The Daily Worker Placement

Saturday, July 13, 2024

You Really Should Play: The Downfall of Pompeii

by | published Tuesday, May 23, 2023
Closeup of Downfall of Pomepii board showing lava tiles and escaping pieces

I played The Downfall of Pompeii yesterday for the first time in years, and you know what? This almost-twenty-year-old game is like a breath of fresh air in 2023.

For one thing, it’s not defined by its mechanics. There’s a bit of this and a bit of that but no core mechanic. Instead, gameplay naturally flows around the story of settling a Roman town on the lip of a semi-active volcano and then running for the exits once the lava starts flowing. And this ain’t no Feldian point salad: you win by having the most dudes of your colour survive at the end of the game and that is that.

Closeup of four cards from The Downfall of Pompeii game: an Omen card, two numbered building cards, and an Eruption card

For the first few turns players simply take turns playing a card from hand to place one of their citizen-cylinders into the like-numbered building. Then they replenish their hand from a deck which has been seeded stochastically (ie randomly but somewhat predictably) with Omen and Eruption cards. Once the first Eruption is drawn players gain the ability to add multiple people to the town–but every time a player draws an Omen card they get to throw someone else’s dude into the ACTUAL FRICKIN VOLCANO and there is nothing more satisfying.

View downward into the plastic volcano of Downfall of Pompeii showing seven pieces thrown inside.

Oh, the humanity.

Everyone knows there are seven Omen cards in the deck but they turn up unpredictably so it’s definitely possible for one player to get hosed by the others. 2004 doesn’t care about your feelings, Trevor!

After the seventh Omen has come and gone it’s only a matter of time until the second Eruption card turns up and at this point you throw the cards into the box because now it’s a tile-laying game: the lava is going to flow, filling up the town and killing everything in its multiple paths, and you are going to desperately move your citizens to the nearest gate–until some schmuck blocks that exit with a lava tile. You’re never going to save everyone–but you just have to save more than everyone else.

But if all this sounds too chaotic and Munchkiny to you, I’ll point you to the game’s 7.1 rating on BGG and also the fact that it was designed by Klaus-Jürgen frickin’ Wrede, he of Carcassonne and…well, more Carcassonne. There is actually some very interesting strategy going on under the hood in both pre- and post-eruption parts of the game. It’s tempting at first to crowd your own pieces together apart from everyone else’s, but actually, in the tradition of games from Diplomacy to Modern Art to Terra Mystica, you want to be in the middle of the action with your pieces intermingled so that other players are incentivized not to lava you to death because then they’d be killing their own dudes off, too.

Boxcover art for The Downfall of Pompeii, showing Romans in togas running away from erupting Vesuvius down a village street.

Obviously Downfall of Pompeii doesn’t have the heft of today’s dreadnoughts–”What?? The cards can only be used one way? Where are all the tracks?”–but you pooh-pooh it at your own risk. Everyone walking around stroking their chins asking “What kind of games bring more people into the hobby?” should take a serious look at Downfall of Pompeii for an example of a game with (a) a unique theme which (b) is totally integrated into gameplay and © can be taught in under ten minutes. 

But I guess if Fantasy Flight ever reissued it it would have to become Star Wars: Downfall of Tatooine or something. Sigh.


  • David W.

    David is the Managing Editor of the DWP. He learned chess at the age of five and has been playing tabletop games ever since. His collection currently consists of about 600 games, which take up way too much space. His game "Odd Lots" won the inaugural TABS Game Design Contest in 2008. He is currently Managing Editor of The Daily Worker Placement. All in all he's pretty smug about his knowledge of games and game design.

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One thought on “You Really Should Play: The Downfall of Pompeii

  1. Alice Connor says:

    COMPLETELY AGREE. The first time Taylor and I played this at GenCon a couple years ago, we first thought “what’s the big deal” and then we threw someone in the volcano and thought “Yasssssss!” Delightful game, a little thinky, but mostly just a bit puzzly and charming. Two thumbs up.

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