Pulp Detective is a compact dice and card game designed by Todd Sanders and released by Alban Viard Studio Games in 2018. It’s a quick, lightweight game in a gorgeous package that has just the right looks for it’s theme. If looks were everything this game would have been a keeper, but for me it falls short on several accounts.
Look and Feel – First Impressions
Pulp Detective uses illustrations from old pulp detective magazines and the graphic design is really well done – everything from illustrations to iconography is nicely tied together. The designer of the game has also done the graphics and he’s done a good job in that department.
The game comes with custom dice, nicely illustrated linen finish cards that are thin and flexible (exactly how I like my cards), some cubes and counters and a rule book. On the box it says 1-2 players but on the first page of the rule book it says “ONE-PLAYER GAME” and “This is, at heart, a solitaire game; however, there are also two Two-Player variants.” Since in most games the solitaire rules are the afterthought and not the other way around there should have been a mention of this on the box. When I bought the game I was aware that it was a solitaire game, but somebody just browsing through the shelves of their local game store might be misled and buy this game intending to play it mainly with two players.
During setup I was looking frantically for the red and blue wooden cubes mentioned several times in the rule book. After a while, when I realized that the rule book didn’t mention any black or yellow cubes anywhere, I realized that there were no missing cubes, just cubes of the wrong color.
On the whole, the package is very nice. Graphics are great and so are the components.
Rules and Gameplay
The game has rather simple and streamlined rules. Once you know the rules you very seldom have to consult the rule book, but learning the rules for the first time is surprisingly bumpy considering the low complexity level.
The rule book is somewhat verbose and explains the details of the game, hiding the basic, simple things you want to know first in lumps of text that should be in a reference section rather than in the main rules text. For example, nowhere does it say “roll up to as many dice as your stamina allows” or something of the like, although that seems to be how dice-rolling is done. The rules have to be pieced together from text in different sections, and figuring out that you may always roll fewer than the maximum took some jumping back and forth.
There are also a few very confusing choices of words in the rules text. For example the bottom row of a card is referred to as the first row. Since the first row usually tends to mean the top row, this made it very hard to wrap my head around a rule that was central to the game. The rule in question makes perfect sense in relation to the other rules, but trying to figure out what it means in the context of how it is explained feels like mental gymnastics.
My impression is that the rule book has been proofread by people who already knew how to play the game, or that the playtesters have been taught the game rather than learned it from the rule book, making them unable to give any valuable feedback on the rules text. Once past the rule book Pulp Detective is quick to set up and to play and the rules make sense as a whole.
You choose your detective, pick the case you wish to solve and try to catch the culprit before you run out of time. Don’t worry, though – it’s not a timer that beeps after a certain number of minutes but a time track where a cube moves down one step each turn (and sometimes as a penalty for a failure). The way you solve the case is by first drafting one of the three top cards of the Investigate Deck. The drafting mechanism is pretty unique and clever. There are three kinds of Investigate Cards and they all have different backs. You can’t know for sure what your investigation will lead to, but the different cards are all more or less likely to lead you to certain kinds of information. One leads more frequently to clues that you need to confront the criminal and win the game, another more frequently lets you improve your stamina and your investigative skill, and the third kind of card is more prone to let you find useful items. When you draft the card you look at the backs of the top three cards of the deck, discard one, put one back and play one.
When you play the card you place it in a tableau, and sometimes it’s location in relation to other cards give you a bonus – a re-roll. After that it’s time for the next step in the investigation: trying to accomplish one of the tasks on the card by rolling dice and hoping to match the results to the icons on the card in a way that reminds me of several other games that I’ve played and not been particularly fond of (Elder Sign and Eight Epics come to mind and so does Yahtzee). If you fail you get a penalty and lose something, usually time is lost but sometimes stamina or an item. If you succeed you find a useful item or a clue. After investigating you always advance the time track one step. Then you do it all over again until you have enough clues to confront the criminal, or until you run out of time and fail. If you succeed in confronting the criminal, which is more or less like rolling to complete one of the tasks on the Investigation Cards, you win the game.
Theme and Experience
Game play is a rather fiddly experience. On a turn you make vary few choices, but you have to move cards around, pick up and look at the four almost identical yellow dice to determine which ones to roll, flip counters over, move tiny cubes on tracks and move cards from the top of the discard pile to the bottom. The playing-to-upkeep ratio leans towards upkeep. The fact that there is quite a lot of luck involved amplifies the feeling that you’re not playing the game as much as you’re relocating its components.
I’m not saying that there’s no strategy or tactics to this game, however. How you play has an impact on the outcome, but the game doesn’t deliver any unique situations. For this reason the same basic strategy is correct almost every time. It takes a few plays to get from the impression that the game is hard to the impression that there is a correct way of doing things but luck often gets in the way. Once you’ve figured out in what order you should prioritize the different kinds of Investigate Cards and how to place the cards in the tableau in a way that maximizes your chances of matching some edges and getting a re-roll or two, you’re back to moving game components around. Sure, you’re moving things around in a more determined way, and you sometimes get the reward of winning. When you’ve reached this level of understanding of the game you often get to confront the criminal, but then winning is all about that last die-roll. If you play some more, you may sometimes reach the end better prepared. You’ll start winning sometimes.
I just mentioned reaching different levels of understanding of the game, and developing as a player of the game. Sounds pretty good, right? It would have been if it weren’t for three things. Firstly, I learned these things about the game in about ten plays; secondly, after those ten plays it started feeling very samey whether I won or lost; and thirdly, despite the great components and illustrations, despite the cool box that looks like an original Raymond Chandler paperback and despite the use of sometimes evocative detective language in the rule book, this game feels very abstract.
- Great components.
- Great artwork and graphic design.
- The different rules make sense and the different mechanisms of the game work well together. The drafting of the cards with different card backs is a clever way of allowing the player to make a decision on a hunch rather than on openly available information.
- The rule book is messy and unclear and some rules are stated more or less indirectly.
- Despite all the chance elements (dice-rolls and shuffled cards) the game tends to feel samey and repetitive.
- The amount of important decisions and the amount of gameplay excitement is lower than the amount of physical manipulation that is required to play. This makes this small, quick game feel surprisingly fiddly for a game with few components.
- The rule book clearly states that the game is mainly a solitaire game, but there is no information about that on the outside of the box. This comes across as somewhat sneaky.
- All components didn’t match the components list in the rule book.
- The decisions the player makes are rather obvious after playing a few times. Luck will be the deciding factor in most cases once you know how to play the game. This is not always a problem, in my opinion, especially not if the game manages to tell a story, but:
- This game tells no story.
The great package, production and graphic design got my hopes up, but in the end this game does not suit me. I tend to look for theme in a game, and I’m usually pretty good at finding it even when it’s spread thinly. I found no story in this game, though. One of the reasons for this is that the mechanisms of the game do not offer any of the excitement that I’d expect from a detective story. There are few meaningful choices once you’re acquainted with the game. There’s a lot of dice rolling, but since there’s little connection to meaningful decisions and few surprises, the dice-rolling is not as exciting as dice-rolling can sometimes be. You’re semi-randomly dealt a card, you flip it over and then you roll. Not exciting. There are other abstract games with an investigation theme that I can immerse myself in easier, and that offer more of a challenge. For these reasons I don’t need this game in my collection and for these reasons combined with the messy rule book I would not recommend this game to others. However, not all agree with me and if you’re interested in a second opinion there are links to some other reviews below.
Other People’s Opinions
Here’s a reviewer that completely disagrees with me. The reviewer finds the game hard, challenging and thematic. You should have a look.
James W writes in a review more nuanced than mine that ” Pulp Detective is a good game whose overt randomness ends up obscuring the subtle strategies needed to win.” He also compares it to Space Hulk: Death Angel, which happens to be one of my favorite solitaire games.
I hope you found this review useful. Thanks for reading. Juni and Mysan say meow!