Back in the day, certain music labels were an auto-buy for me: Wax Trax, Def American, Sub Pop. More aptly, on the video game front, anything from Working Designs was a must-have for me. Working Designs were know for their top of the line production: limited edition artwork on the CDs, foil-stamped covers/instruction manuals, exclusive pre-order bonuses, and a somewhat controversial face of the company, Victor Ireland. Now, 30 years later, Stonemaier Games follows in those same footsteps, even complete with a somewhat controversial face for the company, Jamey Stegmaier. So, the fact that any Stonemaier release is an instabuy for some players shouldn't be a surprise to anyone.
From the outside, Pendulum “looks” like what we have come to expect from Stonemaier Games. Once you open the box, the smart, geometrically transcendental Game Trayz we've almost come to expect is...missing? Ah, well, I guess this games doesn't really need them. Besides, one of the main things we are here for are those custom game pieces. Ahh, the linen finish manual, the high-quality cards and *reaches for Meeples but, upon touching them, recoils in horror* Wait, these are...plastic? And why do the worker's instantly remind me of cut-rate Marty McFly and “Doc” Brown? Bland, untextured plastic meeples in a game with a real-time manipulation environment seems like a very poor choice. Not to mention the vote tokens need to be stackable and a chunk of slick plastic doesn't lend itself well to that.
So, this is a real-time worker placement game...
“Whoa, Whoa, Whoa, is someone,possibly myself, going to knock over my Scotch when we are playing this?”
“First off, you don't drink scotch...”
“Yea, but If I did, would this be a game where someone is going to knock over my Beer...err...Scotch.”
“Well, it does have more grabbing and flipping than a Bel Biv Devoe song.”
What is a real-time game without timers? This isn't a hypothetical question; it is literally how it is recommended that your first, learning game be played. Obviously, you'll want to learn to walk before you have the “pressure” of time running out while you make your decisions. But do you play an untimed, turn by turn play every time you introduce a new person to Pendulum? If you want them to have an teachable, enjoyable experience, the answer is yes. And if you have graduated to the level of “I'm just here for the challenge of the real-time aspect” well, too bad. Granted, if you play with the same core group each time and everyone learns at once, this isn't an issue.
Once you have decided to add the timers into the game, it still can be some sand (timers) in the gears. Early in the game, before you have full access to all of your workers, you'll often find yourself watching sand go though the hourglass (something something days of our lives) waiting on the next round. Of course, the duration on those sand timers doesn't change, and once all the pieces are in play, it moves at a pace that is more hectic than ho-hum.
I am one of those players that explains what they are doing on every turn, especially in teaching games. I don't know if it is a weird, fair-play motivation or years of explaining games to others, it's just something I have gotten into a habit of doing. I also encourage others to do the same so that any rules that could be misinterpreted or actions they might be missing can be adjusted for. You won't find that in Pendulum. Since everyone is doing their own thing under the ever-descending sands, there is never time or reason to explain what you are engaging in. Are the other players playing the rules correctly? Are YOU playing it correctly? Did everyone remember to pay their resources? The world, and you, will never know.
Pendulum is a Stonemaier game in that it takes a chance on putting gameplay mechanics together that you might not immediately consider compatible. It is also a Stonemaier game in that it doesn't excel at any one of those mechanics. The turn-by-turn version isn't a stand out implementation of worker placement and the real-time execution is obviously the hook, but it never managed to truly set it for me. Plenty of the gameplay relies on you spotting excellent cards during the heat of the moment and making sure you have dibs on them. But the biggest issue was that after a couple of games, even with the real-time element, each play felt the same as the previous one and we had seen everything it had to offer.
P.S. I didn't forget to mention the theme/setting of Pendulum. I'm just giving it the exact same amount of attention that the game does once you finish reading the manual.