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.
Martin Wallace birthed a new subgenre with A Few Acres of Snow. Here was deck-building but tied to a map, every single location represented by a card. Seizing territory not only meant extra points and opportunities, but also more regions to administer, and your deck and hand could gradually choke on bureaucratic smoke that distracted from the conflict at hand. It was deviously clever. Also incomplete.
Wallace’s Mythotopia sought to fix up the concept, broadening it from two to four players and sanding down some of the system’s rougher edges while giving others their due. It made for a good time, as far as I’m concerned, though still an experience where a single pulled thread might unravel the whole thing.
Now Wallace is back with A Handful of Stars, the last in his trilogy of deck-building-on-a-map games. And as we’ve come to expect, there are some excellent ideas on display here — and a few that could have used some extra work.
With a title like Moongha Invaders: Mad Scientists and Atomic Monsters Attack the Earth!, you know what you’re going to get. At least in general. You won’t be managing any trains, that’s for certain.
What made the original version of A Study in Emerald one of my favorite games of 2014 was the constant feeling that absolutely anything might happen. As a loyalist (or anarchist) trying to sustain (or smash) the regime of alien overlords that had settled in quite nicely by the time Sherlock Holmes appeared on the scene, you’d be going about your business when everything went suddenly and irreversibly off the rails. Perhaps a zombie horde began spreading across Europe, or some vampires seduced your best agent into their coven. Meanwhile, a mi-go concealed a crucial assassination target’s brain on Pluto, Cthulhu consumed London for brunch, and Otto von Bismarck marched the entire Prussian army into Madrid. And the game was only half finished.
Martin Wallace’s new take on A Study in Emerald is less interested in star-crossed anarchic madness and more in being easy to get along with. Gone are the original game’s excesses, flights of fancy, and more outlandish occurrences. In fact, all sorts of things have been stripped out, right down to basic concepts like the dangers of traveling across occupied Europe or the individual appearance of various historical figures. In their place is something that will undoubtedly strike fans of the original as somewhat withered.
Paradoxically, it’s also the better game in a lot of ways.
While the European powers of our universe were bloody to the elbows with the “Scramble for Africa,” invading, occupying, and colonizing the continent down south, their near-exact counterparts of Greg Broadmore’s Dr. Grordbort’s setting had already taken to the stars — to invade, occupy, and colonize everything other than Earth. It’s the difference between Heart of Darkness and Heart of Darkness on Titan, with helpings of big game hunting, resource exploitation, and suppression of unruly and many-appendaged natives.
Considering the delightful eccentricity of its setting, it’s hardly surprising that Onward to Venus should be designed by Martin Wallace, whose unconventional design philosophy resulted in that other alternate-history mashup, A Study in Emerald. But where A Study in Emerald was about the paranoia that surrounded European anarchist movements in the 19th century (plus aliens), Onward to Venus is concerned with the aforementioned explosion of colonialism at roughly the same time. Plus aliens.
Not too much in common, then.
Martin Wallace has already earned the distinction of being one of my favorite game designers this year thanks to his wonderful and anarchic A Study in Emerald, which casts its players as saboteurs, detectives, and political agitators fighting against (or secretly supporting) their alien overlords during the dawn of the 20th century. It’s basically the unholy spawn of H.P. Lovecraft and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and as far as genre mashups go, that’s the one that pushes all my buttons with squamous webbed toes. Which is why, upon hearing that Wallace was making another deck-building-on-a-map hybrid, I did a little happy-dance.
Sadly, Mythotopia is more of a spiritual successor to Wallace’s earlier title A Few Acres of Snow, a game I only played once and wasn’t particularly taken with — a relief, as it later turned out that a single strategy (ominously deemed the Halifax Hammer) was so potent that all other strategies soon crumbled before it.
The question, then, is whether Mythotopia transcends that earlier game’s shortcomings, or if there’s a Mythotopia Mallet waiting to fall.
By the year 1882, the Old Ones have already ruled the planet for seven hundred years. They sit upon the thrones that may have otherwise held human occupants, and their whims and appetites are law. All of humanity is a plaything, a subject, the victim of powers beyond their comprehension. For the foreseeable future, as with the known past, there is no hope that mankind might cast off the shackles of eldritch oppression, might seize what is theirs and awaken to a new dawn.
That is, until the invention of dynamite.
This is the bleak world of A Study in Emerald by Martin Wallace, an inverted — or rather, a perverted — take on the era of Sherlock Holmes, full of all the real-world romance of anarchism, but without all the unnecessary guilt over exploding royalty. Since they’re, y’know, aliens.