The Movie, The Tragedy, The Song, The Board Game — A Review of The Downfall of Pompeii

 

Seriously, looks EXACTLY like me. Wow. Spooky. So Weird. Like a mirror.

Seriously, looks EXACTLY like me. Wow. Spooky. So Weird. Like a mirror.

I suppose it’s possible that back in 79 A.D. on the Mediterranean that there was an epic story developing. I suppose that a slave who looks exactly like Jon Snow (Kit Harington) could become an invincible gladiator who finds himself in a race against time to save his true love. I imagine that his true love could be the drop-dead gorgeous daughter of a wealthy merchant, and who has been unwillingly betrothed to a corrupt Roman senator. Totally plausible. And then can you imagine that if things weren’t tragic enough already for Jon, that his race against time is actually about outrunning an impending pyroclastic flow (we’re talking hot gas and rock traveling at up to 450 mph (that’s 700 kilometers to my friend Andy), rushing down like hell unleashed at a blazing 480 degrees Fahrenheit (250 degrees Celsius).

pompeiiboxImagine no longer, my friends, all the multimillion dollar eye candy, drama and beauty and no doubt incorrectly portrayed tragedy of one of histories well-known and documented natural disasters is now in a theater near you. It’s Pompeii, the movie!

In conjunction with this movie’s release, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the most excellent board game of a similar name, The Downfall of Pompeii, which, incidentally, was really hard to find for a while, but is now back in print. You should totally buy it. You should also virtually explore Pompeii on Google Street View. Yes, you can roam the streets of ancient Pompeii in the comfort of the toga you’ve been saving since college. Right now. On the Internet.

pompeiistreets

The FUNYUNS® of Pompeii

pompeiifunyanThe game board is a representation of the Pompeii itself, along with an actual three-dimensional volcano which you’ll be using as a garbage can for eliminated tokens. (FUNYUNS® are not included.) The city is overlaid by a grid in which you’ll find buildings of various sizes. Each building contains between one and four circles. These are the spaces where you’ll be placing your people, the citizens of Pompeii. All is well in Pompeii when the game begins, and one can imagine Jon Snow falling even deeper in forbidden love while Mount Vesuvius rumbles and looms ominously amid the musings of so-called madmen who portend a future calamity. I’m just spit balling here.

Your job in the first phase of the game is to stock the buildings of the city with people, represented by wooden discs in your color. You’ll do so on your turn by playing a card from your hand that corresponds to a building color on the board. A blue cards lets you place a piece in a blue building. Simple.

pompeiicardYou keep doing this until the A.D. 79 card appears. This signals the start of the second phase. You get to keep adding people to the buildings on the board, but now you may be able to add more than just one. Say you play a brown card. If you place a piece in a brown building that already has 2 pieces in it, you get to place 2 bonus pieces. More pieces is good. The more citizens you have when mother nature goes ape shit, the better chance you have of scoring points at the end of the game.

Another aspect of phase 2 are the Omen cards. Draw an Omen card and you get to be a big jerk. Take one of your opponent’s pieces off the board and dramatically deposit it into the maw of  Mount Vesuvius itself. This can — and probably should — be accompanied by a mocking, screaming sound, evil grin or what have you.

Finally, the second A.D. 79 card appears, and this signals the eruption. Game play completely changes. Run for your lives; burning chunks of tephra (you’re learning so much!) begin igniting fires throughout the city.

Now it’s time to wipe out whole city blocks and buildings with lava tiles.

Ahhhhhhhhhh!!!!!!!

The back-breaking, giant-sized Pompeii game board at Gen Con 2013.

The back-breaking, giant-sized Pompeii game board at Gen Con 2013.

Your turns will now be spent maneuvering your citizens through the city in an effort to get them through the gates. You’ll also be drawing and placing a lava tile. The tiles have various symbols on them which correspond to symbols on the map. Draw, for instance, the lava tile with the gold coin, place it on the gold coin. Future gold coin tiles have to be played adjacent to gold coin tiles. There are six different symbols to ensure maximum mayhem.

Soon vast areas of the city will be inaccessible and burning as you plot your escape routes, determine which pieces to sacrifice, all while closing off exits and trapping your opponents. Each piece you manage to move out of a gate is a citizen saved. The game ends with the pull of the last lava tile from the bag. Count your escaped citizens to determine the winner. With any luck, Jon Snow and his love are among them, and the corrupt senator (your friend across the table, perhaps), is now swimming in the caldera.

If there’s any “negative” thing to say about this game, and it’s not really a negative so much as a necessary annoyance, it’s the process of getting the deck set up. Since there are three phases to the game, the deck is built in a very particular way to ensure randomness within the game’s structure and with regard to the number of players. The rulebook lays out the process step-by-step, and if you follow it precisely, you’ll soon be up and running for your life.

While you’re riding that river of lava, you might as well check out this most excellent song by Bastille, named “Pompeii.”

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