Last Aurora

January 27th, 2021

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In spite of what the cover/title combination might lead you to believe, this isn’t about some petrolheads racing each other with the prize being the planet’s very last woman named Aurora, but qualifying this racing/worker placement/resource management game is quite difficult, so let me give it a go… If Mad Max somehow impregnated Jamaica (the boardgame, not the continent), then this would be the end result 9 months later, provided Jamaica decided to keep the baby.

And why wouldn’t she? It’s gorgeous to look at, sleek to play, and has theme pouring out of every last gas-guzzling, gun-toting orifice.

It also boasts a component-light box, great artwork, some fairly chonky, thematic, post-apoc worker miniatures, and although it appears daunting at first glance, most of it is driven via only a handful of very concise phases. A deck of cards forms the main engine behind it, and it even has cards that effectively act as combat dice. Now, dice are cheap cocaine to me and I’ll take them over any conflict resolution mechanism, but this was quite an elegant way of blending in the game’s various iconography while cutting out any potential premium polyhedrons that other producers are enamoured with for no reason.

If only FFG were able to un-ass their own heads and take note…

Last Aurora, by Pendragon Games, who have previously published a lot of games, has players take over a battered convoy made up of trucks and carriages transporting survivors and their meager supplies across a frozen, oft times irradiated environment. They’re all racing to be the first to finish so they’re - ironically - the very last convoy ever to board the icebreaker Aurora and get the hell out of that warmth forsaken place.

But things aren’t as simple as getting from point A to point B-gone.
All along the way they will come across dangerous areas and enemies intent on killing them. Resources and personnel will have to be managed, and fame will also play an important part come the end of the game (as a side note, don’t underestimate shooting raiders as their loot plays an important part in enhancing your convoy and boosting your score).
Players also have to stay mindful of their survivors’ abilities which can only come into play if the latter are well fed and rested. Along the way, certain sacrifices will have to be made when it comes to individual survivors eating up some radiation and subsequently dying for the greater benefit of the group...

Life in L.A. basically plays out like a constant struggle for resources while only just staying ahead of the competition and having to use up your last remaining slivers of luck and energy to dodge the ravenous enemies almost always biting at your heels.
Just like in Last Aurora!

At this point it bears mention that I backed this on Kickstarter and it came with plastic pieces replacing the wooden ones for many of the components, but while these improve the overall look of the game, I wouldn’t say they’re 100% needed to get the most out of the experience. Actually, cubes might be less unwieldy when it comes to placing them on your tableau or the various item/location/survivor cards resources are assigned to, for instance.

Speaking of tableaus, what LA does very well is convey a lot of information in a clear manner using a simple setup and a few decks of cards. I wasn’t kidding when I said this was light on components: once you take the survivor minis out of the box there’s barely anything in there.
The cards are split into a main deck and several smaller ones that enhance the setting and the events that the main one is the driver for.

Convoys will drive around the map (which is available out of the box in two variants with different paths and rules), and come across various items, resources, and random characters that will always cycle out as the game progresses. This is done to eventually drive the more “expensive” cards’ cost down as well as to keep things moving along. An added effect is that players might miss out on useful things if they’re not fast on the draw.
The phases of the game are few, easy to get to grips with, and mostly made up of what I’d call the more or less primary ones, i.e. phases during which a bulk of stuff happens: exploration and movement. The rest of the phases are pretty much ancillary to these two.

Convoys will send their survivors out to retrieve resources, items, and other survivors during the exploration phase, which is also the main moment to build up your convoy with new trucks and trailers, vital tools in ferrying all your people and supplies to the end of the journey. After that, players are faced with a choice: feed the survivors you’ve sent out to cure them of exhaustion and be able to have them rested and take advantage of their abilities during the movement phase, or let them stew in their own fatigue, to only be recovered during the next turn.
Seemingly small choice, big repercussions.
There’s a big element of managing your space between survivors, resources, and the ability to allocate damage to your convoy, an all-too-common experience once you draw an enemy card from the deck and they start drilling you full of holes. And not in the fun way.

The movement phase is self-explanatory but also comes with more choices that may be made in terms of how far to go and how much gas to burn in order to do so. There are shortcuts you may take if you have the right gear (i.e. truck), and this is one of the moments when radiation can damage your survivors should you stop in an irradiated town. Initiative is driven by the order the convoys sit on the map, with the cars in the rear exploring first, and the cars ahead moving (and shooting) first.

Because Han Solo.

Shooting at raiding (NPC) convoys is a bit of a crapshoot as the person who shoots first or even the most isn’t always the one to get the most rewards out of it. Things are more luck driven than most other aspects of the game here, but I think it underlines a sense of chaos and frenzied, marauding survivors just latching onto whatever prize is within reach and immediately running off after a battle. It’s also meant to somewhat taper off the advantage of shooting first.

Because... Greedo?

This, along with most of the other phases, available actions, and components, goes a long way towards building a sense of desperation and time running out that’s compounded by the 6-turn limit to reach the ever-advancing Aurora which will not wait for your lazy ass to recruit one more half-frozen basket case along the way.

Knowing when to feed your survivors and when to let them slowly recover from exhaustion can also be a difficult and very important choice. Having them available for both exploration and movement can mean you’re doubly as effective as someone who puts all their eggs in one radioactive basket and hopes for the best for the latter half of the turn.
Building the convoys up ends up being a balancing act of people, resources, trailers, armor, weapons, storage space, and the proverbial kitchen sink/cannon combo, and while it sounds like a lot, the process is fun rather than daunting.

I’ve only played 2-player games thus far, but I’ve really enjoyed Last Aurora, so much so that it may become my go-to racing game. Some people would say that it shouldn’t fit the racing game niche since moving is such a singular, isolated part of its greater engine, but I’d say that this is its main objective. And this is my website, so they can go write their own review.
It’s also of note that the game might be a little on the heavy side in terms of first-time players wrapping their heads around it, but I don’t see it taking up much more than a couple turns for even them to come to grips with the mechanisms at play.

I also have to spotlight the amount of thematic cards and rules, with pretty much every piece you draw or handle and every little thing you do making thematic sense in the way your engine builds and your fame accumulates. You’re going to lose fame if you raid a rundown town, for instance, and your bio-recycling container will yield you one food at the end of the turn. In terms of survivors, medics heal and explorers are great at taking advantage of the action options on the board more so than other survivors. It all just… makes sense!

What’s even more exciting and interesting is the publishers have made card templates available to the masses, so that players may create their own survivors/objects/cars/etc. This is sure to help build a community and facilitate the creation of custom content.
I’m honestly not sure why more designers/publishers don’t just do this out of the box. Legend has it, making blank templates available this way would cause FFG to outright implode.

Thanks for reading, and have as nice a day as you deserve!

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Tags: Costin Becheanu, Grizzly Gripes, Boardgames, Kickstarter