I grew up playing trick-taking games. Hearts, Spades, or the occasional round of Rook. They got my whole family to the table, sure, but what for? I was a kid. The idea of playing cards with numbers on them bigger than the other players’ numbers was hardly a thrilling concept. I wanted to play HeroQuest. I eventually matured, as did my gaming style. I started to see that trick-taking games required timing and strategy to get the win. I even have a few games on my shelves. They’re great for those times you want to get people around the table and talk over your cards, but I can’t say they ever really grabbed my attention. While games like Nyet and Diamonds add something to the gameplay other than comparing numbers with other players, the themes are just painted on top of them. The newest printing of Nyet features Russian, anthropomorphic animals, yet I challenge anyone to show me what that has to do with choosing trump suits via fiat. I don’t need a theme to be a uniquely epic experience. I love planting farms and feeding my expansive family as much as the next person. But if a game is to stand out, there needs to be something more. I need solid mechanisms, I need a theme that enchants me, and I need these two things to be so interwoven that changing either of them will change the very nature of the game. I was just about to throw up my hands, resigning the trick-taking genre to afternoons spent with family that refuses to play anything else when I was introduced to Indulgence.
I was skeptical about how this re-imagining of Dragonmaster, which is, itself, a repackaging Coup d’etat, would let its theme have any impact on the game at all. How can a game’s mechanics be equally applicable to Italian nobility, fantasy heroes, and French political prisoners without proving that the theme is meaningless? I reached out to the folks at Restoration Games because I wanted to believe that their version would somehow find a way to make it happen. I’ve spent a lot of time neck-deep in the time frame Indulgence is set in. In studying the Protestant Reformation, it would be impossible not to look into the impact the practice of selling indulgences had in daily life and how it directed a chain of events that would forever alter the course of church history. I’ll save you that history lesson, though. All you’ll need to know for now is that a decision was made to sell certificates from the Church to demonstrably prove that a person’s sins were forgiven. The walls of St. Peter’s Basilica were paid for by the fears of the common man, and the manipulations of the wealthy. When all you needed to do was toss the Church some coin to be declared a good and righteous person- it shouldn’t surprise anyone that those who had money and influence to burn would find a way to exploit it, and all the better if it came at the expense of someone else. This is the world that Indulgence takes place in.
Indulgence’s unique mechanism that distinguishes it from other trick-taking games on the market comes in the form of decrees. At the beginning of the hand, the ruler (dealer) is able to choose a decree from three options. These include forbidding anyone to take cards of a certain suit, taking certain tricks – like the first or the last, and the like. Every time that rule is broken, the offending party is required to pay the ruler who enacted that decree. It’s this mechanism, and a few others that build off of it, that set this game above others like it in my mind. This was how certain infamous leaders milked the populace. These decrees were not for the betterment of the people. They weren’t an attempt of the Church to influence and guide people towards godly living. It was an exercise in placing a price tag on actions people would face daily and twisting those tags until they’ve squeezed every drop from people. It makes no sense to make a decree that wouldn’t bring in the money. The choice is clearly the one that will make the people pay. Have no Sforza cards in your hand? Now is the perfect time to enact a decree banning Sforzas. Any time Sforza is lead, it will be impossible for you to win the trick, forcing someone else to take them – and, by the same token, forcing them to fill your coffers. You have become the grand inquisitor, using your position and influence not to guide people out of sin, but to usher them into a feast of it. In fact, sometimes it’s the sinners who truly have the power here.
When the ruler of the hand chooses their decree – each other player, in turn, chooses whether they will abide by decree or declare themselves the sinner. Should they choose to sin, a number of effects are enacted. The goal of the hand changes. If the ruler’s decree was to not take a single Sforza card, the sinner’s goal is to make sure they take every Sforza. The sinner opens first, taking that right away from the ruler, and the sinner also obtains the indulgence ring. After all – they’ve paid for it. The ring gives the sinner the ability to change any card in their hand to become the ten of that given suit. To demonstrate how powerful that ability is – cards in each suit go from one to nine otherwise. Almost every game of Indulgence I’ve ever played has seen me going for the sinner card, because why wouldn’t I? Yes, there’s a hefty cost for attempting to be the sinner and failing – but, depending on the decree, the cost might as well be equal should I abide. Being the sinner lets me dictate the course of things at the start and puts that ring in my pocket. What does abiding get me? There’s no benefit to abiding by that decree when the best I can hope for is not having to pay somebody else. That drive? That feeling of being trapped between a rock and an inquisition? That is the middle of the Venn diagram between mechanism and theme I was looking for. This is the interlocking links that keep me enthralled by Indulgence and finds me coming back to a genre I usually will only tolerate in deference to another player at the table.
This game reminds me of that time in the history of the Church where terrible things were being done out of selfish ambition and vain conceit by its leaders. This game reminds me that ‘you won’t be punished’ is not a strong enough motivation to abide in hard truth. And this game makes me realize that choosing to enact only those decrees that make others suffer while costing me nothing rings a bit closer to the way the Church has been acting lately than I’m happy with. All this wrapped in a trick-taking game I can explain to someone in minutes. This game has done what I thought could never be done. It made me care about the theme in a trick-taking game. I could play Dragonmaster or Coup d’etat and get a mechanically similar experience, but the nature of the game for me would be drastically different with a theme other than this. And I don’t want this game to be anything other than what it is.