This is a second look at challenge systems in competitive games with a survival focus, and also a second look at the designs of Martin Wallace, following The Witches case study.
It was originally published at Meeples Together.
Publisher: Stronghold Games (2018)
Cooperative Style: Survival-Focused Cooperation
Play Style: Combat, Resource Management
Following the Restoratonist War, Cthulhu and his minions retreated to Australia, leaving behind a poisoned and ravished world. While exploring the continent, players will lay down railroad lines to transport their armies and to connect farms, but as they do so they will encounter Lovecraftian horrors that are slowly waking up. Each player wants to kill the most horrors and build the most farms, to earn the most points, but if Cthulhu destroys any of their home ports, he has the opportunity to win the game himself.
Though AuZtralia is a largely competitive game, it contains a challenge system that can bedevil players and even win the game. The system focuses on a set of monster counters that are scattered about the board. Players can freely reveal them and fight them with their armies. In other words, they represent a simple skill-test combat system.
However, things change when the challenge system truly activates, on “round” 22. From that point on, a challenge event occurs every other “round”. These events do one of three things: waken sleeping monsters; spawn new monsters at temples; and remove “personality” cards from play. This ensures that new monsters constantly appear, whether the players are attacking them or not. Meanwhile, the wakened monsters also move every “round” based on the draw of cards.
The revelation and movement of monsters is all managed through a combination of arbitrary and set triggers. A card draw says when a monster is wakened, but the precise monster is determined by a set number on the board: they’re laid out in order across the playing area, and the sleeping monster on the lowest number always wakens next. A card draw then says which monsters move, and those monsters move in a set direction to the nearest farm or port. But, if there’s a tie, a random compass arrow on the card decides which direction the monster prefers.
The combination of arbitrary and set triggers creates a nice balance: the players have sufficient information to plan for which monsters they’ll face, but they never know exactly when the monsters will be coming, and they may hope a monster straddling a line between themselves and another player will head in the other direction. The card draws create tension, while the set numbers permit strategy. This system is also surprisingly simple for something that allows freeform movement across a hex map. It’s comparable to the system found in Arkham Horror 2e (2005), which moved certain creatures in certain directions based on arrow colors, but with more depth; it’s full of nice ideas for the challenge systems of fully cooperative games.
Though we say the challenge activation occurs every “round”, that’s not quite correct because of the unusual turn ordering used in AuZtralia. It’s based on time-based turns, where players take actions that take one or more turns to complete, then must wait until all of the other players catch up with them. The strategy game Thebes (2007) is probably the best-known game with this turn structure, though Martin Wallace previously used it himself in Tinner’s Trail (2008).
Beginning with “round” 22, the challenge system also activates every time unit. If the players are all taking actions that cost one time-unit, it goes every round, but if they’re taking longer actions, the challenge system may actually get multiple actions between a player’s turns. This creates a remarkable disincentive to take the more complex actions in the second part of the game and can also create a high degree of tension if a player decides to do so. Tension and disincentives are always good in challenge systems, so this is another worthy addition to the game’s challenge mechanics.
However, the challenge system does more than just attack the players. It can also win the game. When Cthulhu destroys a player’s home port or when all the players exceed 53 time-units, then everyone scores up the points. Players earn points based primarily based on the farms they built and the monsters they killed, while Cthulhu earns points based on the farms he destroyed and the monsters that weren’t killed (especially if they weren’t revealed).
It’s entirely possible for the challenge system to win, especially if Cthulhu brought the game to an early end by destroying a player’s home port. This is a nice change from survival co-op games like Martin Wallace’s own The Witches (2013) where the challenge system never seemed like a threat to victory, let alone pure competitive games like Mistborn: House War (2017), which include a challenge system that can’t win. Though the challenge systems in both of those games might spice them up through the introduction of chaos, adding the possibility of all the players losing can create even more notable dilemmas for the players.
So how do you entice cooperation in a fully competitive game? AuZtralia offers two possibilities.
First, players can kill-steal: the victory points for killing a monster are divided up equally among all players who damaged it, no matter how little or how much effort they contributed. This is a fundamentally non-cooperatively mechanic that nonetheless creates cooperative gameplay, which is an intriguing combination.
Second, players may be forced to rush over and save an opponent from a rampaging monster headed toward their port. Generally, if Cthulhu achieves an early end to a game by destroying a port, he’ll win the game because of the number of monsters he still has on the board. So, other players may try to save an opponent’s home port if it’s under serious threat. This is much more typical of the cooperation implicit in survival-focused competitive games, but is interesting here because it links into dangers to the individual players.
Despite its Lovecraftian origins, there’s little adventure system in this game, where the players take the roles of big, undefined expeditions to Australia. There is, however, a very interesting combat system, which may not be specifically adventure-like but which is similar to the more complex subsystems found in adventure games.
In a combat, a player gathers together a number of different types of units. He then flips combat cards one at a time. Each one reveals which units do damage; the more different sorts of units a player has, the more damage he does. It also reveals how much damage his units and his own sanity takes. A player can leave the combat at any time, which means that it becomes a press-your-luck exercise: a player must decide whether he thinks he’ll get lucky and finish off a monster or unlucky and lose units or even his sanity.
Martin Wallace has long used alternate win conditions in games like Mordred (1999) and Liberté (2001) where a losing position can suddenly become a winning condition if the game’s conditions change to support that alternate victory. It turns out that’s a pretty short step to a survival-focused competition, where the challenge system can win if the players don’t watch the underlying game simulation.
This is Wallace’s second entry into the survival-focused competition space, following The Witches (2013), but AuZtralia is a vastly superior offering. Its challenge system is more surprising and more dangerous and can create real tension. It shows how effectively challenge systems can be integrated into competitive games.
“I always start with the theme. I then read as much as I can until ideas start forming in my head.”
—Martin Wallace, Interview, Brassgame.com (2014)
The original article can be found on the great Mechanics & Meeples