Board game review: Downfall of Pompeii

I originally posted this over at Board Game Geek in July 2011 and it proved to be the most popular review I did there. I’m reposting it here as I’m working on a post on gateway games, of which this has become one of my favourites.

The Downfall of Pompeii (from now on referred to as Pompeii) is a board game of two halves, moving from cards to tile placement as you first populate Pompeii with citizens and then get them the hell out of Dodge once the volcano begins to erupt. It easily plays in under an hour (if you’re not chatting and smack talking too much), can be taught as you play and scales really well from two to four players.

For a good video rules round up, see Timothy Pinkham’s short but sweet one here.

The Pompeii board is split into a city made up of 70 squares, plus the dreaded volcano. Taking up about half the squares inside the city are 11 numbered buildings and 13 unnumbered ones, each able to house between one (the outhouses of doom*) and seven citizens. Also in the box you’ll find a simple eight-page rulebook, a pack of cards, a bag of tiles and pieces in four colours (red, blue, yellow and… black – sorry green player!) and an ACTUAL VOLCANO! Well, a plastic one at least.

Putting the 50 to 60-card deck together is a little fiddly, but once done the game flies by. You get a hand of four cards each and a turn is as simply as play one, draw one, until the card phase of the game ends. The cards each have a number on them corresponding to one of the numbered buildings: at first you simply play a card and place one of your pieces (citizens) into the appropriate building.

After a while, you can also place ‘relatives’ – extra citizens in your colour you get as a bonus for playing your citizens into buildings that already have people inside (these can go into the unnumbered buildings or buildings of the same colour, many of which are in good locations).

While simple, there is plenty of good gaming techniques at work here. Certain building are closer to exits, or otherwise strategically advantageous, while holding a card until someone else has been into a building may let you play relatives – but you may miss your chance at a good spot. Or perhaps playing into a weaker building will be worth it, as the relatives you place afterwards will be in great areas.

You have no idea when this phase will end (a card is placed randomly, near-ish the bottom) and your very limited choice (four cards) can make things pretty tense. But, to lighten the mood, there are also ‘Omen’ cards allowing you to sacrifice other people’s citizens into the volcano. It’s hard to describe just how satisfying this can be.

Once the appropriate card is revealed, this phase of Pompeii abruptly ends and any remaining cards (and unplaced citizens) are put back in the box. Out comes the tile bag, and the real fun begins – run!

Volcano smoking, or monkey parping?

There are seven exits around the edge of the city and from now until the end of the game it’s your job to get your guys out, while doing your best to feed your opponents’ citizens to the lava.

Harsh, but fair. Again, the concept is simple – pull a tile from the bag and place it on the board, killing any citizens that are summarily covered in lava or completely blocked for an exit (these are placed in the volcano for safe keeping…).

There are six different tile types, each with its own starting square in the city. The first tile of a type drawn is placed on its particular starting spot, with following ones of the same kind placed N,S,E or W of it; preferably wherever will cause the least hassle for you and the most mayhem for everyone else. After a total of six tiles have been placed in this way, each following draw also allows you to move two of your citizens.

It’s a delicate balance of keeping your guys far enough away from the lava to be safe, while making sure you don’t get cut off – you’ll more than likely find yourself giving up on a few stragglers, to ensure others will make it out alive. This continues until either everyone is out (or in the volcano), or the bag of tiles runs dry (any citizens still on the board if that happens are, you guessed it, plopped in the volcano. Whoever gets the most citizens out alive wins, while those of yours in the volcano will count against you if there’s a tie.

This is a simple game that moves effortlessly between two very different mechanics. Everything in the box is good (if not spectacular) quality, the rule book does its job and, apart from the slightly annoying card deck set up at the beginning, it sets up and packs down fast.

Pompeii’s simplicity and elegance lets you immediately get into the feel of the game, and while the central theme is ‘screw you’ it plays so light and fun that it hasn’t been an issue with any of our more gentle gaming friends. Its airy, light and comedic feel is one of the games major strengths – you don’t feel like you’re every move is an aggressive one, even though they pretty much are (a bit like Guillotine).

I play The Downfall of Pompeii because I need a light, fun game in my collection that actively encourages me to throw my friends kicking and screaming into a volcano – it has a level of satisfaction that’s hard to quantify. Yes, there’s luck in spades and you don’t have to be big or clever to catch on, but once in every session I want to pull out a game that doesn’t make my head hurt. I’m yet to find a more fun one than this that also has a bit of strategy, as well as a perfectly fitting theme.

The mechanics come so naturally to gamers (cards, tiles etc) that you can relax and let the lava/eruption-based banter take over while still enjoying a great gaming experience. And for non-gamers, it’s very easy to teach. I have no problem in whole-heartedly recommending this to anyone but the staunchest anti-luck gamer.

*This is our stupid name for the buildings, and should in no way be blamed on, or associated with, designer Klaus-Jurgen Wrede.

3 thoughts on “Board game review: Downfall of Pompeii

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