Pulp Detective (Alban Viard Studio Games, 2018)

Date played: March 20, 2020

Basic details: 1-2 players, 20-30 min, 2 expansions available

Gist of the game: In solo mode, you play as one of two detectives trying to solve one of three cases (In this playthrough, I was “Lucky” Dan Hamilton investigating The Case of the Death’s Door Damsel). To win the game, you need to find 4 clues and successfully confront the criminal. If you run out of time (the case card has a time track) or you run out of stamina (a separate card with up to 8 places [you start at 6 when playing with beginner difficulty]), you lose the game. The game has adjustable difficulty levels with varying time and stamina handicaps. You can gain stamina through successful investigations and items, but in all but one item circumstance, time only moves forward.

The game unfolds through a series of turns, which have 3 phases: storyline building, investigation, and time marches on.

In the storyline phase, you develop a main storyline as well as other storylines that form subplots. You can have any number of subplots, but any given subplot can have no more cards in it than the storyline above it. Storyline cards come in 3 varieties: cliffhangers, informants, and follow a lead. Cliffhangers are disproportionately endowed with stamina as rewards, informants with clues, and follow a lead with items. Not every card in each category has that given reward, but they’re definitely skewed. Edges of storyline cards also have symbols that can be matched top/bottom and left/right that might earn you re-rolls during the investigation stage. On each turn, you draw three cards, but don’t look at them. Using the information available on the back, which indicates the card’s category as well as what you’re most likely to earn from that category, you select one to add to your storyline, discard one face up, and insert the remaining card at random back into the draw pile. The blind nature of all of this is kind of interesting, because you’re selecting based on probabilities.

In the investigation phase, you set out the complete the appropriate task on the storyline card. Each card has three tasks, based on how much time is remaining. You choose the task that has the lowest number that is still equal to or greater than the amount of time remaining. Task rows specify which dice faces you need to complete the task. Your stamina determines how many yellow dice you’re allowed to roll. Each turn, you can also sacrifice an additional hour for more dice on that turn if your stamina is 2 (+1 die) or 1 (+2 die). There are also 1 red and 1 grey die that you may be able to roll depending on what items you hold or your detective’s special ability, which you can avail yourself of as often as you like. Each die has 4 icons, with two icons appearing twice (marked with a *). Each die is different, but you get to choose which dice to roll and in what order. You also get one re-roll for each set of edges the current storyline card matches with those next to and above/below it.

If you succeed at an investigative task, whether through dice or additional item markers (more in a moment), you gain something: an item, stamina, or a clue. If you gain an item, the item you gain is determined by the top card of the discard pile. If you don’t successfully complete an investigative task, you can choose a marker that matches one of the dice faces you rolled. You can keep 2 markers for free, or pay penalties to keep up to 4. So failing can still make it easier to succeed in the future, depending on whether the icon on your marker is important for your next storyline card, etc.

Finally, after building your storyline and investigating, you advance the time marker by one hour. Each case has a different length of time attached to it. The Case of the Death’s Door Damsel was recommended for the first play, and had 24 hours, the highest.

To confront the criminal after you’ve collected 4 clues, look at the totality of your storyline and determine which dice value (1-6) appears most often to determine the criminal you face.  Confronting a criminal works basically like investigating: you must roll the appropriate set of dice and/or use markers and/or items and/or special abilities to get the needed configuration. You can also use your remaining time in 2 hour increments to reroll one yellow die.

There are two 2-player variants, one competitive and one cooperative.

There are also 2 expansions, with a third forthcoming:
Expansion 1: Sidekicks, Double Cross, and Masterminds adds 4 new cases, 2 new detective cards, and several cards unique to the expansion: 8 double cross cards, 4 sidekick cards, a mastermind card, and a sidekick die.
Expansion 2: Henchmen, Gun Molls, and Traps adds 2 new cases, 1 new detective, 1 new police inspector (used for 2 player games), 3 new criminal cards, and several cards unique to the expansion: 18 henchmen, gun molls, and traps cards, 6 location cards, and a Girl Friday die.

Expansion cards can be used with any case and combined with each other (across expansions, I think) in the same game, so (I think) you could have a sidekick and Girl Friday in the same game using a criminal, detective, and case from the base game.

Color commentary: As was the case with Friday, working my way through the instructions took a super long time, followed by breezy gameplay that involved no real difficulties. I suppose you could argue that there were no difficulties because I took my time with the rules, but I felt confused most of the time I was reading the rules and fearful I wouldn’t be able to figure out what I was actually supposed to do.

Some things are basically without consequence. For instance, there’s nothing specific about the cases per se that show up through the rest of the game play. Each case has a different time allocation, but they’re pretty generic. Same with the criminals. Each criminal requires a different set of dice values, but they’re all perfectly interchangeable with any case, storyline, etc., but all the little elements of randomness, like items being determined by the top card of the discard pile, criminals determined by the modal die face in the storyline, etc. probably increase replayability.

Since clues put you on the path toward winning the game, I chose Informant cards whenever possible (which was every turn for at least the first half dozen turns), especially while I had the stamina to roll a larger number of dice. However, many informant cards didn’t have edge symbols, making them pretty useless for earning extra rerolls.

I was pretty blase about subplots, mostly just starting them when table space was running out. The entire first row was pretty much devoid of any edge symbols, so there wasn’t a lot to worry about matching in that row, and nothing to initially match in the subplot below.

I successfully found the fourth clue with 4 stamina and 8 hours remaining. My criminal (mode of 0 pips on storyline cards) was The Spyder, a weapons mastermind. Using the time sacrifice option and my detective’s special ability of sacrificing 1 stamina to roll the red die or grey die, I was able to defeat the criminal with 1 hour (basically no time, as moving below 1 means you lose) and 2 stamina remaining.

Thoughts I think M might have if he had played: The pulp noir art is super fun.

I really like how probability enters into potential strategies, both with the likely outcomes from successful investigations based on card type, and which dice to roll for an increased likelihood of particular icons.

There are also some interesting dynamics where you might choose Cliffhanger or Follow a Lead cards that are more likely to a) have edge symbols to match, b) earn you more stamina (which gives you more initial dice) and/or c) earn you items, which you may be able to exchange for stamina or additional dice/rolls.

Using hindsight of nearly 12 hours, edge symbols are probably where the strategic importance of subplots come in — starting a new subplot below to match top/bottom symbols, continuing a storyline to match side symbols, etc.

The less time remaining, the harder the tasks (more dice needed, more doubles of icons), so I can envision that at some point you just lose the last several investigations because you can’t get enough dice together to match the symbols even if the mathematical odds were in your favor. And losing investigations just compounds the pain by causing loss of stamina, loss of items, and even loss of additional time beyond the hour you must advance every turn anyway.

2 thoughts on “Pulp Detective (Alban Viard Studio Games, 2018)

  1. I’m sure I’ve seen this one before. It’s cool that it has both single-player, cooperative, and competitive options.

    I think for a lot of boardgames, trying to read the rules (which keep referencing elements of the game pieces) without looking at the pieces, is nearly always confusing. To my mind, the best rules are the ones that are easiest to reference mid-game if you need a reminder, whatever that means about their initial read-through-ability.

    By the way, are M’s hypothetical comments what he DID SAY after looking it over (but not playing it) or what you think he WOULD HAVE SAID if he’d done that?


  2. You may have seen it in our apartment, but it was a Kickstarter, so not sure if you would have seen it out in the world.

    M sometimes adds things once he reads the rest of the post, but they’re mostly just what I imagine he would have said if he had been the one playing it. He approves all thoughts I attribute to him before they get posted, though.


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