Some Theses About Indulgence
A game about the selling and buying of Renaissance indulgences would be fascinating. You could try to guess which sins would need forgiving that weekend, pay the priest, and waltz right off to your fancy sexy parties. But! If you didn’t anticipate your transgressions properly, Martin Luther would lodge a complaint and Teresa of Ávila would slap you hard across the cheek.
Indulgence, one of the three titles in the opening salvo from Restoration Games, isn’t quite that. It’s a remake of Jerry D’Arcey’s Dragon Master, which was a remake of his own Coup d’Etat, which was a remake of Barbu. That’s a type of history too. Fewer assassinations and peasant revolts, one hopes.
Okay, so the very first thing you need to know about Indulgence is that it isn’t actually about indulgences. Nor is it really about Renaissance intrigue in any way. Rather, it’s a trick-taking game. And how you reacted to that preceding sentence may very well determine how you feel about Indulgence.
I didn’t grow up playing trick-taking games. Face cards were the devil’s dainty hand fan, and whenever Satan secreted some into my house via untoward majicks, we would promptly burn the entire deck in the fireplace. It’s safe to say I wasn’t certain of the appeal. So when I plopped down Indulgence and announced it was a trick-taking game (“Like hearts.”), I was surprised to hear a heartfelt gasp of delight from everyone else at the table. “Like hearts!” my wife exclaimed. “The best trick-taking games are spades, euchre, whist, pinochle, schafkopf, oh hell, bezique, all-fours, and mariáš!”
Like every other trick-taking game, this one is about taking tricks. If it weren’t thus, this review would be waaay harder to write. But where Indulgence sets itself apart — and adds the faintest whiff of Renaissance theming — is by forcing everyone to obey one of its edicts each hand.
Here’s how it works. Each round one player is designated the ruler. I would have preferred sovereign or enlightened despot, but there you have it. Ruler.
On the table before the ruler are three edicts. “Don’t take the last Borgia.” “Don’t take any 2s or 3s.” “Don’t take the most tricks.” That sort of thing. The ruler takes a look at her hand, muses over the nature of divine forgiveness and whether sin is ever truly pardonable, then chooses which of those edicts will go into effect for the duration of that hand.
This is more than mere random selection. Whenever somebody fails to obey an edict, they’re forced to pay some sort of fee to the ruler. Most of the time this is one or two coins for each offending card, but every so often it might be something harsher, like a fat stack of eight coins if you happened to nab the last trick. So the ruler is incentivized to study her hand carefully for those edicts that she can nudge someone into breaking.
The twist, however, is that anyone can then announce that they’re planning on sinning. This flips the edict over. Now the sinner is trying to do the exact opposite of what the edict declared. “Don’t take any 6s” becomes “I will take all the 6s,” for example.
This is a tough situation to place yourself in. For one thing, you’re usually positioning yourself opposite not only the ruler, but everyone else as well. This is because your success will mean a payout from everyone at the table. Then again, failure means you’ll pay straight to the ruler, so it’s possible that you’ll find friends who are more likely to give you a few coins than see a winning ruler continue to sweep the game. Table politics abound. Fortunately, the sinner starts out with the indulgence ring, which will transform any one of their cards into a winning 10, at least if they’re deploying the right suit.
It’s a clever inversion of the usual trick-taking formula. Sometimes it pays big to sin, drawing loot from everyone at the table and potentially swinging the long game in your favor. Other times you don’t have a prayer. And once per game, each ruler can fart out a papal bull that forces you to obey all three edicts, possibly resulting in a cruise-booking payday. If someone decides to sin at that point, they’ll have to fulfill all three cards at once, but they’ll instantly win the game if they can pull it off. Best of luck to ye.
In the end, though, it’s still a trick-taking game. Since my woodsy upbringing means I never played these sorts of things, I’m a little bit helpless about whether to recommend it. Somerset and the others who knew trick-taking like their own pulse have assured me it’s good. And for my part, I do admire the way temporary alliances arise, the thrill of sinning, and the surprising depth of prediction that can be drawn from a hand of nicely-illustrated playing cards.
So, uh, there you go. Indulgence is a good trick-taking game. That is all.