I've done various reviews and game summaries and stuff that I've posted on other forums and my blog, but for some reason I've posted very little of it here, probably because I don't post here much anymore. I wanted to post this one, though, because it's a classic computer game and so relevant here...
Pendulous is a turn-based strategy game for the PC released in 1992 and updated with new versions until 1995 that was developed by a pretty much unknown team called Kamyan Software. Kamyan Software only made a couple of games, but with how good this one is itíd have been nice to see more from them. The game apparently was originally released as High Command, but changed to Pendulous with the first patch, and that is the name I have always known it as. It was originally a Windows 3.1 game, but works on any modern 32-bit Windows OS as well. I donít know about 64-bit compatibility, I havenít tried it. The game is a simple game, with only one unit type, but it is also deep thanks to the supply system. Pendulous is a lot of fun to play, and itís a game that I keep coming back to again and again to play a game of here and there. Sadly I only have the shareware version, but the final shareware version is quite full-featured, so thatís not so bad. Iíd love to have the full version, but sadly I didnít buy it back then and finding it now seems to be impossible. Too bad. The final shareware version does have nag screens asking you to pay for a game that you now canít pay for even if you wanted to, but they donít detract much from the game. I have played two different shareware versions of the game, one earlier and the other newer. I will mostly be talking about the newer one here because it has a lot more features ó the first shareware verson doesnít let you save user maps, among other things! It was so incredible when, in the early 2000s, I found that there was a newer shareware version that adds in that feature, it added years and years of life into the game. Pendulous really is a very good game, and Iíve wanted to review it for a while because it is quite obscure but deserves to be much better-known. Pendulous is great, play it!
Early in the game in a Random map. I am playing as Green. Note that this is in the replay viewer so the whole map is visible; while playing the actual game, Random mode has fog of war fully on.
First I will mention the modes, features, and graphical tiles that make up this game, and talk about the graphics and sound as well.
Modes and Features
Pendulous is a turn-based strategy game with some wargame elements, so your goal in each game is to defeat your enemies and conquer the map. The game has a few modes and lots of options within each one. You can play a normal game on a pre-created map, play a three player game on a random map with a neutral AI opponent holding much of the map, create your own map, or edit the AI settings and save a custom AI. Technically the random-map mode is just a normal map called Random, but itís a very special normal map unlike the ones you make yourself, so it definitely deserves to be listed separately. There is no campaign, at least in the shareware, only single maps. Thatís fine, this kind of game works great with each game self-contained.
Pendulous is a turn-based strategy game for two to four factions per game. There is no diplomacy in this game, only combat ó you win by defeating all other factions by conquering all of their cities, or by having the most points when the turn limit is reachedÖ and you get points by holding territory and cities. Cities are really the heart of the game, the supply system works from them. You also eliminate opponents by conquering all of their cities. Game length varies, but games rarely take too long; games over half an hour long are on the long side. How long a game takes will depend on the size of the map, the number of turns allowed, and how long it takes someone to win. Games can be short or moderate length, but Pendulous matches wonít go on for hours. You can save a game in progress, but games are short enough that I usually just play a full game in one sitting. The game has no online play support, but does support up to four player local alternating multiplayer, or one player against up to three computers, depending on how many factions the map supports. After selecting your map you choose whether a human or computer will control each faction, and then which AI each computer will run.
Overall, considering the modes available, the customization options in the editors are great, I really like them! The map and AI editors add a huge amount to the game. Between the built-in map, Random maps, and maps I make myself, I play the maps I made myself the most often, but random maps are a nice change from the usual. They can be easy or hard depending on layout and starting positions. I wish that I had the registered version so I could see what other maps the original creator made, but this shareware version is great as it is.
Tiles and Units
This image is a cutout of the types of ground you can lay down in the map editor, to show all of them together. The top row selects the player, the bottom the four types of terrain.
Ground Ė Normal ground. Armies can be placed here. How difficult enemy-held normal ground is to capture will depend on how many allied and enemy units are touching that space. Pendulous does not have mountains or anything like that, so normal ground represents all earth that doesnít have armies or cities on it.
Ground with an army on it Ė This is normal ground, but with a unit placed on it. It will be harder to capture than normal ground without units on it. Itís important to note that you can only place armies on normal ground, not on cities or water. Armies do not have multiple hit points, health bars, or the like ó if they lose a battle (or go out of supply for too long) they will be destroyed. Only one army can ever be on one space at any one time, you cannot stack troops.
City Ė Cities are the most important things in this game. You win a game of Pendulous by capturing all enemy cities; this is the only win condition. You cannot place a unit on a city, so the best way to defend them is to surround them with troops. Once a faction has lost all their cities they are eliminated, so protect them! Supply also radiates out from cities, so watch out. I will explain the supply system below, but essentially you must always control a path from a city to your troops.
Water Ė Water is an obstacle, you cannot move onto it or take control of it. If water-crossings have been turned on, any player with a city touching the water (make sure to place these in your map if you want water crossings to work) can then attack any other space in the body of water that that city touches. Remember supply, though! An attack at a distant place must take a city on turn one or else it will fail.
And thatís it, those are the only types of terrain in Pendulous. They really are all that the game needs; the game has plenty of depth in its gameplay strategically, it does not need more complex map options.
The game looks like it was originally World War II-themed, but there are six different tilesets available to change the visual look of the game. I prefer the basic Original style, which was the only graphical look available in the earlier shareware version of this game I first played. Original is the tileset seen in most of the screenshots in this review. The other types look kind of ugly or are a bit harder to see territory in. Most of the other themes have larger squares than Original, which means you can see less map in the same amount of space, and also donít fully color in squares with the ownerís color but instead just have a border for the ownerís color with a standard color in the middle, which makes telling what your territory is a bit more difficult. Also, the ďbetterĒ graphics in the alternate tilesets look even more dated than the basic one, really ó this game is from the mid í90s and looks it, and those alternate tilesets really make this stand out while Original has a more timelessly simple look. I recommend sticking with the classic tileset, and not using the ships, tanks, or other options. The game looks okay for a low-budget shareware game from its time, but it is definitely the gameplay that makes this game so fun to this day, not the dated and mediocre visuals.
The only sounds you will hear in this game are a generic ĎAttackí sound when an army attacks another one, and a generic Ďplaced unití sound when an army is put down on the map. That is it. There are different sounds for each graphical tileset, though, appropriate for the theme; thatís a nice touch. Any other audio youíll have to provide yourself, but thatís fine, I usually just play without music, but itís easy enough to turn some music on, or a Youtube video, or what have you, while playing Pendulous. I donít mind the nearly-nonexistent audio, the game is fine as it is. Now, on to the details of how the game plays.
\Mid-game during the game from the first image above. I have eliminated Grey and now are fighting Red on two fronts.
There are three main gameplay elements to explain: Supply, placing and moving armies, and combat. I will explain each now, with some gameplay strategy suggestions in each section as well. After that I will cover other important subjects, including the AI and strategies against it, how you win each game, and customization options the game has.
The supply system is the core of Pendulous. Supply radiates out of your cities to all spaces that you control, in any of the eight directions from each space. There is no limit to the amount of supply a single city will provide, or degradation over distance or anything like that, you just need all land and armies always connected to at least one city at all times. If enemies cut off some of your land and troops from all of your cities, or capture all of your cities in an area, after that turn ends the cut-off armies and ground turn dark. These troops and spaces now are helpless, and any enemy who attacks them will automatically win every time and take the space. In addition, after the affected playerís next turn, all units on dark spaces will be lost and the tiles will become blank spaces. You can lose whole large blocks of armies this way if things go badly, which can be very difficult or impossible to recover from if you are in a bad situation. I love the supply system in this game, it makes the game a lot more interesting than it would be if you just placed armies around and attacked territory.
Placing and Moving Armies
At the beginning of each turn, each player gets a number of resources and reinforcement armies, with the number of each you get depending on the game settings for armies and resources per turn and city. Every turn, each player gets to do two things: first place any new armies they have gotten, and then move current armies. Remember, there may only ever be one army on any one space, and you canít put armies on cities, so they will spread out all over the map in a hurry during games of Pendulous. On the first turn of each game armies may only be placed on your own territory, but after that you can attack both with new and current armies. You have a limited number of moves each turn, in addition to the limited number of armies you get each turn, so you need to carefully consider what you want to do. You can end a turn whenever you want from the menu. Unused moves and troops carry over from one turn to the next, and as I said earlier the maximum amount of troops and armies you can have at any one time depends on the settings chosen by the map creator in the editor.
In addition to placing armies, you can also move armies that you previously placed on the map. If you click on an army of yours, instead of empty ground, you will pick up the army on that space. This will use up one move, though. This army then goes into your army queue, for use in attacks or placing on empty ground you control, so moving an army from one space to another uses up two moves, one to pick it up and the second to put it down. You often have more resources than armies, but in maps which give you more resources than armies, which is how the built-in maps and some of the maps Iíve made work, this is even more true so you really need to consider how to use your troops ó having more resources than troops encourages offense to the point of stripping your defenses bare. But if you donít attack, the enemy willÖ A delicate balance between the two is required.
Combat and Basic Strategy
Combat in Pendulous is simple as expected, but has depth to it. Yes, there is only one unit type, the basic army, and units die in one hit, but because only one army can be on any one space at a time, because you have limited units and moves in your queue each turn, and because of the support and attack-chance systems, you need to carefully consider each attack. Before attacking, a percentage displayed on the screen shows how likely victory is if you attack that space. Once you have clicked on an enemy-controlled space while you still have armies and moves left, an attack begins.Whether it succeeds or fails depends on a percentage chance, the Success rating seen in the right bar on the screenshots, but multiple factors affect that win-chance percent. First, if you have armies touching the space you are attacking, your chance of winning goes up. If the enemy has units touching that space, the chance goes down. Cities will similarly affect these values, though not as much as armies do I think. This means that lines of troops support eachother and make breaking through the line more difficult than it is for scattered groups of troops. However, as mentioned previously, you often need to use those defensive lines for attacks, so itís important to carefully consider which troops to leave and which you can remove. The unit effectiveness rating for each side present will also raise or lower your chance of winning if the sides have been set at anything other than the default 100%, as well. And importantly, each time you attack a space your chance of winning the next time goes up by a couple of percentage points.
So, if you have a lot of armies to burn, you will eventually probably win even in low-percentage attacks, but that is pretty bad strategy. It is almost always better to first set up a better by getting multiple troops on tiles touching the enemy, so as to raise your chances of success. Chip away at their formation on any corners of their block of armies, instead of just attacking right into the middle of a line. Attacking over water is best done away from a city and with a good supply of armies and resources, because you wonít have any bonuses because of adjoining troops so winning that first tile can be tough. And the difficulties donít end there with over-water attacks ó you will need to take a city that turn, or else those troops will turn black after your turn ends because they are not in supply and the land will immediately be retaken by the enemy.
And thatís basically it as far as gameplay systems go. The game is simple and yet complex, as the best strategy board games are. It is a fascinating and great strategy game that few people played but many more should.
AI and AI Strategy
I have only ever played this game against the AI, not human opponents. There are three default AIs that come with the game, plus Iíve tried to modify some to make them a bit better. The AI is restricted to the same rules as the player, so if you turn on the fog of war options it WILL affect the AI too, it wonít cheat. Thatís fantastic. In games with fog of war, each AI opponent can only see what their vision should allow, they do not share info or look at the whole map to win. I do love this, but it has one downside ó when Fog of War is on, the AI can be pretty bad at finding cities. It just havenít managed to find a setting aggressive enough to do the amount of scouting for cities that you need to do when the map starts covered. Outside of that, I have made the AI tougher and a bit better, but Iím not good enough at this kind of thing to really maximize AI difficulty, I donít think. Maybe some issues cannot be fixed, but others probably could if someone better at getting the most out of those AI-editor options tried, so Iíd love to see that.
Each of the three built-in AIs has its own characteristics ó the Berzerk AI will attack deep into enemy territory without regard for protecting its own, Explorer will explore the map a lot, and Balance will do a better job of defense than Berzerk, balancing offense and defense. Berzerk might be the toughest of them, because there is no more dangerous situation in this game than when an enemy breaks through your lines, when you have a row of troops on your border but not armies surrounding your cities behind because of the usually-low maximum-armies-allowed limits, and start taking over city after city in what used to be safe territory. You can try this yourself as well, of course, though I generally prefer for a more cautious style that better protects my cities. Games of Pendulous can be over in a handful of turns, or if the map allows it they can take 50 or rarely even a hundred turns of back and forth attacks before finally either someone wins or you hit the turn limit. Thereís nothing like the tense feeling when youíve been backed into a corner and make a breakthrough, conquering a bunch of enemy cities while other factions fight eachother elsewhere, though, or when you slowly march up a map conquering all in your way!
I won! The whole map is mine. I even found that little island hiding in the corner through some tedious pixel-hunting (remember, fog of war hides such places).
Games of Pendulous only formally end once the turn limit is reached, they wonít end once one faction has conquered the whole map. Effectively, though, once Iíve conquered it all the game is over, so instead of hitting Ďend turní a hundred times if I won 100 turns i8nto a 200-turn game, Iíll just end the match there. I do wish that the game would end automatically after you conquer everything. The issue is, Iíd rather have gaems end by conquest and not by running out of turns, but setting high turn counts means the games will probably never formally end. Ah well, though, this works. When a game does formally end, the winner is the one with the highest score. You get points based on the amount of territory you control, with more points for cities than just empty tiles. At the end of each turn a tally screen shows the current rankings, unless you disable it in the menu, so you know approximately how everyone is doing at the end of each turn.
Pendulous automatically keeps track of what has happened during each game, and after a game ends or you end it, you can watch a replay of the whole game. You can also save replays when you want. Itís quite fun to, at the end of a match, watch the game unfold through its replay. Itís a great feature to have. Iíd recommend turning on the minimap while watching replays, itís nice to watch it change colors as the game progresses.
The AI editor. Youíve got a lot of settings to change!
Again, one thing I really like about Pendulous is the customization. In the map editor, you can significantly affect how the game will play for each faction on that map through the options. You can set the number of turns, whether Fog of War (black covering the map until it has been revealed) is on, whether you can see all troops on revealed parts of the map or only on spaces touching your own, how effective each sidesí armies are (that is, you can make a sidesí troops less likely to win battles), you can change the number of armies per city and per turn each different player gets (so one player can get more troops than another for the same amount of territory), whether you can attack across water or not, and more.
Itís fantastic that you can change all these settings, because messing with the number of turns, army strengths, number of armies and resources you get for each city and turn, and such have a huge impact on how each different map plays. I like making uneven maps where one faction has more territory but weaker armies, or one has more resources per turn but another gets more units per city, for example. Mixing things up makes things pretty interesting.
As for the AI editor, in that editor you get a whole bunch of slider bars to mess with, to try to make the AI easier or harder, adjust their aggressive versus defensive instincts, and more. Iíve tried to make a tougher AI since once youíve gotten good at it the game is a bit easy, but Iíd love to see someone better at this try, mine are harder than the defaults but not by enough.
This is a custom map I made. Notice the uneven settings ó different army effectiveness ratings, different number of resources, etc. Itís surely not balanced, but I donít mind, that makes it interesting!
Overall, I like this game a lot. Pendulous is a simple game ó there are only four different terrain types, three if you donít count armies as terrain. All you do is just place armies, try to take territory, and aim for the victory, there is little variety there. The simplicity makes the game easy to learn, but the great design and the challenge keep me coming back year after year. Iíve played a lot of this game over the years, and made dozens of maps, and Iím sure I will continue to play it in the future. The supply system keeps the game interesting, as battles over cities often get heated; the percent system behind battles ensures that you use strategy when you attack if you want to win without losing lots of your armies that you also will need to protect your territory; and the limits on units and moves each turn force you to use strategic thinking. Playing Pendulous is a constant balance between offense and defense, between pushing forward and using your troops to attack and holding those troops back to protect your cities and territory. Itís a brilliant game, one of the better unheralded strategy games I have played, and I love it. This is one of the best options around for a desktop-based simple strategy game to play perhaps while you are also doing something else so you donít want to launch some full-screen application. Pendulous is great fun, play it! I give the game an A-. I wish I had the full version, to get rid of the nag screens and to add more maps, but the 2.4 shareware version is quite nice and deserves that score.
Ė My Pendulous Maps download is on my site's version of this review (see bottom) Ė Sorry for not directly linking the file, but for some reason I don't want to. If people think I should I could edit in a direct link. The file is a small 10KB Zip file collection of 16 old maps of mine, two AIs I made, and the three maps from the original developer that I got from the shareware versions, Random, Counter, and R_Front, for anyone missing those default maps/modes. To use, just unzip the files into the Pendulous directory, thatís it. The game doesnít use subfolders. The map Counter doesnít come with the version linked below, so youíll need that one at least. It was only included with the first shareware version I played back in the í90s. The shareware version downloadable from the links below only comes with R_Front and Random for maps, so do download this pack, and then make better maps of your own. I hope more people play this game and share some maps too, Iíd love to play othersí creations.
http://web.archive.org/web/200604100.../Pendulous.htm Ė This is a good webpage that reviews the game and gives some nice strategy suggestions. The original page is dead now, but thankfully web.archive.org made a record of it so the page can still be read. Note that the ďfull gameĒ link there is the shareware version 2.4.
http://www.s2company.com/file_cache2.php?fcat=A** Ė This page has a short one-paragraph review of the game at the top, and links a download for the version 2.4 shareware version of the game as well.
http://www.mobygames.com/company/kamyan-software Ė Mobygames has a little bit more information about Kamyan Software. Note that the game is listed as ďHigh CommandĒ in their database. They have very little information about the game itself on the site -- just a tiny description and nothing else, no screenshots or anything.
And that's all I've ever found for websites about this game. It's mostly forgotten. Hopefully this review can at least begin to reverse that.
Or read this on my site with better formatting.