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Pendulum Board Game Review

Pendulum Board Game Review

Pendulum Overview

The throne of the timeless king is up for grabs as powerful nobles compete to become the new ruler. The players take on the role of these nobles as they attempt to gather as much prestige, power, and popularity as possible to secure their claim to the monarchy.

You can find a video version of this review on my YouTube channel

Pendulum is a competitive worker placement game for 1 to 5 players that incorporates elements of a few other genres. However, Pendulum is played in real-time, putting a unique spin on the concept of worker placement.

Pendulum Hourglasses

Your most important resource is time itself and how you use it. Three hourglasses constantly trickle away as you and the other nobles scramble to exact your plans.

After four rounds the most powerful, popular, and prestigious noble takes the throne. Assuming they were able to reach a certain level of competency in the first place. Otherwise, the throne may remain empty for the rest of time.

Gideon’s BiasPendulum Information
Review Copy Used: YesPublisher: Stonemaier Games
Number of Plays: 10+Designer: Travis P Jones
Player Counts Played: 1-2Player Counts: 1-5
Fan of Genre: NoGenre: Worker Placement, Real-Time
Fan of Weight: YesWeight: Medium
Gaming Groups Thoughts: No InterestPrice: $60

Components

Just by picking up the box, you will notice that the game has some physical weight to it. It’s nowhere near the level or something like Gloomhaven. But you definitely wouldn’t want it falling off your shelf and onto your head.

Full spread of Pendulum's boxed contents

In my experience. Games from Stonemaier always include a satisfying number of game pieces, some of which are fairly unique. This is certainly true of Pendulum. While I have some criticisms coming, I really want to emphasize that I appreciate when games give you a lot of stuff without being overproduced to include deluxe components that overinflate the price.

Games are meant to be played. I’d rather have cubes than three-inch mini’s that put the game financially out of reach of many players. My issues with Pendalum’s components are more focused on its visual direction and execution rather than any of the pieces being generic.

Game Board and Noble Characters

Pendulum comes with a nice double-sided board, and each side is used at different player counts. I appreciate its thickness. A lot of game boards are fragile, and care must be given to prevent them from splitting at the seams. I don’t have this worry about that with Pendulum.

If you look close enough, you will notice the whole board represents a planning table with a quill, dagger, map, sealed letter, and more. It’s a nice touch, but to be completely honest it took me forever to notice it.

Side view of a fully set up game of Pendulum

It’s difficult to look past the gameplay-specific spaces and icons on the board. The layout and visual representation isn’t aesthetically pleasing and feels strangely cluttered and messy. Heavy iconography isn’t inherently bad by any means, but the chosen art direction really gave me issues understanding all of it.

There are 5 double-sided character boards granting a total of 10 playable characters. While thin, these boards are made with some type of matte coating that makes them quite durable.

In contrast to the game board. The character sheets are quite beautiful with excellent artwork. The mechanical aspects are laid out in a way that’s far more visually pleasing than the rest of the game.

Cards

Pendulum comes with a variety of different cards. The square province cards suffer from similar issues that the game board does. The poor mixture of color and icons is an eyesore.

The background art for many of them is nice but doesn’t link to the game in a meaningful way, and just further contributes to the visual noise.

Pendulum province cards

Each character has a set of unique stratagem cards that also have visual issues. The symbols on the back tie them to the various characters. However, their exaggerated artistic flair does them no favors since they are the exact same color and many of them look similar. Every time I set up the game I end up double or triple-checking which ones belong to what noble.

There’s also a set of achievement cards, council reward cards, and an additional deck/board for the Automa in solo play.

Bits & Bobs

You get an absolute ton of colored plastic cubes, as well as purple plastic squares that represent votes. A few other generic tokens are present, and a bunch of worker meeples.

Bland and generic tokens aren’t inherently bad and help keep a game’s cost down. But there are so many kinds of generic tokens that it compounds with the equally bland iconography on the gameboard, adding to the overall confusion of what you’re actually looking at.

red, yellow and blue cube tokens

There is also a nifty metal star that serves as an achievement token. But the defining components are going to be the three hourglasses. All three of them function nicely as a 30 second, two minute, and three-minute timer respectively. When the hourglasses are set up, it lends the game a unique table presence despite my previous complaints. At times, however, the sand can sadly stick which can disrupt the flow of the game.

Pendulum comes with two rule books. One of which is for solo play as well as a reference page. In addition, there is a small optional time track board if you want to play without the real-time element. Lastly, the game comes with a bunch of baggies for storing the little pieces, which is nice.

Gameplay Overview

Worker Placement is at the core of Pendulum. Every space on the board corresponds to some type of resource or raises one of your victory tracks, power, popularity, or prestige. Any space with a question mark refers to your character board. For example, yellow banner spaces would grant Bolk the champion 2 gold, while red ones would grant him 4 military.

Bolk the Champion

Many of the boards spaces cost gold but the real trick is managing time. Each portion of the board uses a different hourglass, but they are all active at the same time. The dark section uses the 30-second timer, the green uses the 2-minute timer, and the purple section uses the 3-minute timer.

The hourglasses are more than a time limit. They directly dictate what you can and can’t do with your workers. You can only place a worker in a worker box if there isn’t an hourglass in that row. When hourglasses are flipped they move to the other row in their section.

A placed worker doesn’t grant a benefit right away. Instead, you must take a worker action by sliding it from its worker box onto the actual icon, paying any costs, and then claiming the benefit. But you can only do that if the hourglass IS in the same row as your worker.

A close up view of the black hourglass with the Pendulum board and box in the background.

While Pendulum is real-time, the focus isn’t really on speed, but how you manage your time with the given restrictions. Like most worker placement games, other workers block you. Regular workers can’t be placed on a worker box already containing one on the top half of the board. Grande workers bypass that restriction, and each player begins the game with one of each.

Real Time Gameplay

While the general principle of Pendulum is fairly basic, the real-time element changes the dynamic. Every time the purple hourglass is flipped, it pushes off a time marker. Once the last marker is removed the council is called, and no more hourglasses can be flipped.

The interesting thing about the hourglasses is there’s no requirement to flip them once the sand runs out. One of the players has to do it. This means any given player may want to wait for the right moment when one of their workers is freed up in order to benefit from the flip.

Workers remain on the board once you place them. You don’t remove them once you complete an action, but you can move them to another space IF an hourglass isn’t in their row.

A close up of a purple hourglass with the game board behind it.

You can flip an hourglass and lockdown another player’s worker if they weren’t paying attention or didn’t move fast enough. Or you can simply make them miss a benefit by flipping it before they placed a worker to the row the hourglass was flipping too.

Leaving an hourglass empty for too long is risky because the purple hourglass brings the round to an end on its third flip. The other players don’t have to refrain from flipping it just because you are.

There’s a finite number of worker actions you can take each round, but it’s a fluid number due to the nature of the players controlling when to flip the hourglasses. But you have to stay aware of how the time is split during a 3-minute time frame. If a player flips the purple timer the moment it runs out of sand, you know that the green 2-minute hourglass will only flip once in between. It’s an interesting ever-changing puzzle to solve.

Player Options

There are ten playable characters in total, but that’s somewhat disingenuous. There are five basic characters, and they have five advanced versions on the other side of their character sheets. While there are slight differences between the five basic characters, they largely play the same. The advanced versions, however, play very differently. They all have varied strengths, weaknesses, and playstyles.

Each of them has a set of four stratagem cards. These can be played at any time and are discarded. Stratagems bend the rules of the game, by allowing you to move a worker when an hourglass is still in its row, for example. They also usually allow you to unlock additional workers and can have a variety of other effects.

Stratagem cards

Some of Pendulum’s cleverness lies in the options you have at your disposal combined with the character you’re playing. Gold is obviously important, but you can spend five culture to reclaim any stratagem cards you already used. Playing as Bolk the Warmonger changes that aspect, as he must sacrifice two power to reclaim instead and where he would normally gain culture, he gains 3 military and 2 gold.

Military resources can be used to capture provinces that are added below your character. These directly augment the rewards you receive for taking worker actions on the matching banner spaces, giving the game a small piece of engine building.

Pendulum provinces

Each round has an achievement that players can earn by having a matching number of resources. Achievements grant your choice of an instant benefit or a Legendary Achievement, which is required to win.

Pendulum does a nice job of leaving you with a variety of meaningful options and strategies to pursue, all framed inside the concept of time management.

The Council

Votes are tallied in the Council phase, which is another resource players are capable of earning. The player with the most votes takes the first spot on the privilege track, which allows them to distribute two increases between power, prestige, and popularity.

Vote tokens

Equally important, is the fact they get the first pick from a set of random council reward cards. Council reward cards can have a variety of benefits, such as turning a worker into a grande worker, increasing power, prestige, or popularity, or even gaining new stratagem cards.

The player in second gets one power, prestige, or popularity and gets the second card pick. The remaining players don’t get an increase but continue choosing Council Rewards in privilege order.

The council phase adds another layer of depth to Pendulum’s decision-making. Each game forces you to walk a tight balance between managing several different resources. It’s nearly impossible to dance between all of them, and ignoring votes can cost you in the long run.

Council board and cards

The variety of council rewards is quite nice and can help shake up or cover weak points in your strategy. The last set of council rewards is always the same, so a particularly observant and cunning player could snag a reward another player was counting on.

The Council phase serves as a nice breather between the real-time rounds and the privilege system is potent enough to warrant attention as you play. It’s one of few aspects that requires you to watch another player’s board during the game to see how many votes you need to top them.

Scoring System

The scoring system in Pendulum is fairly unique and blends well with the rest of the game’s mechanisms. It’s not simply about choosing a track and increasing it. You need all of them to win. It offers a unique challenge to each character, as different nobles are better or worse at power, prestige, or popularity.

A character that has progressed all four tracks to the parchment side of their character sheet wins. It goes to tiebreakers if multiple players have reached it. In that case, the player with the most points on the parchment wins. If there is still a tie, victory goes to the player with the highest privilege.

Licinia the Implacable player board

However, there’s another catch that the rulebook does a poor job of explaining. The small legendary achievement track counts. You move that marker onto the parchment by claiming the legendary achievement at least once during the game. You cannot win at all without doing so.

If none of the players manage to reach the parchment with all four tracks, the player with a legendary achievement wins. Everyone loses if no one managed to grab it. I really like this scoring system because it forces you to adapt your strategy and make up for your weaknesses all game. You can’t just focus on a single track.

Player Count

Something I always try to be transparent about is the fact that games I review are always played by two players, and not always more. I won’t hijack my group’s game night to review a game. I let them choose, and they, unfortunately, had no interest in Pendulum. So I evaluated the game solo and at two players with Abbee.

That’s okay, after playing it I have no desire to play it at higher player counts. There are a few benefits. At higher counts, there would be more competition for council cards and spaces on the board.

A ground perspective view of Pendulum

However, the game is played in real-time huddled in close to the board, as everyone needs to be able to reach everything at all times. Abbee and I constantly bumped into each other’s arms, blocked each other’s view, and knocked over the hourglasses. I can only imagine the mess it would be at four and five.

It plays perfectly fine at two players. There is almost no player interaction anyway, and the game has you set up some meeples as a spoiler role for some board spaces.

The solo mode impressed me the most. Pendulum comes with a full-fledged solo rulebook, automa board, and cards that are playable at a variety of difficulties. The automa operates and scores in a different way but feels functionally the same as a player.

One thing I really liked was the clever way the automa would punish you. It gets an action whenever you move a worker from an action space or flip an hourglass while the purple one is empty. It takes its action before you actually place your moved worker. If it flips the purple hourglass, it gains an extra victory point and votes that round.

Automa board and cards for Pendulum

Attempting to draw out the round by not flipping it will result in a swift kick in the shin and I thought that was a great and elegant solution to the problem.

It’s a very clever and fulfilling solo puzzle that feels very much like you’re playing the same game and not a cut-down version of it.

Convoluted, Lonely & Bland

Pendulum isn’t complicated, but its visual design bends its straightforwardness into a steeper curve. There is almost no text. Everything is told through icons. Board spaces, province cards, stratagem cards, council reward cards, all of it. It’s a lot to commit to memory, and its real-time nature means every single player needs have a firm grasp on the entire game for it to work well.

Pendulum has an optional turn-based mode. That’s the recommended way to play for your first round, but it really exposes the game’s belly by doing so. Take the real-time component away, and it’s a very dry and rather flat worker placement game about exchanging resources for points. The real-time element distracts from it, but it’s still there. Once you see it, it makes the real-time aspect feel like a gimmick.

A right side view of the Pendulum board

Pendulum has very little player interaction, maybe some of the least I’ve ever experienced. A player’s workers can block each other, and there are a few occasions to be sneaky, but you’re really just doing your own thing. Plus it’s not just the gameplay that makes you feel isolated, there’s no real communication.

You’re literally just moving dudes and getting resources at the same time as everyone else. The game is too fast to talk out what you’re doing, and no one would pay attention anyway because they are also doing it. It’s a degree of multiplayer solitaire that I’m not even sure fans of the genre would enjoy because it’s not just player interaction that’s missing. But the social aspects altogether.

Theme

The theme is paper thin to the point that it’s nearly an abstract game. There’s very little connection between the game’s mechanisms and the game’s world. There are a few nice nods, such as the Pacifist being able to conquer provinces without war, but not much else.

I learn games through theme most of the time. Reading the rulebook or even watching a how-to-play video only gives me a variable. One that I need to be able to attach to what is happening in the game, and when I can’t do that, I struggle to learn it.

Iconography isn’t inherently bad, many of my favorite games make heavy use of it. But when a game’s theme is as weak as Pendulum’s the iconography becomes difficult to parse and remember because it leaves me nothing to link with its mechanisms.

Achievement cards

In an abstract way, you could view your workers to be collecting taxes, spreading your deeds, or overseeing battles, but that’s as far as it goes. In a real-time game, your brain doesn’t have time to process that tiny slice of a theme.

Not only did all of that make the game difficult to learn, but it also left me with less attachment to the game. As I said before, beyond the real-time element and a few clever design choices the game is very dry. Without a theme to hold it together, it’s even drier. You could push around pieces of paper with numbers on them, and it wouldn’t feel any different.

Abstract games are a thing that exists, but you generally know that going in. Pendulum looks flavorful on the outside, but it’s all air on the inside. Furthermore, abstract games usually make up for the lack of theme with interesting mechanics that would be difficult to materialize in a theoretical fictional setting. Pendulum is a very bog-standard worker placement game. That makes its weak theme more difficult to overlook.

Multiplayer Solitaire

Real-time games are really difficult to pull off, and Pendulum runs into rather obvious hiccups by doing competitive worker placement in real-time. Bumping into people’s arms, knocking stuff over, etc.

The lack of player interaction goes one step further. Player powers are already asymmetric, Throw in the real-time element, and it’s impossible to watch what the other players are doing. Look, I catch mistakes that other players make all the time, and they catch mine. I beat Abbee in the last three games we played, and if I’m unintentionally cheating, I’ll never know.

A close up of a Pendulum Grande worker

No one will ever see my moves or understand what I’m doing and vice versa. For me, victory is only fun when it isn’t hollow. I’ve played Spirit Island with a serial cheater, and it felt like I wasted two hours.

Every victory or loss in Pendulum feels that way because I have no idea if I won or lost because of how we played or misplays in either direction. You could argue that’s also true in solo play. But playing games alone offers more introspection as your mental capacity isn’t accommodating another player. I catch my own mistakes far more alone than in a group.

However, in multiplayer, the problem is more than just the cheating potential. After every game, I have no frame of reference as to how I won or lost. What I could do better, or what the other player did better than me. It’s the worst possible take on multiplayer solitaire. We might as well play in separate rooms and compare scores at the end and avoid the chaotic bumping of arms and knocking over pieces that we endure now.

My Perspective on Pendulum

To be perfectly transparent. Real-time games are one of the weak points in my knowledge. The only other real-time game I’ve played is Bullet♥︎ and that one is a lot of fun. It is to my understanding that most successful real-time games are either cooperative in nature or separate the players to some degree the way that Bullet♥︎ does.

A real-time worker placement game on a shared board might be a unique idea. But novelty is not synonymous with good, and I find much of Pendulum’s design to be in direct conflict with the strengths of the medium.

It just feels clumsy. Even with only two players, you bump one another, knock things over and block each other’s view all the time in a game where there’s no communication with the other players anyway.

A center shot of the Pendulum game

The solo mode obviously doesn’t suffer from such pitfalls, and I enjoyed it quite a bit. I was highly skeptical about facing an automa in real-time. But it’s fairly elegant once you learn how it works. Which I found to be difficult. By the time I started playing solo I knew how to play Pendulum, and I still struggled to grasp the automa because it makes even less thematic sense than the rest of the game.

The automa’s existence is purely mechanical, and while it definitely works, it still gave me that feeling of hollowness. I tried hard to like Pendulum, and I made sure to dig deep for all of its strengths, but it just couldn’t win me over in the end. I don’t see myself playing it beyond this review.

Verdict on Pendulum

I definitely believe there are things to appreciate about Pendulum. The scoring system, the array of choices you can make, and the unique characters. I just don’t feel that its strengths exceed its shortcomings. Sure, there is a lot of choices to be made, but it’s not translated into an interesting game. It’s very by the numbers, almost literally.

What little player interaction exists feels meaningful, only because it’s rare. The few times I’ve snagged a last-minute privilege spot, or intentionally locked down another player’s worker was far and few between games spent in total silence.

Pendulum worker meeples

The real-time element carries the game’s blandness into something more but feels like it’s a poor design decision in the first place. You lose a lot to have Pendulum play like a real-time game, and the only thing you gain is a generic, but kind of okay worker placement game with the added clumsiness of flailing limbs.

Time is of the essence, and there are a lot of great games competing for your attention. I find Pendulum hard to recommend for that reason. Not because it’s a bad game, but because it’s a very standard one, with a gimmick that brings too much baggage in its attempt to make the game more distinct.

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Pros

  • The real-time take on the worker placement genre is unique
  • Five unique characters plus five basic ones
  • The game board is solid and the character sheets are beautiful
  • Plenty of player choice and strategies to pursue
  • The Solo mode is solid

Cons

  • The visual direction is noisy and convoluted
  • A combination of the noisy board, generic tokens, and gratuitous use of iconography makes the game difficult to understand
  • The theme is paper-thin without presenting as an abstract game
  • The real-time element is clumsy as people knock over components and bump into each other, more players would likely make it worse
  • The general gameplay is standard and dry. Playing the turn-based variant really exposes it
  • There’s nearly no player interaction to the point that games are often spent in silence
  • You can’t effectively watch or track what other players are doing

Who Would Like Pendulum?

  • Hardcore fans of real-time games might not see it flawed in the way that I do
  • If you want a different kind of play experience, Pendulum delivers
  • If you want a solo game where you need to beat an automa with several difficulty levels, Pendulum is a solid pick

Who Wouldn’t Like Pendulum

  • By nature board games are thinky not fast, switching gears might not be enjoyable if you have never played a real-time game
  • Folks who like their personal space may have issues with how close everyone needs to huddle around and the constant bumping of arms
  • Big fans of worker placement games will see right through the real-time gimmick and might be less entertained by the fairly standard game underneath
  • If you like games to have a strong theme, Pendulum is as close to abstract as you can get without claiming the title