Stonemaier Games Feature

PENDULUM

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Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier Games only releases one or two games a year and they are usually brilliant award-winning beasts that take the board game community by storm!

This year, from the publisher that brought us Scythe, Tapestry, Wingspan and many more,  Stonemaier Games will have just one game released; Pendulum. A “real-time” simultaneous action-selection, worker-placement game designed by Travis Jones.

 

The game is available for order now and we have loved every game so far. We recently sat down with Jamey and discussed how this game came about and talked about Jamey’s plans for the future. You can watch and read this below and read our review at the end as well as watch our fascinationg interview with designer Travis Jones. 

Pendulum

WBG Score: 8

Player Count: 1-5

You'll like this if you like: Tzolk'in, Viticulture, Race for the Galaxy

Published by Stonemaier Games 

Designed by Travis P Jones

 

Thank you so much for talking with us here at What Board Game again Jamey. It must be an exciting period for you. This game has been born from one of the highly fruitful Stonemaier games design days. I would love to know what these events are like for you!

 

They’re great! I love seeing the sheer amount of creativity, collaboration, and generosity on display by the 90-100 attendees who attend each year to showcase and playtest prototypes. I typically walk around, spending a little time with everyone there and scouting potential publications.

 

When did you first meet Travis Jones? Was it at one of these events?

 

As far as I can recall, the first time I met Travis was at Design Day 2017, at which he was playtesting Heir to the Empire (which would go on to become Pendulum).

A momentous day! Are you able to talk about the moment you told him, "Hey Travis, we want to publish your game!" It must have been such a thrill for him! 

 

I don’t remember the exact date, but it was at least a few months after Design Day, which gave me time to play the game, explore it, offer feedback, and play a revised version before making my final decision.

 

How was it working with Travis? Can you describe your role in games like this when you are working with another designers?

 

Travis is great to work with, particularly because he’s so open to feedback (while still retaining his vision) and because he’s so committed to playtesting. When I serve as a developer/publisher for another designer’s game, I playtest the latest version of the game, offer feedback and ask questions, and then wait as the designer implements and playtests the changes. Then I play the revised version and repeat the process until the game is ready for blind playtesting, which I coordinate.

 

Can you talk a bit about the differences and your preferences between working as lead designer such as on games like Scythe, Charterstone and Tapestry, and with others such as here with Pendulum? 

 

If I am the designer, I’m wearing all the hats and relying more heavily on external feedback, as I don’t have another developer. As a developer and publisher, I’m not spending time doing the actual design and prototyping. As for which I prefer…I have found that I like the variety of a little of both, as well as a little co-design, particularly for expansions.

 

The “real-time” element has caught the attention of the internet for sure, can you expand upon that a little?

 

Pendulum is indeed a real-time game, though I think it’s more accurate to say that it’s a turnless worker-placement game featuring simultaneous play. When people hear “real time,” they think about frantic, hectic, stressful moments as the timer ticks down. That’s not the case in Pendulum. Rather, players are weighing the cost/benefit analysis of placing workers on actions where they’ll remain longer (and get better benefits) versus actions where they’ll be available sooner (and get weaker benefits).

 

You talked before about Tzolk'in being a game you admired. Was that in your mind when you considered publishing Pendulum?

 

At the time I don’t think I made the comparison, but I do really love Tzolk’in, so perhaps it was lurking in my subconscious. :)

 

You have usually released two games per year (plus expansions), but this, you have said, is the only release this year (apart from Rolling Realms I suppose, which I love BTW, thanks for that!) Are you able to talk a bit about why that is and if this will be continued? There seems to be a lot in the pipeline for you in 2021, or will "Gold" be the only stand-alone release?

 

At this point, I always aim for 2 games per year, but if a game isn’t ready, I’m not going to rush it. So, it’s simply a matter of the other game not being ready for 2020. Plus, we’ll have 3 expansions released this year. As for 2021, there’s only 1 game that I know will be ready for sure, but there are a few others that might be ready.

 

Exciting!  This is a simple pre-order from your site game. What is the thought process between that and Kickstarter? Do you think Stonemaier will ever use Kickstarter again now you have such an established fan base? Personally, it seems odd when a big publisher does it, but I get it, it helps with a lot of things and you see how Kemet and Terraforming Mars utilize this despite having a big fan base already.

 

It's a big topic, but a quick answer is that I’ve found through experience over the past few years (our last Kickstarter was in November 2015) that I’d much rather make a product, accept pre-orders, and ship it within a few weeks than add a 6-12 month gap between the pre-order and the delivery. I can do all the things that creators do on Kickstarter without taking loans from backers. That said, I’m still an avid backer of many projects, and I don’t mind helping to bring those projects to life via those “loans.” But I still get really excited when a publisher does it our way, like Plaid Hat did recently with Forgotten Waters.

 

Finally, is there any specific mechanic of the game you are interested in working with in the future? I feel like you have looked into co-op a bit in some of your recent videos.

 

Indeed, I’ve been working on a cooperative game for a few years now. I’d also like to make an I-cut-you-choose game at some point. :)

 

Well I know how much a fan of Hanamikoji you are, in fact we bought that game based on your recommendation and love it! I would love to see a Stonemaier take on this mechanic! Thanks for talking with us again Jamey. It was an absolute joy and  privilege.

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Pendulum Review

Pendulum has polarised the gaming community more than many games due to its “real-time” mechanic, coupled with the high-profile nature of Jamey Stegmaier, the publisher behind this game. There has been some “Twitter outrage” over Jameys alleged "pressurising" of reviewers to publish their reviews, and other issues regarding old, now deleted blog posts from Jamey, that I wont go into here as I want to focus on the game. People seem to enjoy knocking down anyone who does well or becomes successful. Which is a shame, and strange with Stonemaier, as they are a two-person company who have published ten games in eight years. They are hardly a big corporate machine!

 

Either way, the game itself is very good. And I mention the above as enjoying this game has been even more satisfying after looking at all the unjustified criticism of the game I saw on-line. Often from people who had not played the game or had multiple rules wrong, which suggested to me, the “opinion” was coming perhaps from their own preconceptions of Stonemaier as a publisher, or just simply somewhat prematurely. 

 

Another reason for the controversy it seems is that Jamey sends review copies to a select group early and with an embargo for when they can release their opinions. This is so they have time to play the game multiple times, without the pressure of releasing their review first. Not to stop people giving their opinions out. The embargo ended a week before pre-orders started, so there was no way this could put anyone into a situation where they had to decide on their purchase without the advantage of being able to read reviews first. But it seems, what with all the other games people want to play, and for review purposes, have to play, I would wager some of these reviews were still released without enough plays and did not cover the full complexity of the game.  One high profile reviewer did not even cover the timed version of the game, which for a game all about timers, seemed odd to me!

 

This game needs two to three games to learn it. It has three mechanisms to simplify the rules for first game experiences. There are simplified player mats and cards, rules around the worker placement and scoring and finally the timers can be used in a way that removes all time pressures. But as such, you don’t get the full experience until you are using all these rules and mechanics. Some reviews it seemed did not cover this crucial point. They offered opinions of the game before they had played all of the game. 

 

But is this a problem? I have likened this to friends as learning to drive. No one really enjoys their first experience in a car when learning. You are bad at it and conscious of every hand and foot movement, nothing is happening subconsciously. Once you get over the initial excitement of trying something new, you are really just going through a process of realising how bad and confused you are at it. But this isn’t what driving is like when you have done it a few times. This is just what is it like when you are learning. But once it clicks, and you are doing all the different things naturally it becomes a joy. This is very much like Pendulum and for me, Jamey and designer Travis Jones, should not be penalised for giving players an easy walkthrough into the game. I asked Travis about this point in the video interview if you want to delve into this more and hear Travis’ opinion on this. 

 

Having now tried at multiple player counts and with the advanced player mats, cards and rules I can safely say this is a good game. Maybe even very good. I am still trying to play down my own personal pro Stonemaier hype to see what the real game is like outside of my own prejudices. But what I can say is, I can’t stop playing the game. When I do have to stop for eating, sleeping and general adult responsibilities like paying electricity bills and putting my kids to bed, I am thinking about the game. It has absorbed me in a way no other game has done so recently. 

 

Every game of Pendulum I play ends with long discussions about the tactics we employed and how the character we used added to the experience and changed the way we played. I think this happens more in this game than others for two reasons. First, each game is very different based on the player board you have and strategy you employ. But secondly, and more importantly; as the game is played in real-time, you are very rarely focusing on your opponent’s actions. As such, when the game ends, you want to talk through the highs and lows of the game with the other players as you know they probably were not aware of the awesome moves, or mistakes, you just pulled off! 

 

Another key point about this game is that it is quite a solo experience, you only occasionally look over at what the other players are doing in your first few plays. This is quite hard to see for yourself when you watch a play through. It all looks quite hectic and chaotic. But when playing, it is anything but this. If anything, there are times when you want to do more than you can and are easily waiting for a timer to end so you can turn it and take your next move. Nick from Board Deck & Dice mentions this in his opinions below and should be considered with thinking about purchasing this game. 

 

This is another interesting point I did not see in other reviews. There seems to be two trains of thought here, again, that I discussed with Travis in the video. But in short, players either looking at the timers turning over and over and wondering how they will ever be able to keep up with the pace of the game, or for Nick and I; wanting them to turn quicker. This game is real-time. There is no two ways about that. But for me, it is nothing like other real-time games such as Pandemic Rapid Response or Escape: The Curse of the Temple. In Pendulum there is no timer that ends the game. There is no countdown where if you don’t do something in time, you either die or lose the game. It is more a case of a timer that is letting you know how many turns you can do before the end of that round. You cannot get trapped or stuck in a locked room or lose by not doing something within a time limit. This is the stress of real-time. Pendulum uses time as a resource to limit your actions much in the way other worker placement games do with resources such as brick, stone or gold. Don’t believe the hype around the frantic, chaotic nature of this game, It simply isn’t. You are in your own world, focusing on your own moves. And the timers ending don’t mean what they do in other games. I have never felt it be chaotic or stressful at all. 

 

So, for me. You need to think more about this. Do you want a worker placement game, that uses time in a new way, but means you focus more on your own game, than the moves of others in early games as you familiarise yourself with the game? If so, Pendulum could be for you. Or do you want a worker placement game where you are more conscious of the other players? If so, maybe try Architects of the West Kingdom. And that for me, would have been a fair criticism of this game. The isolated nature of gameplay in early games.  

 

But don’t get me wrong. You need to be aware of what others are doing on occasions. It’s just you simply cannot do it all the time due to the real-time nature. However, after a few games, I would wager you would be watching the other players as much as your own moves. So again, this is just part of the learning stages of the game. 

 

After each round, the player with the highest number of votes gets the privilege in the next round, and also gets first pick of the Stratagem cards and also scores two points rather than one or none on the top score track. So, there is a reason here to monitor how many other votes the other players have. You don’t need loads of votes, just one more than your opponents. You will have t pay attention to other players moves for this rule alone. 

 

It’s nice to wade through the hype, judge for yourself, and discover at the end of all the hyperbole and vitriol, is just some nice plastic, cardboard and sand timers that creates a fun, certainly not frantic, gaming experience. 

 

But don't just take my word for it. This game for me is too important. Too polarising. Too high profile, for this review to just me my opinion. I have scoured the depths of the board game community for four expert opinions from people who have played the game a lot. Also, I have tried, to find people who think differently to me, not only to me about this game, but also Stonemaier Games and Jamey Stegmaier. 

 

@MovinMeeples - 7.5/10

I’m not a fan of real-time games, I don’t excel under time pressure! Neither am I a great fan of fantasy as a tabletop theme. So, I expected to find Pendulum overwhelming, stressful and with an overbearing theme. I could not have been more wrong!

 

Firstly, I didn’t find the real-time aspect stressful at all. I like the way Pendulum uses time as a resource. Using time this way means workers get locked in to action spaces for varying periods of time. As a result, you are more often waiting for time to run out than you are desperate to do something before it does. Not stressful as I expected! The fantasy theme rather than overbearing was, I felt, very under-utilised. The game actually played rather dry. None of the actions have thematic ties even in terms of titles and art. The board itself is rather bland, it’s just a desktop. The result after one play left me feeling un-engaged, like I was just pushing and pulling levers to bump markers up the tracks. I was pretty underwhelmed.

 

I have to say I enjoy Pendulum a little more each time I play it. My partner Bek thinks that the real-time mechanic necessitates a blander graphic design so as not to complicate the decision process. I think she’s probably right, and as I become more familiar with the nuances of the game I am definitely feeling more engaged. We’ve played with the advanced characters now and will never go back. For a game that does feel blander than expected (by necessity or not) the little asymmetries really help. I will probably always pick a worker placement like Viticulture to play over Pendulum if only for thematic engagement, but Pendulum is a unique game that has definitely grown on me. I’m glad to have it in my collection and will enjoy it when it hits the table. 

 

@boardgamemeeple 7.5/10

Pendulum surprised and surpassed my expectations of what a “real-time” gaming experience can be. It did this by providing me (and my group) with magical gaming moments. A feeling of anticipation and mild panic as the sand timers start to trickle away, rushing to take actions and then later using the time to reflect; bringing calmness, allowing me to review my plans. It’s a feeling that swings back and forth throughout the game, and made me grin with satisfaction and considerable enjoyment. 

 

@madboardgamer  7.5/10

Pendulum is a game unlike many I have played. Real-time worker placement is not a style that is very prevalent in board games but Pendulum might be opening some doors. Flipping timers and simultaneously moving workers comes across as something extremely chaotic but I think Pendulum finds a nice balance of tension without being overly hectic. There will be times where you forget about a timer or a worker but that creates some of the challenge. It is fun trying to time out what actions you can take and waiting for those timers to run out to move your workers around.

 

The mechanisms in the game are something that I had fun working through. Although the actions themselves never felt overly exciting, the timers and racing against the clock are what elevated those simple actions to something better. The game comes with an advanced mode giving players special abilities which increases replayability. Overall, Pendulum is a game I really enjoyed and I hope that it can hold its allure through many plays to come.

 

@boarddeck&dice 5/10

I’m not immune to the Stonemaier hype by any means but I like to think I go in as ‘eyes open’ as possible. Unusually it was hard not to be negatively disposed to Pendulum. After the disappointing solid but not spectacular Tapestry Pendulum’s flaws seem more significant than perhaps they are. Now I’ve only played at two and will be trying higher counts as soon as possible, but at two players there was just something missing. Something off. Too much waiting and not enough positive tension. From the rules, to the components, to the gameplay there was something very ‘not Stonemaier’ about the whole thing. Perhaps the most damning evidence was when we opened the box we both said ‘oh’ instead of the usual ‘ooooo’!

 

Quite contrasting opinions there! But fascinating to see how different people see this game. Gathering all the opinion in has led me to my final score of 8/10. I have personally ranked this game as a 9 on BGG, but have aggregated the scores across my own 9 and these four above, to an 8 for this review. I want to give you a rounded opinion of this polarising game as much as I can. 

 

But as you can see for yourself, even from the people who have scored it lower, this game intrigues. It has done something new with timers, that should be congratulated. I look forward to seeing how this game develops with people’s opinions over time. I am also looking forward to seeing a flood of new ‘real-time’ games using timers in this way, hitting the market over the icing years as I am sure this will be the case. 

 

In summary, if you are still on the fence, it probably means this game isn’t for you. But if you are either intrigued or exited enough to want to pay this, I would encourage you to do so asap as I think you will really enjoy this game. When you do get it, do not be put off by your first game. It will be slow. You will make mistakes. It won’t feel like a complete game. But as I have said, that is because it is not. Get to know the game asap, play with the advanced player mats and cards asap, and then judge for yourself when you are playing the full game experience. Pendulum for me is a very good game and writing this now is just making me want to play again, and that is the sign of a good game. I don’t feel like this is a novelty that will ever wear off. It is just a good game I really enjoy. Obviously, it is not for everyone, but it’s right up there in my games of the year so far. I cannot wait to see what Travis Jones brings out next, and will wait anxiously for Stonemaier to release an expansion for Pendulum.

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