“The lazeroids crashed against the cliff as we hastily made our ascent with on graviboot-shod feet. As we were almost halfway up the vertical expanse, I heard a faint beeping emanate from the powerdiscs strapped around my waist…”
I’m a terrible writer. Yet here I am writing my thoughts on a game about writing. Fortunately, it’s just a word game and doesn’t actually require writing skill. Knowing a lot of words? That’s way easier.
I find it strange that a lot of board game enthusiasts do not like word games. I guess some feel that requiring outside information, be it knowledge of trivia or a wider vocabulary, would sully the strategic purity of a board game. I have no such issues. I love trivia, and I love all sorts of word games. I’m a fucking smart ass that likes to put his knowledge, no matter how trivial or actually factual, on show. I admit there’s some racial/cultural element to it as well, since there’s a strong desire to “prove myself” as an English-speaking upper-middle class Chinese Malaysian against perceived stereotypes. All this was before living in a predominantly English-speaking country, which just goes to show how much influence anglocentric culture has. The whole thing has left me with a strange relationship with my Chinese heritage and is probably not something you want to read more about in a review of a word-based card game. Or is it a card-based word game? Whoa. What did I just write?
Back to Paperback (hey look, it’s the name of the game I’m supposed to be talking about).
“This is what I had been waiting for all this time. The soft fur on the back of his hand brushed gently against my arm as my heart pounded wildly as if straining to be freed of the confines of my weak flesh-cage. I could feel the dew forming on my well-trimmed moustache as millions of words welled up and died on my lips…”
Simply put, Paperback is a word game that uses the deckbuilding mechanic to restrict your solution space. Or, Paperback is a deckbuilding game that uses your vocabulary to determine your strategic options. I feel like the latter description suits my experience better, but I’ll leave the first one in since I like wanky phrases like “solution space”.
The game consists of various cards that represent letters that you will be using to construct words each turn. You start with the letters R, S, T, L, N and 5 wild cards, and every turn you must play your cards down to form a word with the wilds able to be used as any letter. You get currency depending on the letters that you’ve used in the word, which can then be used to buy other letters that get added to your deck of cards. Some of the letter cards also come with special effects, such as providing more currency if used at the start or end of words.
The gameplay will seem very familiar to those who’ve played other deckbuilding games. However it does have a few twists aside from having you make words every turn. There is a common letter that every player can use, and if you build a word of a certain length you can claim the common letter which is worth points at the end of the game. A new common letter is then revealed and the minimum word length that must be met to claim the new common letter will increase.
The common letter acts as one of the game timers, as the game ends once a set number of common letters are claimed. I like this system, as it provides a clear goal from the start of the game to make long words. It ties into the natural inclination to equate more with better, so it rewards players for doing something they would be drawn to anyway. It also builds itself into an arc, with longer words required as the game goes on which requires better investment and planning by the players to achieve those lengths.
Another thing that I like about the design is the implementation of the victory point system. Like Dominion, Paperback has specific victory point cards. The normal letter cards provide currency and special effects but no victory points. Unlike Dominion, the victory point cards in Paperback are not inherently useless but function as wild cards. All wild cards in the game can be used as any letter, but do not provide any currency. Thus the wild cards make it much easier to form words every turn, but reduce your ability to buy more expensive cards. It provides a nice amount of tension while also allowing the game to run smoother, which I think is a great achievement for such a simple-looking design solution. The wild cards are also used as another game timer, as depleting two piles of wild cards will end the game. On top of all that, I like that the victory point/wild cards represent really cheesy pulp fiction novels with ridiculous titles and covers. It’s a very nice touch that highlights the theme of the game.
“Harriet lit a cigarette and proceeded to wipe the blade of her dagger on the would-be-assailant’s jacket as Wei Jin surveyed the messy back alley for other potential threats. Saverin was visibly trembling as she checked on the contents of the briefcase. It wasn’t going to be an easy assignment after all…”
The game also comes with some optional variants, such as a word bounty system and a themed word bonus. I haven’t actually investigated the theme variant, but it looks like you’ll be able to gain bonus points for making words that match a chose theme, like Western or Horror. The way the bounty system works is that you can offer a bounty for helping you craft a word on your turn, which can then be used as currency by the player who gets it. The bounty system looks like one that would be helpful for younger players or those that are prone to Analysis Paralysis, but I have yet to play with it.
I like Paperback quite a bit. The system works quite smoothly, and I enjoy the challenge of mixing the type of planning and strategy in a deckbuilding game with the tactical challenge of forming the most valuable word you can each turn. I also like that the value of each card is quite tricky to evaluate as you have to balance the effect, currency provided, and flexibility of use based on your vocabulary.
However, I also have some reservations about the game. There’s a fair amount of randomness in what cards are available for purchase and also in your draws, which can lead to some frustration. Also, I’ve encountered some slow down toward the end of the game as the cheaper letters run out but long/valuable words still couldn’t be made very consistently to end the game. This was most pronounced in a recent 5 player game where there was a single 8-cost wild left, but we spent many rounds making words worth 7. It may be specific to the 5 player game and the distribution of the card effects, but it felt like it could have been avoided with either more cheap cards that provide relevant bonuses or making the wilds cost one less.
The other concern I have is with the replayability of the game. Right now it looks like there are two main strategies which are to focus on making long words to claim the common letters and to focus on valuable words to buy more victory point wild cards. Both strategies also feed into each other as you will start to want more wild cards to improve your chances of making the long words, and long words are usually worth more anyway which will help in buying victory point cards. I have some concerns about how same-y the game will feel after more plays, and I hope that the theme variant will help with that.
“…and as they put the lid back on the box and reflected on their grand adventure, they knew no one would believe them. It didn’t matter. What mattered were job security, social acceptance and fixed rate mortgages.”
Overall, I still like Paperback. I may have some concerns, but it’s far from a broken game and I may come around on some of my balance/length quibbles after some more plays. It provides a pretty unique experience with its blend of deckbuilding and word building. I’d recommend checking it out and I think it could also act as a bridge for non-enthusiasts to experience some modern board game mechanics since the word game aspect is quite accessible. I give it 3.5 out of 5 arbitrary nouns.