Pendulum Review


Time is of the essence

Stonemaier has earned a well-deserved reputation for publishing consistently great games. These are, after all, the same people who gave us 2019 mega-hit Wingspan and the painterly 4X masterpiece Scythe. So SM’s latest, Pendulum, arrives burdened by justifiable expectation – not least because it also boasts an intriguingly novel mechanism, whereby time itself is considered a resource and its worker placement strategies must unfold in real time, with no turn order.

It’s a risky move. After all, Eurogames – worker placement titles, especially – are typically appreciated for their gentle, thoughtful nature, even if they occasionally inflict analysis paralysis. Real-time games, however, tend to be the opposite: hectic, high-pressure affairs, where snoozing means losing. But designer Travis Jones aims to ensure that, while Pendulum is certainly not a ponderous Euro, its interesting use of timers also stops it from being a chaotic, knuckle-knocking flurry. You’re not so much racing against time as considering it and using it when necessary.  

The board presents three different zones – purple, green and black – each with two matching rows of actions, where your workers – whether common (which can be blocked by other workers), or grande (which can’t) – can be placed. Each zone has its own timer. The purple zone, which offers the most powerful actions, has the longest-running timer (three minutes); the black zone has the least powerful, so its timer runs shortest (45 seconds). The timers themselves block workers according to which action row they currently stand beside; you can only place or remove workers wherever there isn’t a timer, and they can only yield an action wherever there is a timer. Whenever a timer is flipped – and any player can do this as long as that timer’s run out – it moves to the other row, thereby allowing placed workers to take actions, or used workers to move and reserve fresh actions elsewhere. After three flips of the purple timer, play pauses, the round ends and there’s a scoring session. After the fourth-round scoring, the winner is declared. 

All this takes time to seep in, and it will be a few rounds before you stop putting workers in the wrong places, while the timers will often get knocked over, which can be irksome. And though it sounds like a downtime-free affair, there are often moments when everyone’s made all their possible moves and you’re all sitting there waiting for a timer to flip. But it’s an interesting puzzle, which rewards players whose placements pay closest attention to those trickling sands – for example, by not allowing a grande worker to linger in the purple or green zones when they could pull off a few swift actions in the black zone, before getting back over to purple just in time.

The problem with Pendulum isn’t so much in its mechanisms as the way they never bear out the theme. A chewy wodge of rule-book lore establishes that this is a fantasy realm where the mighty 'Timeless King' has vanished, leaving a bunch of scheming nobles – your unnoticeably asymmetric player characters – to vie for supremacy. Yet the board itself is just an abstract arrangement of boxes and icons, whose art, cards and tokens offers scant connection with this narrative. 

It all feels very functional and disappointingly bland. You’re moving things to get things to get other things to get points with only a faint sense of what they are or what they’re for. Furthermore, time doesn’t really have anything to do with the story, apart from the fact that by taking power you’ll be able to restart a giant stopped clock. There is an interesting idea at the heart of Pendulum, but it feels disappointingly misapplied. In time, it’ll hopefully be reimplemented in a more engaging manner. 

DAN JOLIN 

PLAY IT? MAYBE

It’s different, that’s for sure, and its real-time worker placement has a novel appeal, but Pendulum doesn’t add up to what you might have hoped for, thanks to its inability to connect with its own theme. 

TRY THIS IF YOU LIKED SPACE ALERT…

Another game which applies its real-time elements in an interesting way, though those elements far better bear out its narrative.  

Designer: Travis Jones

Publisher: Stonemaier Games

Time: 60-90 minutes

Players: 1-5

Ages: 12+

Price: £60

What’s in the box?

  • 1 Game board (double sided)
  • 1 Council board
  • 5 Player mats (double sided)
  • 1 Timer track board
  • 5 Advanced character reference cards
  • 5 Action summary cards
  • 1 Council summary tile
  • 56 Province cards
  • 10 Achievement cards
  • 40 Stratagem cards
  • 31 Council reward cards
  • 15 Common workers
  • 10 Grande workers
  • 20 VP tokens
  • 5 Privilege markers
  • 5 Achievement markers
  • 150 resource cubes
  • 50 Vote tokens
  • 10 Ten-vote chips
  • 3 Time markers
  • 1 Legendary achievement token
  • 1 Time token
  • 1 Purple three-minute timer
  • 1 Green two-minute timer
  • 1 Black 45-second timer

This article originally appeared in issue 47 of Tabletop Gaming. Pick up the latest issue of the UK's fastest-growing gaming magazine in print or digital here or subscribe to make sure you never miss another issue.

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