Be Absolved of Sin or Buy Your Way to Good Graces with ‘Indulgence’

Tabletop Games

During the Italian Renaissance, indulgences were issued by the Catholic Church, to absolve some of sin, to reward some for good works. But indulgences were also sold to those willing to make significant contributions to the church. It meant a clear conscience for those who had acted questionably on a quest for power. Will you earn your indulgence or pay for it …

What Is It?

Indulgence is a trick-taking game for 3–4 players, aged 14 and up. It plays in about 45 minutes, is really pretty, and is the most fun you’ll have sinning (while playing a tabletop game).

What’s This Restoration Games About?

About a year ago, Justin Jacobson announced he was starting a new company with Rob Daviau (Pandemic Legacy). Their mission is to find old games that they enjoyed and modernize them. The games in their sweet spot are at least 10 years old, out of print, and able to be tuned up for modern gaming. That means more than just a fresh coat of paint (although their restored games all do look amazing). They tear out the bits that aren’t working, add fresh mechanics, and make sure the game is approachable and, importantly, replayable. And, oh yeah, they donate a portion of profits to their charitable partners.

So What’s the Pedigree on This Game?

Once upon a time, in France, there was a game called Barbu. Even though I said “once upon a time,” this was only in the early 1900s. Barbu means “the bearded” and referred to common representation of the king of hearts in a deck of cards at that time. After dealing all cards, players play out a series of seven mini-games, known as contracts. It was a trick-taking game and players would compete to take no hearts, no kings, etc. The game was reinvented in the mid-’60s and called Coup D’État. This time, the game used a standard deck of cards (but just 8 cards in each suit for a total of 32 cards), and had seven mini-games, this time called the Director’s Chart. Players again would try to avoid queens, spades, the king of hearts, etc. Also, anyone who violated the current round’s goals had to pay the Director, a rotating role, a fee.

In 1981, Milton Bradley published a more modern version, with a fantasy theme, called Dragonmaster. This game also used 32 cards, 8 cards in 4 suits, and had five different mini-games to play. Again, players would try to avoid taking certain suits and pay the Dragonmaster for violating a rule. Dragonmaster had oversized cards and interlocking gems, which were used as payment.

What’s in the Box?

Indulgence varies slightly from its predecessors. In the box, you’ll find:

  • 36 Family Cards (9 cards in 4 suits)
  • 20 Double-sided Edict Cards
  • 1 Edict Deck Cover Card
  • 4 Papal Bull Cards
  • 20 Gems (worth 5 florins each)
  • 26 Coins (worth 1 florin each)
  • 4 Strongbox Cards
  • 1 Indulgence Ring

Like the other Restoration Games I’ve seen so far (read my review of Downforce), the components are fantastic. Like Dragonmaster, the playing cards in Indulgence are oversized, similar to narrow tarot cards. The portraits on the cards are pretty fantastic and each card is unique and different. At the bottom of the cards is the character’s name and the name of the family they represent. There is a number and a symbol to give a visual representation of the family to help differentiate if you have a problem with colors. Unfortunately, the number and symbol only appears in the upper left, so you have to reorient the cards once they are in your hand. Not a big deal, but worth mentioning. The backs are equally beautiful, representing a wax seal on a slab of marble.

The Edict cards and Papal Bulls are also nicely done. They are double-sided and the text appears as though written on a scroll that sits on a marble slab. There are 12 regular Edicts and another 8 that are marked with wax drippings in the lower right corner. These are more challenging and removed from a basic game or mixed in for a more exciting challenge. The Papal Bulls are also marked with wax drippings and used in an Expert Game. (More on that in the How to Play section.)

All these cards have one side with a condition for standard trick-taking play. However, each has a second side with a condition for doing the opposite of the condition or, in trick-taking parlance, shooting the moon. In Indulgence, it’s called Sinning and that will be explained in the next section. The cards, including the Strongbox card, which is the home for your money during the game, are all great quality on nice, linen paper. The Strongbox card is neat but it has details: both a closed side and an open chest side. Both have corresponding hinges, which is great attention to detail.

The Edict Deck Cover Card and the coins are foil-printed paper on cardboard. They are very shiny and really, really nice. While it’s just cardboard, it really increases the feeling of playing for money. Speaking of cash, the gems are pretty cool too. They all appear to be the same shape and are about the size of a d20, but a bit bigger when you account for its odd shape. They are in four different colors, which can be a bit misleading to new players, who assume they are different denominations or each color belongs to a different player.

Finally, there’s the Indulgence Ring, which … WOW! It’s just plastic, but it looks like a real ring and even has a faceted gem set in the center. Every time I’ve opened the box, it’s the first thing people reach for. It’s impressive and helps set this theme of religion and Catholicism. While the ring in the box I received had a red gem, the rule book notes that the color of the gem may vary.

How Do You Play?

A player is chosen as the Ruler. This player shuffles the Edict Deck and places the Deck Cover Card on top. From the bottom of the deck, they deal out three Edict cards, white marble face up. Next, the Ruler shuffles all the family cards and deals them all, evenly, to all the players. After examining their cards, the Ruler picks an Edict that all players will follow during this hand.

Beginning with the player on the Ruler’s left, each decides if they will be following the Edict or Sinning. If a player decides to Sin, they take the chosen Edict card and flip it to its Sin side, which is the opposite of the Edict. (For example, an Edict might read “Don’t take any 6s.” The Sin side would read “I will take all the 6s.”) Edicts range from not taking any of a certain family to not taking any of a certain number, the first or last trick, and a lot in between. The Sinning player also takes the Indulgence Ring and places it on the Sin side of the Edict card. The Sinner gets to lead. If no one decides to Sin, the Ruler leads with the first card.

A player who has decided to Sin may play the Indulgence Ring on top of a card they play. This is a one time effect and changes the value of that card to 10 (but doesn’t change the suit). The highest value of any printed card is nine. The Indulgence Ring may not be played during the first trick and is returned to the Edict deck after use.

Indulgence plays like a standard trick-taking game. Following the rules, a player leads with a card. Subsequent players must play a card of the same suit (if they have it) and the highest card in that hand takes the trick, collecting all the cards and putting them in that player’s area. That player then leads the next card. A player who has no cards of the suit that is led may dump a card from another suit, without penalty or fear of taking the trick. Except for one Edict card, there are no trump cards in Indulgence.

When all the cards have been played, that hand is over and players settle up with the Ruler. Each Edict card has a means of scoring where players who take cards prohibited by the Edict must pay the Ruler an amount of Florins. Should the Ruler violate the Edict, they don’t pay anything, but they forfeit the chance to win florins from the other players. If the Sinner is successful, they receive a number of florins from each other player. If they fail, they, alone, must pay the Ruler.

The next player then becomes Ruler, repeating the process. After everyone has been Ruler three times, the game ends. The player with the most Florins wins.

There are a couple more rules for playing an expert game. All Edicts cards, including those with the wax drippings, are included in the Edict deck. Each player gets a Papal Bull at the beginning of the game. Once, while they are Ruler, they may play their Papal Bull, dictating that all three of the face-up Edicts must be followed that round. A player may choose to Sin against the Papal Bull and, if they are successful, the game immediately ends and they win. If they fail, they must pay the Ruler 18 florins.

I Sin Enough Already. Why Should I Buy ‘Indulgence’?

I played a lot of trick-taking games in college. Spades, Hearts, seems like there was always a game going. We kept a running tally of points over the course of my freshman year. It was a lot of points. That said, I feel like I left trick-taking behind and I don’t play many these days. Maybe it’s because a lot of them seem kind of ordinary. Indulgence is not that. Like Diamonds a few years ago, Indulgence turns trick-taking on its ear. While it is about playing the right card to take a trick, that’s not what wins games. It’s the money that matters.

I have to add that the basic game is okay for your first game, but you’re never going to want to play that way again. The addition of the expert Edict cards and the thrill of playing a Papal Bull completely changes the strategy for a round.

When I played trick-taking games, I loved to try to shoot the moon. It’s almost always a challenge and one that your opponents will work actively to thwart. But when you do it, it is exhilarating. More so in Indulgence because you get a cash reward, as well. One of the other benefits of Indulgence is that you don’t always have to play a round out. For example, if someone has decided to Sin, the moment that they break the rule on the Sin card, the round ends. It makes for fast and unpredictable play.

If you like trick-taking games — or haven’t played one in a while, consider taking a look at Indulgence. Its outstanding components, quick-moving gameplay, and unpredictable outcomes makes for a pretty fun time, especially for its family-friendly price (MSRP $=19.95).

Indulgence will release at Gen Con and be in game stores soon after the Best Four Days in Gaming.

Disclosure: GeekDad received a sample of this game for review purposes.

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