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Level 99 Games
7 Card Slugfest, a speed game from Level 99 Games, sets players in the middle of a classic saloon fight.

Three new games promise fun and excitement, but do they deliver? Here's a closer look at The Downfall of Pompeii from Mayfair Games, 7 Card Slugfest from Level 99 Games, and Gem Rush from Victory Point Games.

The Downfall of Pompeii

The 79 A.D. eruption of Mount Vesuvius provides the backdrop for The Downfall of Pompeii, which originally hit shelves in 2004 and is now seeing an updated re-release this year. The game board depicts the Roman town of Pompeii, complete with a host of buildings and city walls boasting several roads leaving the city. Just outside the city, the great volcano casts an angry shadow — in this case as a three dimensional paper cone that fits nicely into the board.

Downfall is played in two phases with two to four players. In the first phase, players play cards that allow them to populate the city with their colored wooden pieces, representing people, according to their cards. Some interesting events will occur when special cards appear, like some pieces being thrown into the volcano.

Once the second A.D. 79 card is drawn, the game kicks into high gear. Players can now lay lava tiles upon the board. The object is to lay the tiles so that they destroy or trap your opponents' pieces. Any piece destroyed or trapped is put into the volcano. After placing a tile, players may move two of their pieces in an attempt to get outside the city.

The winner is the player who manages to save most of his pieces. If there is a tie, the player with the fewest pieces in the volcano wins.

This game is somewhat reminiscent of Betrayal at House on the Hill in that not a lot happens in the opening phase, but once the critical event is triggered, thrilling play ensues. While there is something a bit morbid to this game, (the destruction of Pompeii was one of the ancient world's greatest tragedies), there is no denying it is a lot of fun. The mechanic of laying tiles on your opponents' pieces and then flinging them into the volcano (all the while knowing that they'll do the same to you the first chance they get) produces many great gotcha moments.

Anxiety steadily builds as each player must decide if he should get his pieces close to the gates out now, or attempt to get those deeper in the city closer to the gates in the hopes that they can be saved eventually. It's a difficult choice that continually ups the tension and will have you and your friends rolling with laughter when the lava disrupts a player's best-laid plans.

With a 45-minute playing time and recommended for ages 10 and up, The Downfall of Pompeii is a great family game and an easy recommendation.

7 Card Slugfest

For three to eight players, 7 Card Slugfest brings all of the madcap chaos and desperate tactics of a classic saloon fight to your table. Each player selects one of several colorful characters and takes a corresponding punch deck. The players place their target placards in the center of the board, next to one that belongs to Boris the bartender. A special stage deck is created from cards that ensures that each round will get increasingly zanier.

The game itself consists of trying to knock out your opponents and lay down your cards as fast as you can. Each round is a crazy race to lay down all of your cards first, which will make it harder for your opponents to KO you. After the fight, each of the punch cards are examined to determine who KO'd who. The stage cards determine what each of the top players gets as a reward each round, usually in the form of gold. At the end of the game, whoever has the most gold wins.

7 Card Slugfest is a speed game that some people will really take to. Because you're rewarded for playing all of your cards early, and punished for taking too long, there is not a lot of strategy here, just a frantic race to lay down your cards, usually on poor Boris. The punch cards and stage cards have a lot of variation and can do things like force players to trade characters for one round. The artwork is a lot of fun.

If you are a fan of speed games, you will no doubt enjoy 7 Card Slugfest. More of a party game, it succeeds in producing more than its share of hilarity. If you like deeper strategy, however, this game is probably not for you. Additionally, parents should know that because the setting is a saloon, some of the artwork does depict beer glasses and drinking.

7 Card Slugfest plays in about a half hour and contains no recommended age, though it is probably suitable for 10 years and up.

Gem Rush

In Gem Rush, one to six players take on the role of different colored dwarves as they mine a mountain in search of gems. In the cooperative “Crisis” mode of game play, players work to reach a number of victory points before they run out of cards.

Four gem cards are dealt to players, and they must discard down to four at the beginning of every turn. Starting in a central tile placed on the table, players then consult their gem cards to see if they can construct a new room. Gem cards match gem symbols at doorways, and can be discarded to open a new room, and players lay down a new tile from a deck.

Once a player has moved, he can draw a new card or use the unique power of the room he is in. These room powers can allow the player to do things like search the deck for specific cards, or can teleport to other parts of the mine. With each new tile placed, the players gain victory points. At the end of each turn, however, players must "burn" two cards from the deck, effectively taking them out of the game forever.

If the players can reach a pre-determined number of victory points before the cards are all burned, they win the game. If not, they lose. In the competitive “Rush” game, the first player to 20 victory points wins.

Gem Rush is a simple, clever, kooky little game that takes some real strategy to win. It can be very frustrating not getting the cards you need, but the rooms themselves offer special ways to improve your chances. Finding out how to best use your limited resources is at the core of this game. Working together, the tension builds steadily as players see their gem deck slowly thinning, and must make increasingly difficult decisions in order to keep constructing rooms and earning victory points.

A lot of fun, families and lovers of light strategy games should really take to Gem Rush, which plays in about 45 minutes and is recommended for ages 13 and up.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and teaches at SLCC. He has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com