Massless Rod, Massive Bob
Real-time games are tricky, both to design and play. It’s an inherent conundrum. Most of our hobby lets us take things slow, examine the playing field from a sky-high vantage, and make decisions based on data rather than reflex. For a real-time game to work, it’s necessary to shift the player’s headspace into overdrive without cooking it altogether. Along the way, there are hurdles aplenty to consider.
Pendulum almost clears them. But the thing about hurdles is that almost clearing them still leaves you chewing rubber. Let’s talk about how it misses that final crucial inch.
Pendulum is about earning a handful of precious victory points. “Dan, lots of games are about that,” you’re saying, with a flatness that conveys your displeasure at how far I’m stretching this aphorism. Fair enough. But Pendulum is especially stingy. Working in reverse, your goal is to earn at least one apiece of four flavors of victory points. There’s red, which is usually tied to conquest. Blue seems to appear on cards. Yellow must be found somewhere since I’ve won a couple times and winning means I’ve earned a fair few yellows, but these are always such a low priority that they’re usually the ones I scramble to make up near the end of the game. Gray is the toughest, but it’s also something you can only earn once by completing a… quest? Adventure? Special order? Never mind what; fulfill the thing once and you’ll earn a gray point. In each case apart from that, you’ll need to earn a whole lot of reds, blues, and yellows before they start counting as actual “victory points.” Hence why you can win with only one point of each.
Not that it’s as easy as grabbing points. Still working in reverse, earning points usually involves an entire sequence of conversions. You have workers, big and little, resembling pointy-haired Rick and diminutive Morty from the little-known children’s television program Rick & Morty. Little Mortys cannot inhabit spaces with other workers, as they are shy and intolerant both at once, whereas Ricks ignore all such considerations and can gather together as they please. Upon being placed on the board, they eventually earn, well, stuff. Sometimes they conquer a card to add to your growing spreadsheet of conquered cards. Sometimes they earn resources, reds and blues and yellows, which do not directly connect to the reds and blues and yellows that are your victory points. Sometimes they trigger your conquered cards for other resources. Sometimes even for points.
Okay, so you’re placing workers to earn and convert resources into points, with a few side-hustles along the way for voting privileges and whatnot. What forces Pendulum off the beaten worker-placement path is that the whole thing is timed. There are three “worker zones,” each split into two rows. Between these two rows are little sand timers of differing speeds: forty-five seconds, two minutes, and three minutes. Workers can only be placed or removed from spaces where these sand timers are not; similarly, they can only activate the ability of a row where a sand timer is currently situated. Every so often a sand timer will run out, at which point you’re free to flip it over to the other row in that zone, thus changing its shift. Spent workers can now move, working workers can now work.
I’ll say it again for posterity: workers are placed into rows without timers, and earn resources, points, and everything else on rows with timers. Keep this straight. The rulebook will remind you as many times as humanly possible. You will be provided a reference card that exists almost solely to remind you of this fact. And you’ll still get caught flubbing this rule at least once during your first play.
Why? Because like the best real-time games, Pendulum is about harnessing the bandwidth of the oldest network of them all. I’m talkin’ ’bout your brain, son. There’s more to process than you can handle at once, so every so often you’ll see a timer being shifted and realize you hadn’t moved a spent worker and now he’s trapped in that space’s basement without anything useful to do. Whoops. Better luck next shift.
That’s the theory, anyway. Early on, Pendulum only provides two workers per player, which is enough to start ramping up toward extra employees, a couple cards, and a tidy surplus of resources, but not enough that you’re scrambling to get everything finished before the timers are flipped. In fact, at times Pendulum is the most sluggish real-time game I’ve played, with plenty of awkward pauses while everybody stares at the timers waiting for the last few grains of sand trickle out. Then, after a flurry of motion, everybody sits back and waits for the next timer. Later, as new workers are claimed and upgraded, and as better cards provide more interesting ways to disrupt the usual bungee-cording between zones and rows, Pendulum gets interesting. By the third and fourth round, the pace speeds up. Mistakes become more common. Geoff’s meaty ape hands obstruct your vision as they hover like banana-appendaged saucers over the board.
Pacing is the first of Pendulum’s tripped hurdles, revving from larghetto to prestissimo a little too precipitously. To be clear, the more frenetic tempo is the goal. At their best, real-time games blur the line between reflex and consideration. You’re moving at high speed, almost operating on the basis of muscle memory. Then — a pause. Clarity. Insight. In the above image, you can see somebody shift a piece into position, hesitate, and move it somewhere else. Pendulum opens too slowly for such on-the-fly adjustments. Those first two rounds almost function like a tax on your evening. Here is the tedium you’re required to endure before you get to the good stuff, like lengthy exposition in an action movie.
The good news is that when Pendulum stops dragging its feet, it accelerates and begins stretching your bandwidth in interesting ways. Sometimes you’ll solve a minor problem on the fly. Other times your brain will fritz out over a motion you’ve repeated a dozen times in the past fifteen minutes. In both cases, your brain’s processing speed — as opposed to its raw power — is as important a resource as red or blue or yellow cubes. Sometimes it’s good to sit and contemplate a move. Other times it’s good to play something that forces you onto your feet.
In general, though, real-time games provide some assistance to this process. Space Alert gives you a simple geography (a small space ship!) and an intuitive goal (survive for ten minutes!). Millennium Blades offers the foundation of a collectible card game, something you’ve likely played a thousand times, before slinging you through the sound barrier. XCOM: The Board Game divides its roles into minor tasks and offloads the bookkeeping to an app. Something similar happens in Captain Sonar, in which the complex problem of sinking a rival submarine is reduced to multiple seats that are entirely comprehensible on their own. Call it context, call it theme, call it setting. Whatever it’s called, it’s a useful shorthand for the actions you’ll undertake during play, lending sense where otherwise there would be nothing but the conceptual exchange of one plastic component for a space on a track.
Pendulum is uninterested in context. Who are you? A minotaur, a beast, a snake person. Why? What are these resources supposed to represent? Or these victory points? Or these actions? Or the shifting sand timers? Or your Ricks and Mortys, so infinitely duplicated? Speaking of which, why are Ricks so much more effective than Mortys? Why are you conquering countries that feel almost identical, for rewards that don’t often diverge? Why is it more difficult to activate your brass banner than your yellow banner? Why are there periodic conclaves, apart from the breathers they offer along with their bonus cards and points to whomever accumulated the most vote tokens? What exactly — crud, even a vague explanation would suffice — are we doing?
I couldn’t tell you.
If this lack of context is Pendulum’s second stumbling block, it’s closely related to the third. The function of a game’s setting, especially in a real-time game where those connections of meaning are so invaluable, has much to do with that game’s core loop of actions and reactions. Specifically, how that gameplay loop twists and kinks and shifts often enough that rote action won’t carry the day. Think of it this way: if every play is identical, there’s nothing to prevent you from memorizing and performing the actions without any thought at all, whether thematic or mathematical, like an actor learning “Clair de lune” through extensive coaching rather than through practice and theory. In such an instance, our actor has not learned piano; they’ve learned how to fake a single performance, and cannot pivot from Debussy to Chopin for all their grace.
To its credit, Pendulum offers some variation. Each of its five characters has two separate sets of abilities. Some earn a particular victory point easily, or reclaim a worker from under the shadow of a sand timer, or restore their discarded cards by spending votes rather than blue resources. Unfortunately, these changes function like altered variables in an equation more than as fresh problems. They’re a far cry from Space Alert’s shifting enemies, Millennium Blades’ random booster packs, or the deviousness of Captain Sonar’s human opponents. Devoid of evolving quandaries — or even significant interruption from opposing players — it isn’t long before the game’s processes become rote. Here are the ideal first spots to visit, and the next, and then you’ll want to slip a worker beneath the purple timer right before it turns over. There are finer points to consider, such as the contest bestowing a rare gray point or the market of countries to conquer. But these diversions are minor and often surmounted identically, making them secondary to the hopscotch the game has already taught you.
I’d heard Pendulum was a disaster. That isn’t the case. If anything, it’s better than expected. The way it incorporates worker placement into a real-time structure is entirely natural, with the genre’s rhythms translating smoothly to a swifter tempo. It spills out rewards with all the gusto of a hacked slot machine, tickling that region of the brain that merrily converts actions into resources into victory points.
Which is why it’s such a shame that it doesn’t quite know what to do with the real-time format. It’s too slow, then too abstract for its speed, then too rote, then too long. Four hurdles, four times it smacks into the rubber and rebounds like it hasn’t already lost the race. Pendulum is almost good. When it comes to real-time games, almost good isn’t good enough.
A complimentary copy was provided.