A Matter of Timing
A copy of Pendulum was provided by Stonemaier Games for review
Time has always been a fascination for poets, writers, philosophers, film makers, and any who pursue a creative art. From the many adventures of Doctor Who to the oddness of films like Primer, the manipulation of time has always been a subject of interest. The tabletop hobby has seen time being used as a theme in games like Choronauts and The Loop. It has become a mechanism to put pressure on in games like Galaxy Trucker. Pendulum from designer Travis P Jones, artist Robert Leask, and publisher Stonemaier Games asks this question: what if worker placement but with the tick-tock of real-time? The answer is complicated.
Unusually for me I am going to separate out the theme from the mechanisms, though I am going to revisit the theme later. For now all you need to know is that you are all nobles trying to gain enough support to succeed the Timeless King. You do this by gaining Power, Prestige and Popularity victory points.
Gaining these 3 victory points is done through a real-time worker placement portion of the game. The other half of each round is done outside of real-time and sees you gaining new powers, accumulating points, and doing some admin. Over 4 rounds a successor is declared.
The real-time segment is not as frantic as you might imagine and it is all the better for that. I’ll do my best to describe what is happening. Behold the board.
In 3 segments of the board you have different worker placement areas. In the bottom right is the black area with a focus on gaining money and conquering provinces. The former gives you coin to spend on the purple and green areas in the top half of the board. The latter makes some of the actions you will take more efficient.
The green area gains you military resources alongside power and popularity victory points. The purple area is more focused on the culture resource and prestige victory points. Each of these areas has two rows of actions that are identical to each other. So far, so euro. Then we get to the twist.
Each of these segments has a sand timer beside it. These timers start in the top row and you begin the game by placing workers in the boxes in the bottom row, waiting for their chance to take an action. Everyone has a normal and a grande worker, with the latter being able to be place in any space even if it is already occupied. Again, very euro.
When you start the game you flip the timers from the top row to the bottom row. Workers can only take actions, be moved from their box to the actual action, when the timer is on their row. They can only be moved to a new action space when the timer is not on their row. Now on top of this each time is moving at a different pace. Black is 45 seconds, Green is 2 minutes and purple is 3 minutes. 3 turns of the purple timer ends the round giving you 9 minutes to complete all the actions you need to.
What this gives you is a fascinating combination of moments of stillness amongst seeming chaos. You wait. Watch the timer trickling away. Suddenly it is out of sand and you flip it. Now you can mover your worker off this space to another, but the green timer is about to flip so you want to take advantage of that, but which space to go on, and you still have to take your action with the other worker that the black timer has just flipped to and while you were thinking about that the green timer has flipped!
You get the idea.
As the timers are running down at different rates you are constantly monitoring them all and considering the best time to move. How many actions can you take in the black area before moving a worker to green? When is the right time to take a purple action knowing your worker will be locked their for 3 minutes?
As is only right in a worker placement game, each player struggles for spaces. You struggle against strategy and time to take the most efficient path through the chaos. Pendulum uses time in such a way as to not make you feel you are against the clock, but rather you are partnered with it. This real-time system gets combined with a small expandable set of cards that you can play as you will to get victory points, move workers when you normally couldn’t, gain victory points, amongst other powers. Once spent they can only be gained back by spending some resources. It’s fun to manipulate both these systems.
All that said, let’s get to the problems.
Stonemaier has built a reputation as a company that has high production valures. From its inaugral title Viticulture, to Libertallia and the cultural juggernaut that is Wingspan, it has put out interesting games with strong production. Pendulum feels like a game that was not really finished when it comes to development and production.
As I hope I’ve been clear, I really like the core mechanisms of Pendulum. The theming that has been chosen though feels like the plot of a bad fantasy novel. The term ‘fantasy heartbreaker’ came to mind several times while reading the background and looking at the art. The name of the world, Dunya, and nobles like ‘Gambal, The Briber’ sound like joke fantasy names. All the provinces sound like they were generated by a fantasy name generator. The art is all serious though, it’s not meant to be a joke.
I feel like the mechanisms could have had a different theme, maybe something less ‘traditional’. As it is I found the theme actively off putting, but that feels like a development not a design issue.
The production of the game, the physical components, also feels weirdly un-Stonemaier.
In the real-time sections of the game you are taking resources from beside your board and putting them on it. Your victory point trackers are also on the board. It is extremely easy to knock your board and dislodge your victory point trackers as you scramble for actions. The thing is Stonemaier know how to make dual layered boards. They have them in Scythe. In Pendulum you have these weird, slightly textured, but very flexible, player boards. It is a totally baffling production decision.
The rest of the production is ok. I would prefer the timers to be a bit heavier, and the art is fine if uninspiring. Symbology across the game is pretty clear, as it needs to be when things are happening at pace.
Let’s talk about my final problem with this game. As mentioned earlier, across the 3 rounds you are scoring points in Power, Prestige, and Popularity. There is also a fourth element I haven’t mentioned called a legendary achievement point.
One achievement is present each round. If you have the right number of resources shown on the card you can claim that achievement. In doing so you get one of two rewards on the card. The one at the bottom of the card or the legendary achievement. Without a legendary achievement point you cannot win, you simply can’t place in the final tally. Since this is a real-time worker placement game there is a distinct possibility you can miss out on this element but still play well. That’s unsatisfying. The achievements in general feel like an afterthought. They don’t really bring anything to the game.
Pendulum is a game that feels like it was developed by rote. The core of the game is interesting. I like it. The combination of real-time and worker placement is compelling and gives a pace I find lacking in other games with worker placement at their core.
That core is buried under poor production and lazy fantasy theming. I like themes to be supported by mechanisms and vice-versa. I want new, diverse, and interesting themes. You could well walk past this game because it looks like the 20 other fantasy games on the shelf at your local game store. That’s a shame for the designer as the mechanisms are interseting. It feels like a game that needed just a bit more time.