Tag Archives: Mayfair Games

Playing With Fire – The Downfall of Pompeii review

Pompeii COVER

So, I have a fairly decent sized games collection, and as a part of doing what I do here on the site there always seems to be something new to play. That doesn’t mean that older games should be forgotten though, especially when something gets reissued and you know that people should get excited about it. Everyone’s had that moment when they play something, decide that they really enjoyed it, then promptly forget that the damn game exists and move on. However, when that happens, there’s always the chance that serendipity will do its thing and put you and that game together again somewhere down the line.

That’s what happened to me and the new version of The Downfall of Pompeii. Originally released back in 2004 and designed by Carcassonne‘s own Klaus Jurgen Wrede, it’s been reprinted in a smaller box version by the folks over at Mayfair, and glorious fate has seen the pair of us meet up again. And guess what? I’m going to tell you a secret. Pompeii is a better game than Carcassonne*, and I’m gutted that it’s taken me nearly eight years to find myself in possession of another copy of this fine little game. That’s eight years wasted where I could’ve pulled it off the shelf, sat down with three other people and said “Hey! Check out this game by the guy who did Carcassonne, which is actually a better game than Carcassonne!”. The campaign to get a copy of this into every gamers home starts here. JOIN ME.

(*OK, this is a big claim to make, but seriously, it’s true. Playing basic Carcassonne gets dull pretty quickly because there just isn’t enough to do. However, if you chuck in Traders and Builders? Man, that is a sweet game. However, if you’re just playing with a standard set, I will always say sack it off and get Downfall of Pompeii out. Seriously.)
 

Everyone knows the story of Pompeii, yes? Way back in AD 79, the volcano Vesuvius erupted with barely any warning, covering the town in lava and ash, killing thousands and petrifying the outlines of their bodies forever. You can visit the ruins of the town today. Hell, there was even a Doctor Who episode about it that had Karen Gillen and Peter Capaldi in it before they went of to take more pivotal roles. You should watch that one, it’s pretty good. Anyway, prior to the destruction of the city, it was a thriving place that welcomed visitors from all over the Roman Empire. People loved it, and it’s this balance of getting as many of your people into the city and trying to get them out again that makes Downfall of Pompeii so bloody entertaining.

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With only a few gates open, the game quickly sees pieces bunch together and things get hectic!

You are, essentially, looking at two games in one, where how you and your opponents act in the first will have a major effect on the second. The first part of the game sees you vying for spots, bringing in people to fill the buildings dotted about the town. Then, once the moment hits and the volcano bursts into action, the game turns into a race to get as many of your people out through the gates in the town walls. There’s this amazing switch from placement game to race game when the card comes out that triggers the second half of the game and all the tension that has built up while you’ve been bringing your people in boils over and the horror begins…

So, a little more detail. The first half of the game is card based with each player holding four cards, each one representing a building in the city that are numbered from 1 to 11. Each turn will see you play a card and place one of your ‘people’ – little coloured wooden cylinders – into that numbered building. A new card is added to your hand, and play passes to the next person. A little way into the game,  the first of two ‘AD 79′ cards appears, introducing a couple of new rules. First, you’re now allowed to add more than one of your people to the board, the amount of which depends on how many are already in the building you’re adding to. With spaces in the numbered building being quite limited, neutral coloured buildings can now be filled up, turning Pompeii into a thriving, bustling little place. Not all is well though – should an Omen card be drawn from the pile, the player holding it gets to select another player’s piece on the board and throw it into the volcano.

Oh, did I forget to mention that the game comes with a little plastic volcano to hurl your victims into? BECAUSE IT DOES. AIN’T NO VOLCANO IN CARCASSONNE, IS THERE?

The Terrifying Vesuvius in all its glory! All will burn!

The Terrifying Vesuvius in all its glory! All will burn in its fiery molten rock!

Ahem. Soon the board begins to fill up and the time will come when the second AD 79 card is flipped, meaning that all cards are immediately chucked back in the box along with any people you’ve not brought into the town. The time for planning is over – now, it’s all about running away, and getting as many of your people to safety as you can. Before this begins, the lava begins to flow as six tiles are drawn in turn order and placed on the board. Each tile has a symbol showing which of the six starting points to begin at or join onto, so should you have a tile with a mask on it, you must place it orthagonally next to one with the same symbol.

This rule continues as play goes on, with each turn starting with another tile being drawn from the bag and added to the board. Of course, decisions must be made – do you put the tile in the way of other players but potentially block your own path? Perhaps you direct the flow towards some of the trapped people in the town? Maybe you’ll even sacrifice one of your own people to destroy a handful of other players’ pieces? And should any people be on the space that you choose to place your tile, they are immediately taken from the board and thrown into the volcano. Making noises at this point isn’t just considered good form, it’s a mandatory part of the game.

You then get to move up to two of your people, and look! It’s another simple but really interesting idea! Each piece may only move the same amount of spaces as there are people in their original square, so with three people there, you can move up to three squares. A solitary piece may, of course, only move one. This mechanism encourages you to bunch pieces together – not just grouping your own, but joining up with other players so you can get a good boost on your next go. However, large groups of people on squares makes for a tempting proposition when it comes to the every moving lava, and with another random tile being drawn every turn there’s a high risk that whole swathes of the population can be wiped out in a couple of turns. It’s a wonderful risk / reward type of affair, equally satisfying on both sides should you manage to pull off your plan of a well timed escape, or hurl a bunch of people into the volcano with a well chose tile placement.

So, Downfall of Pompeii is a game filled with positives; simple to understand, filled with strategic decisions to make that even younger players will be good to make, a touch of randomness with the lava tiles… It’s really rather lovely. In the interest of fairness, there are a couple of very minor negatives that I feel should be pointed out; the set-up of the card deck is a teeny bit fiddly and the instructions on doing so need to be read through a few times, and the lava tiles are a little thin when you’re now used to an industry standard of at least 2mm thickness, but these are really very small downsides. The game is a joy to play, filled with wonderful moments – getting a person off the board in the face of an oncoming tide of lava, or engulfing a pile of opposition pieces with a lucky tile draw… you find your pleasures in many different ways, and you’ll rarely find a more entertaining way to spend half an hour at your gaming table.

The Downfall of Pompeii was designed by Klaus Jurgen Wrede and originally released in 2006 by Mayfair. This new version comes in a smaller box but actually contains slightly more stuff – a three tile “Dual Vent” expansion is included – and will set you back around £25. Between two and four people can play with games taking between 30 to 60 minutes. And sersiously, you need to get yourself a copy, for it is most lovely.

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Catan You Dig It? – The Struggle for Catan review

The Settlers of Catan is one of those games that even the most casual of gamers recognise. As one of the legendary titles that has earned the badge of Gateway Game, you can find it not just in Friendly Local Game Stores but also amongst the shelves at bookstores and the aisles of supermarkets (well, if you’re in the USA). The first time I saw a copy of it in Target? Blew me away. I even grabbed a copy and ran up to my wife to show her and make sure it was real, to prove that I wasn’t dreaming. Of course, she dismissed me with a derisory look because – as we all know – the streets of America are paved with copies of Trails to Rails and they’re used to that kind of thing.

Catan, along with Carcassonne, is a massive franchise. Originally released back in 1995, Klaus Teuber’s Settlers is currently on its Fourth Edition, not counting the ever-increasing spinoffs that keep the players interested and the money rolling in. There’s been dice games, console versions, artisan made tables, limited editions involving chocolate (and a beautiful Japanese set that I crave involving Megaman)… Catan sells. Thankfully, the games that contribute to this juggernaut are generally pretty good, including the recently released Struggle for Catan.

If you have any familiarity at all with the original game, you’ll be 90% of the way to understanding Struggle. A turn is very simple – trade resources, build something if you can, draw more resources… and that’s it. By collecting sets of resources and trading them in you collect roads, knights and settlements to get points. Settlements can be upgraded into cities (and enhanced yet further) to score even more and the first player to ten points wins. See? Exactly like Settlers, the difference being that there’s no board, no pieces, no tokens… nothing. Just the cards. So many cards!

No 'Wood for Sheep' jokes, please.

The resources deck you’ll know already – the usual combination of Wheat, Brick, Ore, Sheep and Wood. A player’s turn starts with trading to get the resources you’re after, normally from the five cards that are available to all called the Market. You may also draw a card at random from another player, giving them back a card of your choice from your hand. The final option is to trade with the draw stack, throwing a card on the discard pile and replacing it with the top one. Where you can trade is actually down to you owning at least one Road card – if you don’t have any, you’re limited to only trading with the stack.

Roads and Knights cards come and go - but you WILL need them.

The double-sided Road cards and Knight cards – one side showing a point icon (marked ‘A’), the other showing a benefit (marked ‘B’) – are the cheapest buys in the game. When you pick these up, they’re to be laid in separate piles on top of each other in an ABAB fashion – having four Roads will give you two points and allow you to trade two cards, for example. Knights work in the same fashion except they allow the drawing of an extra resource card should the correct side be facing up. There is a limited supply of both these cards, but if it runs out, fear not – you can still buy them! You just take them from an opponent, as decreed by the Destiny Card. This simply sits in middle of the players showing whether you take from the player to your left or your right (of course, in a two-player game it’s not used as that would be pointless). Some purchases give instructions for the Destiny Card to be flipped so your Roads and Knights are never 100% safe. Cities and settlements, however, are yours the moment they hit the table in front of you.

Settlements grow into Cities, Cities can then be expanded.

When a Settlement is bought, it scores you another point. Upgrading it to a city (by paying the resources and flipping the card over) gives you an extra point and also has an immediate effect on the game. The cards are shuffled at the start of play to randomize them and when turned over reveal either a Market Day (where all five currently available resources are discarded and replaced with five new ones) or a Brigand Attack (meaning that anyone with more than seven resource cards must discard down to that number immediately). Cities can then also be extended, a further upgrade that can be expensive but definitely worth doing, granting not only extra points but also a permanent boon for you. Roads or Knights can be protected, resources can be used as wild cards, that kind of thing. Getting a City Extension quickly is often the key to a swift victory.

And here's what they can eventually become!

And swift it will be. Even with a maximum four players you can finish a game in around 30 minutes. The rules are so streamlined that even novice players will grasp them quickly, yet Struggle for Catan isn’t a game to dismiss lightly. Sure, it’s not the deepest game in the world but it never claims to be. Even the German subtitle, Das schnelle Kartenspiel, means Quick Card Game. It’s an enjoyable diversion that will appeal to many, just enough to scratch the Catan itch, particularly if you don’t have the time or the people to spare for a full game of Settlers. Some may accuse it of being yet another multiplayer solitaire game and admittedly it can be played that way but then you’re not really embracing the spirit of Struggle. It should be played in the manner of a group of people all fighting to climb to the top of a greasy pole, knocking down your opponents as much as you can in order to get ahead. Steal from your peers as often as possible, beat your foes into the ground and do whatever you can to win – struggling to victory in the nicest possible way.

The Struggle for Catan was first published in 2011 by Mayfair Games. Designed by the father of the Catan series, Klaus Teuber, you should be able to find a copy of it for between £12-15. Don’t let the fact that you can play it in 30-40 minutes distract you from the fact that this is actually a rather strategic little game. If you’re looking to get your Catan fix, you’d be well advised to try this one out. Don’t forget to check out the official Catan site for more details on the game. Oh, and if anyone has a spare copy of that Rockman /Megaman edition floating about that needs a new home, do get in touch…

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The Gambler – Lords of Vegas review

I don’t get the fact that many gamers have an aversion to dice. To me, they’re the epitome of gaming, that element of chance that I crave when I play. I know that there are a huge amount of folks out there who have that Play To Win attitude (and I also know there’s a place for them in our hobby) but for me… well I don’t mind if I win or lose. Playing is important – the fun is in the journey, not finishing in first place (although on the rare occasions that happens, it’s obviously brilliant). To those who must win at all costs, the dice are a mortal enemy, a terrible and random beast that can foil their plans at any given moment. For me, any game that involves dice presents an ever-changing challenge that must be overcome and of course – through skilful play – anything can be mitigated. Perhaps.

Of course, one place where the dice truly rule are casinos, especially at their spiritual home – Las Vegas – and when Mayfair Games announced the release of Lords of Vegas last year I knew I wanted in. A game where you vie for control of fledgling gambling halls, where everything can turn on you on the roll of a dice? It demands that you embrace the ethos of the city and sometimes give everything up to chance… well, nearly everything. With a combination of skill and not a little luck you could end up a winner, even if poverty is a more likely option.

The premise is pretty basic – build a range of casinos in order to get as many points as possible through the game. The city of Las Vegas is divided up into blocks that you’ll get to develop your properties on – you’re randomly allocated two at the beginning of the game and claim a new site by placing a marker on the space stated on the card you flip at the start of your turn. This triggers the first of two phases – the payoff. Any site that is owned by a player nets them $1M, while any built casino the same colour as the card can provide those all important points as well as potentially getting them a lot more cash as well. Points are also allocated on this phase, with the casino’s boss getting one point for each tile that makes up the building.

OK, so if a brown card is pulled out, the red and yellow player both get $4M. Red is in control as they have the highest numbered dice in the casino, so they get three points.

After the money’s been paid out (and remember, everyone gets something as long as they own at least one empty lot), you move on to the Actions phase. This is only for the active player, and as long as you have the money to fund it you can do as much as you please. Building gets you a coloured tile of your choice and costs you the price marked on the space. Reorganizing lets you reroll all dice in a casino at the cost of $1M per pip (particularly useful if you’re not in control), and you could also Gamble at another player’s casino if you’re in the need of extra funds (or fancy giving them away)! There’s also extra options if you’re in control of a casino. You have the choice to Sprawl – aka: expanding into an unclaimed tile – but this is risky and expensive. It’ll cost you double the price stated on the board and the card for that site is pulled from the deck, you immediately forsake control to the current player. The final action choice is to Remodel, changing the colour of all tiles in a casino – very useful if a certain set of colour cards are appearing regularly and you want to switch stuff up a little.

So, enough of the how – why should you be playing Lords of Vegas? This is a criminally underrated game that seems to have slipped under the radar of many people in the gaming community. Put simply, it’s a game that reminds you of the joy that comes from play. The only way you’ll make your way to victory is by throwing yourself into the game wholeheartedly. Buy those casinos! Sprawl into unclaimed areas and hope to god that that you don’t end up having to hand over control because of an unlucky card draw! If you’re low on cash, gamble against an opponent, and if you’re desperate to control an area, pay up and roll those dice – you never know what may happen. The best moments I’ve had with this game have been those do or die dice rolls involving a huge casino where I maybe have a couple of low-value dice.

The view from above. Check out the score track - later jumps require you to run ever larger casinos to move further. This is NOT easy.

I remember handing over those millions to pay for the privilege of re-rolling. Picking up the dice one by one. Shaking them up in my cupped hands and dropping them to the table, they tumble and spin. A couple of fives, the only one still going is mine… and it lands on… a two. All that money down the pan. It could as easily have been a six, giving me full control of a lucrative casino but – in keeping with the theme – that’s Vegas, baby! In the last episode of the podcast where I spoke to Peter Olotka, something he said really resonated with me: “Fair isn’t fun”. Lords of Vegas could easily have been a deep strategy game where every single decision affected everything else, but would it have been fun? This game can kick you when you’re down, but there’s always something you can do that could possibly turn your fortunes around – and isn’t that what the fantasy of Vegas is all about?

James Ernest and Mike Selinker have come up with one of those rarities – an event game. These are the games that, more often that not, see your discussions begin with “Do you remember when…?” upon looking back at them. They’re the ones that saw the balance of power swing with the destruction of an alliance, the knife in a back of a friend or (in the case of Lords of Vegas) an incredible dice roll. You know the kind, the ones where someone has a fistful of dice in their hand, they get out of their seat and utter a silent prayer. Like the guy down to his last chip at the craps table who walks out an hour later with an immense pile of cash, it’s glorious when miracles actually happen. And in Vegas? Well, that happens every day, doesn’t it?

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Lords of Vegas was published in 2010 by Mayfair Games. Designed by Mike Selinker and James Ernest, between two and four Lords (or Ladies) can vie to crush their opponents into penury. All this fun for under £30? Who can say no?!

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