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The Downfall of Pompeii

Reviewed by: Herb Levy

(Mayfair Games, 2 to 4 players, ages 10 and up, 45-90 minutes, $35)

downfallpompboxKlaus-Jürgen Wrede is probably best known for Carcasonne, the wildly popular tile laying game (featured in the Summer 2001 GA Report) that has gone on to spawn a host of spin-offs. But this designer’s portfolio is more than a single game. Nearly a decade ago, Wrede found his inspiration for a game in one of the spectacular disasters of nature: the volcanic eruption that devastated the city of Pompeii back in 79 AD. The game appeared and, in a relatively short time, like the city of the name it bears, disappeared. The result was a secondary market that pushed the price of getting a copy into the three figures. But, like the city itself that rose from the ashes, The Downfall of Pompeii has reappeared on store shelves under the Mayfair Games imprint.

The Downfall of Pompeii comes bookshelf boxed with a mounted board of the city divided into building areas, a deck of cards (packaged in their own box), cylindrical wooden pieces, a volcano (!), lava tiles (with a bag to hold them) and a nicely illustrated rule book.

The board depicts an aerial view of the city of Pompeii. The major buildings of the city are colored (gray, turquoise, brown and purple) and numbered (from 1 to 11) with places (indicated by circles) for pieces to occupy; smaller “neutral” cities (in beige) also dot the landscape. The ominous volcano (a plastic piece that hinges together and sets into the board) looms by the play area. The game is played in two phases: first you populate the city with your pieces; second, you try to escape from the volcano spewing lava!

Everyone begins with a set of cylinders (people, in game terms) in their chosen color. Then the card deck is prepared.

Thre types of cards are in the game: 53 Pompeii cards, 7 Omen cards and 2 AD 79 cards. The Pompeii cards are shuffled and the cards dealt to make 7 four card stacks. The REMAINING Pompeii cards and the 7 Omen cards are now shuffled together. Then 10 (or 15 of these cards, the number depending on the number of players) are dealt out and one of the AD 79 cards shuffled into that pile. Now, the stack from which you dealt those 10 (or 15) cards gets the second AD 79 card placed on top of it. Finally, two of those original four card stacks are put on top of that AD 70 card. The deck is now ready. Players claim any one of the remaining four card stacks (as their starting hands) with any unclaimed piles out of the game.

downfallpomppcsDuring the first phase, players will play a card to get their people into the city. Cards depict the number (and color) of a particular building. A piece is placed in the building that matches the card. Some buildings have two parts to them. If the card you play matches one of those, you can place your person in either part. After playing a card, you draw another one so you maintain a hand of four. Play continues in this manner until the first AD 79 card is drawn. Now, “Omens” and “Relatives” come into play. The Omen rule is simple. When you draw an Omen card, you simply remove another player’s piece from the board and unceremoniously toss it into the volcano! (You then draw another card to maintain your hand size.) Relatives work differently. In this stage, when you place a piece into a building that also contains other pieces (yours or another player’s), you may now place one of your pieces in another part of the same building (if this building is one of those with two parts to it) or another building of the same color or in any of the neutral (beige) buildings on the board with a vacant space in it. In all cases, you may not put more than one of your pieces in a building on the same turn. It should be noted that, if all spaces of a building are occupied and you play a card for that building, that building card is considered “wild” and you are allowed to place one of your pieces anywhere. (But this does NOT trigger any “relative” effect.) Play continues in this way until the second AD 79 card is drawn! Now we put our cards aside because the volcano has erupted!

With the volcano now active, lava begins to flow. In turn order, players begin to draw lava tiles from the bag, one a time, until six are drawn. These lava tiles have an icon on them which shows where they are to be initially placed. Once six tiles have been played to the board, the second phase begins. Now, it’s run for your lives!

On a turn, a player must draw a lava tile and place it on the board, horizontally or vertically (not diagonally) next to a lava tile with the matching icon. Should a played tile cover up a space occupied by one or more pieces, those pieces are tossed into the volcano! Once done, the player may move two of his pieces in trying to get his pieces to safety through any of the city’s exits. Movement is based on the number of pieces in the square your piece occupies. So, for example, if I wish to move a piece that shares a space with three other pieces, I’ll be able to move my piece four spaces. (Although occupancy is limited during the first phase of the game, here, in the midst of panic as lava spreads, there is no limit to the number of pieces allowed in a space.) The game ends when the last lava tile has been drawn from the bag or if all pieces have left the board OR pieces remaining are trapped and cannot escape (and, as a result, get tossed into the volcano). Now we total up!

Each surviving piece of a player is worth 1 point. Pompeii is very well balanced and final scores often tend to end up very close. Pieces in the volcano, when revealed, serve as tie-breakers (the player with the fewest pieces in the volcano gets the edge). The tie-breaker comes into play more often than it does in other games.

The variable set up of the cards prevents card counters from knowing what buildings will be occupied and also makes for a surprise as to precisely when the volcano erupts. Because of this, it is imperative that you get the set up right. While set up is not difficult, the construction of the card deck reads like the recipe from a mad scientist’s laboratory. It’s not difficult (and the rulebook provides step by step directions and pictures to guide you) but with so many steps, be careful. A mistake in building the deck can skew game play (and game play time) drastically. And be sure to put the volcano together correctly; the tabs go on the outside in, not the reverse. (Do the reverse and the volcano could erupt just as it did in reality, jettisoning game pieces all across the landscape!)

In this new edition of the game, Mayfair has stayed true both to the graphics (a very dynamic scene of citizens stunned by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius) and the play with the only gameplay addition being the optional inclusion of “wild tiles” (credited to Morgan Dontanville) which are two sided lava tiles that may be applied to the board using either side. Placing tiles makes for important decisions. Do you block exits to make it harder for your opposition? (If you do, do you have an escape route for YOUR pieces planned?) Do you spread the lava away from your people? (Obviously yes, but what if the opposition has more people in close proximity? Will you still be able to outscore them?) These two-sided tiles add a bit more control to the destruction you decide to unleash on your fellow players.

The Downfall of Pompeii follows in the tradition of other games such as The Sinking of the Titanic (Ideal, 1976) and Survive (Parker Brothers, 1982 and reissued by Stronghold Games) in channeling disaster into entertaining – and gripping – play. Production is first rate (that volcano is hard to resist) as is game design. Add to that the undeniably perverse pleasure in tossing your opponents’ pieces into the volcano and you have a game that deserves a slot on your gaming shelf. This game has been too hard to get for too long. Mayfair Games should be commended in serving up The Downfall of Pompeii to the gaming public once again.


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