Rather, it’s something far better: a sequel to Martin Wallace’s near-perfect A Study in Emerald. Or, fine, perhaps a sequel to that game’s inferior second edition.

Do your utmost to keep pace: After the extraterrestrial Great Old Ones conquered the world back in the 12th century, the restorationists — the plucky rebels under the leadership of Sherlock Holmes and Emma “Grumpface” Goldman — eventually tossed bundles of dynamite into all the right carriages, leading to regime turnover in 1888. Now humanity is venturing out into the portions of the world that were hitherto off-limits, and have discovered a fresh continent ripe for colonization. Except, uh oh, it turns out the Old Ones never fled Earth, instead taking refuge in the Outback of Australia. Now the allied nations of humanity must expand across the continent, employing modern armies to blast Old Ones and their thralls, including, yes, the occasional zombie horde.

And how will they go about this expansion? By rail, of course.

No. Oh no. Trains. My most ancient nemesis. Dammit.

Right from the start, AuZtralia is fighting an uphill battle, both against its squamous foes (because they’re big and scary) and for my affections (because trains). Fortunately, it possesses about as many good ideas as a Mi-go has human brains stored in jars on Pluto. At the very least, it’s as un-train-game as a train game gets.

Before we dive into anything else, we should dispel the idea that this is a sequel to A Study in Emerald in any sense other than narratively. Here, players are colonizers rather than members of shadowy secret societies. Their various toeholds on the coast aren’t necessarily friendly with one another, but they aren’t going to be taking any direct action to hinder their opposition, and will occasionally resort to some minor cooperation when something nasty gets awakened in the Outback and can’t be stopped by a single company. Gone are A Study in Emerald’s uncertain loyalties, barrage of assassinations, and the possibility that your best bud is actually a vampire.

Not that everything is hunky-dory between colonies. AuZtralia is a race to claim as much territory, resources, and points as possible, all while avoiding incurring too much attention from the terrors slumbering in the desert. While nobody wants the Great Old Ones to win — which can absolutely happen, albeit rarely — it’s not as though anyone is interested in having one of their competitors lay claim to an entire continent.

Calling AuZtralia a race is more accurate than it might first appear. There are plenty of resources to manage, ranging from the gold that keeps an army supplied to the iron and coal that spread your network of rails across the landscape. Far more important, though, is time itself. Every action consumes precious hours, days, and weeks, either nudging or leaping your time marker along its track. Seeding farms or laying rails, for instance, takes significantly longer than buying some coal from the market, hiring some infantry, or pulling valuable nitrates out of the ground.

Unsurprisingly, some of your most potent opportunities are gagged by their hefty time investment, leading to corner-cutting or outright risky maneuvers. At times, it’s more effective to lay rails the long way rather than investing the extra months cutting into the hills. Or establish farms on the frontier because you can’t be bothered to expand into safer territory. Or decide that marching an understaffed expedition to fight a monster seems like an acceptable risk, as deploying all your toys at once would take too long.

More than that, a balanced approach is a must. Taking an action requires that you place a cube on its space on your colony board. And while you’re free to continue taking the same action over and over again, a penalty cost in gold will be incurred as other matters fall by the wayside. Of course, you could spend a few days balancing your books to sweep your board clean, but when even a single lost space on the time track feels like a missed opportunity elsewhere, it’s better to plan ahead. Or, barring that, keep some pocket change on hand to pay the occasional penalty and keep chugging along.

When you get right down to it, the time system is both a source of opportunity and some frustration. Having a turn come up where you’re able to string multiple actions together feels great. Hire troops and mine coal and expand into territory your nemesis had her eye on! Wonderful. The price of such fluidity is that you’ll sometimes stumble into a gap where everyone else at the table alternates turn after turn before you arrive at another chance to act. This is nobody’s fault but your own, naturally. These were the actions you took, and you knew how far they jumped you on the time track. But waiting around for ten minutes because you took a highly optimized move and now everybody else has to catch up — well, it can feel like you’re biding time in an Australian penal colony rather than playing whack-a-Cthulhu.

That niggling concern aside, for the first act of AuZtralia’s playtime your colony’s affairs proceed in an orderly fashion. You’ll lay rails and farms, hire personality cards and soldier tiles, mine everything you can get your filthy hands on, and every so often sally forth to assault the Old Ones slumbering in the Outback.

Then, at around the halfway mark, everything changes.

From the get-go, the Old Ones have a cube partway along the time track. It just sits there, patiently waiting for everyone to catch up. When at last you do, it springs into action, proceeding alongside everybody else. Where those face-down Old One tiles were once little more than potholes on your path to expansion, blips on the map that existed to be uprooted or built around, now the buggers start to wake up. Then they begin to move.

This is when AuZtralia gets interesting. The assault doesn’t hit immediately — it takes a while for everything to wake up, and not every species of monster is equally hot-footed. But those farms you placed on the frontier? Those are going to need protection, and pronto. Those unbroken lines of rails? Prepare to watch a Shoggoth squat on your most vital hub and cut off your military logistics. Your port on the coast? Yeah, you’re going to want to protect that.

For how simple it is to resolve the Old Ones’ turn — maybe wake up a monster, maybe squelch something toward the nearest farm or port — their behavior throws a wrench, a spanner, and a tentacle into your plans. Farms are wrecked the instant they’re touched by anything with “eldritch” in its job description, and it’s very easy to watch your victory margin disappear when some Loyalists burn through three plantations in a row.

Making matters even more strenuous, battles are testy affairs. They’re handled with the same deck that manages the Old Ones’ movement, swapping out hits and insanity for bruises on the monsters. Different units are effective against various monsters, so while artillery and infantry can pull down tainted temples with ease, you’ll want to keep the foot soldiers away from Cthulhu himself. It’s easy enough to retreat when the going gets tough, but the prospect of earning a few more points — and preventing a monster from wrecking your infrastructure — gives plenty of reason to risk your men’s lives for a few extra shots at toppling a monster.

This latter portion of the game is exactly what I wanted from a game about colonizing a continent overrun by ancient starspawn. Picture riding a seesaw with a killer squid: you’re still hoping to push inland, lay more rails, and establish more farmsteads, but you’re doing it while being shoved onto the back foot every few turns. The tension is thick, and while it’s tempting to avoid the Old Ones entirely, you risk being expelled from their shores entirely. Far better to take a few risks and hopefully mount a Shoggoth trophy on your wall.

As a side note, AuZtralia is a tad peculiar in a thematic sense, and I suspect it’s going to bother some people.

With A Study in Emerald, Martin Wallace pulled one hell of a trick. The whole thing was “really” about the anarchist movement of late 19th-century Europe, which aimed to collapse the ruling monarchies and was known for sometimes chucking dynamite at royal persons. By recasting its targets as extraterrestrial overlords, Wallace essentially washed his hands of the burden of history — “So that each man fighting for order may be as brave and good a man as the dynamiter,” as G.K. Chesterton wrote in The Man Who Was Thursday, his novel about royal assassination.

With AuZtralia, it’s somewhat harder to ignore some of the implications of Wallace’s greenwashing. The indigenous population of the continent has been replaced with literal space invaders, thereby granting the game’s players a certain needfulness in displacing or exterminating the locals, but it’s tricky to entirely sidestep shades of Australia’s frontier wars, the principle of terra nullius that figured the indigenous as nobodies who bore no rights of ownership or life, and the ground-level implications of the game’s actions. In AuZtralia’s Shoggoths and Mi-gos and brainwashed Loyalists, real-world xenophobia is replaced by xenophobia of an entirely different stripe, one that’s acceptable because the aliens you’re stamping out are actual aliens.

On the other hand, the game comes within a hair’s breadth of presenting a meta-commentary on the way invading populations dehumanize the victims of their incursion. After all, it’s very easy to massacre a host of unthinking zombies, for although zombies look like us, they’re distant enough that they don’t quite count.

As I wrote above, this is going to bother some people and leave others entirely unperturbed. Personally, it’s one of the many things that fascinates me about the game’s design. If it gets people thinking about history, that’s great. If not, then at least we’re playing a weird, unique, and interesting game.

Because it definitely is a weird one, and that’s precisely why it works for me. Part train game, part colony simulator, and part race against a host of extraterrestrial squid-monsters who dabble in mind control, AuZtralia is likely to stand out as one of Martin Wallace’s strangest — and best — offerings.



This review was originally published at Space-Biff!, so if you like what you see, please head over there for more. https://spacebiff.com/2018/01/29/auztralia/

Also, I suppose I ought to plug my Geeklist of reviews: https://boardgamegeek.com/geeklist/169963/space-biff-histori...

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David Etherton
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Thank you for this... based on the game's title I thought it was just yet another zombie game albeit from an unexpected designer. It sounds far more interesting than that!

-Dave
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Jonathan Franklin
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Could you talk a bit more about the feel of the game once teams, as in ASiE are gone? In other words, how is it different from a standard 4x game where you sometimes have to collaborate to avoid losing?
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Daniel Thurot
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grandslam wrote:
Could you talk a bit more about the feel of the game once teams, as in ASiE are gone? In other words, how is it different from a standard 4x game where you sometimes have to collaborate to avoid losing?
I'd be happy to elaborate. I'm not sure it feels much like a 4X game. It's pretty rare that players have to work together to stop the Old Ones — I've only witnessed one instance where somebody's port was about to be wrecked, which would have triggered scoring early enough that the Old Ones would have easily won, and in that instance somebody came to the besieged player's rescue. But other than that, it's pretty much a competitive race to score points.
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Alex Brown
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I'm always a fan of your reviews, Daniel, but as an Australian, and assuming from your flag you are nonAustralian, you offer a thoughtful appendix on aspects of our history that are not very well-known outside of my country.

I'm certainly no alt-leftist wanting to censor anything, but yes, terra nullius is a uniquely awful term sliding closer to genocide than your typical bivouacking colonial crudity.

If it is at all explicit (it certainly might be merely pulpy and lazy), hopefully the game leads people to know more about peculiarly Australian colonial horrors and how as a country we are still trying to figure out how to live with the past.
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Daniel Thurot
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Alex Brown wrote:
I'm always a fan of your reviews, Daniel, but as an Australian, and assuming from your flag you are nonAustralian, you offer a thoughtful appendix on aspects of our history that are not very well-known outside of my country.

I'm certainly no alt-leftist wanting to censor anything, but yes, terra nullius is a uniquely awful term sliding closer to genocide than your typical bivouacking colonial crudity.

If it is at all explicit (it certainly might be merely pulpy and lazy), hopefully the game leads people to know more about peculiarly Australian colonial horrors and how as a country we are still trying to figure out how to live with the past.
Since this isn't the first time Wallace has used alternate history to deal with tricky topics, I suspect it's his way of expressing real-world history without having to run the whole political gamut. I'm very comfortable with doing "bad" things during play — especially in designs that strive to be simulative — but even I would balk a little bit at outright genocide.

So, absolutely, there is some pulp there, since Lovecraft wrote for pulp magazines. But the design could probably still act as a springboard for discussion if that's what you're hoping for.
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Florent Becker
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So, not only is it a train game, it is also a Train game?
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Daniel Thurot
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galbolle wrote:
So, not only is it a train game, it is also a Train game?
Thanks to the Lovecraftian splash of green, not at all.

In other news, Train is one of those uncomfortable games I would play in an instant.
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Petteri Heino
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Is this game available somewhere?
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Daniel Thurot
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El_Mutanto wrote:
Is this game available somewhere?
Coming to Kickstarter sometime in the next... month, I think?
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Amanda Milne
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Yes March 6th.
You can sign up to be notified at www.auztralia.net
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Petteri Heino
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Ok. Just when i was thinking of that Batman will be my last kickstarter
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Marcus Lind
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Is this one of those semi-co-op multiplayer games where, if I'm not sure to win, I can sabotage instead so that the game wins and not a player?
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Claudio Coppini
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I have really high expectations from this one...it does look like the Cthulhu themed (soloable) euro game that I've been waiting for all this time...

Quote:
Fortunately, it possesses about as many good ideas as a Mi-go has human brains stored in jars on Pluto.

Brilliant!!
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Daniel Thurot
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marcuslind1 wrote:
Is this one of those semi-co-op multiplayer games where, if I'm not sure to win, I can sabotage instead so that the game wins and not a player?
Not really. While the baddies can win, the players don't have any method of helping that happen. At most, you could avoid fighting back as the monsters ravage through your territory.
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Branko K.
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After reading the rules and this review I'm actually interested in this game. However two things bug me, purely subjectively:

a) The game title is horrible. Changing s to a capital Z because the game contains zombies? How much more cliche and infantile can it be? Not to even mention that the game is only very marginally related to zombies - which is great because we REALLY don't need more zombie-related stuff at this point in time. Oh, and congrats, the game is ungooglable since google just loves to spell-correct that title. But back to the zombies and cliches...

b) Cthulhu? Seriously? Not one but two tired, wrung out cliches? Could it have been, I don't know, ANYTHING ELSE? Giant insects, alien dinosaurs, sentient vegetables, I don't care, just not one more game where you battle Lovecraftian creatures with knifes and bullets. Yes, I know that the theme being shlock is kind of a point, but the current art and overall design makes me feel like the game wants to play it straight. And this just doesn't work for me.

TL;DR if you choose the cliche, juvenile route with the title and theme then go all the way, up the insanity levels to the max.

P.S. Yellow iron? While having gold as another resource? Just no.
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that Matt
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baba44713 wrote:
a) The game title is horrible. Changing s to a capital Z because the game contains zombies? How much more cliche and infantile can it be? Not to even mention that the game is only very marginally related to zombies - which is great because we REALLY don't need more zombie-related stuff at this point in time. Oh, and congrats, the game is ungooglable since google just loves to spell-correct that title. But back to the zombies and cliches...
- Assume that the Z is for zombie.
- Get mad about zombies.
- Acknowledge that zombies are not a significant part of the game.
- Claim that the name is impossible to search for (because it will sometimes require one extra click).
- Get riled up about zombies again.
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Branko K.
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tumorous wrote:
baba44713 wrote:
a) The game title is horrible. Changing s to a capital Z because the game contains zombies? How much more cliche and infantile can it be? Not to even mention that the game is only very marginally related to zombies - which is great because we REALLY don't need more zombie-related stuff at this point in time. Oh, and congrats, the game is ungooglable since google just loves to spell-correct that title. But back to the zombies and cliches...
- Assume that the Z is for zombie.
- Get mad about zombies.
- Acknowledge that zombies are not a significant part of the game.
- Claim that the name is impossible to search for (because it will sometimes require one extra click).
- Get riled up about zombies again.

Have a point? Or BGG just pays you to work as a forum narrator.

Edit: Never mind. By checking a few of your comments I see that 75% of your contributions consist of re-iterating what other people said in a snarky manner. Wow, you are really trying really hard to give justice to your chosen nickname, aren't you> Well, best of luck with that.
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that Matt
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baba44713 wrote:
tumorous wrote:
baba44713 wrote:
a) The game title is horrible. Changing s to a capital Z because the game contains zombies? How much more cliche and infantile can it be? Not to even mention that the game is only very marginally related to zombies - which is great because we REALLY don't need more zombie-related stuff at this point in time. Oh, and congrats, the game is ungooglable since google just loves to spell-correct that title. But back to the zombies and cliches...
- Assume that the Z is for zombie.
- Get mad about zombies.
- Acknowledge that zombies are not a significant part of the game.
- Claim that the name is impossible to search for (because it will sometimes require one extra click).
- Get riled up about zombies again.

Have a point? Or BGG just pays you to work as a forum narrator.

Edit: Never mind. By checking a few of your comments I see that 75% of your contributions consist of re-iterating what other people said in a snarky manner. Wow, you are really trying really hard to give justice to your chosen nickname, aren't you> Well, best of luck with that.
Thanks, I couldn't do it without you.
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Nick Hughes
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I assumed that the use of "Z' in AuZtralia was to signify that the games was in an alternate timeline as calling the game Australia would probably lead to assumption of backpacking and dangerous indigenous species.

To not have a Cthulhu tie in would not tie in with the story-line from the previous game and would make less sense.
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Vasilis Liaskovitis
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Thanks for the great review!

How did you feel about the combat resolution mechanic? It looks like the only choice is using "good" or "average" or "poor" combat unit against the specific monster type. Then it's just pushing your luck by flipping cards, hoping to defeat them before death/insanity, correct?

Did you ever feel hosed by the cards even when using "good" units against the enemy attacked ? How good i.e. frequent is "good"?

I wonder if there could be personalities that let you choose between 2 or more combat cards (though that sounds overpowered). Or units/personalities that let you cancel a combat card and draw the next one etc.

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Daniel Thurot
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erdosain81 wrote:
Thanks for the great review!

How did you feel about the combat resolution mechanic? It looks like the only choice is using "good" or "average" or "poor" combat unit against the specific monster type. Then it's just pushing your luck by flipping cards, hoping to defeat them before death/insanity, correct?

Did you ever feel hosed by the cards even when using "good" units against the enemy attacked ? How good i.e. frequent is "good"?

I wonder if there could be personalities that let you choose between 2 or more combat cards (though that sounds overpowered). Or units/personalities that let you cancel a combat card and draw the next one etc.
Combat resolution, at least in the preview version I played, was basically a press-your-luck minigame. I don't know the exact frequency of good/average/bad hits, but good hits do occur more often than average hits, which in turn occur more often than bad hits.

There are two advantages to this system. The first is that different units can be useful at fighting different enemies, rather than merely being "strong" or "weak." For example, infantry and artillery are great at wrecking eldritch temples, but have different strengths when battling a shoggoth. This was much more interesting than just assigning every unit a strength number and calling it a day. Success often demands either that you diversify your forces or very carefully select which targets you engage.

Second, it's possible to retreat from battle in between any card flip. Instead of "fight until you win or die or go insane," it was a case of "fight until you win, die, go insane, or back out." Since you can measure out your hits, it's possible to stick around for one more round to see if you can finish off an enemy, at which point maybe you'll stick around for one more, and so on. With actions at a huge premium, running away can sometime be more of a blow than losing a unit or two.

In short, while the combat isn't at the same level as you might find in a wargame, it resolves very quickly, occasionally offers some decisions with far-reaching implications, and then gets you right back into the action.

At least in the version I played.
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birchbeer
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A Study in Emerald is far and away my favorite Wallace game. The original, that is, not the shameless abuse of Neil Gaiman's name which was pasted all over the so-called 2nd edition. While this game looks interesting, I'm concerned about getting mired in another Wallace Kickstarter adventure. No doubt there will be no posters offered in this one! On the fence, but thinking about it. One thing I like is the possibility of single player.
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John R.
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ASiE 1 is a wonderfully messy game and I love it. ASiE 2 I can acknowledge as perhaps being a better game in the sense that it is leaner and cleaner, though I feel it's lost a lot of its chaotic nature in the process of revision.

This looks like it has some interesting elements - in particular the movement of the Old Ones and the combat system. The elements that turn me off are the time track (cf. Tokaido) and - yes - trains.

Your review was much appreciated. I'm interested in playing it but I think I'll wait for someone else to shell out the bucks.
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Sam Phillips Beckerman
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I assumed game name was homage to Australians,
who refer to their own country as "Oz".
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