Pompeii: Wrath of Vesuvius is a light bluffing game from Jay Little (X-Wing: Miniatures Game) and two University of Wisconsin-Stout students: Dylan Shepherd, and Lucas Zerby.
Published through Punch-It Entertainment LLC (Battle for Sularia), Pompeii simulates the rise of prominent families and their subsequent destruction by the overwhelming force of nature: the Vesuvius volcano.
Everything has an Origins Story
This one starts at Origins Games Fair 2016 in Columbus, Ohio. Here, I had just begun my quest for game reviewing when I first met the guys from Punch-It. Relatively new to the industry (2014), Punch-It had published their first game and expandable card game, Battle for Sularia (2016), and was in the midst of finishing up work on the first expansion: Blood, Profit, and Glory.
To be honest, I had not heard of the publisher before, but was intrigued at trying their prototype for an upcoming title. As we sat down to play, our group was explained the rules. Our first game was rocky, mostly because of my own misunderstanding of the mechanics and how to win. We played a second game, wherein I felt more comfortable and excited at what the prototype could become.
Now, I finally have my own copy (more complete prototype copy, that is) with a lovely ruleset to peruse at my discretion. Having played it with a few different groups, seen more finalized artwork, and talked with those behind-the-scenes about the game, I’m ready to tell you all about it.
Playing the Volcano Game
The game is split into two phases. In the first phase, players are given warehouse tiles with various number values between 2 and 5, alongside some “x” tiles. The board is divided into three tiers, shaped much like a food pyramid. Players take turns placing their warehouse tiles face down (each worth one, regardless of the face-down value) on the bottom tier, and once full, can choose to play on the tier above, and so on.
Once all warehouse tiles have been placed, players with the most warehouse tiles in each section will receive points for being the leader. This leadership can be challenged by other players, as they can flip their tiles, with the previously face-down value becoming their new one. This is great because it can net you additional points, as the higher tiers are worth more points than lower. The downside is in order to take leadership of each area, you revealed the hidden tile value.
Once all areas have been scored, the second phase of the game begins. Vesuvius erupts with total brutality, as players now lay down lava tokens, similar to roads in Catan.
Once placed and depending on the chosen zone, a lava token allows the player to remove one tile near it. This continues, as players, without remorse, burn out each other’s warehouse tiles. Lava trickles down the pyramid until all players have used their entire stockpile of lava tokens.
Finally, a final scoring takes place where all remaining tiles are flipped. Each player adds up their total in each area, multiplying it, depending on the tier. This makes for a huge point payout, where players are likely vying for higher numbers further up the pyramid, as they will pay vastly large point totals than further down.
Why I Lava This Game
I had a blast playing this game. It makes people erupt with laughter. It’s great for burning off steam. Gameplay flows well.
Okay, I’m done with puns.
Pompeii: Wrath of Vesuvius is eccentric and awesome. Once understood, it teaches quickly, and gives you lots of reasons to play again.
I hadn’t mentioned them, but the “x” warehouse tiles are used as a bluff. Given the face-down nature of your tiles, one must weigh the cost of revealing their higher value tile, or utilizing the bluff of a worthless “x” tile to fool opponents during the lava phase of the game. Once a player burns out a warehouse tile, only they can look at the hidden value underneath. Tricking a fellow player to one of your “x” tiles is one of the most satisfying and hilarious moments of the game.
During the lava phase, only so many warehouse tiles can be burned, so players will carefully balance where to place each token. One can defend some of their tiles by methodical lava token placement. However, they must choose carefully, as burning out an opponent’s tile might quickly cause backlash and vengeance on their own.
Of course, the entire game is about managing self-produced mystery about your tile placement choices. The most successful player is one who can bluff well, choose subtle locations to play, and keep most of their tiles face-down, banking on end game points. Being the first to place a tile in a section guarantees your ownership in case of a tie. This leads to lots of back-and-forth, as players challenge one another, hoping to avoid flipping tiles at the end of the phase.
The game is quite fun, but I do have two unlikable things about it.
One, players can gang up on the leader, effectively destroying his chances of victory. During the lava placement phase, players can enact the Munchkin effect and purposefully burn out each of the leader’s warehouses. Now, this would prove foolish and detrimental, as there isn’t enough point payout in the first phase to relish victory at game’s end. It can happen though, and it might prove more spite from your game group than the game itself.
The other consideration is found in tier advancement. Once the top rows of two sections are filled, the the next section (which is more valuable) can be placed in. This means one player must “sacrifice” in order to continue the game, while every other player, specifically the next one in turn order, gains advantage.
This stinks for the player who must give in, as they likely have no shot at early placement for the next tier. Because of this, it usually results in players filling up bottom rows on the first tier, which results in little payout compared to the multipliers in higher tiers.
These design choices are not hugely baneful to the game, but do affect gameplay and must be considered by players as they choose tile placement. I do think in higher levels of play, these concerns won’t be issues.
Pompeii is a hit. Not only do I love the game, I highly recommend it. It plays quick, and is a wonderful opener for game night.
From my glance through artwork from their other title, Battle for Sularia, and my time with Pompeii, I’m very impressed by component quality and artwork. Punch-It is producing high production quality entertainment, and that’s rare for new, small publishers.
If you want a fast bluffing game without all the angst of typical social deduction games, this is an excellent choice.