I’ve decided today to do a review of a board game that’s been increasingly making a good impression on me and leaving me  feeling that more people should be playing it: “The Downfall of Pompeii.”

This post was all conceived last night while my wife and I hosted a games night (seems a bit much to call it a full-fledged games night considering it was just us two and a friend of ours). Anyways, despite there just being three of us playing a board game (I generally prefer board games when five or six people are playing), we had a great time playing! The object of the game is to get the most of one’s people tokens safely outside of the city. Yes, it is a simple and straightforward objective, however its how the game goes about setting the scene and handling going about winning the game that makes “The Downfall of Pompeii” such a smart, elegant and enjoyable game to play.

Some Quick History & Then the Review

The Downfall of Pompeii is—you guessed it—centered on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in A.D. 79, an eruption that lasted two days, killed more than 10,000 people and buried the city of Pompeii and some surrounding towns under ten to twenty feet of volcanic ash.

…just in case you didn’t know where Pompeii was (beyond simply “somewhere” in ancient Rome).

Pompeii is significant because the suddenness of the eruption and the sheer amount of ash burying the city combined to preserve the site so well; so much so that after excavations of its ruins in 1748 began, the site gave archaeologists an unprecedented snap shot of what everyday life was like in a thriving Roman city 2000 years ago.

Thoughts: “The Downfall of Pompeii” is genius!

The genius of Pompeii is not that it’s essentially two games in one, both parts blended seamlessly together; it’s in how the game handles being two games in one. The first half of the game revolves around populating the city with potential survivors and placing them in a way that will hopefully maximize their movement allowance once the lava starts to flow. The Omen cards throw a little good-spirited vindictiveness into the game; but because the very specific construction of the deck effectively guarantees that the first few rounds are like “training wheels” rounds (which is unlike games like Carcassonne, where those who’ve played previously have a decided advantage in the first few turns over those who have never played before), Omen cards tend to play only a minor role in the game. The deck’s construction also puts the eruption of Vesuvius at a somewhat random moment in the game: you will get a minimum number of turns of play before the first half of the game is over, but you cannot plan for exactly when the volcano will erupt. All you can do is make the most of the time you have. A stroke of genius that levels the playing field and counters those who overanalyze and mathematize every game they play.

The second half of the game focuses on the players trying their best to move their own ‘people’ tokens safely past the flowing lava tiles, out of the city before it’s too late and everyone in the city dies. Because the placement rules for lava tiles are very specific, the second half is not simply a game where the person who places tiles according to the best plan will wipe out his opponents’ people the fastest and win the game. What’s also nice is that the movement rules for people tokens (when combined with the placement rules during the first half of the game), helps mitigate the randomness of lava-tile placement in the game’s second half.

Lastly what I really like about the game is its winning conditions: the player to get the most of his people tokens out of the city wins, period. And that’s important because throughout the game, players will be losing people tokens and having them thrown into the volcano quite regularly—this potentially makes no difference to the game’s conclusion (unless you get a LOT more of your tokens thrown in the volcano compared to the other players). The tokens in the volcano are there just as a tie-breaker mechanic in case several players save the same amount of people escape from the city. This ends up being a really good game mechanic as well because a player cannot guarantee himself a victory by simply enacting a points-denial strategy upon his opponents.

A Little More In Depth

The full contents of the game displayed.

Game Set Up

Setting up the game is straightforward—but definitely will feel unnecessarily complicated the first time you set it up (it isn’t complicated; it will just feel that way the first time or two). It’s actually not that bad, but the reading of the rules while doing set up will undoubtedly cause you to wonder why the game is being so oddly specific in all its set-up directions.

First, each player chooses which colour of tokens he’ll use to represent his people trying to escape Pompeii; the game is very specific about how many people tokens players get: the number of people playing determines how many tokens each player gets (the more people, the less tokens per person); because of this, the game doesn’t actually give you the same quantity of each colour of tokens.

Second: deck construction. The game moves along according to the whim of cards drawn from the game’s deck; so that the game works as it is supposed to, this deck must actually be constructed before the game starts—a process that feels very weirdly arbitrary. The cards in the game are of three types: Pompeii cards, Omen cards and A.D. 79 cards. I won’t go into the minutiae of how to construct the deck, but it involves creating several different piles, each with different mixtures of those three card types in them. Until you’re actually playing the game (as I’ve said already), putting the deck together feels strangely specific for no apparent reason.

Third: the game board. Setting up the game board is the un-weird part: you unfold the game board, then “construct” Mount Vesuvius (a plastic sheet that wraps and folds into an open-topped cone) and finish by inserting the volcano into the spot made for it in the game board.

The Game Starts

The game is essentially made up of two acts, and I refer to the game’s two halves as ‘acts’ because they are completely separate from each other. The first act revolves around populating the city of Pompeii with people: potential survivors (victims). The game fundamentally changes in the second act where the object becomes to move all the people (of your own colour) to safety outside the city, via one of the city’s seven gates.

Just before the game starts, there are seven piles of four Pompeii cards laid out on the table (left over from the deck construction phase) and each player takes one face-down pile as his starting hand; the remaining piles are removed from the game.

The aforementioned selection of starting hands.

When it’s a player’s turn, he plays a Pompeii card from his hand. The Pompeii card will have a building number and colour; the player then places one of his people tokens into the appropriate building (at this stage, building colour has no bearing on game play) and then draws another card to fill his hand back up to four cards.

This goes on until the first ‘A.D. 79’ card is pulled from the game’s deck—it should be noted that the game’s construction rules always put the first of the two A.D. 79 cards ninth from the top of the deck. The first A.D. 79 card represents Mount Vesuvius seizing and releasing minor tremors; with that, a new type of card (the Omen card) will now start appearing when cards are drawn, and a new rule gets added to the game as well: the Relatives rule.

RELATIVES

When playing a card to place one of your people markers, if a token gets placed in a house, where there are already one or more tokens there already, you are allowed to place a second token in a building of the same colour or in an unmarked beige building.

OMEN CARDS

When you refill your card hand to four cards, if you draw an Omen card, you immediately choose any one token on the board and cast it into the mouth of the volcano. Then you draw another card to refill your hand and game play moves on to the next player….unless, of course, you happen to draw another Omen card (which does happen).

The End of Days: Vesuvius Erupts!

Game play continues with players playing cards, placing tokens (it should be noted that all the buildings have finite space to hold tokens) and refilling their hands—with the occasional ‘person’ being flung into mouth of the volcano. When the second A.D.79 card is drawn, the second act of the game commences: all the players’ hands of cards along with the deck and the discard pile are put away for the rest of the game. Then the bag of lava tiles is brought out (I guess for historical accuracy’s sake, even though we’ll call them lava tiles, we’ll consider the lava tiles to actually be the Pyroclastic flow that was responsible for the carnage and the burying of the city).

Jim good-naturedly responds to my drawing 2 Omen cards in a row…and playing them both on his people.

The turn structure now changes. When it’s his turn, a player first draws a lava tile and places it on the board, either connected to another lava tile with the same corner icon, or on the starting spot that has the same icon as the one in the lava tile’s top right-hand corner. He then gets to move two of his people in their attempt to escape the city.

Pyroclastic flow early on in its dirty work.

Moving People

Moving people is where the game reveals the strategy behind placing your people in the first act of the game. A people token’s movement allowance is 1 square plus 1 more square per extra people token occupying its square at the start of that token’s movement turn (if you have a token in a spot where the total number of people tokens is four, your token can move four squares, the next token in that spot could move three squares etc etc). Movement is handled just like tile placement: no diagonals allowed.

Game play continues in this manner, ending only when (A) all the city’s gates have been blocked off by lava tiles and no remaining people can escape (they then get thrown in the volcano), or (B) when one player moves his last people token out of the city (the remaining players will each get one more turn before the game then ends, very much in a sudden-death overtime manner). As mentioned at the top of this post, the winner is simply the person who gets the most people out of Pompeii, with the victims inside the volcano only being used to settle ties.

So why do I like this game so much? I think it’s because the game lends itself well to throwing a new person into the game and not having to worry whether they’ll get the hang of it soon enough to have a chance of winning or not. I also like that the game plays in 20 – 40 minutes, so playing the game back-to-back is still satisfying.

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