As a great person once said, “Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.” Nevertheless, wistful affections for the past are not an insignificant appeal to board gaming. Many people get back into and/or remain in the hobby to rekindle fond memories of playing family games in their youths, or hoping to impart similar experiences on to the next generation. Even if it’s not a driving incentive for engaging in the hobby, most every gamer can recall more than one sentimental story or reminisce about a particular joy emanating from games. I have my own such stories. The strongest revolves around playing card games at family gatherings, but especially with my grandparents, the last of whom just passed away last Thanksgiving. But as some things come to a close in life, remnants remain not only to remember, but pass on. That’s a significant part of my journey in the hobby. And now there’s a company dedicated to rekindling gaming’s nostalgic longings. Restoration Games was founded exactly to bring old classics back into the light, not just by reprinting them for the older generation, but restoring them for the next!
How To Play
In most respects Indulgence is a cut-and-dried trick-taking card game in the traditional style. Players hope to avoid, unless they’re trying to buck the rules and win, tricks and/or particular cards to earn florins, represented by glittering plastic gems and shiny cardboard coins. The design is a style of plain trick-taking and predominantly no trumps.
Indulgence plays with three to four, and a full game lasts either nine or twelve hands, with each player having the opportunity to be Ruler for three rounds apiece. The current Ruler deals out the entire deck – thirty-six cards of four families (suits) valued 1 through 9 – and then chooses an edict from amongst three available. The edict declares a hand’s goal, like avoid winning tricks, certain cards, a particular suit or maybe just the first and last tricks, etc.
If you’re wondering what the heck’s a trick, that’s the gaming term describing a group of cards played in one round by all players – one per person. A trick is captured by the player who plays the highest card according to a particular game’s rules, which varies. Indulgence is a no-trumps design, with the exception of one edict, and so the winning card is the highest played of the suit lead. If you have a card matching the suit that leads a trick, you must play it. If not, you are allowed to discard whatever you like to the trick. Perhaps a bit counter-intuitively here, though, most of the time you don’t want to win tricks. Indulgence is primarily an avoidance trick-taking game in which you are penalized for capturing tricks or particular cards and required to pay florins to the Ruler for failing the edict.
Although not always! After the Ruler announces an edict and before the hand begins, each other player has the opportunity to sin. Here they declare their plan to fully fail the edict and capture tricks according to that goal. If successful, they win florins from the whole table. Therefore the other players endeavor to thwart the sinner’s attempt, making them pay a sizable debt to the Ruler. In an advanced version, each player receives one Papal Bull card which they may play once per game, while the Ruler, to enact all three edicts simultaneously. Or if another Ruler plays the Papal Bull when they’re in control, you can use your own card to counter with sinning against that, declaring to upend all edicts, instead. If successful at that, you win the game outright!
After each player has taken three turns as Ruler, the player with the most florins wins.
Forgive Me Father? Or Sinfully Good?
As a restored title, Indulgence has a history. First and foremost it’s a reimagined reprint of Dragonmaster (1980) by Jerry D’Arcey. I’ve not played that classic, but from what I’ve read there is one significant deviation. In Dragonmaster, there are five different hands (edicts) that players must play through in any progression when they are the Master. So the edicts, aka contracts in traditional card game lingo, are not randomized. It is structured and also leads to a much longer game. Dragonmaster also uses a deck of thirty-two cards and the concept of sinning – called a power play – is dependent on being dealt the dragon card, except in advanced versions where you may attempt it unannounced.
Dragonmaster is itself a revamped Coup d’etat, also by D’Arcey and which I also have not played. That 1966 oldie is pretty close, but had a sixth contract. The ruler is the King, must proceed through all six hands and the coup card serves the purposes of sinning here.
But, wait, there’s more! Coup d’etat and Dragonmaster derive their fixed contract basis from the traditional card game Barbu (c. 1930), not designed by D’Arcey, but which I have played. By most accounts, that game originated in France, where Le Barbu means “the bearded,” referring to the suicidal King of Hearts. When I first heard of Indulgence’s lineage, I must confess I was hesitatingly curious. Barbu is not a beginner title in the genre. It’s long, there are seven contracts (one of which is to avoid taking the King of Hearts, hence the game’s name), and there is a layered bidding round called “doubling” which is accompanied by a wonky and unintuitive zero-sum scoring system (which the gems mercifully represent in the latest iteration). Like all trick-taking games, the whole affair becomes second nature as you play it more and more. Yet it is decidedly not for the uninitiated.
So Indulgence is a little of a surprise. By eschewing the restrictive and ordered contracts, the edicts make sure every game is a little different. Indeed it even masks the trick-taking element somewhat by directing players’ focus on the goal-oriented hands, creating a buzz of challenge and anticipation from one round to the next. And the truncated playtime is warmly welcomed. With those qualities, the design is more approachable than its classic inspiration, though to be fair a rudimentary familiarity with trick-taking is recommended first. To enhance accessibility, you can always play with the basic contracts if the edicts seem a bit overwhelming, only adding in the advanced ones when you’re ready. If you’re a veteran of the category, throw them all in together from the start.
That said, the most interesting contract in Barbu is not included in its three descendents: dominoes or fantan, where players attempt to empty their hands by playing cards to suit piles in ascending or descending order. While that unorthodox contract stirs up games of Barbu, Indulgence’s edicts stay mostly true to trick-taking and are generally straightforward. It helps to acclimate beginners, especially as the direction is centered around avoiding tricks, which can be initially counter-intuitive. Still, there are some creative combinations, like avoid the 2’s and 3’s or don’t take the matching pair of two named families.
Therefore Indulgence is a proud torchbearer of the traditional card game family, while maintaining an impressive accessibility, even if not introductory. Plain trick-taking means there are no point cards to keep track of and mentally calculate. Knocking out a few quick hands of Whist should bring new players up to speed on that element. And the avoidance trick-taking aspect may seem awry to newbies brainwashed to think that gaming means winning everything. However, running through a couple games of the rudimentary Hearts should acclimate them to that concept. Furthermore, Indulgence presents the ofttimes intimidating concept of contracts, which is not universal in the genre, in a more friendly way by allowing the declarer some freedom in choosing. And there’s an adequate mixture from simple to clever to challenging.
Sinning is more of a mixed bag. I welcome the element, which here is similar in kind to “shooting the moon” or “going alone” in card gaming parlance. Again this isn’t ubiquitous throughout the category, but certainly not uncommon. It can be risky, but lucrative, antes up the challenge and generates a bit of excitement. Yes, for a card game, but excitement nonetheless.
The flaw is that sometimes it’s rather simple, while other hands prove the opposite. If they were all quite difficult, I wouldn’t have an issue. “Shooting the moon” or sweeping a hand in traditional games is meant to be rare and hard, and the points usually reflect that. Alas, all of the edicts aren’t really balanced for sinning. For example, sinning to take the most tricks is a lot more manageable than, say, sinning to capture all of the Borias and Orsinis. The former is essentially a hand of Whist, the grandfather of trick-taking and the simplest of the category. The latter is extremely problematic when all it takes is one player to be short in a family allowing them to discard a Borgias or Orisini when another leads an off-suit. Still, the sin concept is clever and you feel quite brilliant if pulling it off.
The only other issues are the near tarot sized cards and potentially wonky endgame scoring scenario. Your move may vary with the cards, but they’re just unnecessarily oversized, especially for an American market used to poker cards. I suppose the florin and indulgence ring make up for it. They are are completely gratuitous, but incredibly eye-catching.
The more peculiar matter we’ve noticed arises from the final hand. Since florins are open information, it can happen that another player is able to ensure a win by sinning against a Ruler’s edict, even knowing they cannot complete it. However, because they lose less points than what the Ruler could potentially gain from the table, there’s no incentive to give them the opportunity and the last hand is moot. It takes the right combination of edict and a close score, but it happens.
If you and/or whoever you’re playing with has never picked up a trick-taking game, grab a deck of cards and play Whist and Hearts. Once you’re familiar with the basics, pick up Indulgence. The variety of edicts addresses one of the genre’s few nagging problems: repetition and/or scripted play. By mixing and matching goals from an assortment of classic contracts found throughout the category, the design fosters a lively dynamic in which players look forward to the next hand and what edict has in store. Yet the predominantly plain trick-taking, no-trump framework keeps play at a fundamental level, letting the contracts create complexity. Indulgence is one of the more versatile titles in the category – rich enough to appease hobbyists and delight an older generation weaned on traditional card games, yet streamlined enough to hold casual players and introduce the enduring class to a new.
Restoration Games provided a copy of Indulgence for this review.