In Pendulum, each player is a powerful, unique noble vying to succeed the Timeless King as the true ruler of Dünya. Players command their workers, execute stratagems, and expand the provinces in their domain in real time to gain resources and move up the four victory tracks: power, prestige, popularity, and legendary achievement.
Players must use actual time as a resource in managing their strategy to best their opponents, using time on different action types and balancing it with time spent planning and analyzing. The winner will be the player who manages and invests their time most effectively and who builds the best engine, not the player who acts the quickest.
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Finally, I got to try out Pendulum from Stonemaier Games! Here are my first impressions after a single play. Oh and by the way, I got crushed by Trent who had played once before. I'd honestly feel exactly the same about this game even if I had won though.
Aesthetics and Components
- Art is lovely but souless - The art style is sleek and stylish. I like this more than the painterly style that is common in board game fantasy games. But because the game is very low on theme, it suffers the same problem as all other themeless games. It's an afterthought. A covering that looks nice but ultimately, the gameplay and the art aren't in sync and enhancing each other.
- Components are just "okay" - The player "boards" have the grainy, rough sandpaper-like finish on them similar to the ones in #Tapestry. I believe this is to provide some amount of friction between the components and the "board" but I'm not sure honestly. And the plastic bits are ok. I don't really mind them but I prefer wood. To be honest, I always like the wooden bits from Stonemaier Games so this one's a bit of a surprise. Jamey did a write-up addressing exactly this here.
- Clear iconography - This is also quite typical for Stonemaier Games. Yes, this is a relatively light game (light-medium?) without much complications but it's an important part to nail since it's a real-time game with lots of fast decision-making involved.
Gameplay - I'll address this in two parts. The gameplay without consideration of real-time elements, and then with real-time
- Solid engine-building, worker placement game without any surprises - As Trent explained the rules, I kept nodding because it just checks off a lot of boxes of a very typical engine-building, worker placement game. Similar to #Lions of Lydia and many other types of engine-builders out there, you have four different engines and you can improve them by acquiring cards that will enhance the efficiency of one of your engines. It has a "race"-like feeling of gameplay that reminds me a litle bit of #Century: Golem Edition and #Architects of the West Kingdom. And it features Grande workers similar to #Viticulture: Essential Edition that makes you think about how to most efficiently manage the use of your regular workers vs. the Grande workers that can be placed at action spaces that are already occupied. This all combines to a game that feels like there really aren't any surprises, especially when you strip out the real-time aspect of the gameplay.
- It's like the motivation behind playing chess with a chess clock - The sole purpose of the sand timers is to test your mental/tactical skills. To think on your feet and push the pacing of the gameplay. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's not what I expected. When I heard mentions of #Tzolk'in: The Mayan Calendar, I expected and wished for mechanisms that are deeply woven together with the dimension of time, instead of sand timers that are merely there to add pressure and make you quickly think how to most efficiently move around your workers. I love the idea of time elements in games such as Tzolk'in and #Anachrony so that was disappointing.
- This is a novelty game - I had fun playing, but I think it's mostly because it's an unusual game involving timers. It's not one that makes me want to bring out again for a solo session either. Maybe the solo mode is really good, but I'm not itching to get to it since it's a very themeless game where you're just getting XYZ resources to convert them into points in the best way possible. Again, that's completely fine and plenty of games I love are like that, but it feels like I'm playing a lower weight game that typically should play under 1 hour, but only takes longer and feels more difficult only because of the sand timers.
- I don't quite get who the target audience is - The engine-building and worker placement aspects of the game don't hold any surprises. There's no strong hook if you consider the mechanics without real-time. And for the real-time aspect of the game, I feel that it's a miss because rather than time being a thematic addition to the game (e.g. time ticking away as you're diffusing a bomb, or fulfilling orders at a restaurant) it feels mostly like a chess clock.
I had fun, but it's not for me. I hope others will enjoy it more than I did even after repeat plays, but I have a feeling that it won't have a long shelf life.
My experience with Stonemaier Games’ Pendulum could most easily be described as, well, a pendulum – swinging from the highs of getting a Stonemaier title for early review, only for it to swing back to low as it appeared to be a real time game relying on sand timers as a major component. Then the momentum carried it back to the positive side after reading the rules, only to crash through the other trajectory like a wrecking ball when I left my previous board game review outlet and no longer had a place to post this review.
But also like a simple at-home-with-the-kids science experiment, the oscillation came to a stop and the emotions came back to an equilibrium position. So now that I have found a new home for reviews and I have logged several plays, I can give a perspective of the game that isn’t biased towards one of the peak swings on either side.
To start, I feel it important to start with what Pendulum isn’t.
First, Pendulum isn’t dependent on the timers. If you bristle at the thought of even having a sand timer on your table, the game can be played without them. In fact, it is recommended that your first few plays be sans timers. But it is important to note that while the game is best with the utilization of the sand timers, it is not the type of game that you would normally associate with those components (e.g. speed, dexterity, party). Instead, the timers are used as a barrier to movement and action.
Second, Pendulum isn’t like other games that utilize time. When the game states that time is a resource, it doesn’t mean in the way that say, Village or even the way that its loose inspiration, Tzolk’in: The Mayan Calendar, uses time. The barriers to entry and exit created by the sand timers are real time, but still dependent on the players flipping them back and forth on the board. So, while the sands may expire on a row, if the timer is not flipped, players could still take the action.
Finally, at the risk of sounding trite, Pendulum really isn’t like anything I’ve played before. The play is simultaneous and even though actions and movement are determined by sand timers, it’s more a game of efficiency rather than speed. This creates a feeling of stress that has players second-guessing themselves as time falls away. But while the focus (and what appears to be contention) is on the sand timers, the game is much more than those components
And once you know what you’re not getting from Pendulum, it’s easier to see it for what it is - a good-looking game with the expected high production value that is a uniquely entertaining experience.
Pendulum is a real-time, simultaneous action selection, worker placement game with variable player abilities for 1-5 players. In Pendulum, players are vying for the Timeless King’s throne and in order to do so, must balance their power, prestige, and popularity.
Since the game utilizes simultaneous play, there aren’t turns per se (and I don’t want to turn this into a retelling of the rule book), but there are actions that players can take during the round to gather resources and the abovementioned alliterative goals. Players can place there workers on three separate areas, each with their own timer (45 seconds, 2 minutes, and 3 minutes). Players can place their workers on rows that do not have timers, but can only take worker actions once the timer is flipped on to that row. This creates a continual need for players to optimize their time spent in any one area and a near-constant stress of second-guessing your meeple placement. Once the 3-minute timer is flipped a third-time, the round ends and end-round bonuses are drafted based on the number of each vote a player earned during the round. After four rounds, the game is over.
One thing that I really like about this game is how it is a think fast, but not necessarily an act fast game. In fact, there seems to a be plenty of downtime for players to second guess their play while they wait for the timers to run out and free up their meeples for movement. It is a strange dichotomy of feeling the need to move and act fast (though you don’t have to) with this slow-burn stress that builds as your meeples are stuck waiting. And this is probably the greatest success of the game. It had the feel of as much an experience as it does a game.
Another thing that I really appreciate about the game is that like so many other Stonemaier titles, players cannot be singularly focused and expect much success. Players have three tracks they must simultaneously manage, and one universal condition that anyone who wishes to win the game must accomplish. This keeps players from camping out on one side of the board, or focusing on only one aspect of scoring. This requires that players move around, and move around frequently, to be successful. The game also includes an advance mode that keeps the game fresh from play to play. The inclusion of an advance mode, and a solo-mode from Automa Factory, increases the replayability.
Finally, and most obviously, Pendulum reflects the production quality we have come to expect from Stonemaier Games. The components are high-quality and aesthetically pleasing, the rule book is clear, and the play time accurate.
One thing that I was more of an annoyance than a problem with the game, was the fact that since play is simultaneous, hands can often bump into one another when they are competing for spaces. This can lead to knocking over meeples, and timers, and scattering cards. There were a few occasions where we had to pause games and reset some of the aspects due to a few overzealous players racing towards a newly empty space on the board.
Another concern, and this is going to be different depending on your play group, is that this game is extremely difficult to audit. Each player has their own pool of potential resources that they draw from throughout the game and it would be near impossible to monitor that everyone was playing correctly, or in some extreme cases, not cheating. Some of this can be eliminated by electing to play without the timers, but by doing so would, in my opinion, negatively impact the experience of the game.
Overall, I enjoyed Pendulum. Did I enjoy it was much as other Stonemaier titles? Probably not. I don’t think I would ever ask for Pendulum over Scythe or Tapestry, but if the most negative thing you can say about a publisher’s new title is that you like some of their older titles better, it’s still a compliment.
Pendulum is a unique and challenging addition to the Stonemaier catalogue, and while it will probably be more divisive than any of their previous titles, I think it is worth playing before making a final judgement.
Nick likes board games, burritos, and baseball. He hates alliteration. Along with the written reviews, he loves being a part of the 90 Second Nerd team. Follow him on Twitter @NDShipley and Instagram @90SecNick.
Most of a full playthrough, in 4k 60fps. We had a rules goof and played an extra round but this should give you a solid idea how the game plays in real time!
Working on a full review as well hopefully available in a week or so.
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