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.

Yeah, we'll be talking about this in a second.

An untamed continent, brimming with Old Ones. (all components are prototypes)

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.

Apparently the "iron" won't be orange in the final version. Which is good, because as the yellow player, my iron kept getting mixed in with my cubes.

Time’s a’ticking and resources are a’spending.

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.

Sometimes they'll burn all the way to your port, other times they'll put up the resistance of a dry reed.

Every setup is highly variable, leading to unexpected pushback from the locals.

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.

Mr. Merino seems really happy about all these sheep. Just saying.

Various personalities help shape your incursion into the continent.

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.

Losing this many farms usually means you're toast.

Oh. Shit.

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.

Posted on January 29, 2018, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 11 Comments.

  1. Wow, I couldn’t describe this any better. The un-train train game.

  2. digitalpariah76

    Sounds like my cup of hot beverage

  3. I wouldn’t ordinarily be the type to find themes in board games ethically(?) challenging, but this one really rubbed me the wrong way. Given the current tenor of debate in Australia about invasion/settlement, a game where the indigenous population is depicted as literally inhuman seems particularly tone deaf, poorly timed and is unlikely to be well received by outside observers.

    • Entirely possible, which is why I felt it necessary to mention as much in my review.

      However, one of the primary ways that we as a species internalize and digest difficult realities is by fictionalizing them. Doing so with something as loaded as colonialism or the displacement of indigenous populations is akin to walking an artistic tightrope, with accusations of soft-pedaling on the one side and insults of politicization on the other. How much is too much? How much is too explicit? How much is too little? These are the sorts of questions that ought to be asked by both the artist and the consumer.

      For instance, a significant proportion of Euro-style board games are about colonialism, albeit with all the uncomfortable stuff stripped out. Is that superior to a game like AuZtralia, which explicitly tasks you with exterminating an alien race? Is this a way of getting players to mirror the mindset of a frontier settler, or a step too close toward the distasteful historical realities that so many other games keep at arm’s length?

      Put another way, one person’s “problematic” can be somebody else’s “enlightening.” The best I can do, as a game-player and critic, is to attempt to assess the thing’s value in the most plain-faced way possible. And when something strikes me as uncomfortable, I’m more interested in evaluating what that discomfort means than in dismissing the thing outright.

  4. Your overall argument completely still stands, but a fine point:

    “By recasting its targets as extraterrestrial overlords, Wallace essentially washed his hands of the burden of history…”

    But wasn’t that really Neil Gaiman doing the hand washing, since the theming was based on his story?

    It’s an honest question–I’ve not read Gaiman’s “A Study In Emerald”, but I assume the plot points are the same in the game…

    Wallace appears to be completely in the hook for AuZtrailia, though (unless that’s based on some fiction I’m not aware of…)

    • Not really. Neil Gaiman’s “A Study in Emerald” is primarily an inversion (and a brilliant one at that) of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s A Study in Scarlet, which was the first appearance of Sherlock Holmes. As such, it deals very little with any political realities external to the story itself. Wallace has taken that backdrop and applied it to the social movements of the late nineteenth century, a step entirely of his own undertaking. In his own words from the back of the first edition rulebook:

      This work [Alex Butterworth’s “The World That Never Was”] examines the history of anarchism and social revolution at the end of the nineteenth century. I felt that there was enough material here for a board game but was not sure about the reception it would receive. I had this feeling that some players might object to a game where your main occupation would be going around blowing up various world leaders. It just so happened that I had recently read “A Study in Emerald” which suggested a solution to my problem — turn the leaders into monsters, thus depriving them of any sympathy they might otherwise garner.

      Furthermore, I should state that I don’t believe this is a bad thing in the slightest. As I stated in my comment above, I’m very much in favor of fictionalizing reality in order to make discussing it more palatable.

      • Great replies to the above two questions, Dan. Whenever you get into these sorts of discussions, I can’t help but wish you would branch out into thinkpieces or bring back the podcast to discuss this sort of thing directly with designers. I would love to hear you chat with Martin Wallace about this specifically, rather than focusing on the playability of the game the way everybody else is doing.

      • That’s an interesting idea. I’ll give it some thought. A podcast with a stronger thematic/historical/social angle might be something I’d be happy pursuing.

      • …ah, so Wallace literally did exactly what you said–so any credit and/or blame is mostly his! Thanks for the context, and reference.

        For the record, I too, think it’s a completely worthy thing to engage with difficult topics through the fiction of games (and board games in particular). Video games have really taken this an exponential lap forward in the past 5-10 years; board games seem to just be dipping their toes in (though as I recall, some the old AH bookshelf games has themes that probably editorialized some critical issues…)

        As you say, the interesting question is where the line falls–how much discomfort is too much? I has similar questions come back to mind when I say the recent reemergence of Endeavor: Age of Sail (nee Endeavour) with its somewhat controversial slavery mechanism. I’ve never played it, so I can’t weigh in on it–but it always struck me as a little problematic–however, to completely leave it out of a game simulating colonization in the renaissance seems to be whitewashing.

        And to echo Sharpsley’s comment–I agree. There’s really not anyone doing a more thematic literary kind of criticism of games (though it’s true that not all games would have the depth to dig into much). I’d love to see more here, where applicable.

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