Posted by: gschloesser | August 12, 2011

The Downfall of Pompeii

Designer:  Klaus-Jurgen Wrede
Publisher:  Mayfair
2 – 4 Players, 45 minutes
Review by:  Greg J. Schloesser  

Few volcanic disasters have captured the fascination of the world as the 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius in Italy.  The resulting conflagration completely buried several Italian cities, the most famous of which was Pompeii.  Over the centuries that followed, the city was re-built, but the original city remained buried and virtually forgotten under dozens of feet of volcanic ash.  It wasn’t until the ancient city was excavated in the 1800s that Pompeii was truly reborn, and the full scope of the disaster began to be understood. 

The study of the eruption and the ensuing fate of Pompeii is truly fascinating, and has been the subject of numerous books, documentaries and even motion pictures.  But, is it an appropriate subject for a game?  Is it acceptable to play a game that involves the destruction of a city and hundreds of lives?  That is certainly a debatable topic, but it appears that the passage of nearly two millennia has dimmed the trauma and scars sufficiently to allow the event to become the subject of a board game. 

I will steer clear of this debate, and instead concentrate on the game itself.  Designed by Spiel des Jahre designer Klaus Jurgen Wrede of Carcassonne fame, The Downfall of Pompeii recreates in a very loose fashion two distinct phases of the final years of the doomed city.  The first half of the game is dedicated to the re-population of the city, which was largely vacated following a major earthquake in 63 A.D.  The second half of the game is set 16 years later, and is a frantic race for safety, as players rush to lead their citizens out of the city walls and away from the swiftly approaching lava. 

The board provides an aerial view of Pompeii, with an assortment of buildings and monuments enclosed by the ancient city walls and gates.  Buildings are numbered and color-coded, with most providing spaces for citizens to be placed.  In addition to the buildings, there are six spaces, each with a unique symbol, where lava will eventually surface and begin spreading.  While this isn’t how the lava actually entered the city, it does make for a more interesting and surprising game.  Looming just to the north of the city is a 3D representation of Mt. Vesuvius, which is destined to erupt.  Sadly, the volcano is inert, and won’t actually erupt like those neat volcano projects in grammar school science classes.  Instead, players must content themselves with tossing screaming citizens into the volcano’s mouth. 

Each player is dealt an initial hand of four cards.  Each card depicts a color and number, which corresponds to a specific building on the board.  Players alternate playing a card and placing one of their citizens into the matching building, provided there is space available.  If a building is completely occupied, the citizen may be placed in any building. 

Normally, the play of a card only allows the placement of one citizen.  However, if other citizens are already present in the building, the player may then place “bonus” relatives, one for each other citizen located in the building.  These additional citizens may be placed in another building of the same color, or a neutral gray building.  Taking advantage of this “relative” rule is very important, as it allows a player to place multiple citizens with the play of a single card.  This is generally a good thing.  The only potential drawback is that players with the most citizens present in the city tend to be the victims of the dreaded “omen” cards.  More on this in a bit. 

Players continue placing citizens and drawing cards until the “AD 79” card appears.  This is a harbinger of impending doom, and ushers in the omen cards.  The AD card is shuffled into the bottom portion of the deck, and play continues.  Whenever an omen card is drawn, the player removes an opponent’s citizen from the city and tosses it into the volcano.  Again, this bears no relation to the actual events surrounding Pompeii’s demise, as there is no evidence the Roman citizens ever sacrificed their fellow citizens to a volcano god.  But, it does make for great drama, and some questionable role-playing humor!  The mechanism also serves to rein-in the player with an abundance of citizens in the city. 

When the AD 79 card surfaces a second time, things really turn ugly.  Players discard their cards and any unplaced citizens, and the game enters the “run for your life” phase.  First, six lava tiles are drawn from the bag.  These tiles each depict a symbol matching one of those pre-printed on the board.  The first tile of each type drawn is placed directly onto the matching symbol.  Subsequent tiles must be placed adjacent to matching tiles, the exact location being left to the discretion of the player drawing the tile.  If a space is covered that contains one or more citizens, those citizens are engulfed by the lava and tossed into the volcano, the receptacle of death. 

Player turns are now radically different.  The first action a player takes is to draw and place a lava tile.  Then, he may move two of his citizens, with the objective being to get them through one of the city gates and to the safety of the countryside.  A player generally must move two different game pieces.  A piece may move a number of spaces equal to the number of citizens occupying the space where it begins the turn.  So, if citizen Adidas is in a space occupied by two other citizens, he may move a total of three spaces.  While there isn‘t exactly safety in numbers, apparently there is speed! 

The exception to being forced to move two separate citizens is that if a citizen begins its turn alone in a space, it may be moved twice.  Thus, it is possible to use the first move to move the citizen into a space occupied by other citizens, then use the second move to allow that citizen to sprint towards safety.  

This procedure continues, with players taking turns placing a new lava tile and moving their citizens towards safety.  The lava flows grow rapidly, and citizens are frequently engulfed or surrounded.  If a citizen is completely cut-off from any possible exit, it succumbs to the toxic fumes and is removed, being tossed into the volcano.  Play continues until the last lava tile is placed, or until all citizens have either fled the city or perished.  At this point, the player who successfully guided the most of his citizens to safety is victorious.  If there is a tie, the player with the fewest citizens in the volcano is declared the savior of Pompeii, and wins the game.  

The Downfall of Pompeii is one of those rare games wherein my opinion has improved dramatically over time.  The first time I played, I was expecting a deeper game, filled with drama and strategic options.  I was disappointed, and found the lengthy placement portion of the game to be quite dull.  The race for the exits was better, and more fun, but it didn’t salvage the game.  Fortunately, I did give the game another chance, and found that I enjoyed the experience considerably more.  I believe it was a matter of accepting the game for what it is:  a light, fun romp.  While there are some decisions to be made, the game is not a deep strategic affair.  Rather, it is seems meant to be little more than a fun pastime.  In that light, it succeeds brilliantly. 

While still not terribly titillating, the placement phase does have its purpose.  Decisions must be made where to place citizens.  Do you place them in buildings near the gates, so they can make quick exits when the volcano erupts?  Do you try to take advantage of the relative rule to place numerous citizens with as many placements as possible, knowing that this will likely cause you to bear the brunt of the omen cards?  Do you place into the somewhat safer central part of the city, hoping to make fast sprints to the exits and outrun the lava flows?  These are important decisions, but none of them seem to be that critical, as there are pros and cons to each approach, and ultimately they all seem to be of fairly equal value. 

Choosing which citizens to move on a turn seems even less important, as the lava appears in a very random fashion.  A safe spot can suddenly become dangerous and untenable, while a building located adjacent to a lava flow may go turn-after-turn without being engulfed.  Generally, the idea is to save who you can, and abandon the rest.  Cruel, but effective. 

I am happy to see Mayfair bringing this game to a wider audience.  It is virtually identical to the original Amigo version, with the only real change being an improved, plastic volcano to replace the fragile paper original.  I am not sure just how much appeal the game will have with the general public, as the deadly theme is certainly to cause some consternation and objections in some circles.  For those willing to look past such things, however, The Downfall of Pompeii offers a fun gaming experience and stands in stark contrast to the grim tragedy of the actual event.

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Responses

  1. Pompeii lends gamer credibility to the disaster game genre. The rules are oddly a bit difficult to explain but gameplay is simple. Plucking habitants and dropping them into the volcano and spreading lava tiles are both fun and visceral, oddly bordering on disturbing! The final act overstays its welcome by a handful of turns. (6/10)

  2. Light fun. Almost everyone I have ever played with enjoyed it. Good for the occasional play. 7/10


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