By Andrew Joyce
You are an aspiring writer…one who will stop at nothing to create the next best-seller! Welcome to Paperback, a light deck-builder cutely mashed up with a word game. Is this truly “A novel approach to deckbuilding” as the box claims? Read on for more.
Fowers Games has become known for putting out light-weight, well-themed games such as Wok Star, Burgle Bros, and Fugitive. Paperback is cast in this same mold, and a word-building spin on a Dominion-style deck-builder really interested me.
In Paperback, you start with an initial deck of 10 cards: R S T L N, and five wild cards. Each turn, you will make words with your cards, which earns you points, which you’ll then use to buy more letter cards to make bigger and better words. Alternatively, you can buy victory points cards, which also serve as wild cards. That’s the gist of the game — it’s a pretty standard deck builder, very similar to Dominion.
Word gamers should love this game. It’s fun to draw your hand of cards, groan at your terrible options, and try somehow to scrape a good word out of a T, M, J, wild, and O. (Mote? Mojo? Tomb? The possibilities are endless). This is a fun and entertaining way to work your brain – if you’re a word nerd like myself, you will find yourself really relishing the challenge.
But that’s not all you’re doing…many cards also have special powers, which activate if you can place the card at a certain place in the word, or next to another letter. These special powers are where the strategy of the game come into play. As you build words, you will be buying more cards, and these will shape which direction your strategy will grow.
You could buy card-burners, which reward you for trashing cards out of your hand. Or you could buy cards which augment your hand size the next round — giving you 7 or 8 letters to work with instead of only 5. Or, you could invest in attack letters which limit other players from using certain features or purchasing certain cards.
The Magic Moments
I found Paperback had a few very good moments. For one thing, it was accessible, and folks who enjoyed Boggle, Scrabble, and Bananagrams quickly picked up this game, despite little experience with other hobby games. It’s pretty easy to get up and running with this game quickly.
Second, we found ourselves often involved in each other’s turns, unlike more standard deckbuilders. The challenge of word creation was often tackled communally (Paperback even has a variant rule that rewards players for helping each other), which did away with any problem of downtime on other players’ turns.
Paperback was well-received by my game group, and I’ve ended up playing it about a dozen times with different groups. It’s an interesting theme to apply to a deckbuilder. However…
The Tragic Moments
While Paperback has an interesting theme, it’s just not an interesting deckbuilder. Now, deck-builders aren’t my jam, but I’ve found several that I’ve managed to enjoy quite a bit, so it’s entirely possible that Paperback could have stayed in my collection. I am, after all, a lover of words.
But Paperback just wasn’t very interesting, in the end. It’s as if the pitch was ‘Dominion with words’ and the development nearly stopped there. The game has a two-fold problem: First, the deck-building portion of the game is not interesting enough to lure the dedicated gamer crowd, as there’s nothing new to see in the deck-building aspect. Second, the word-building aspect is not a good enough strategy – you can’t win the game by building long words alone – which puts off the word-loving and casual crowds. I think Paperback has an audience problem.
Paperback worked pretty decently as a very light word-building game, but that balance was disrupted whenever someone with knowledge of deck-builders came in and cleaned the crock of all the word-lovers. I would’ve loved to see a revision of this game, where harder/longer word creation was rewarded more highly.
What can you buy instead?
Deck-builders are not my favorite genre, but there are a few I could recommend here. Arctic Scavengers is an interesting take on that core, Dominion-style mechanic, but it mixes in a few new features which mitigate the luck of the draw and put you up in close contact with your opponents. Don’t let the theme trip you up: this is a unique and interesting deck-builder. I’ve really enjoyed my plays of it thus far.
I would also recommend Eminent Domain, which adds a Glory to Rome-style lead/follow mechanic to the basic deck-building idea. In Eminent Domain, the cards you add to your deck are not unique powers or buildings, but actual actions that you can take. The more cards you buy of one action, the more likely (and the better) you’re going to be able to take that action on your turn.
If you’re looking for the perfect word game, I can confess that I haven’t found it yet, so I don’t have any amazing recommendations on that front. However, Tim Fowers has since announced Hardback, which has me really hopeful. Though he’s been careful to not describe it as a replacement for Paperback, I see some new features which could be really good: most notably, an Ascension/Star-Realms-style faction system (fittingly, called “genres”) which lets you specialize in one of four strategies. Also, bear in mind that Hardback de-emphasizes the word-building even more than Paperback did, so it might not be satisfying for fans of word-building.
Honestly, in that case I’d probably still look to Scrabble, Boggle, and Bananagrams, which, despite their flaws, are my Big Three of word games. If word-building really is your jam, any of those would be a more satisfying choice than Paperback. Because so many people enjoy Paperback despite the word-building, I don’t think hard-core word-builders will really love this one.
I was excited for Paperback, and though I enjoyed my first few plays, it let me down – I’m hoping Hardback is good, as I’m still interested in the concept of ‘Dominion with words.’ But in the end, Paperback just wasn’t solid enough to land on my game shelf permanently. If you’re looking for a lightweight deckbuilder, you might enjoy Paperback, but overall I found both my deck-building and word-building itches to be better scratched with other games.