Paperback (2014)


You can find our accessibility teardown here.

Note:  The score here reflects my impression of the game.  I think other people would easily, and fairly, rate it higher.  

I’m not sure I’ve ever opened a box with a larger sense of glee than I did with Paperback.

Paperback box

Isn’t that a lovely box?

Look, I have a confession to make.  There is virtually no chance any game will get five stars on this blog.  Partially this is a kind of recognition of the philosophy behind the ‘imperfect stitch’.  Five stars, for me, means ‘virtually flawless’.  Perhaps not a game without any blemishes, but one where if I want to complain then I have to work very hard to find reasons to do so.  Complaining is generally easy to do.  That’s why I like it.

There is one game that mentally I rate as five stars.  It’s Scrabble.  Seriously.

Scrabble is, for me, an almost perfect game.  It’s incredibly deep, and while there is randomness in the tiles you draw it doesn’t actually matter all that much.  Scrabble isn’t a word game.  It’s an area control game.   It’s not about maximizing your score, it’s about maximizing the differential between you and your opponent.   It’s not about making the longest words you can, it’s about finding the maximum leverage between word-length and board domination.  It’s as much about burning your opponent’s opportunities as it is about making use of your own.   Scrabble, if played with the same aggressive mindset with which I approach it, is a war game.

Yeah.  People don’t play Scrabble with me much.

I would review Scrabble for Meeple Like Us, but you don’t need a review to tell you whether Scrabble is a game you’re going to like.  That would be futile.  It’s the same reason I haven’t disemboweled Monopoly and hung its glistening entrails from the city walls as a warning to others.  Well, any more than I did in passing during our review of Under the Boardwalk.

Then I heard about Paperback.  A word-game deck-builder?  Take all of my money right now.  Is that enough money?  I’ll go get more.  I’ll go find some small children to rob if I need to.  It made me abandon my monthly spending hiatus.  That’s not actually that big deal I guess.  Like referendums, my monthly hiatus is NOT LEGALLY BINDING and MERELY ADVISORY.  Sorry, I don’t know why I capitalised those words.

Seriously, this is a game that seems as if someone reached directly into my dreams and pulled out my deepest game related fantasy.  Well, not the deepest one.  I’m not going to disclose the deepest one here, where it might be used against me in court someday.  And if I ever meet Summer Glau, I want to be able to look her in the eye without guiltily wondering if she’s read this blog.

So, five star game right?

Well, we’ll get to that.

Paperback begins with each player receiving a starting deck of ten cards – five ‘fame’ cards, which work as wilds, and five common, unassuming letters of the kind you probably have in your own house.

Your starting deck

This is a handful of promise

You shuffle your starting deck, and deal yourself five cards from it.  This is your hand, and you use these cards to try and make words.  But it’s not quite that simple, because everyone playing (which may be as many as five people at a time) also has access to a shared common card:

Common cards

Common. Like your mum.

That common card remains in play until someone plays a word that’s made up of seven letters.  At that point, they win the common card, make it part of their deck, and the next one is revealed:

A common card in play

Sorry, I shouldn’t have said that about your mum. I don’t even know her. I bet she’s great.

There are four of these in the stack at the start of the game, drawn from a small shuffled deck.  The second one needs an eight letter word, the third needs a nine letter word, and the last one requires a ten letter word.  When the last common card is claimed, the game is over.  Until the top card is claimed though, it’s a card that everyone has available for use in creating their words.  It’s very handy, but also a problem if you build your strategy too much around a useful letter – by the time your turn comes around again, it might well be gone.

Like Scrabble, it’s not necessarily the length of the word that wins you the game – it’s how cleverly you play your letters.  See, you begin with a starter deck but as time goes by you’ll be buying new cards from the ‘Offer’:

The offer

Offering themselves up for money. Just like your mu…

The offer is made up of a stack of each different value of card.  For every stack except the 2c stack, you are given a choice between the card on top of the deck, or an alternative which is dealt from it.  When you buy from the 2c stack, you can only get the one from the top.

Each of your cards has a money value written in the top left, and if you play a word containing that card you accumulate cash.  You can use that cash to purchase new cards, which increase in value and power in line with the money they cost.   You play the letter to earn money, just like in real life.  I’m really looking forward to the point where I earn enough money from this blog to be able to use the letter ???ERR REDO FROM START.

Not only do the higher-end letters earn you more money for using them (again, just like in real life) they often come with special powers that trigger when you play them.  And here’s another reason that I should love Paperback – it’s the mechanic I loved to bits in the fantastic Bookworm Adventures video game!  Oh, you haven’t played it?  You disgust me.  Go play it now.  Go play it again.  Keep playing it until your fingers fall off.

Back?  Wasn’t it great?  I know, right!

So, Paperback has letters with powers – some increase the value of your words, others initiate ‘attacks’ on your opponent.  Play a particular letter, and maybe your opponents are only able to draw four cards in their next hand rather than five.  Or maybe all their letters are worth one cent less.  Or maybe they’re not allowed to use wildcards.  All that good stuff.

Sometimes the cards give you buffs – maybe playing a particular letter means you draw an extra two cards in your next hand, or get bonuses based on the number of wild-cards you play.  All that good stuff.

You can see why I was excited, right?

So, once you’ve played your hand you discard all of the cards in it and draw five fresh, new cards.  When you’ve run out of cards to draw, you reshuffle your discard pile and draw from the new deck that you just created in the process.  Very Star Realms.  Very Dominion.  Very good, very good!

But how do you win?  Well, you win by acquiring fame, and fame cards are also wild-cards.  Some cards have a little star in the bottom right corner – that indicates their fame value.  At the end of the game, each player will tot up how many stars they acquired and the one with the most stars wins.  Again, just like Dominion and its estates and duchies.  Oh god, we haven’t reviewed Dominion have we?  We’ll get to it.  In the meantime read What’s Eric Playing’s excellent review.

(Ed – actually, we have now reviewed Dominion. You’ll find the review here, and its accessibility teardown here)

There are some cheapo fame cards you get in the 2c deck, or you can lift your eyes to brighter horizons and buy one of the more expensive fame cards that are available in every game.

Fame cards

I think I’d read all of these books.

Don’t they look great?  Paige Turner (that is, somehow, all of the players at the same time) is the author of these delightfully campy novels.  And of more!  Because each value of fame card has an alternate front design:

More fame cards

And all of these too.

The number of fame cards available to buy here is limited by the number of players.  In a two player game, you get four of the 5c and 8c cards, two of the 11c cards, and one 17c card.  When any two piles of cards are depleted, the game is over.  So that’s two end conditions you’ve got to watch out for.

But there’s more!

There are also THEME cards, which swap ownership depending on the last person to play a word that matches the general area of the theme.  Only one of them is dealt out at the start, and at the end the player holding the theme card gets an extra five fame points.

Themes

Going to use these to write my next novel

If the theme is ‘pirate’ and I play ‘cutlass’ I can claim (with agreement from the rest of the players) the card.  They in turn might play ‘galleon’ and claim it back.  It’s very nice!

But there’s more!  There is also a randomly selected ‘award’ that goes to the player that meets the criteria at the end of the game.  You’re not just playing words but you’re also carefully curating your deck to nudge yourself into eligibility for the bonus.

Award cards

I did write a novel once. It is so bad that it has an attached fatality rate.

BUT THERE’S MORE!

You also get a special power at the start of the game, to introduce a little asymmetry into play.   The power you get is random, but it lets you influence your turn in subtle, and powerful ways.  Seriously, this game has everything.  I couldn’t have wished for a game with a better combination of things that make me excited.  Excepting of course the aforementioned Summer Glau.

Play progresses in turns, in the usual fashion.  You make a word, you work out word length, you score the word, you spend your earnings, you discard the hand, and you draw a new one.    Play a couple of rounds and you’ll never need to refer to the manual again.

A dealt hand

Is Srlt a word?

With a draw of cards, you try to work out the best word you can make with the tools you’re given – which is to say, the letters in front of you and the common card that’s available (currently an E).   You might decide, from the hand above, to play STEAL.

If the crime theme was in effect, you could say ‘Oh, and I’ll be taking that theme card now, thanks very much’ and there’s not a damn thing (other than voting against you) anyone else at the table can do.   There’s no A in the hand, but you can play a wildcard to assume the role of any letter – you don’t get any money for wild cards, but it’s handy.   The total value of the word STEAL is 4c, and so you get to pick a card to buy – either a 4c card, or any combination of cards that sum up to 4c or less.

Buying a card

The penis mightier

Now, rightly at this point you might be thinking ‘How the hell do you make a seven letter word with a maximum of six letters’?   After all, big words are how you claim the common cards.  Well, that’s where some of the special cards come in.  Some cards have two letter combinations on them, and others increase the number of cards you can draw into your hand:

A large draw of cards

I’m going to play… id.

Powers like this are active for only the next hand, and only count if you can actually play the card into a word in the previous round.  It’s all so good.  Making use of the cards above, you might show off your Scrabble chops by playing RENDINGS, which gives you an eight letter word and wins you the common card:

A second common card

I liked it better when we were all doing E together.

And that in turn reveals the next one, which is going to be a fair bit trickier for people to use.  You’ll need a minimum of eight letters to claim that one, and in the meantime you’re going to have to get used to not having an easy vowel for every word.  I hope you bought some vowels!  You didn’t? Well, good luck trying to get anyone to accept TSNTTRT as a valid word.  Or I guess you can use one of the many wildcards you have in your hand.  It just feels like that’s cheating, you know?

It continues like this until two piles of fame cards are gone, or someone plays an eye-wateringly clever ten letter word and lifts the last common card.  It’s a perfectly designed little jewel of a game.I  It pains me to say that while I do like it, I don’t like it nearly as much as I should given everything discussed above.

So, first of all – the deck building system is lovely.  It really is – it’s a proven model.  It works for Dominion, it works for Star Realms, it works for approximately eleventy billion excellent games.  So why doesn’t it work here?  Or probably more accurately, why doesn’t it work for me?

One of the things I love about Scrabble is that it constrains your creativity very tightly – letters need to be careful hoarded until they will achieve the greatest good.  If you have a G and an N, and you know there are still three or four Is in the bag you’d be an idiot to play GUN.   If you get the I, you’ve got ING.  If you’ve ING, you’ve got a very good chance that you can play a seven letter word.   If you can play a seven letter word using all your tiles, you get fifty bonus points!   Playing Z in the right place might win you 62 points.  I’ve been there and I’ve done that.  It is like having a gushy public wordgasm.   However, if you still have that Z by the end of the game you’ll be penalised dearly for it, and awkward letters become increasingly difficult to place as time goes on.  You don’t want to waste the letters, but you don’t want to squander them either.  It’s push your luck in the purest sense and it rewards you well for mastering probability management.

You don’t get any of that in Paperback.  You can freely ignore beautiful letters, because they’re going to continually bounce back into your hand.  Not only are they coming back, but given the supply of wild-cards you’re going to find yourself making the same words over and over again.  It encourages an economy of thought, which is okay if Scrabble itself is too tiring to play, but it disincentivises cleverness.  You don’t have to weigh up the value of each letter.  You can treat them as renewable commodities.

The Offer is great too, except it’s not.  Being able to buy optimal cards for your deck is the key element of a deck builder, and yet it is the exact opposite of what a word game needs.  Creativity within constraints requires constraints.  You don’t get that creativity if the constraints are going to become less constraining over time.   Sure, the nature of a deck builder means that you can’t guarantee the right conjunction of cards at any one time.  Given the number of wilds though, and the availability of cards that can dramatically increase your hand limit, most turns offer an embarrassment of riches.

And then there are the wilds.  Paperback makes, I think, a fundamental error here in allowing fame cards to act as wild-cards.  One of Dominion’s cleverest features is the way in which buying victory points will crud up your hand.  They are vital to winning, but they are like lead weights robbing you of crucial momentum.   When you choose to buy them has real strategic depth.  When you begin buying them it’s like firing a starter pistol just as your legs turn to jelly.   But there’s nothing of that in Paperback, because the fame cards just remove restrictions to play.  You don’t get any money for playing them, but after a while you don’t actually need money.  With enough wild-cards and large enough hand limits, the game becomes an exercise in ‘who can think of the largest word’.

A hand full of wilds

Uh, can I get a do-over?

That’s a hand you might get from your starter deck.  I know that, because it’s the hand I dealt out directly from a starter deck.  And that’s okay, I suppose.  But it’s not what I want from a game like this.    You’ll only get 2c for a six letter word, but seven letters wins you the first common card.  You likely won’t win by completely doubling down on fame cards, but you’ll come very close.

The theme cards are nice, but ultimately unsatisfying.  It’s not a great system to swap ownership purely based on thematic compatibility of words played.  The eventual transfer of ownership is based on a vote, so it’s possible to house-rule a more satisfying variant – the rules in the box though are how we review the game.  I would have liked to have seen something like each subsequent claiming of the card requiring a better, or longer, word to be played.  It seems unfair to play DETECTIVE to claim the card, and lose it to someone playing GUN.   There also aren’t a lot of theme cards, or power cards, or awards.  What asymmetry has been introduced by these cards is weakened through a lack of meaningful variety.  I don’t know if there are expansions planned for Paperback, but that at least is a content-linked weakness that I can see going away over time.

It’s important to note that none of this means it’s a bad game.  It’s just not the game I wanted.  I play scorched earth Scrabble – there’s nothing collegiate about it.  If I can’t have that 3x word square, you sure as hell aren’t getting it.  I will burn the board to the ground before I let someone have the room to easily play a seven letter word.  Paperback is in many ways the complete opposite to that – it genuinely is a friendly, more easy-going game.   It’s not as taxing as a game of Scrabble, is far more forgiving of vocabulary limitations, and has a genuinely clever approach to deck-building and hand play.   Despite the austerity of the cards themselves, the fame cards are beautiful and thoroughly evocative.

While I had fun playing it, it’s not a game that I’ll be likely to suggest for game night all that often.  It puts me in the weird position of saying that it’s a game I could easily see myself recommending to other people even though for my own purposes I think I’ll probably stick to playing Scrabble.  By myself.  Nose pressed up against the window as I look in on happy groups of friends enjoying themselves over a few hands of Paperback.

Seriously though Tim Fowers – if you want to make Scorched Earth Paperback, I will shave my head and devote my life to whatever cult you form in your name.


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