Pendulum, by Travis P Jones, and published by Stonemaier Games in 2020, is a real time worker placement game. It was lauded in that it was the highest-rated prototype ever during a Stonemaier Games Design Day. Now, I don’t know what the scoring rubric is for one of those Design Days, but I’m a pretty big fan of Stonemaier Games prior products, like Viticulture and Scythe, and, I absolutely adore real-time games, so this should be a hit for me, right? Let’s find out!
How to Play
I’ll be upfront, teaching how to play Pendulum is a bit of a bear. As with any real-time game, all players need to know how to play the game from the outset. It’s quite difficult to stop and ask questions, lest that player and the rules teacher fall further behind. To compound on this problem, players who don’t want to fall behind may accidentally make a rules error that no one else catches. Because of the time pressure, each player is focused on what they want to do and less on what their opponents are doing. It’s for this reason, the rule book suggests playing the first round of the game in the “untimed mode”.
But I don’t listen to rule books. I throw my friends into the deep end. So here’s how the game plays. The main board has 3 sections: purple, green, and black, each section has two rows of actions. The rows are identical to each other, which makes the board look scarier than it actually is. Each row of actions consists of a golden framed top box and an arrow pointing down to a box immediately below it, with icons representing the benefit you get for going to that space. Many of the arrows will also have icons, representing the cost you need to pay when your workers flow from the top box to the bottom. Workers are always placed into the top box, and when appropriate, may be moved down into the bottom box to reap their rewards.
But when is appropriate? I’m glad you asked. Next to each row of actions is a timer that matches the colour of the section. You can place or remove workers from a row where there is no timer, but you cannot slide workers from the top box to the bottom box. When the timer runs out, anyone may flip the timer from one row to the other. Now those workers are ‘locked’, you cannot place or remove workers from a row where a timer exists. You can activate workers that are on a row with a timer, however, sliding them from their gilded top box into the bottom box and collect the benefits. But then there they must stay until the timer flips away to the other row.
The rounds are tracked by the purple timer. After the purple timer has been flipped for the third time, a counsel is called. No more timers may be flipped, but players are allowed to finish off the existing actions. Once all players are done, you proceed with the counsel phase.
In the counsel phase, players compare the number of votes they acquired over the course of the real-time round. The player with the most goes at the top of the privilege track, then discards all the votes they had gained over the round. Each player collects the rewards associated with their spot on the privilege track, which always includes a reward card offering either a one time benefit, or, a new card that goes into your hand. The board is reset, players discard provinces if they have more than 2 in any column, the council rewards board is cleared and refreshed, as are the province cards, and the achievement card. The purple timer tokens are placed back on the board, and flip all 3 timers to start the next round. After 4 rounds, the game is over!
The goal of Pendulum is to earn points in 3 different flavours (well, 4, but the silver one only has to be done once, so calm down). Each player has their own score track along the top of their board, and a single plastic piece in each row. As you accumulate points, you move the appropriate colour token along its track. You can only win if you’ve managed to get all of your point tokens into the brown square in the top right corner of your player board. If multiple players have achieved this feat, then you count up the total number of points to crown the Timeless Ruler
So, other than knowing it was a Stonemaier Games product that featured a real time real-time element, I knew nothing going into this game. The front page of the rulebook sets the theme of Pendulum. “When the gods first created the world, they gave it no order. This was the Time of Chaos.” Then, one man caught the affection of the god of time and was granted a sliver of his power and became the Timeless King. Then POOF, the Timeless King vanished, leaving the nobles to vie for the title, leading us into the game of Pendulum. I know there’s a story here, but honestly, I don’t really care about it. I read it once, then moved straight into the mechanics. Unlike other games like Food Chain Magnate where the theme and the gameplay are so intrinsically linked, this is just kind of, colour on a cake.
The Pendulum board is incredibly intimidating to start with, but it becomes clear once the game starts to tick. You place your meeple in a square where the timer is not, then slide it down to collect the resources when the timer flips and ‘locks’ the meeple in that row. Like in another Stonemaier game, Viticulture, most of your workers are small, basic, and afraid of crowds, while your other worker is taller, spikier, and unrestricted in where they want to go. Most of the actions revolve around earning goods, which you can spend on various things, some of which will earn you points. Like most worker placement games, you generally can’t place your worker in the same spot as another worker, unless you’re placing the grande worker.
Smartly, each player has their own bank of resources. When you acquire and spend resources from your player board, you just push them off to the side. This is incredibly important as you won’t be constantly reaching back and forth for a central bank of goods, you’ll instead only be slapping hands when you and a neighbour want to place their basic meeple in the same location on the board. Unlike other real-time games, such as Galaxy Trucker, you can’t really hinder someone else by placing certain shared resources far away from them on the table.
It’s especially important because each of the 5 rounds of the game lasts around 9 minutes. In those 9 minutes there’s plenty of frenetic action on the board with meeples sliding down certain actions and getting picked up and relocated and timers flipping from one row to another. There’s definitely energy in Pendulum, no doubt about that.
The first round is always the hardest in any engine building game. You’ll spend several actions putting your meeples to work to earn a single resource. As the game progresses, you’ll start to solve those bottlenecks. By claiming provinces, you can reap more resources that you can then feed back into your engine to produce the goods you need. It feels great when you no longer need to use the bottom actions, but are actually generating a surplus of resources and your point markers start to crawl along the top of your board.
Speaking of those point markers, with so many cubes coming on and off your mat, it’s tough to not jostle your board and send your point markers askew. It’s one of the few production complaints that I have, I wish the player board was dual layered, or, that each of the player’s score track was a separate board. More than once in a rush to clear cubes off my board, I pulled the card stock roughly, losing time with the need to reset my markers.
A common complaint in real-time games has to do with cheating and not being able to review your neighbours work. In Pendulum, you can see where their workers are on the board at all time, but you kind of have to trust they’re spending their resources appropriately. If that’s an aspect of games that bothers you, nothing in Pendulum will change your mind.
Playing Pendulum gave heart a stutter in the best way. Not that it was particularly chaotic or stressful, but the feeling of making multiple computations at a rapid pace in real time is not for everyone. I love that feeling, it gives me such joy to keep all the plates spinning, and it makes my actions feel like they have consequence. It’s actually impressive just how good the real-time worker placement feels! The quick-thinking trade-off of locking your worker away to get multiple goods, or really pumping the shorter actions, the realization that your red score marker has capped out, while your blue score marker is still sitting way at the bottom, forcing you to pivot your strategy is simply delicious.
I really don’t know how often I’ll be going back to Pendulum. Other than knocking the point markers askew, I enjoyed my time with the game, but I also don’t feel like there’s much more to explore. Other than some slightly asymmetric player powers, there doesn’t feel to be much more to discover in Pendulum. Sure, I could challenge myself to complete a game with each character, or set my own goals, like finishing the game with the highest score possible. My main group feels similarly, now that we’ve experienced the game, I don’t think many will be requesting to play it again (especially when Bear has quite an aversion to real time games). If anyone were to express an iota of interest, I wouldn’t hesitate to bring Pendulum back to the table.