Today we’re going to take a look at a classic Mayfair eurogame, The Downfall of Pompeii.
While this game was originally published in 2004 I didn’t actually get my own copy until earlier this year in 2022.
The big question I will be answering is, of course, how does this venerable board game hold up eighteen years later?
Disclosure: We found a bargain bin copy of The Downfall of Pompeii at Princess Auto and decided to give it a shot. Links in this post may be affiliate links. Using these links doesn’t cost you anything extra and helps support this blog and our podcast.
What you get with The Downfall of Pompeii
The Downfall of Pompeii was designed by Klaus-Jürgen Wrede, who is best known as the designer of Carcassonne. It features artwork from Oliver Freudenreich, and Guido Hoffmann and was originally published by Amigo games in Germany in 2004. It came to North American shores thanks to Mayfair in 2006.
While Mayfair games is no more, and this game is technically out of print, you can still find it at various online and physical stores. For example, we got our copy dirt cheap at, of all places, Princess Auto here in Windsor.
The Downfall of Pompeii is listed as a two to four player game, though I would say it’s really a three or four player game. Games are quick with most being done in under an hour, with things getting quicker the more experienced the players are.
In the Downfall of Pompeii, you play out the tragic history of the city of Pompeii which rested at the foot of Mount Vesuvius. You start by moving people into the city, then continue to fill the city by inviting even more family members to move in. Then, of course, disaster strikes and the game swaps to being all about how many people you can lead to freedom before Vesuvius destroys the city for good.
Despite the somewhat dark theme, this is a family weight game that we have enjoyed with both adults and kids alike.
For a look at the surprisingly nice components, for the time, that come with this game was published check out our The Downfall of Pompeii unboxing video on YouTube.
Overall the component quality in this game is pretty impressive, especially the plastic volcano that is easily assembled and taken apart between plays. Not only is it plastic but it’s also textured. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that the best way to make this game even cooler is to toss an LED tea light into this plastic volcano.
Besides the volcano, you also get a number of lava tiles, a bag to put them in, a single sided board, a deck of cards, a very clear set of instructions and cylindrical player pieces in four colours. These player pieces are the cause of one of my biggest complaints about this game.
While you get wooden pieces in four colours and they are hexagonal so they won’t roll away, which is great, you don’t get the same number of pieces for each colour. When playing the game, the number of pieces you use is based on the player count and when playing with less than four players you are forced to use specific colours.
We all found this highly annoying. How much more could it have cost to include a few more wooden cylinders in the game so that all colours were available at all player counts? Would this have put the game at a price point that no one would buy it at?
The edition of The Downfall of Pompeii I own is the second edition of the game, which was printed in 2013. This edition includes some minor rule tweaks, like using two 75AD cards, plus it comes with three “duel vent tiles” which were originally convention promos.
How to play The Downfall of Pompeii
You start a game of The Downfall of Pompeii by placing the board over the assembled volcano. Everyone then takes a set number of player pieces based on the number of players, with fewer pieces the more players you have. Note this will affect which colours are available based on the player count.
Next, you take the cards and deal them into seven four-card piles. You then shuffle the Omen cards into the leftover cards. Then shuffle an AD 79 Eruption card into the bottom of the deck, with the depth determined by the player count. You then add the other AD 79 card to the top of this growing stack. Two of the four card stacks are placed on top of this and then every player selects another of the four card stacks to be their starting hands. Any leftover cards are returned to the box. (If you’re thinking, wow that sounds complicated and a bit time consuming, you’re not wrong.)
This game is played over three main phases, which I will go through quickly:
First Phase: New Citizens move to Pompeii
Each turn, players play one card from their hand and place one of their villager pieces into a building that matches the number of the card they just played. They then draw a replacement card.
This continues until a player draws the first 79AD card.
Second Phase: Invite your Relatives
Once the first 79AD card has been drawn, you can now place additional pieces on your turn when you place your first piece into a building that already contains one or more of your villagers. For each villager already in a building, you earn a number of bonus relative pieces to place. These newly earned relatives must be placed into buildings of the same colour as the building you placed your initial piece into or into a grey neutral building. Note that only one relative can be placed in a single building in this phase.
Also, once that first 79 AD card has been drawn, when drawing to replace their card played there is now a chance that players might draw Omen cards. When this happens that player gets to choose one playing piece of any colour on the board and toss it into the volcano. They then draw another replacement card.
This phase continues until the second 79AD card comes up.
Third Phase: Run for your lives!
At this point, everyone discards their hands and all cards can be placed back in the box.
The player that drew the 79AD card will now draw one lava tile from the bag and place it onto the matching icon on the board. They then pass the bag and the next player will draw a tile and place it on the appropriate icon or next to an already placed lava tile that has the same icon. You then continue to take turns until you’ve done this six times in a row.
Any player pieces that get covered by lava are tossed into the volcano, as are any pieces that get totally cut off from the exits on the board.
From this point on, on their turn, each player draws and places one lava tile then moves their playing pieces twice. This move can be either one piece being moved two times or two different pieces being moved once.
When moving, pieces move up to a number of squares equal to the total number of playing pieces on their square before being moved. So a single piece would only move one space but one that is on the same space as a pile of five pieces would move five squares.
The goal here is to get as many of your pieces out of the city gates as you can. Once out the gates, those pieces have safely escaped. You place any of these escaped pieces in front of you. If you run out of pieces that you could potentially move you still continue to draw lava tiles on your turn.
Play continues until there are no pieces left in the city or the bag runs out of lava tiles, whichever comes first. If you do run out of tiles everyone still in the city gets tossed into the volcano.
The player with the most escaped people wins the game. In the case of a tie, the win goes to the player with the least number of pieces in the volcano.
Is The Downfall of Pompeii worth picking up?
I’ve been in this hobby for a long time and I actually remember when The Downfall of Pompeii game first came out here in Canada. I have to admit I have a soft spot for games of this era and early Mayfair, Rio Grande, and Alea games remain some of my favourite games of all time. While I didn’t get The Downfall of Pompeii back then, only getting a copy this year, it still has that classic Eurogame feel that just feels comfortable and somehow welcoming to me.
This is a game with simple, easy to differentiate, components, that is very easy to learn and quick to play. It’s a game that kids can enjoy but also one that has more than enough depth to challenge experienced players. The theme, though dark, is interesting, historic and surprisingly well tied to the mechanics, which I admit isn’t that common for games that are this old.
While I could totally see a Kickstarter deluxe edition of The Downfall of Pompeii, with unique miniatures for each player and a deluxe plastic volcano that lights up and does a Wilhelm scream every time you toss a mini into it, there’s something about the existing design that, while dated, just feels rather elegant.
Of course, when talking about components I can’t help but mention again the fact that the game didn’t include enough of each colour of playing pieces to play at all player counts. I’m still pretty baffled by this. Though I do know of at least one other game that did this, which also happens to be a Mayfair game. I guess it was their way of keeping the cost a bit lower. All I can say is I’m glad this isn’t a trend that continued with modern board games.
I do have one other complaint with the game and that’s specifically with playing two players. Besides not getting to play my personal favourite colour, yellow, we also found that the game just wasn’t very good with only two people.
With only two players, it becomes far too easy to end up with a tie in The Downfall of Pompeii, especially if everyone gets all of their pieces out during the first two phases. While I would say the game is playable at two, there are plenty of other games in my collection that play great at two and I can’t see ever playing this again without at least three players.
The gameplay in The Downfall of Pompeii is tense and engaging from start to finish. Even when you are just placing pieces onto the board at the start, you know that those same pawns are going to be running for their lives very soon. This leads me to one of the best aspects of this game and that’s the decision points and trying to plan ahead. While placing your pieces during the first two phases you are well aware of what’s coming next and figuring out the best way to use your cards to both get the most pieces out as well as to get your pieces as close to the gates as possible is what keeps us coming back to this game time and time again.
The variability in the cards and what lava tiles get drawn means that while the gameplay never changes, each time you sit down to play The Downfall of Pompeii you are going to get a different experience.
Overall The Downfall of Pompeii is a classic Eurogame that totally stands the test of time. Despite being eighteen years old, this is a very solid gateway game that is easy to learn and fun to play with gamers of all experience levels.
If you dig classic Eurogames you probably already own The Downfall of Pompeii, but if you don’t, it’s worth picking up as soon as you can. Especially because it’s currently available at bargain rates (and is also out of print, so when those cheap copies are gone you may never be able to get this game again).
Honestly, I think most game groups are going to dig this game. There really is a lot to like. I’ve yet to introduce this game to someone and have them not enjoy it at least a bit and many people I’ve shown the game to have requested that I break it out again and again.
Now if you are a gamer who’s all about table presence, lots of plastic bits, and detailed miniatures, this may not be the game for you. Though personally, I think the gameplay is solid enough that you could always pick it up and then pimp out your copy by building a deluxe volcano and finding some ancient roman citizen minis to use for your villagers.
We wouldn’t have picked up The Downfall of Pompeii if we didn’t expect to enjoy the game but even knowing that we were surprised by just how much we have been enjoying it, as well as how much my kids and our extended family have enjoyed it as well. This classic euro really does stand the test of time.
What’s a classic game, something over fifteen years old, that still holds up as great for you? Tell us all about it in the comments below!