The Downfall of Pompeii

(image courtesy Drew1365 @ BGG)

There’s something captivating about natural disasters. Not that I necessarily enjoy partaking in them but it’s nigh impossible to flip past one on the Discovery Channel without stopping for a few minutes. I even watched a really interesting special on Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. The Downfall of Pompeii manages to take that horrible disaster and turn it into one heck of a fun little game.

Pompeii starts off innocently enough. During the first half of the game players move their set of people into the city. The map is divided into city blocks and buildings with a varied number of available spots on them. On your turn you’ll play a card and place one of your people in a building matching the number on your card. You’ll also get to place additional people based on how many others were in the building you picked; they call this the “relatives” rule but I call get getting as many people on the board as possible. There are seven gates that exit the city so generally you’ll try and get people placed as close to the exits as possible.

Vesuvius is getting angry, though, and during the move-in phase you might draw an Omen card which lets you toss someone into the volcano. A little mean-spirited perhaps but erupting volcanoes and earthquakes generally aren’t very forgiving. Once the 79 A.D. card is drawn Vesuvius erupts and the game changes to escape mode.

At this point any player pieces that didn’t get into the city goes away; nobody wants to move in now! As players take their turn they first draw a random lava tile from the board, place it next to another lava tile matching its symbol and them move two of their people. If the lava tile lands on a city block with any pieces on it they all go into the volcano. When you move a piece you get to move it a number of city blocks equal to the number of pieces in that block. The winner is whoever got the most people out alive. If there’s a tie then the winner is whoever has the fewest pieces in the volcano.

The rules might sound a little wonky and I’ll admit they are. Placement rules can be a confusing at first as its counter-intuitive… why do you get to move more people in if you move someone into a building with others? There’s no thematic answer but the key is it sets players up for the second phase. When escaping it doesn’t thematically make sense that a piece moves further if it was in a crowd but the mechanics work really well. You need to have your pieces spread around to avoid getting gobbled up by lava, close to the gates for a quick escape and in groups so they can move quickly but you don’t want to help other players out too much. It’s a brilliant trade-off and really makes the game.

Even though the rules aren’t exactly intuitive, players will generally catch on after a round or two. The game moves very fast and while it might be prone to a little bit of analysis paralysis (especially in the second half of the game) any single turn generally doesn’t take too long. It is a light game and certainly luck dependent; random card and tile draws will influence the game. I do think that good planning will generally outweigh the luck of the draw in most cases.

Most importantly, though, Pompeii really evokes a great sense of prosperity followed by dread. In the first half things are pleasant and prosperous as everyone moves their people into the city. Once those lava tiles start hitting the board, though, the transformation of the board as the player pieces flee towards the exits is too much fun.

I highly recommend Pompeii. It’s a great little game that plays in under an hour. The components are gorgeous, especially the awesome plastic volcano (as pictured). You can’t help but make screaming sounds as you toss people into it! Yes, the game has some dark humor but it works. Even with its somewhat violent nature I think it makes for a fairly good gateway or family game. It’s simple enough to teach (players catch on fast) and I think the theme and components easily help draw people in. Pompeii might not hold much appeal for a more hardcore gaming group but for something more casual it’s a personal favorite.

Tag 6 = 6 Nimmt = Category 5 = Slide 5

(image courtesy cagriggs @ BGG)

A few weeks back I did a quick write-up on a great little filler game called Tag 6! which is also known in other parts of the world as 6 Nimmt!, Ta 6! and a few others. When it finally hit US shores it was called Category 5 and had a hurricane theme slapped onto it. The theme really didn’t make that much sense and the artwork was ugly. Needless to say I don’t think that version sold well.

I was pleased to find out that the game has recently been republished in the US as Slide 5 which appears to either have a monkey theme or skiing theme depending on which retailer you are looking at. The good news is that it seems to be available in larger stores like Barnes & Noble. From what I can tell all of the boxes say “Wolfgang Kramer’s ‘6 Nimmt'” on them so you’ll know you are looking at the right thing. It’s also nice that they give Kramer credit (typically mass-market games never mention the designer) although most will have no idea who he is. Unfortunately the box I see at Amazon with the monkey theme says “Even a monkey can play”; even it if may be true that type of phrase doesn’t make the game look particularly good. Don’t pass it up because of the artwork!

Nice to see a great little game like Tag 6! get more exposure. It’s easily my favorite filler. You can teach it in just a minute or two and play a few rounds in not much more than that. The game is deceptively simple, though, as there certainly is more to it than pure luck. If you want something quick, light and fun you probably won’t find much better than this. It also supports up to ten players which is something of a rarity in games.

If you don’t have a friendly local game store to visit or if they don’t carry the game, check out Barnes & Noble or Amazon.com and see if you can’t snag yourself a copy of Slide 5.

Recent Acquisitions

I recently participated in a local math trade at BGG and got a few new games in return along with picking up some new ones as well. Here’s a quick hit of what I got. Don’t be surprised if you hear more on these in the near future:

Fire & Axe: A Viking Saga – One of the big games I was hoping to get off of the math trade. The game is gorgeous, I love the map and the components. We got to play a three player game the other night and I like the core of the game but I don’t think it works very well with three; four or five should be good. I’m going to wait to talk about this until I can play it more, but I will say that it’s not really what I expected; it’s an interesting mix of efficiency and push your luck mechanics. Once I get a game or two in with four or more I’ll share some thoughts on it.

Battlestations – The other big game I was hoping to get from the trade. Battlestations is very much a board game/RPG hybrid, more so than Descent and its ilk. Players make characters that play out specific roles on their starship and fly around completing missions that generally involve flying the ship around, shooting other ships and boarding them (or being boarded). The components are really simple but the rulebook is very well done and will take some time to get through. I did break down and ordered the minis as I think they will add a lot to the game. Really want to break this out but I need to wrap my head around the rules first… don’t expect to hear about this one any time soon.

Drakon – This is the 3rd edition by Fantasy Flight Games. I gave it a quick look and it seems to be fast, fun and fairly mean. It’s a pretty simple “screw your neighbor” type game where players build out a dungeon in an attempt to collect a set number of coins. In typical FFG style the components are great and very high quality. Seems like it’ll play best with more but we’ll see. Shouldn’t be too tough to get this on the table; it’ll be interesting to see how it goes over.

Vegas Showdown – Great little auction/building game from Avalon Hill. You’d never guess that by looking at the box and components though. Avalon Hill really needs to find new artists. I’ll probably write up something on this soon, but needless to say it’s quite a bit of fun.

Wings of War – I received the Famous Aces pack as my final game in the trade. I’m a little disappointed as it comes with lots of planes but only one of each main maneuver deck and one type of damage deck. At some point I may have to pick up an expansion or two so there’ll be enough variety; still, there’s enough in the box to have fun. Played a quick round of deathmatch the other night and we had a good time but I really need to look up some objective-based scenarios soon as I think that’s where the game will really shine. I will say that I think I much prefer the damage deck to a hit table as it really speeds up the game.

Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization – Here’s my big purchase. The game may not look like much at first – just a bunch of cards, a confusing board and some cubes – but the buzz at BGG is off the charts. Word is that it’s the closest thing to Civilization the computer game that has been made in board game form. I’ve skimmed through the rules and that certainly looks to be true. There’s far more to this game than I originally expected and I think it’s going to have some serious staying power. Only problem is that the new reprint by FRED Distribution has some printing issues including missing cubes, misprinted cards and even an incorrect score track. Thankfully they seem to be responding quickly and will be getting replacement components out soon.

Pandemic

(Image courtesy Zman @ BGG)

Cooperative games are an odd beast and it takes a certain type of gamer to enjoy them. Strictly playing against a game system is tricky as it needs to strike the right balance between difficulty and enjoyment. Too hard and people get discouraged and wonder why they’re even wasting their time; too easy and there’s no real fun to be had. Some games, like Shadows Over Camelot and Saboteur, solve the issue by having a few unknown traitors in the game. Others, like Pandemic, go the strictly cooperative route and hope the system is engaging enough that players come back for more.

I’ll admit, at first look I wasn’t very excited about the game. The artwork is fairly basic and the components are average at best, although they are far too large for the playing board. Cities are fairly small dots on the map. A single player pawn is as large as a city dot and you could have multiple players in a single city along with a few wooden cubes. Hopefully they can work that out in a later reprint.

Also, I thought the game looked like it was going to be far too easy. Players are working to prevent the outbreak of four different diseases across the world. Each player is randomly assigned a special role that lets them break some rules. On your turn you get to travel around the map and try to clear out cubes that represent outbreaks. After you take your action you draw a couple of cards and then resolve the infection. The infection deck contains one card per city and for each card you draw you add one cube in that city. If the city already contains three cubes, instead of adding another cube there is an outbreak and you add a cube to each adjacent city, which could result in a chain reaction of outbreaks. Each outbreak advances the outbreak track and the game is over if you hit the end. The game is also over if you run out of cubes of a specific color or if the players exhaust their deck, so there are lots of ways to lose. You win if you can find cures in all four sections of the world which involves collecting sets of cards for a given area and playing them on your turn.

The player deck is similar to the outbreak deck as there is one card per city, but there are two differences. First, there are a few special cards mixed in that let you break the rules a bit. Second, at the start of the game the player deck is pre-built with a certain number of epidemic cards. When an epidemic card is drawn you immediately resolve the bottom card of the infection deck, reshuffle the discarded infection cards and place them on the top of the infection deck.

Yep, that’s right, they go back on top. Now the game gets significantly more interesting and very dire. It seems so easy at first as you think the cubes will be spread around the map nicely but once that first epidemic hits the panic settles in. All those cities that just had infections will be getting them all over again. Suddenly you find yourself planning out your moves carefully and coordinating with your fellow players to make sure you maximize every move.

Three of us played three games last night and we lost them all although they were generally very close. The fact that we were willing to play three games back-to-back certainly says something about the game. It plays fast – maybe around an hour – and it’s fun watching the world’s ebb and flow of disease as it pops up and you work to (hopefully) keep it under control.

Pandemic’s fast play time helps to avoid the “why the hell are we playing this” syndrome, which is a good thing. It’s challenging without feeling impossible but you need to be ready for a good dose of luck. Our last two games were very close and we probably would’ve won had our infection draws gone differently, but we may have been able to better optimize our moves too… hard to say. It does also start to feel less like a multiplayer game and more like a puzzle that the group is collectively trying to solve. Maybe we played it a little loose but we were each giving just as much input on other’s turns as we were putting thought into our own.

I think I still prefer semi-cooperative games like Shadows Over Camelot and Saboteur better as they add in a fun bluffing element for the traitors and a guessing game element for those trying to weed them out. Pandemic is fun though and the theme and mechanics work really well together. I’d love to play it some more with different numbers of players to see how it works out. If you like cooperative games it certainly seems like a good pick.

Antike

(image courtesy MacGerdts @ BGG)

Sorry for the lack of updates, I’ve been fighting off a nasty cold and the weather hasn’t been cooperating much. Thankfully Monday night I was finally able to get some gaming in. I got Antike in trade not long ago and have been itching to try it out so we decided it would hit the table.

Antike is a game of conquering Europe (and eastern Mediterranean if you use the flip side map) for up to six players. Sure, there are a lot of games that involve beating each other up in Europe but Antike has a few unique things going for it. First off, there is zero luck; not a single die roll or card draw. Second, it uses an interesting mechanism called the rondel for choosing player actions.

I’m a big fan of luck. Rolling lots of dice makes me happy. I find some sort of sick enjoyment from managing the randomness while pulling from a deck of cards. No luck can be a scary proposition for me in a game and I was a little worried about that in Antike. Most games of this sort at least use a d6 for combat but not so here. Battles are simple and brutal; in general, like units are eliminated 1:1. If two players each bring three soldiers into battle, nobody is left with soldiers at the end of the day.

Initially that makes the proposition of combat a little scary. You know going into battle if you’ll win or lose and at first it seems like that would lead to some serious stalemates on the board. While I’ll need more plays to determine if that’s fully true, I really didn’t get that feeling in our three player game. Combat isn’t a means to an end in Antike, it’s a tool that you exercise at the precise moment you need it. Figuring out those moments and trying to make them happen is extremely fun and rewarding.

The game is played to a number of victory points which varies based on the number of players. Points are earned in a few different ways: owning cities, building and destroying temples, controlling seas and researching technologies. Combat becomes a tool for either earning those victory points or denying someone else points. What makes it really work is that you earn points for reaching various milestones. For example, you earn a point for every five cities you control. At the end of your turn, if you own five cities you earn a point. That point will never go away, even if you drop below five, and you’ll never re-earn that point. Your next point from cities will come when you manage to control ten cities and so on. That system allows you figure out which attacks will push you to your goal. You might push hard to take a city from someone simply to earn you your tenth for an extra point and immediately abandon it because that city is now useless to you.

Actions are taken by moving around the rondel which is a circle divided into eight parts. You get to move three spaces for free and need to pay resources if you wish to move further. There are three resource gathering actions and their counterparts along with two maneuver actions. Iron is used for building new units, so iron and arming are directly opposite each other on the rondel. This clever system not only makes it easy to remember what resources are used for (just look opposite on the rondel) but also means that you can’t generate a resource one turn and immediately use it the next without paying out an additional resource. You end up making some tough decisions on where to move on the rondel as you’ll have lots of things you want to do and getting back around can take a couple of turns if you pass up something.

Turns fly by too, which is great. It’s a longish game… I would plan for three to five hours depending on the number of players, but that’s pure speculation on my part based on our one play. Each turn is fast though so it never feels like there’s much downtime and you have plenty to be thinking about while others are going. With no luck involved you really have nobody but yourself to blame if things go poorly!

My only major complaint is that the game was a tad fiddly. There are little cardboard coins to represent your resources that you are always earning and spending, plus you have to add up how many resources you gather all the time. I think I’m going to print out little sheets so players can easily track how many resources they are gathering to help cut down on time and potential errors.

Overall I was really impressed and can’t wait to play some more. I thought the no-luck factor would turn me away but it ends up working just fine. It’s a very dynamic game – our map changed a lot and key territories were hotly contested – so there’s plenty of excitement. You do have to play it a bit differently that your typical conquest game though as you need to pick your battles wisely and decide when to push for points. If you like conquest style games, though, I’d really suggest giving Antike a look. It’s something a bit different and it won’t suite all players but, like me, you may be surprised at just how fun it is.

EDIT: I may have overestimated the length a bit. Thinking back our learning game with three was around 2 1/2 hours and we probably could’ve done it faster than that. Although I still think it’ll take awhile with six, especially depending on how analysis prone your players are.