Friday, February 21, 2014

Game Review: The Downfall of Pompeii by Mayfair Games

The Downfall of Pompeii by Mayfair Games

Some games take their inspiration from historical events. You'd think it would be tough to base a game on the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79. The Downfall of Pompeii recreates that experience in a light and exciting two-to-four-player game.

The game is played in two phases. In the first phase, players place as many of their people as possible in the city, hopefully close to exits. Players have a hand of cards with numbers corresponding to buildings on the board. Each player plays one card, puts a token (one of their people) in the appropriate building, and draws a new card from the draw deck. Turns continue until the first AD 79 card is drawn.

Sample cards

Then, play continues with some new rules. First, when placing a token, if the building already has other tokens, the player may place additional people in buildings of the same color or in the grey-colored neutral buildings (representing relatives fleeing into the city). Second, occasionally the new card drawn is an Omen card, which means a person needs to be sacrificed to the mountain. The player who drew the card chooses a token to put in the volcano (presumably, some other player's token). Third, if a building can't fit anymore people, then the card can be played as a wild card allowing placement of a token in any building on the board, but the relative bonus does not take effect, i.e. no extra tokens are placed. Eventually the second AD 79 card is drawn and the lava starts flowing.

The lava tiles

In the second phase, players start drawing lava tiles from a bag and placing them on the board. Each tile has one of six symbols on it, indicating where the tiles can be placed. Each symbol has a starting square for the first tile with that symbol. Any subsequent tile is placed next to a tile with the same symbol. Naturally, if lava flows to a square with tokens on it, all those people are tossed into the volcano, representing their death. The kicker is, six tiles are drawn before players are allowed to move their tokens out of the city. After six tiles are placed, players continue to draw and place one new tile, but also they move two of their tokens. A token moves the number of squares equal to the number of tokens in their starting square. If a token starts from a square with two other tokens, it moves three spaces. If it is alone on a space, it moves only one space. Two different tokens must be moved unless (1) a player only has one token left, then it can be moved twice, or (2) if a piece is alone, it can move one space and then move again according to how many pieces are in the new space. Gates are disbursed around the walls allowing people to escape the city. Unless the lava flows across the gate!

The game board

The game ends when the lava tiles run out, i.e. when the volcano explodes and kills everyone left in the city. Whoever gets the most people out by the end wins. If there is a tie, then whoever of the tied players has the fewest tokens in the volcano wins.

The game moves quickly but has some interesting strategic decisions. Should a player fill up one building in hopes of getting more relatives out later? Will another player be able to jump in? Who should get thrown into the volcano when an Omen card is drawn, the person with the most tokens in the city or the one who just threw one of your tokens in the volcano? Should players concentrate on getting people closest to the exits out or people in the middle of the city? And what's the best (or worst) placement of the lava tiles? It plays between 30 and 45 minutes, allowing multiple plays in an evening. We've enjoyed it and even come up with a Doctor Who variant for people who want to save more Pompeians.

The theme is a little dark but the game is a lot of fun. We did play it in Pompeii which made it extra fun. And the map is surprisingly accurate!

Zombie Apocalypse Appropriateness: While not a good solo game, this is also not much of an upper in a zombie apocalypse. It's pretty easy to imagine some player whose token has just been thrown into the volcano exclaiming, "I bet you'd sacrifice me to the zombies just as quick as you sacrificed my token to the volcano!" Awkward. The last thing a group needs is people thinking about betraying each other in an extreme survival situation.

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