Saturday, October 20, 2018

[Review] Pulp Detective By Todd Sanders/AV Studio Games

NOTE: I swear I'm still blogging about role-playing games too. I just happened to have a backlog of board/card games I've been wanting to review, so enjoy the next few posts!

For anyone who's ever read a Sam Spade/Phillip Marlow crime novel, or those who have more than a passing interest in the Pulp Noir genre, Todd Sanders has designed a game that places you in the heart of your favorite pulp dime novel. Pulp Detective is a clever little dice-rolling card-based game released by AV Games. This game is designed to be played solo (which will be my focus in this review), although a head-to-head cooperative and competitive version for two players is also included. (The game is still being rolled out to Kickstarter backers and may not be retail available at the time of this writing.)
In Pulp Detective, you play a detective trying to solve one of three cases included in the base game. (More cases and options are available in the follow-up supplement which I'll describe later.) The game consists of various sets of cards that represent your detective, your held items, your stamina and clues found, the case you're trying to solve/timeline, and the deck that makes up the Storyline deck (Cliffhangers, Informants, and Follow The Lead cards). You also have a set of yellow Investigation dice, a red Paperboy dice, and a grey Underworld dice. Eight colored bits are used to mark your status on the various cards, and an assortment of black Twist Markers rounds out the contents. The art design of the game is AMAZING, using the covers and paintings from a variety of pulp novels to illustrate every scene and character you may meet. Even the box looks like it's been weathered and aged since the 1920s, lending a truly gorgeous design to the game's contents.

To play, you first select your detective -- each with a Special Action that gives you an advantage in the game. Each detective then gets a card to track his/her stamina, clues, and items found. You then select one of the cases, and place the tracking bits on the timeline and stamina depending on the difficulty level you want to start with. Beginners get full stamina and a full 24 hours to solve the crime; experts may have fewer hours and stamina at their disposal. Gameplay consists of pulling the top three cards of the Storyline deck, choosing one to tackle, one to discard, and one to place back in the deck for a future pull. Each of the three types of cards gives you a better chance of granting you a specific element needed to win the game: Cliffhangers are likely to replenish your stamina, Follow The Lead will give you items, and Informants give you valuable clues. (Four clues are needed to reach the endgame...)

As you draw and choose cards to play, you place them into a Storyline you build. (And you can add other cards to a Subplot line once too.) Once in the Storyline, you must roll the four Investigation dice and try to match the icons shown on the card. And, if you have Underworld contacts or a friend who's a Paperboy, you may also get to roll the red and/or grey dice too! Finally, if the icons on the edges of your new Storyline card matches any in the current Storyline card, you get to reroll another dice too. If you succeed with the roll, you get the element shown on the card. You could find a bottle of whiskey for more stamina, a taxi to gain extra time, or a tip from a reporter giving you access to the red dice. Or you may "dig deep" and regain some stamina. Or that Informant may let slip with a clue needed to solve the case. Conversely, if you fail, you lose the element shown. You could drop an item, get shot and lose stamina, or just waste your time and watch the hours tick down and down and down...

Time is something you never have enough of in this game. Each played card costs an hour. Each failure may cost you an extra hour. Use of your Special Action might cost your an hour. And as the hours wind down, the icon cost on the cards actually INCREASES, making successes even more difficult to accomplish. And once time is up, the game ends. The game is a true pressure cooker as you fight the clock to win.

However, with each failure, you may also take a black Twist Marker that matches one of the dice faces shown. This Marker can be used once with future rolls to act as that dice face. So at least failure may give you a chance at future successes!

Once (and only  *IF*) you've discovered all four clues -- and if time remains -- you can confront the Master Criminal who's behind the dastardly deed. The Criminal (chosen depending on how the Storyline/Subplots fleshed out) is super-tough to beat, usually requiring 5 dice to defeat. Hope you saved your Twist Markers and/or have your Underworld/Paperboy on-hand for the Big Confrontation!
For this review, I've tried to hit the basics of gameplay, but there are a lot of details and other elements I've glossed over. Although the game may seem simplistic (roll the dice/match icons), a lot of the game hinges on HOW you build the Storyline and Subplots, and what elements you decide to pursue. Sure, you could chase clues, but once you have the fourth one, will you have the resources to confront the Master Criminal? Not likely! And vice-versa, if you build up your stamina and grab a bunch of items to help you win, you may run down the clock, making it impossible to win as well! There a great amount of nuance at play here as you build your case, strengthen your detective, and prepare for the endgame!

There is a supplement also available called Sidekicks, Double Cross, and Masterminds that greatly expands gameplay! Sidekicks offer your detective their expertise in solving the case by giving you a one-time in-game bonus. (Plus a new Sidekicks dice!) The Double Cross cards bring a random element of bad fortune as you chase the bad guys. The Masterminds are World-Class Criminals with global plans of evilness who require **SIX** dice to defeat! Oh, and there are four new detectives to play, more items to find, and four additional cases to crack too!

Pulp Detective is a great game with awesome art elements and tight gameplay. And it's a tough game to win at. Out of a dozen games, I've solved the case and brought the villain to justice once. In fact,in the game illustrated above, I ran out of time and was brought down to 3 stamina, allowing me to roll only three dice. Hard to regain stamina or solve the case when 4-5 dice are typically required! Even the Twist Markers couldn't bail me out of my spiral. Sniderman says, "Check it out."

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