The Downfall Of Pompeii – Nothin’ Says Flamin’ Like Lava On Pompeians

Downfall BoxFirst, let me start out by saying this: Thank you, “The Lone Voice Of Ameritrash, Steve Weeks” for championing this. I absolutely adore the shit out of this game. I mean, literally, I will never, ever say no to playing this. What’s not to love? It’s got a dash of history lesson, a really decent simulation of a truly horrible, tragic disaster, and the gameplay that allows me to literally pour molten lava directly onto my opponent’s pregnant Pompeiian targets. The only phrase to describe the theme and setting are “BAD ASS”, and the play itself really supports this assessment. I can’t believe it’s a Mayfair game and it’s got me this jazzed, because normally I’m kind of cold on their fare. Well done, Mayfair!

I had never heard of the game, at least until Mr. Weeks mentioned it, so I looked it up briefly and kind of pooh-poohed it because it looked like your standard Euro cube-pusher, of which I’ve played a thousand and of which I’ve loved merely a handful. And I have relatively small hands, to boot. But, after reading what he said, and what others said, and then seeing that it was reprinted, I gave in and bought it.  It was only like thirty dollars, so I figured I wasn’t really out much if it wasn’t great. Now, as some of you know, I very rarely ever read or watch reviews because I think it can unfairly shape my opinion on a game, so, I literally bought this sight unseen.

spockAs soon as I opened the box, I was totally underwhelmed at the amount of shit that came in the box. There’s a bunch of cubes, a bag, some tiles, and a small board with some really decent artwork on it, and a big hole in the corner cut out of it for some strange reason. Oh, and the rules, which are like 4 pages long. But wait…what is this? This curved plastic thing? IT’S A FUCKING STAND-UP VOLCANO! Oh, shit! I think I just lifted the table with my full on robo-stiffy! You curl it up, insert some tabs into it, and then stick it in the hole on the board. Holy shit, this game just went from “meh” to “Viagra” in ten seconds flat, or at least that’s what I thought at the time. My 13 year old was even giving the game the Spock eye, and asked, “So, when do we play this thing?” before sitting down at the table and punching frames.

Before I go too much further, I need to mention something important: The copy I got is missing five octagonal cylinder “people” in one color, which isn’t a huge deal, but it does piss me off, despite the low-ish price point. I haven’t contacted the publisher, but if you do buy this, make sure to count the pieces, because there should be thirty little Pompeiians of each color. So, today’s show is sponsored by the letters F and U, and by the word “Mayfair”; now back to our program.

The first thing you need to know about this game is that there is a steep learning curve, but not in the game play. That’s a breeze. What is hard to learn is how to set up the deck of cards. It’s literally Chinese algebra trying to figure out how to get the deck set up, if you read the instructions and ignore the illustration. This is what I did, because, clearly, I’m a moron. Once I read the rules and then did what the illustration shows, it was cake. But, it’s a pain in the ass no matter what, so when you’re playing, make sure to create two discard piles: one for the special cards, and one for the regular ones.

Downfall BoardThe easiest way to explain this is that there’s three card types: AD79 cards which instigate the next “phase” of the game, of which there’s three phases. Then there’s eight “Omen” cards which come out during the second phase and allow you to snatch up one of your opponents’ little Pompeians and toss them to their death in the volcano. The rest of the cards are numbered and colored, and are used during the first and second phases to place your doomed Pompeians on the board. The cards all get stacked in a sort of Pandemic style setup where you make a bunch of stacks of cards in a pre-set structure, yet in random order, so that you never really know when Mt. Sooveus is about to blow. When it does, it’s a fucking bloodbath of Survive! Escape From Atlantis proportions. And it’s fabulous.

The first phase has you playing cards and putting down people. Meh. The second phase has you doing the same thing, but now you can place two people, more or less, and occasionally you get to pick up one of those Pompeians (the colored ones that aren’t colored like yours) and toss those bastards into the volcano. The third phase, well, that’s where shit gets crazy. Now the volcano is spewing molten lava all over the place, via people taking turns placing tiles, while you move your people two by two out of the city. The cards are completely removed from the last phase, which is the longest, while you are trying to escape. Yes, that’s the game, in a nutshell, and it’s as easy as it sounds.

What I love about this is that it really does have a great amount of historical accuracy. At the beginning of the game, Pompeii is being populated, thriving, and growing. In the middle of the game, even more people come with their relatives, but some people leave due to the bad omens. Then, at the end, everybody scrambles to get the hell out of Dodge or, rather, Pompeii, while being surrounded, cut off, and otherwise hosed by lava flows. This game actually got my daughter interested in the history of the Pompeii tragedy, which is pretty cool for a game to do. She never asked me about the history of medieval agriculture when playing Agricola, if you get my drift. So, from that standpoint, not only is it fun to play, but it makes you really kind of think about how these people lived, the history, and most importantly, it really makes you feel truly awesome when you surround the cubes with searing lava, knowing that they didn’t die in vain, but rather, so you could beat your opponents. I almost smelled burning hair in my mind as I tossed my kid’s little cubes in the volcano.

The long and short is that it’s a medium-weight, very Euro-ey kind of game but that has a good bit of luck since you’re drawing and playing cards and tiles that truly change the strategy every game. There’s a ton of spatial maneuvering going on during the entire game which really is the core of the action, because where you place your dudes matters greatly towards getting the people out. The phase thing is really easy to understand and isn’t complex at all, and the only unattractive thing in the game is really the fact that setting up the deck of cards is a pain in the ass at first, but that gets easier with time. Despite its totally derivative nature, the fact is that the super-fast turns, the theme, the setting, the interesting phase mechanic and finally, the pure joy of throwing people into a volcano makes this an indescribably fun game that will see tons of play in your group.

The Circus Freaks don’t care if it’s elegant, or whatever gamer power word you want to toss in the hat. Yes, it’s pretty streamlined from a rules perspective, but that’s not what matters. We only care if it’s fun, and every single person that played it either liked it or loved it. The last time we played, I even put in a little flickering electronic tea light and that made the volcano even more bad ass. Yes, aesthetic matters, and with this game, the volcano really makes the game. I’d call it a great game, but most of the Circus Freaks call it “good-to-great”, with their main reservation being that after three games in a row, it can get repetitive. They’re forgetting that they wanted to play three games in a row, which at the Circus is about as telling a statement of greatness as you’re ever going to find.

Why The Roof, The Roof, The Roof Is On Fire:
– It has a stand-up plastic Volcano, which has to be worth something
– Really brisk, simple play makes this a game for virtually everyone
– Laughing while tossing a person (not abstract, but an individual) into a volcano never gets old
– The board art is really nice, and I love the look of the game overall
– This game is simply provides an almost inexplicable amount of fun

Why We Don’t Need No Water Let The Motherfucker Burn:
– The deck setup is truly painful at first, then mildly off-putting after that
– The octagonal cylinder people need immediate replacement with little people
– When you consider this is literally simulating a horrific event, it might bother you just like it bothers you to play Puerto Rico, the slave profiteering game
– The luck of the cards and tiles might be a little too swingy for some

I think there’s something just a little wrong with your mind if you didn’t stop reading to go buy this game. If you don’t own this, go own it. This is literally one of the best games I’ve seen in the last few years, despite being totally derivative, not novel in almost any meaningful way, and skewing simple. This game is simply a blast to play, and the only downside is that setting up the deck kind of sucks ass. But, the pleasure far outweighs the pain, and we highly, highly recommend this. If you like Survive! but want a slightly faster game, this is it.

4.25/5 Stars

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