Indulgence is a trick-taking game in which the rules for scoring change each round.
For me, one of the biggest hits of Gen Con 2017 was seeing Restoration Games become a reality. They launched with a trio of games, and we’ve already covered the absolutely excellent Stop Thief! and Downforce here on Geeks Under Grace. Their third game is Indulgence, a remake of the trick-taking game Dragonmaster from 1981.
In Indulgence, players take turns as the “ruler,” who gets to declare the rule for the round—don’t take any 2s, or don’t take pairs of blue and green cards, and so on. It’s similar in spirit to Bruno Faidutti’s The Dwarf King, and both originate from the French game Barbu. Did Restoration Games’ restorative magic work three times in a row? Let’s find out!
The theme of Indulgence is that players take turns being the ruler during the height of the corruption of the Catholic church, making up new rules for what constitutes a sin. Players can go against the edict and “sin,” and basically try to shoot the moon like in the trick-taking game Hearts. It’s a mostly inoffensive theme now that we’re so distant from it in history, but I’ve had so many infuriating conversations with ignorant Protestant friends that I would really rather this theme be something else. My Catholic friends didn’t seem to mind the theme, but I don’t want to really get on the topic in the middle of a board game night.
I feel like trick-taking games always require me to establish my “street cred,” since people are often passionate about the genre. I grew up playing Hearts and Spades and a whole lot of Euchre, which was mostly a social exercise (the game has very little skill involved), though we played several different advanced versions of Bid Euchre. In recent years, I’ve really enjoyed Diamonds, as well as ladder-climbing games like Clubs, Tichu, and Custom Heroes. Since playing Indulgence, I’ve had to think long and hard about what I really like about trick-taking games. For me, it’s primarily the tension. Although some hands of a round can be mucked, like when players go set in Euchre, the nervousness leading up to that point is what makes it so fun. That moment where you decide to pivot and shoot the moon in Hearts, or when you decide to call null in Spades, those are what make the games so dang fun. A hand doesn’t have to come down to the wire, but I want to feel involved in those tense choices and like I have agency over my play. That’s what drove me crazy about Indulgence.
In Indulgence, players take turns being the ruler, and the ruler picks from three Edicts available for one to use in the current round. Players start with 30 florins, and pay a penalty to the ruler for breaking the Edict. For example, the rule could be “Don’t take any Sforza cards” (the red suit). Before the round begins, players in clockwise order can choose to Sin, basically betting that they can do the opposite, i.e. take all of the Sforza cards. They pay the ruler a higher penalty if they lose, but get money from all players if they win. They also get the indulgence ring, which can turn a card into a 10 (trump, as the deck is 1-9 in four suits) of the same suit. It can’t be used on the first trick, however.
Now imagine in that scenario, that a player chooses to Sin, and the current ruler is ahead of everyone else, and you had a great hand for the original rule (you honestly didn’t think you’d be taking any tricks this round). At this point, what do you do? You don’t want to pay the sinner if they get it, but you also don’t them to pay the ruler and put him even further ahead of everyone else—not that you could take many tricks this round anyway. You have virtually no investment in this round, but it’s not one where the back hands will be mucked halfway through. And Indulgence has too many rounds like this.
The main problem I have here is the lack of investment in a Sin round when you are neither sinner nor ruler. Just about every other trick-taking game deals with this in a better way. In partnership games, no one’s “left out”. In a game with trump or the ability to bid (particularly bidding on bad hands like null in Spades), you have more agency over your own hand’s contribution to the round. While this game’s Sin mechanism is most like Hearts, in Hearts you don’t have to declare before the hand that you want to shoot the moon, and so that lingering spectre gives tension to the round for everyone. If you could decide to Sin mid-round, that might be more interesting, but it would be even more obnoxious for the non-sinning, non-ruler players whose scoring has gone from interesting to irrelevant.
I didn’t hate my plays of Indulgence. The game is perfectly fine. It’s gorgeously produced—it even includes an actual ring, beautiful gems for the currency, and huge Tarot-size cards with beautiful artwork. It’s only 20 bucks for all of that. But the game wasn’t interesting enough, often enough. In the advanced game, players can use a Papal bull card once per game to put all three Edicts into play, and players who Sin against it have to do all three—and win instantly—or lose and pay 18 florins to the ruler (giving a huge lead to that player). Again, an even worse situation for the non-sinning, non-ruling players. Deciding when to use it also seemed like a complete crapshoot, since you don’t know which Edicts are coming later. I also found the game too long—it seemed to take us 7 or 8 minutes per round, which means 9 to 12 rounds could be as long as 90 minutes for a game without many interesting decisions.
If you want an excellent, modern-yet-classic trick-taking game, check out Diamonds from Mike Fitzgerald and Stronghold. If you want to support the awesome work Restoration Games is doing, check out our Stop Thief! and Downforce reviews, because those games are awesome. If you are absolutely obsessed with trick-taking games and want to see a new one, then maybe check out Indulgence.
Thank you to Restoration Games for providing a review copy of Indulgence.
+ Gorgeous production
+ Low price
- Too many uninteresting hands
- Takes too long