Monday, February 6, 2023

Review: Pulp! - Osprey Games


My faithful readers know, that I always get the latest Osprey Wargaming Series books.  I have every single one, starting with #1 Dux Bellorum.  I also make it a point to get every single one that comes out.  Why?  Am I some sort of crazed fan?  A completist collector?  Addicted to wargames rules?  Well, maybe.... but the real reason is very simple.  If they do not sell, they stop being made. I want them to keep being made.  

Pulp! is the latest "blue book" and I of course have it!  In the books own words, the rules are "a scenario based, skirmish wargame where players take on the roles of heroes and villains inspired by the pulp fiction of the 1920's and 30's."  There are some great miniatures out there for this genre, and it is a popular niche for skirmish wargaming.  That means you can play characters like Doc Savage, The Shadow, Flash Gordon, and Dick Tracy.  The Pulp game has to be able to cover a wide variety from crime thrillers, to space opera, to horror, to historical fiction, and beyond.  That is a tall order for any game system to cover such a spectrum of potential game types.  I am interested to see how the game manages the abstractions.  

So, let's lead into this review with both fists swinging......

Things I Liked

To help give the Pulp heroes and villains a bit more of a punch, they can use Special Points to buy advantages and special rules.  However, it is interesting that each one is a single use only, so the only way you can continue to use the advantage is to buy it more than once.  This is very different from other games, and I liked it as a nice way to balance some of these unusual rules.  It also feels "Pulp" as the heroes frequently use some special skill to save the day, or avoid a cliffhanger; but typically they only use the same skill once in a series.  

This book has some really great pictures of minis on some really great tables.  I think they are mostly PULP! Miniatures and Copplestone Castings with a lot of paint work by Kev Dallimore.  They really make me want to dive into a few Pulp style games. 

For attacking, they use a "firepower" style mechanic where you roll dice based on the weapon, and look for the skill of the shooter to score a hit.  Modifiers apply such as cover, LOS etc.  Targets that are hit get a Protection roll to avoid getting hit.  A hit causes suppression, and a second hit causes a wound, and a second wound causes a Knocked Out.  That gives our "heroic" characters some resilience.    In melee, there are no suppression hits, only wounds.  

There us a short list of some particularly PULP style weapons like Death Rays, Glue Guns, and Hypno Rays in the rules to add some 1930's Sci-Fi flavor.   

There is also a RPG Lite element as you can give your single model Heroes and Villains access to Life Experience that give different benefits, as well as some Traumas and Phobias.  This makes your main characters unique and is a MUST for Pulp! style adventures in my book.     

Things I Did Not Like

Most Heroes are single model units, but henchmen are in small groups of 2-4.  That is fine, but they seem to activate and take actions individually.  This seemed a bit cumbersome.  However, you typically only have 1-2 groups of henchmen.  If they were going to resolve actions individually, you might as well let them pool their dice and all take the same action at once anyway.  

The dice used are d6, which is fine by me.  However, a 1 always fails and a 6 always succeeds.  No mods can be made above or below these values.  Therefore, the pool of dice results in this game is low, and your ability to influence the results via mod stacking is also relatively low.  

The rules do not have any simple rules for vehicles.  I think this is a big miss, as car chases and the like were a staple of the genre.  There is a lot of discussion about animals in the book though.  

A big selling point of the book was Co-op and Solo play.  However, the book barely touches on the subject, leaving most of the heavy lifting to the activation rolls.  Osprey recognized this and quickly put out free-rules for solo/co-op play on their website.  They seem to be a combination of random dice roll for result and order of operations for the enemy AI.  Nothing is really detailed on deployment or scenario modifications.  Therefore, I would suggest that this game works best as a Versus affair.     


Meh and Other Uncertainties

A typical game is 1 hero/villain single model, 1 Elite single model, and a handful of henchmen squads of various skill level.  More skill level typical adds access to Special Points and stats.   

The game makes use of an Activation roll.  If failed, the model/Unit can only take partial actions.  These are typically passive, defensive related actions.  So, the model is not helpless but also not doing much.  Activation rolls are like Marmite.  Some like the Friction it adds to a game to be overcome, while others see them as an annoying hinderance.  I personally do not have a preference, but prefer to be able to take a free action, and then dice for additional actions instead. 

Since this is a skirmish game, there are all sorts of movement related stuff you can do.  Most of them are all lumped into the rules under movement, so they might be hard to find later when searching for the exact way to do it.  However, they are there and that is good.  You will want your hero to jump from rooftop to rooftop at some point! Interestingly, the action you choose on activation also will impact how much you can move.  

The book spends several pages on Scenario design.  It only has two sample scenarios though.  I appreciate the effort to lay-out different deployment types, and ways to add chrome to a scenario.  However, I feel like many gamers will find this section of the book dissatisfying.  However, given the large swathe of game types this book is trying to cover, it makes sense to take this approach over hard and fast scenarios.  

There is some cursory talk about campaigns and the RPG section has a discussion about character progression.     

Final Thoughts

PULP! is a perfectly serviceable set of rules.  However, if I was new to the genre and wargaming in general this set of rules would leave me a bit bewildered about how to proceed.  It is a really good tool box, but how these tools go together is not always 100% clear.  I appreciated the RPG-lite elements and the Special Points, but it was not clear to me how I should use them to make a great game or game units.   

Also, I think the ruleset is a bit too generic and it ends up feeling a bit flavorless and missing that two-fisted hero of action that it needs to pop off the page like a purple-prosed serial or early comics panel.  It tries to be all things, to all people when a tighter focus like Flash Gordon style space adventures, The Shadow-esque crime heroes, or Back-of Beyond adventures would have netted a tighter, more flavorful game.

I think this one would shine with a solid GM/host setting the theme, and with players putting together some appropriately themed groups of minis.  This could also make a good show game, as you hand the players the stat cards for minis that all ready match the theme of the board.  Clubs and gaming groups will be able to have fun with this, but one-off games seem less likely with this set.  You can forget pick-up games entirely, but this genre normally does not do pick-up games.    

This one won't set the world on fire, but like all Osprey Wargames Series it has some great little gems of ideas and mechanics that I can take away into my own designs.             

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