Captain D! This is the Intergalactic Council. We need to talk to you! It’s a matter of galactic peace!
Roger, roger, Council, Captain D here, in the far reaches of space, as usual. What’s going on?
Captain D! What a relief to hear from you! We have a secret mission for you: Explore the planets you fly past; the evil Cosmic Hegemony is planning on invading the peaceful world of the Alliance! This means war! Your mission: Find all their superweapons before it’s too late!
A solid basis for a sci-fi thriller, right? That’s the premise for the fun retro science-fiction bag-building solo game Pulp Invasion, designed by Todd Sanders of AV Studio Games. Todd also created Pulp Detective, which has a similar visual design but very different style of play. In Pulp Invasion you pick a captain, who grants you various abilities in combat, diplomacy, and science, along with some Captain’s Dice, which offer help when things otherwise look grim. You’re going up against the three villains of The Cosmic Hegemony, each of whom has their own series of Encounters on a set of randomly chosen planets.
Here’s the initial setup, game ready for play:
Along the top are the planets – three are shown – along with a face-down deck of Superweapons. The colored cubes represent various abilities and events (the neat little stacks on the right are the starting set, ready to be put into the play bag, the big pile at the top is the pool for subsequent turns). There are five possible Captain’s Dice of which you typically only get two or three (depending on the Captain you’ve chosen). The three cards allow you to track your Abilities and your chosen Captain’s Dice; to the immediate left is the Captain’s card. The middle three face-up cards are the Hegemony, and the three piles below them are their individual Encounters.
These are the three planets I’m starting with: Outpost Zero, Freye’s Edge, and Northkeep:
Notice that every card features great retro 40’s science fiction artwork from the amazing Steeger Properties library. Easily one of the best aspects of Pulp Invasion is the terrific art on the front and back of the cards!
Planets tend to give you benefits; the game turn has you overcome each of the four Encounters on the current planet, followed by actually landing on the planet and searching it. You search by pulling a specified number of cubes from the bag. Pull a yellow cube and you’ve discovered one of those superweapons. Find your fourth weapon and you’ve won!
Speaking of Encounter cards, here are two of the four that we must overcome on our journey to Freye’s Edge:
The number on the top left is the strength of the card. The category of that strength is identified by the symbol on the card immediately to its right. To overcome Hegemony Sentry, for example, I need to match or exceed two of the blue hand symbol (diplomacy). Before I do that, however, Hegemony Sentry has some additional complications, as noted in its text. I randomly draw three cubes from the bag and any that are blue make the Sentry +1 stronger. Fortunately, I don’t pick any blue cubes, but it’s still going to cost me two cubes. Meh. To overcome the Sentry I then need to either spend two blue (diplomacy) ability points from my tracking card or otherwise use Captain’s Dice to attain that value.
The second Encounter card, The Corpus of Yun 5, has a strength of zero (top left). This means that rather than engage (match strength in the specified ability) I have to evade. That costs a minimum of three ability. I only start out with 41 ability total, and this set of encounters has already cost me five (and that’s just two of the four Encounter cards for this planet!) Therein lies the great challenge of Pulp Invasion; you use up ability points far faster than you can replenish them. Game designer Todd explains it this way: “You’re behind enemy lines and you can’t really stop at the nearest spaceport to get your ship fixed.”
Here’s my Captain’s card – Grey Kennedy – that specifies I start with any two of the Engineer (orange) die, the Infiltration Agent (blue) die, or the Artificial Intelligence (yellow) die. In addition, I start with 14 combat ability points, 12 science ability points, and 14 diplomacy ability points, as noted on the tracker card:
That covers most of the basics. Each turn you place a new planet and lay out four encounters from the current Cosmic Hegemony villain, add a few cubes as marked to your bag, then engage or evade each encounter, seeking to reach the planet and search it for restorative ability points and those all-important yellow superweapon cubes.
PLAYING PULP INVASION
What might be clear is how darn difficult this game can be. You spend ability faster than you replenish it, so it’s a race against time to find those superweapons before two of your three abilities go to zero. Encounters can be quite expensive, however. Consider this sequence:
In this instance, it cost me 3 combat to overcome the Guardforce, 2 more combat to overcome the hostile agents, then 2 diplomacy to quell the hegemony sentry. Add three more ability points to evade the Corpus (post evasion you rotate the card). I’ve reached Freye’s Edge, but how many cubes do I get to pull out of the bag? Three. I would have only drawn two cubes (you count the planet icons on the lower right of cards you’ve successfully engaged) except Freye’s Edge changes the count. Still, that’s a total cost of 10 to gain 3. Keep in mind that there are four planets to encounter per Cosmic Hegemony member, a total of 12 planets. Without some savvy cube management and more than a sprinkling of luck, you’re quite likely to run out of abilities and lose before you find that fourth superweapon.
Back to the game. A little later on, I find that one of my Encounter cards is actually a Location! It’s the Clandestine Science Lab, and it goes under the Planet card, so this time I only have three Encounters. They’re going to cost me 2 + 3 + 1 ability cubes at a minimum (if I evade the Guardforce 2 below, it’ll cost me 3 instead of 1, not a great choice). Against that only two of these cards have planet icons, so I’ll have 2 chances to gain abilities or uncover superweapons against this expensive set of encounters. (Actually, the Clandestine Science Lab adds one planet icon effectively letting me pull 3 cubes instead of 2 on my search of planet Arcamin):
Much later in the game, I’ve overcome the first of the Cosmic Hegemony, and am just about to finish up investigating the planets run by the second villain, when I realize I’m going to run out of ability points. If two go to zero, you’ll recall, it’s game over, you’ve lost. Here’s how that played out for me:
My combat ability is down to 4, science down to 3, and diplomacy down to 3. To overcome these three remaining Encounters, however, I need at least 4 + 2 + 2 which will inevitably drop two abilities to zero, even utilizing my rather depleted Captain’s Dice. Worse, I only ever found a single superweapon (on the far right) so I was a long way from being able to pull out a last-minute win. Sorry, Intergalactic Alliance, we’ve failed ya.
THOUGHTS ON PULP INVASION
That’s the game. AV Studios did send me the X1 expansion which offers some additional cards that can make the game a bit easier, as you can see with these new planets:
The X1 expansion also adds the option of a second player acting as a stealth member of the Cosmic Hegemony, trying to thwart your mission, along with some additional cubes and a cool new Captain’s Die. Note in the above that the new planets offer slightly more generous rewards.
I really enjoy playing Pulp Invasion, but as is clear from reading the BoardGameGeek forum discussions about the game, people add house rules to make it more winnable. Todd claims it has about a 25% win rate, but I’ve played four times and not come close to winning. Others have a similar experience and one BGGer estimates he wins about 10% of the time. Since I’m playing on the easiest level, I see this as a design problem; in easy mode it should be easy to win (maybe 50% of the time?), then as you make changes to add difficulty it should then become more challenging. To start out barely winnable means that a lot of gamers will try a few times and, disheartened, move to another game that’s not so seemingly impossible to win.
One way to address this would have the entry game allow you to pull out two cubes and pick the one you’d prefer during the planetary search phase. It would mean you’d find the superweapons faster and you’d learn how spending ability points versus restoring them play out in the overall game.
While the game components are terrific, there was a problem with the cloth bag included in my box. Apparently, they had some issues with their manufacturer causing some boxes to end up with a bag that has a tendency to split along the seam. Mine did just that. They’re upgrading me to a better bag, so that’s a very solvable issue.
I absolutely love the theme of Pulp Invasion. The artwork is fabulous and the entire idea of the game is really great. I dig old sci-fi books and the rhythm of the game really is lively and retro. The main issue I have is that it doesn’t balance difficulty at different levels, which means you have to come up with your own variant rules or be prepared to lose again and again with the hope that you might just get lucky with your bag pulls and find those superweapons before it’s too late.
Pulp Invasion, by Todd Sanders of AV Studio Games. 20 Euro (about $21.00).
Disclaimer: AV Studio Games sent me a copy of Pulp Invasion, along with Pulp Invasion X1, for the purposes of this review. Thanks!