“Time keeps on slippin’, slippin’, slippin’ Into the future”
Welcome to Pendulum, the real-time board game that claims it’s not like the others.
That’s a bold statement, especially considering that real-time games have a pretty bad rap in the board game world. The added element throws quite a curve into the mix and can add a whole new dimension to board games, but it’s only been done well a few times, with possibly the most famous being Galaxy Trucker.
In addition to the real-time elements, Pendulum received quite a lot of attention at Stonemaier’s Game Day as a prototype, but after its release, there’s been a mixture of reviews.
Here at Game Cows, we finally got hold of a copy for ourselves and we’re dying to dive into the review, so get ready the clock is ticking and we’re looking at Pendulum.
Brief Overview of Pendulum
The first player to complete all 4 of their tracks first is declared the winner.
It’s a simple concept, but not so easy to complete. Players will only be able to perform certain actions depending upon 3 separate sand timers.
There’s a lot in the box.
Pendulum is filled with plastic. There are tons of color-coded counters, meeples, and chits used throughout the game, and they’ve included quite a few little plastic baggies in the box to keep everything organized. It’s 100% necessary if you want to keep setup times down, and it’s always appreciated when they’re included in the box.
As far as overall quality I was pretty impressed with the card stock and the graphics on everything. The player mats were a little thin and susceptible to scattering tokens if they were hit with someone’s wizard sleeves. Other than that it’s a rather high-quality production value from Stonemaier Games.
In a real-time-based board game, the timers are the star of the show when it comes to components. Do they work, are they accurate, and are they pretty?
Pendulum comes with 3 different sand timers.
- Purple: 3-Minute
- Green: 2-Minute
- Black: 45-seconds
First off, let’s look at accuracy. The Black 45-second timer is pretty spot-on, give or take a second. The other two timers were a little bit further from the mark.
There was a fair bit of variation for the 2-minute and 3-minute timers. It could be spot on or anywhere between ± 10 seconds. It’s not going to ruin the game at all and considering that these are sand timers, it’s not that bad. If you’re worried about accuracy, you can always use your phone as a timer, but they work well and look pretty. It’s a small enough variation that you won’t notice it during gameplay.
Just be warned, the first time I flipped over the purple timer (3-minutes) it didn’t start until after I gave it a few shakes. After that, it worked perfectly fine.
How to Play Pendulum
Each timer corresponds to two separate tracks of the same color.
The timer mechanics add an interesting new twist to the worker placement mechanic. Players can only activate their workers on areas while the timer is active. Each timer has 2 different locations and you can only activate workers in the areas with a timer.
Sounds easy enough, but what if you can’t afford the activation cost, or you want to move your workers? Well, you’re out of luck. Workers can only be moved on and off the track if there is no timer on it.
It can be a bit tricky, but it comes down to this; If a timer is active you can activate an ability on that track, but you can’t add or remove workers from the track.
If there is no timer on the track, then you can move workers on and off the track, but can’t activate them.
It’s a nice way to add balance and strategy by forcing players to plan ahead so they’re not wasting time waiting for a timer to count down to use their abilities.
Being a real-time game, there’s no limit to the number of actions you can perform. The only real limit is time and whether a player has enough resources to pay for the action.
Remember though that once started, an action needs to be completed before another one can be started. Even if you think you’re the best multitasker in the world, you still need to complete one action before starting another.
Finally, you must pay for the action before actually attempting to perform it. In the excitement and stress of the timers, it can be easy to simply forget to pay for an action.
Your First Game of Pendulum
Before you jump in, flipping over timers and moving workers, Pendulum has a really cool starter mechanic that eases you into the chaos.
Pendulum offers a tutorial of sorts by using a card variant that replaces the timers with a cheat sheet. This allows players to get a feel for the turn order and learn all the mechanics at a slower pace before the timers start to count down.
The timers are still used to determine what actions can be used and where workers can be placed, but the sand in them is ignored as players get to worry about learning the game and understanding the rules first. I highly suggest giving it a try before using the timers, and if you really hate the real-timed aspect of Pendulum, you can play the game without ever using the timers.
Pros & Cons
For the pros, I must say that I genuinely enjoyed Pendulum. It’s probably the first real-timed big box game that I actually want to keep on my shelf. That’s because of the tense gameplay, but the big factor is that the timers are actually optional.
Sometimes I’ll want to play a crazy mad-dashed game of Pendulum, and other times, it’s just too much stress playing with the timers. The fact that it’s built into the rules to be optional while still feeling like a fully functioning game is pretty impressive.
The pieces are plastic, and that itself is fine. I get it. It’s cheaper to manufacture and there are quite a lot of pieces in this game. I’m normally not a stickler and there’s enough variety of pieces that it really doesn’t bother me.
Where I do have issues is when you combine plastic pieces that slide on cardboard, mixed with a timer. The pieces are extremely susceptible to jostling and you can easily knock them around.
Were you up 3 spaces or 4? Can’t remember? Oh, well.
It’s a little irritating, and the only way I can think to remedy it is with a board or recessed overlay like with Evolution. That’s also a bit tricky, though, since each player board is double-sided, and the tracks on each side of every player board are completely different. There’s not a whole lot you can do about it.
Speaking of the player boards, each board is beautifully done with artwork of the different nobles that are “vying to succeed the Timeless King” but that’s about as much theme as you actually get in the game. It’s in the rulebook and on the box artwork, but none of it means anything. You’re building up your tableau as quickly as possible by using cards and racing to get your 4 tracks completed before anyone else.
The theme itself is nonexistent, so if you’re looking for a highly thematic or in this case, a thematic game, Pendulum is not going to scratch that itch.
Pendulum Review (TL;DR)
Pendulum is a real-time game. Available player actions are determined by where the active timers are on the board, and when they are active.
Pendulum can be played without the real-time aspects, and can also be played solo using an automated set of rules. The game relies heavily on worker placement mechanics with slight tableau-building & engine building mechanics built-in.
I was rather conflicted when I first saw Pendulum. My first experience with a real-time game was X-Com, and I enjoyed it, but it was brutal and stressful. So much that it never really left the shelf after the first few games.
There were a lot of moving parts in XCOM and the timer app that screams at you was pretty stressful. I had flashbacks to that when I first opened up the Pendulum box. There are a ton of components and parts along with timers and little fiddly plastic bits.
I was a little hesitant but tried to be objective about my review. Overall, it’s a solid worker placement game. It’s fun, there are tons of different options and abilities to activate. I couldn’t even get into it all within this review without rewriting the rulebook, but there’s a lot to do and see.
What really sold me though was the “gimmick” that Pendulum is sold as (a real-time game) is completely optional. If you absolutely hate it then you can simply ignore it and just enjoy it for what it is.
My only regret with Pendulum is the theme. The idea of becoming the new Timeless King sounds so cool, but it’s nowhere to be seen in the actual game.
We hope you liked our review. If you have any thoughts on Pendulum or other real-time games, we’d love to hear them. Leave a comment below.