Pendulum, a worker-placement game from Stonemaier, caused a bit of a stir when it was released. Worker-placement is nothing new, and it’s by far my favourite mechanism in board games. Pendulum got my attention because it throws real-time play into the mix. Real-time worker-placement?? What on Earth were they thinking? As Dr. Malcom said in Jurassic Park: “your scientists were so precoccupied with whether they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should”. I’m not sure there were many scientists involved with designing Pendulum, but you get the idea.
Unusually for a Euro game, there’s a pretty detailed backstory behind Pendulum. It’s a story of immortal kings, dragons, and a great iron clock. Whichever player exerts enough influence over the council will get crowned as the new timeless king, and usher in a new era. Exciting stuff, huh? All of this happens as the players literally have the sands of time, slipping away. Three sand timers govern the three distinct areas of the board, and actions can only take place when one of them is flipped next to your worker.
I had two big fears when going into Pendulum. Firstly, whether faster players would have an advantage over slower ones. Secondly, whether the real-time nature of the game, with simultaneous play and no turns, would turn it into a strangely unsociable experience.
Let’s start with the first worry – the relative speed of players. Euro games are about strategy, planning, taking your time and figuring out the next best move. My worry was that players who are prone to analysis-paralysis (AP) would be left thinking, while others took twice as many turns, if they could flip the timers fast enough. Having played Pendulum a few times now, I’m glad to be able to say that it’s really not a worry.
What I didn’t expect was how long each of the timers takes to trickle through. At 45, 120, and 180 seconds each, none of them is going to flipping back and forth like a slinky on an escalator. There’s plenty of time to plan and strategise, and that feeling is bolstered by the fact that you only start with two workers to place. Things get more frantic later in the game, when you get more workers, but there still isn’t the disparity I was worried about.
Coming up for air
So let’s touch on my second concern, the simultaneous turns. I say turns, I don’t actually mean turns, as there’s no turn structure as such. You can carry out as many actions as you can fit in the time before each Council phase is triggered. As a result, there’s this inherent, self-imposed pressure. You’re desperate to get as much done as you possibly can, to try to keep yourself on an even keel in comparison to the other players. It reminds me of swimming. You’ve got your head down, fully focused on what you need to do. It’s only the occasional break for a Council phase, or waiting for a timer to run out, when you’ll have the chance lift your head up, breathe, and to look at what the other players are up to.
I don’t really like this feeling. One of the things I really enjoy about a worker-placement game is seeing which strategies my opponents are trying, and seeing how – if at all – our plans might collide. In Pendulum, it’s very hard to play like this, and it can feel like you’re all playing your own game, just occasionally coming back together for the four Council phases, and seeing what happens at the end. It feels like playing in silos.
The only time it doesn’t really feel like this is in a two-player game, where you can instead seem to spend a lot of time twiddling your thumbs, waiting for a timer to finish. Pendulum isn’t at its best with two though, I think three or four players is where the game does best. It supports up to five, but five people all trying to move the same things around the same shared board is just too crowded. The solo mode, added by the ever-dependable Automa Factory, is excellent, and I prefer it to two player.
Here is a good place to mention the untimed mode that’s included in the box. Playing with the untimed mode pretty much nullifies that entire previous section of the review. The timers are still on the board, but only to dictate which areas can be activated, and have workers placed and removed. When all players have taken their actions, consulted the rulebook, made a cup of tea, and opened the custard creams, the timers get flipped. Repeat, repeat, repeat, until you reach the end of the included timer track, then do the Council phase.
I have mixed feelings about the untimed mode. On the one hand, I enjoy it more than the timed mode. It feels like a sophisticated Euro game with a nice action activation gimmick. On the other hand, however, I can’t help feeling like I’m not playing the game the way it was intended. I really like the innovation of adding the timers, and I love that someone has done something fresh with worker-placement, but I can’t help wishing the timers weren’t in there.
If there had to be a gimmick, a something special to make the game stand out, I wish they’d added a big pendulum. There’s meant to be a grand iron clock, so put half the action spaces on one side of the pendulum, half on the other. Then use the untimed mode for the whole game, with the pendulum shifted from side to side, between turns. Good, eh?
I’m wasted here…
Pendulum is a good game. It’s not an amazing game, but it’s better than average. I love what Travis Jones has done with the design, and the clever thematic link between the setting and the sand timers. I just don’t enjoy the game as much when I use them. It’s a clever novelty, but it just misses the target for me. I don’t know who signed-off the sand timer design, but having tapered bases, instead of flared ones, was a crazy choice. They get knocked over far too easily, even with a bump to the table.
The presentation throughout is great, and the ten playable characters (well, five, each with two variants) all with their own unique stratagem cards and player mats, all feel slightly different to play with. It’s not a difficult game to learn and play, so anyone happy with medium-weight games will be well away with it. The fact that the rulebook contains a section dedicated to what to do when you forget to do something, just reinforces the feeling that the real-time doesn’t quite work.
All of my grumbling aside, there are going to be people reading this whose game nights thrive on chaos, who love a bit a frantic action on a table. For those people, I’d have no hesitation in recommending Pendulum. Solo gamers might see the Automa Factory name on the box and be tempted, but personally I’d go for Tapestry or Gaia Project instead if you want one of their titles. I really like the untimed game, it makes for a solid Euro game, but I can’t escape the feeling that I’m not playing the game I was meant to be playing.
Review copy kindly provided by Stonemaier Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Designer: Travis Jones
Publisher: Stonemaier Games
Art: Robert Leask
Playing time: 60-90 mins