There aren’t a lot of ‘real-time’, time-based games that I’ve played. Last one that I can recall is Captain Sonar and that experience was something of a mixed bag. Overall, I don’t think that we had the right group for that game, and it really takes a few plays to get comfortable with the mechanics before something like that is going to shine. It was controlled chaos!
As someone often referred to as a fanboy of Stonemaier Games titles, I was still intrigued when news of Pendulum broke. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like a game that I’d immediately gravitate towards. However, being a Stonemaier title, I still wanted to give it a fair shake to prove myself wrong.
Here’s a compilation of my thoughts in the form of a Pendulum board game review!
Pendulum Gameplay: The Sands of Time
In Pendulum, players are placing workers under time constraints to build an engine that will solidify their place as the next ruler of the mystical land of Dünya.
The central mechanic of the game revolves around three sand timers of varying durations. There are no ‘turns’, at least not in the conventional sense of the word. Instead, players place their workers simultaneously, gaining resources and benefits when they are moved.
It takes a bit of effort to wrap your head around the rules. The timers serve as gates; you have to wait for someone to flip the corresponding timer before you can interact with workers that have been placed. This might be moving workers down to the lower track to gain benefits, or retreiving workers for later use.
Players need to plan out their actions during the downtime between timer flips, optimizing their resource gains to make sure their workers are utilized to their highest ability.
Between each of the four game rounds, there is a council phase. In this phase, player order gets shuffled around based on votes. The primary purpose of this phase is to secure first choice of reward cards. At the end of the fourth round, the player who is furthest along their victory tracks is declared the winner!
Although it’s touted and marketed as a real-time, turnless game, Pendulum also comes with a timeless variant and a solo mode. This may appeal to the people (like myself) who are apprehensive about a real-time game, which can be daunting for the first few plays. Once you understand the rules, things are going to flow much more smoothly.
Staking Our C.L.A.I.M. on Pendulum
If you’ve played Tapestry, another Stonemaier title, you’ll recognize the sandpaper-esque finish on the player mats as being the same material used for the Civilization mats. It’s certainly unique, but unfortunately it doesn’t do much in the way of preventing markers from sliding around.
I’m actually surprised that Stonemaier didn’t go with recessed player mats, like they used with Scythe. In a game where players are huddled in close-quarters around the board, it would have been helpful. I can see the argument against it; players are constantly moving around piles of resources, so taking the time to fit them into little slots on the board could be cumbersome and cost valuable seconds.
Perhaps something similar to Gaia Project would work, where players just mark the number of each resource that they have, moving that up and down as they spend.
As far as the other components are concerned, the cards are good quality, as you might expect. Same thing with the game board; sturdy cardboard that can withstand the constantly banging of timers and sliding resources. The resource markers are a smooth plastic and feel quite nice to hold. I want to say that these are also the same material from Tapestry, which would make sense as that was the last major Stonemaier title before Pendulum was released.
The last thing I would mention is that there has been conversation about the sand sometimes sticking in the timers. Fortunately, I haven’t experienced this issue at all. I give them all a good shaking before starting a game, which may or may not have any real effect on this reported issue.
The strategy behind Pendulum is all in the timing. Literally. Even if you don’t have resources to pay for an action, you need to think about how long before the other timers allow you to gain benefits. Often times, you may have more gold coming your way through a quicker timer, so when the longer timer gets flipped, you’ll have everything you need to take that action.
At first, the game seems like it’s going to be quite hectic. With no turns, people are all reaching across the table to move workers, all while you’re trying to parse out how you want to utilize your own. There are going to be times where you’re going to forget to take an action, or miss a timer flip, but overall there is more downtime to think than you might expect.
Most of the actions happen right when timers flip, and then there’s a pause before the next timer is flipped. It reminds me a lot of that childhood game Red Light, Green Light!
Players have a ton of flexibility regarding their strategy. Picking up provinces to diversify their income, or leaning in to a single main resource are both viable strategies. And, since player mats direct players to work towards certain goals, every player is doing something a little bit different.
First things first, the box looks fantastic. It centralizes the theme of time, while hinting at the different characters in the game. It definitely draws me in.
I also like the general look and feel of the provinces. They are color-coded to give indication about their specialty, which helps make things easier. I did notice that sometimes the colors between the game board, cards, and provinces are slightly off. I’m not entirely sure if it’s just a printing issue with the first run, but I’d assume that’s the case.
The board layout makes sense and facilitates the flow of gameplay. I think that it’s necessary for players to be on the same side of the table to see the board at the correct orientation for the first couple plays, which I believe is a detriment to the game. Once you’re more comfortable, people can sit on all sides of the table, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the first game.
The other thing I’m not too fond of is the iconography. For me, it’s a matter of cohesion. You have the Gold icon, which has shading, next to the Military and Culture icons, which are solid-colored. And then, you have the Power icon with a fading gradient, where the Prestige and Popularity icons do not.
To me, it just seems unfinished in a way. Lots of different styles vying for attention, when the presentation could be a bit better if they were all the same.
This is the section where I talk about Theme in Pendulum. The first page of the rulebook outlines the entire premise of the game. There’s a great, rich history around the Timeless King and the power vacuum that sets the table for the players.
Unfortunately, none of that lore ever makes it to the actual game itself. When I’m placing workers, flipping timers, and shuffling resources, I don’t feel like I’m commanding armies, conquering provinces, or feeling my influence rise in comparison to the other players.
I really, really wish that wasn’t the case! Capturing a power struggle is hard when players are sort of playing Solitaire on their boards. It would be interesting to have a global place where you can visually see where players are at, so that you could know if you should be working towards more votes before the next council phase.
For people that like puzzling through solutions, and optimizing their gameplay with a time constraint, Pendulum is going to be right up your alley. Additionally, lovers of worker placement games and engine-builders will find a nice home here as well.
If you’re looking for heavy thematic games, Pendulum falls a bit short on that front. I’d also say if you don’t like real-time games that this isn’t for you, but the inclusion of the timeless variant offers you some flexibility there.
I mentioned this before, but Pendulum can have situations where there is a flurry of activity and then a lull. There is a definite ebb and flow to the game that is strictly tied to the flipping of timers.
The downtime can be seen as a positive or a negative. It can be negative if you’ve already planned out your next few moves. In that case, you’re just twiddling your thumbs waiting.
On the other hand, it does build in some time to strategize a bit more. You have some capacity in that downtime to figure out what you might want to do with future ‘turns’. It’s the calm before the storm.
Overall, when playing the game, there’s this over-arching anticipation of people flipping timers. Is that green timer going to be flipped immediately when it’s done, or will it sit there for a while? Do I want to flip it right away? What workers do I need to remember to move? What am I doing again?
There’s a lot of mental sequencing that goes on, that creates a really unique experience that you can only get with real-time games like this.
Pendulum: Time Will Tell
After all is said and done, Pendulum is a unique game through its use of timers, but its lack of visible theme fails to draw me in as a player. It certainly has its place on the shelf for being turnless. However, I value theme more highly than other aspects of games, so I can’t see myself reaching for this title all that often.
Maybe with some more plays and different groups, this could really shine. It feels like Pendulum is on the precipice of greatness, and just needs a little push to get it there. Who knows? My opinion could certainly change over time.
Time will tell.
You can pick up Pendulum directly from Stonemaier Games when it’s back in stock or you can check at your Friendly Local Game Store!
[Disclosure: Nerds on Earth was provided a copy of Pendulum by Stonemaier Games in exchange for an honest review.]