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.
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?
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.