(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.