You know that feeling when you want to play a game to find out more, but you’re worried that it could be one of your worst experiences ever? Maybe that’s just me, but Pulsar 2849 was one of those titles that gave me a lot of dread. I saw Tom Vasel’s review and he raved about it, which I wasn’t expecting. I then watched a live playthrough and laughed my head off as Zee Garcia trolled the show while hating the game. And I know my history of not being a fan of “most” super-dry cube pushing, point salad Euro’s – most of which come from Stefan Feld who, as nice a man as he is, doesn’t design games that appeal to me personally. Even Czech Games Editions as a publisher haven’t wowed me with many games, though I respect Through the Ages and quite liked Dungeon Pets.
Now assuming that didn’t just push away half the people reading this review, let me continue on. Even if at first glance I wasn’t getting hyped for this, there were some aspects that drew me in. The variation in setups and options made it sound like almost a sandbox style game, something I do like a lot. Even though I knew the space theme would be tacked on with 5 year old sticky tape, I’ll take it over Trading in the Mediterraean or <insert generic Medieval village setting here> any day.
And sometimes I’ll be surprised with a hidden gem that shines through regardless – I made a whole Top 10 list on the subject (Exceptions To The Rule) and could easily go beyond that. We all have expectations or preconceptions about everything in life whether consciously or subconsciously and anyone who believes that it’s possible to blank a mind totally clean of such things is living in a dream world and should expect Mr Charles to make an appearance. So with all that said, is Pulsar 2849 an unexpected pleasure?
Designer: Vladimír Suchý
Publisher: Czech Games Editions
Time: 60-120 minutes
CUBE PUSHING…IN SPAAAAACCEEEE!
There’s a fair bit to explain so I’ll summarise as best as I can. The game is played over 8 rounds each with three phases: the dice phase, the action phase, and the production phase. 7-9 dice are rolled based on played count and each player will draft one die, then depending on the “adjusted median” of all dice (yeah you get to relive your GCSE Math days again), you’ll move your disc a number of spaces up or down either the initiative track (which determines turn order) or the engineering track (which dishes out engineering cubes). Higher die values will result on you moving down on either track, which is bad and vice versa. After each player has selected a die, the final die is left behind to represent the value of the bonus die which may or may not be used by players during the action phase.
Next during the action phase, you’ll use those dice to do two actions from a variety of options available. The majority of those actions require a specific value whether high or low. In addition players may be able to acquire the use of the bonus die mentioned before which allows for a 3rd action in the round. These can include:
• Move your ship around the star map which helps you claim planets and pulsars.
• Obtain a gyrodyne (think a large spinning device that generates power for ease), which is placed in an empty claimed pulsar.
• Set a gyrodyne spinning to generate points each round.
• Acquire transmitters, these grant you instant rewards, end of round points/cubes and sometimes bonus dice.
• Complete an HQ project – basically a personal tech tree in how it works
• Research technology – provides instant, permanent or end-of-game benefits
• Buy a modifier tile, which you can use to adjust your die values as and when required.
The production phase that follows is essentially a scoring round. Turn order is adjusted per the Initiative track, engineering cubes are dished out based on that track (used for powering techs, transmitters and obtaining bonus dice) and any end-of-round scoring is resolved. Pulsar lasts for 8 rounds of this of which technologies will unlock as the game progresses before you get to enjoy the “always fun” part of counting up final scores in a point salad game.
NO SURPRISES WHEN IT COMES TO THE THEME
First of all, let’s state the obvious here – this is a point salad game painted with a space brush. I admire anyone out there who tries to teach this game thematically, but it’s pasted on, pure and simple. Certainly you need to go into Pulsar knowing that ahead of time. Notice I don’t call it Pulsar 2849 – that’s because the 2849 aspect literally means nothing and is just an annoying part of the title to say when “Pulsar” on its own would have sufficed. Seriously designers, stop naming your games after random years or <insert place name here>, they don’t make for interesting board games on a shelf when you’re browsing.
That being said, it looks half decent aesthetically – not bad, not great. The map is laid out like a network of constallations with small planets and pulsars throughout. All the outside boards (tech, tokens etc) hug the centre board, which not only looks tidy, it also helps to consolidate space and Pulsar is already a bit of a table hog as it is. Each player is armed with coloured “strepsils” for disks which are nice and bright and overall despite the lack of theme, it does look like a sci-fi space layout. There are some negatives though, such as the ships looking like something out of a Fisher Price set and the dice being pretty standard affair. What can I say, I love custom dice!
MY GOD IS IT ACTUALLY WINNING ME OVER?
I had worries that Pulsar would be too complex for its own good, but it turned out to be fairly streamlined overall. A lot of that comes down to the fact that you need exact die values to access most of the actions in the game rather than “greater than or equal to” situations. This eliminates many possibilities that you don’t have to concern yourself with and so the biggest choice is which dice you draft to begin with. And I’m happy to report that we have tracks here that are actually interesting to focus on! I normally hate it when Euro’s flood you with a bunch of tracks as a game (looking at you Orleans and Arkwright), but in Pulsar, I actually care about them. The “median” mechanic that dictates how you shift your initiative/engineering levels from choosing dice is brilliant, if purely mechanical design. I can get a 6, but that means I’m going from 1st to 3rd in turn order, ouch! A 1 is all I need to do that action and it boosts me up to the top spot for engineering cubes, result!
Furthermore, you only get two actions and a maximum of one bonus action per turn. This means that you get between 16-24 actions in a game total. As a result you have to focus on the strategy you choose as you won’t be able to do everything well, but because you chose for yourself what that strategy was going to be, it doesn’t feel restrictive. But you’ll be agonising over which actions to take and when to score the most points as nearly everything you decide to do is earning you points in some fashion.
In my games, I have seen a number of different strategies win. Ignore all your preconceptions about dominant strategies as they’ve been proven wrong many a time here. You’d think that mad exploration would win because of the points you gain at the end, except that it doesn’t gain you many victory points during the game. My first game I tried a Gyrodyne spinning frenzy, attempting to grab as many pulsars as I could (which is only achievable up to a point) and milk the bonus points you can get on certain rounds. It got me to second place but I was still 3 points behind the friend who went on a tech and HQ tree frenzy and harvested more engineering cubes than seems physically possible. Points tend to be fairly spread out among the end so usually you can’t always tell who’s got a chance of winning, but a 3 point differential in a point salad is pretty impressive.
It’s also not a case of how many actions you have, but more what you do with those actions that counts. In that first game again for example, my friend easily had 6-7 actions more than I did, utilising the bonus die a lot. I barely managed 3 bonus actions total as my strategy didn’t allow me to get many cubes or bonus actions. But again, I still only lost by 3 points. This trend was noticed in other games also where the number of bonus actions didn’t automatically determine the eventual winner unlike some other Euro’s I’ve reviewed recently.
NOT QUITE LIGHT SPEED, BUT NOT A LUNAR CYCLE EITHER!
With all the options and mathematics going on, you would be right to be wary of how long Pulsar takes to wrap itself up – surprisingly however, it doesn’t drag on at all. Even with the maximum player count, you can be done and dusted in 2 hours give or take some AP players or teaching time. That’s not bad at all, especially as you’re going to be engaged during other players turns as you consider the dice available to you and what you can achieve with them, though the person going first might have a harder time reacting quickly to the situation for obvious reasons. Reduce the player count and it’s even faster. I’ve had a 2 player game with a gamer of similar experience complete in an hour. New players should maybe allow for more time though as the breadth of options can overwhelm many an unsuspecting player, but regardless, we’re talking 60-120 minutes with over-running only occurring in rare cases.
That being said, adding more players doesn’t necessarily add to the experience other than social interaction. You have to pay attention to what they are doing in case they nab your tech, grab your Pulsars or nick the dice you wanted (and on the latter there’s even a bit of hate-drafting present if you force your opponent to take a high die and plummet down those Initiative/Engineering tracks) but it can be argued it’s a fairly multiplayer solitaire experience. I’m actually a bit disappointed there is no solo mode present as it seems like it could easily be implemented here.
VERDICT ON PULSAR 2849
What is wrong with me? By all accounts, Pulsar should be a game I dislike. Its theme is 100% pasted on. It’s a dry point salad. The components are nothing to sing about and it forces me to say the word “gyrodyne” all the time which is annoying. . . . . and yet all that doesn’t matter! Pulsar for me has proven to be an unexpected gem and one which would have easily made my Top 10 Exceptions to the Rule list.
A lot of that comes down to the sheer variety of options and setups that Pulsar provides. With so many ways to bring out variations in tech boards, transmitters, map layouts, goals, HQ boards, the replay value is excellent allowing players to attempt vastly different strategies from game to game. During each game you’re presented with a wealth of choices in how to take your turn and even though it can get a little mathy with calculating points (AP players stay away), you feel like you have multiple good options that feel rewarding.
In addition, the dice drafting mechanic takes a new twist with presenting players with a side effect of choosing high/low dice in a way that feels important and not just a throwaway gimmick.
I know I set the bar low when I tested out Pulsar given my typical taste in games, but genuinely this is a solid game that can keep to a 2 hour time limit without too much downtime. I love to be surprised in this hobby and even though it’s as dry as can be, wastes a cool theme and could use a few visual upgrades, I don’t mind. It’s been a while since I genuinely loved a game from CGE – welcome back guys!
PERSONAL RATING – 9
YOU WILL LIKE PULSAR 2849 IF:
You enjoy point salad games – it’s points for everything but it just feels more interesting here.
You like dice drafting where taking the highest value isn’t necessarily the best idea.
You want a huge amount of variety in setups and strategies – each game will be different for you.
YOU WILL NOT LIKE PULSAR 2849 IF:
You really hate dry games – it’s won me over, but I would completely understand if you weren’t hooked.
You feel the dice introduce a random element you’re not comfortable with despite mitigation.
You were hoping for a thematic space game – this isn’t that.
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I'm known as The Broken Meeple, a blog, podcast and YouTube channel devoted to board and card games. I live in Portsmouth, UK, working as a Chartered Tax Advisor and I enjoy playing games of many genres and varieties with as many people as possible.