Long ago, the Old Ones ruled over humanity. Controlling all wealth, food, and the rights to travel, they managed the population of the northern hemisphere. After a long war, humanity prevailed and took back control of their land and destiny. There was a great cost though, and those same lands were poisoned to the point of near inhabitability. In a bid to improve their lot, intrepid explorers set out to discover what awaited them in the southern hemisphere. They found a new land that became known as Australia, but there was more to this new land than they expected. The Old Ones had already populated a great deal of the new continent and were unlikely to take kindly to new visitors.
In AuZtralia, you take on the role of the leader of a colony ship looking to populate Australia, surviving the Old Ones that await there. At first, the resource-management/worker-placement/press-your-luck gameplay looks somewhat intimidating but upon playing, it flows very well and plays quite simply. Once you’re past the seemingly complex rules, AuZtralia has that excellent balance of simple to play but hard to master gameplay.
Allowing for one to four players, each person begins by placing a port on one of the hexes the board. Players have a number of cubes to represent what actions they are taking, railways, and farms. On your turn, you place a cube anywhere on your player board to show what action you are taking. Perhaps you’ll build railways to expand your reach, or maybe you’ll mine resources or place a farm to earn gold. You could buy military units or hire a personality to assist you. If you’re feeling brave, you might decide to attack one of the old ones using your military. Should you wish to repeat an action, you can spend resources to do so, but there is an option to spend a turn to reset your player board. Whatever you choose to do, it will cost you a different amount of time which is represented by a track around the outside of the board. Whoever’s furthest back on the time track takes the next turn, including the Old Ones themselves.
Once the Old Ones begin taking turns, you draw a revelation card that causes Old Ones on the board to activate and start moving around, causing trouble. Some of these revelation cards have additional effects, such as spawning more enemies or eliminating personality cards. On top of this you will draw enemy cards that will decide which, if any, enemies move around the board. The enemy cards are also used to resolve combat. If the military unit you sent into combat appears on the card, it causes damage to the Old One. If a purple cube or a sanity symbol appears, your units take physical or sanity damage. Should a unit be destroyed, it’s removed from your stock, but should you take too much sanity damage all your units in combat are destroyed. Deciding which units to commit to a combat encounter is important, as losing everything can be devastating. You can choose to withdraw from battle (this is where the press-your-luck element comes in), but you may sacrifice victory points by doing so.
AuZtralia is a victory point focused game with many ways to acquire points. Farms you’ve built, Old Ones you’ve defeated, and special resources all gain you points, with the personalities you’ve hired adding to them in some ways. Whoever has the most points wins, of course. There is a catch though, as the Old Ones are also able to score points by keeping their units alive and destroying your farms. In fact, should one reach any player’s port and defeat all the military units there, the game immediately ends for everyone and scoring commences. This forces something of an uneasy alliance between players, as Old Ones are a common threat that could claim overall victory if they defeat a player early, but equally you don’t want to aid them too much lest they win themselves!
For a game with so many options on each, it plays really quite quickly. With time to explain the rules, we got through a game in about 75 minutes. It was very enjoyable too, with everyone vying for points and placing train tracks to get to resources quickly, as well as take on Old Ones. Every turn had that feeling you get with so many worker placement games — there are three things I want to do but I can only afford to do one. Deciding the best course of action to make significant differences. Acquiring a personality can make you significantly more powerful in battle or increase the value of your farms, but maybe you’d be better served by holding off the immediate threat that could destroy your farms and rob you of points at the end of the game. What do you do?
It plays very well, however our group did find it a little easy when we played, managing to defeat all the Old Ones on the board several turns before the timer ran out. The Old Ones scored 2 points, compared to our winner with nearly forty. There are options to increase the difficulty though, so should the game prove to be too simple to win you could always up the challenge for subsequent plays. For what it’s worth, starting on medium (which removes all ‘empty’ enemy tiles from the game) would be a more reasonable challenge.
As is becoming more common in the world of board games, there are options for pure co-op and, brilliantly, single player games. These have special objectives that earn you extra points at the end of the game should they be met, and can alter the game in a number of ways. My personal favourite was a set up that meant you started with a lot of sanity, but you can’t recover it after battle as in the main game. It made the decision when to withdraw from combat all the more important, as it could be a significant problem down the line if my sanity ran low. There are additional difficulty modes here too, so there’s plenty of content for anyone who’s a fan of the genre.
In terms of the gameplay, there was little I didn’t enjoy about AuZtralia. Everything felt solid, and the co-op versus competitive element worked really well. I felt that the combat could be a little more luck based than I’d like. Whilst you could identify which units were more likely to cause damage to a specific type of enemy (thanks to a table on the back of the instructions), a bad series of cards could scupper your forces through sheer bad luck. Whilst this is true in some games, there was little you could do to mitigate this beyond withdrawing. Speaking of the instructions, they are very detailed, almost to a fault. They go into every eventuality and have a lot more depth than the game really needs. AuZtralia isn’t the easiest game ever made, but it’s also not outrageously complicated. A shorter set of instructions, or a link to a video run-through would have been nice. As it stands, the rules make it seem as though the game is far slower than it actually is.
The only element that really is slow is the set up for a game. Each game has a random element to the enemy and resource placement using face-down tiles you place on the board. Flipping them shows what is placed on the surrounding hexes. With a fair number of hexes to populate, set up can take a little longer than you might like, but I do appreciate that this prevents every game from playing out the same way.
If it sounds like I’m nitpicking a little here, that’s probably because there’s very little I disliked about AuZtralia. The components, board, and art are all excellent in terms of quality. The gameplay is fun and fairly quick. There’s enough variety to have you coming back for more in the future, and there’s even a second side to the board that gives even more play options! It’s not going to suddenly sway anyone who doesn’t like worker-placement games but anyone who enjoys the genre will likely have a good time with it. There’s no madness to be found here!
AuZtralia is available now, among other locations you can find it on Amazon.