As I like to point out with any wargame rules review that I do, I’m a moderately experienced wargamers who’s played two different games consistently and looked at a few more systems beyond that. What follows are just my opinions and things that I think might be interesting to you. I’m not going to comprehensively cover every detail in the rules but just give you the highlights. If you’re interested in Pulp Alley then hopefully you’ll find this useful and helpful in making an informed decision about this game.
What is Pulp Alley? – Pulp Alley is a skirmish game (5-10 minis a side and generally played on a 3×3 table area) that is set in the 1920-40’s pulp era. While this may seem limiting, pulp magazines covered a wide range of topics from Westerns, gangsters, Sci-Fi, to Conan the Barbarian style fantasy, and much more. As a result, Pulp Alley is one of the flexible wargaming systems I’ve ever seen. It is not historical and it focuses on narrative and cinematic action. If you’re looking for a system that will reward creativity and that you can tailor to your needs, I don’t think you’ll find anything better than Pulp Alley. Very few games are built to be so versatile.
Rulebook options – Like many manufacturers these days, Dave Phipps, the man responsible for Pulp Alley, offers the Pulp Alley rules in a couple of formats to fit your needs. A hardcover and paperback book are available as well as a PDF. Obviously, the price scales based on which option you choose. I purchased the hardcover book which runs $50 which initially might seem a little high but I think it is ultimately a decent value. The book is well made and is roughly 130 pages. The book is in black and white and the pages feel somewhat thin and cheap. I know this was deliberately done by the author to resemble pulp magazines, but I feel like the pages will crinkle or become damaged easily. So that is why I say the book is a decent value. I do want to give Dave a shout out for extremely fast shipping. I was eagerly anticipating getting the rulebook and was really happy to receive it within 3 days of ordering it. I live in the US and I can’t speak for those who purchase outside of the States but I figured it was worth mentioning for any fellow Americans interested in this game.
Character and League Creation – I mentioned previously how customizable Pulp Alley is and that becomes apparent early on. There is a system here for you to create your League (the squad or gang of characters you’ll be playing) and the characters within the league. It reminds me a bit of an RPG because you assign stats and a few skills depending on their rank to determine what they can do on the table top.
Not only does this system look easy to use but you can create whatever characters you want pretty much. Of course, there are a fair number of sample characters provided throughout this rulebook which is great for those who don’t want to make up their own. Pulp Alley sells miniatures for many of them as well. For me though, I look forward to making my own characters and love this part of Pulp Alley. Its also worth mentioning here that cards are available to use as a reference for many characters. They look like what is pictured below but are in full color. This is another nice thing that Pulp Alley does where they’re happy to sell something to you if you want or you can print it off yourself and save money if you prefer that route too.
Rules – Of course, making characters is only so good if the rules stink but that doesn’t seem to be the case here. Pulp Alley has a philosophy of easy to learn and easy to track when playing. There are rules for brawling and shooting and also for interacting with story elements. None of this is terribly complicated, especially if you’ve played a wargame before. Best of all, the stats and abilities for your characters can all be contained on cards so it is really easy to play. For example, a character may get into a fight and his Brawl stat is a certain number of dice. That means no tables are needed and every roll result that is 4+ is a success. The system uses a lot of opposed rolls and the players get to decide whether a character plays it safe in a fight and tries to dodge or if they fight back and there is a chance that both characters walk away wounded or dead! This seems like one of the best strategic “wrinkles” in the game system.
If I do have a concern about the rules, it is whether there is enough “strategery” (to quote a former US President) to keep the game fun. I don’t think this will be like a board game where tactical decisions can become a bit rote in some turns but there are limitations on who you can charge and shoot so that characters often focus on what is directly ahead of them instead of having a full range of strategic options. Having said this, I don’t think this will be a huge problem in a narrative game like this and I’m more curious to see how this plays out than anything else.
Pulp Alley does have solo rules which are widely praised online. I think the rules veer more towards you playing against yourself than an AI system like you see in other wargames but that doesn’t bother me as someone who plays pretty much exclusively solo anyway. Pulp Alley does come with plenty scenarios designed for solo play so I’m envisioning that it will be fun to play whether you’re flying solo or having some people to play with.
I should also mention that Pulp Alley does use a card system. There is a Fortune Deck for people playing with 2 or more players and a Solo Deck for solo play. You’ll need one or the other at minimum to get going though you can print and make your own cards if you’d like. I don’t have any of the cards yet but I plan to get them as they’re fairly priced.
Speaking of cards, there are also rules for Horror which use a horror deck. This enables you to play your more Lovecraftian type of scenarios which is also something really cool about Pulp Alley. Of course, horror can be used in nearly any setting if you want and this is a good example of Pulp Alley’s flexible system.
Scenarios – Pulp Alley comes with six scenarios in the rulebook which is pretty standard for wargames. I would say that four of the six are fairly standard “deathmatch” scenarios that are pretty similar to one another. The remaining two look pretty fun though and got me excited to play. Pulp Alley has campaign supplements you can buy and there are rules for playing in a campaign including rewards and penalties for injury. There are also rules for your characters and League joining secret societies and gaining benefits there as well. Little touches like this set Pulp Alley apart and make the rulebook a pretty decent value for money.
Final Thoughts – As you can tell from reading this, I have a pretty positive opinion on Pulp Alley and the rulebook. It is thoughtful and well done. I love the sandbox approach of Pulp Alley. Take what you want and create what you want and have your own adventures. I’ve mostly played licensed miniature games and I love playing in a rich setting that I know and love but the ability to create your own characters and own story with a simple, intuitive system is very appealing.
There are so many settings that appeal to me in Pulp Alley that it has been a little overwhelming figuring out which direction to go. 1920’s gangsters is a dream setting for me as I love Boardwalk Empire. Having said that, the terrain “lift” to play in that setting is high so that isn’t where I would likely start. I love Lovecraftian horror and that could be a lot of fun to try as well though I think terrain for that could be similarly demanding. While I think fantasy could be a good way to go since I have a decent chunk of fantasy terrain made, I think my first stop in Pulp Alley will actually be exploring a “Lost World” using Savage Core miniatures. That won’t require a ton of new terrain which is good for me and it will give me a chance to paint up some fun looking minis along the way. Of course, with Pulp Alley’s flexibility, I can always change my mind and shift in a different direction whenever I feel like it and that is why I hope to be using this game quite a bit in the coming years to tell some great stories.