• Number of Plays: 21
  • Game Length: 45 – 60 minutes
  • Mechanics: Deck building, word building
  • Release Year: 2014
  • Designer: Tim Fowers
  • Artist: Ryan Goldsberry

Before I Talk About the Board Game

When asked about my hobbies, one of the first activities that I choose as the activity to define myself is that I’m an avid reader. This is why in my home my bookshelves have 9 compartments dedicated to books and only 3 to board games. I’ve always been a voracious reader, going back to my elementary school days. I would get irrationally excited when the Scholastic Book Club pamphlets would come out and I would excitedly circle all the books that I wanted (Come to think of it, it would have been less work to cross off the books I didn’t want). Unfortunately I grew up in a very small town in northern Manitoba, which meant that the newest books in the libraries were on average a decade old. I was also the child of a single mother who was raising three kids and did not have a lot of room in the household budget for brand new books.

Regardless, I spent the vast majority of my free time in the school library, reading through most of the fiction section. It’s there that I got to experience some fantastic stories that I would have otherwise passed on. I will never forget pulling a unassuming brown covered book off the shelf, and reading Lamb by Christopher Moore for the first time, not knowing what a wild ride I was in for.

I was incredibly lucky to have some great teachers who invested in my love of reading. My IT teacher introduced me to Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels with Guards Guards!, and I now have an entire shelf dedicated to Pratchett. Another teacher introduced me to his personal Dragonlance Chronicles collection, thereby ensuring I would never get a date throughout my high school career.

When it comes to my board game preferences, I absolutely have a proclivity toward deck building games. There’s something about the mechanic of building a deck of cards over the course of a game that just makes me smile. I love starting with a small pool of cards and adding cards one at a time, while culling cards that don’t fit my vision, until the result is a deck that’s finely tuned, completely unrecognizable from the deck I started out with, and ready to destroy my opponents.

Paperback marries my two loves, and also tickles the fancy of the woman I married. A deck builder with a book theme, every card in your deck is a letter and to get points and currency, you need to use your letters to make words which allows you to buy more powerful letters to make bigger words! The catch is that in order to gain victory points, you need to buy wild cards that award you no currency. You must balance buying cards that make your deck more powerful and cards that will win you the game.

I recall Paperback being pitched to me as a “Scrabble, but deck building,” which sparked my curiosity and intrigue just right. You see, when my wife and I first started dating, we were long distance. We would spend hours on Skype playing Scrabble online, and listening to a playlist that we created together. Scrabble became a pretty integral part of our relationship early on, so hearing about a game promising to mix that with the deck builder genre using a theme about writing books made me wonder… Was Paperback designed directly for me?

How Paperback Plays

Paperback plays like most other deckbuilding games. You begin the game with a deck of 10 cards and draw 5 cards per turn. Over time you’ll buy cards to put into your discard, and if you ever need to draw cards but your deck is empty, just shuffle the discard to form your new deck.

Each card has a letter, a special ability, and a value, letting you know how many ‘cents’ you’ll earn if you include that letter in your word. Each turn you can play the cards from your hand to form a word. You don’t have to use all the cards in your hand, but any that go unused will end up in the discard pile. Once your word is formed (assuming no one calls you out for trying to pass off Realy as a proper word), you add up the cents earned from each letter, then purchase cards from the card row to add to your discard. All the cards from your word and your hand go into your discard pile, and you draw a new hand for the following turn.

The letters you can buy from the card row increase in cost as well as in value. You’ll soon find yourself buying an M that gives you 3 cents when you play it, or an R that lets you draw extra cards next turn, or an S that gives you extra cents when it’s the last card in the word. Very quickly you’ll find yourself within reach of the the 7, 8, and 9 cent cards that were impossible to obtain when the game first began.

The other type of card that you can purchase is wild cards. These cards do not give you any cents when they’re a part of your word, but being wild, they’re very useful to have in your hand, offering necessary flexibility. While these cards don’t offer much value during the game, every wild card is worth victory points at the end of the game. Each game has a turning point; usually around 75% of the way through a game your deck has enough really good cards that you don’t feel the need to add any more letter cards, and you can start focusing on those wild cards. In our experience, once one person starts buying wilds, everyone should follow along quickly, or they’ll find themselves with a deck full of letters, but no victory points to contest for the title of best novel writer.

The stacks of wild cards also function as the endgame trigger; once two of the four piles of wild cards are claimed, the game ends. At that point you break your deck apart, count all the victory points you have earned on each of your wild cards, and the player with the highest score is the winner.

Compared to Scrabble

I’ve played a lot of Scrabble, and talked about Scrabble to a lot of people who are into hobby board games. The most common complaints I hear are that turns take too long as people hold their head in their hands trying to find a really good word and a valid spot to place their word once they’ve finally identified it. The other major complaint I hear frequently (out of my own mouth because my wife is the worst for this) is that as you get better and better at Scrabble, the game becomes less and less about playing great words, and more about playing small words that score well while controlling your opponent’s access to the double and triple word score spots. Scrabble devolves from a word game into a game almost entirely about area control and getting a mix of letters that can go in many high scoring places.

Seriously, look at this shit.

Paperback does a excellent job of sidestepping the complaints that plague Scrabble. By removing the need to chain off other words on a board, each player needs only to focus on the letters in their hand. It’s often much easier to see a word that uses all, or at least most of your cards and that’s the best word you can possibly make. The flipside to this is you are now at the mercy of your deck. If you draw a bad hand of cards (such as Q, K, J, X, C and no wilds), you’ll just have to discard your hand and wait for your next turn. You can’t even play a tiny word for one or two cents because any unspent currency is lost at the end of your turn.

Conclusion

Paperback doesn’t try to improve upon the deck building genre, nor does it need to. If you’ve played Dominion then Paperback‘s economy and mechanic of points cards clogging up your deck will immediately feel familiar. By taking the tried and true formula of deck building and applying a word-building theme, designer Tim Fowers has created an approachable gateway for fans of word games everywhere.

Paperback is a game that my wife and I have played a lot. We have played the physical game at least 19 times together, and when the Android app was released we instantly bought it and spent many a night playing against each other while lying in bed before going to sleep. We’d have games going during our work days, each of us stealing a few minutes here and there to play a turn. It is a super fun game, and it takes a long time before repeatedly playing it gets old.

I have a type. It’s Tim Fowers

Honestly, once the app came out, the tabletop version really stopped hitting the table. The setup for the game is a bit much, even with the well divided box. Eight separate piles that form the store, plus 4 more piles for the victory point cards, everyone gets a starter deck and common cards need to be arranged; it’s not difficult to set up, but it is absolutely easier to just press a button on the phone and start playing. It is also handy that the app will dictate which words can and cannot be used. The app does lack the attack cards that inject a bit of player interaction into the game, but my wife and I often choose not to play those cards. For us, the joy comes from building each other up and trying to see who can stand tallest, not who is better at knocking the other to their knees.

Since the app came to our phones, Paperback has physically hit the table 3 times. I have felt slightly burned out on it because we have played it so frequently, but I still get a sense of glee when I open the box and hand each player a deck of fairly well-worn cards. I hadn’t actually noticed how worn my cards had become until I received the Paperback Unabridged expansion along with my Kickstarter copy of Hardback. Once the expansion content was slotted into the original Paperback box, I was taken aback by how pristine the new cards looked and how tattered by comparison my old cards were. Personally, I believe well-loved cards are a sign of a great game.

Can you tell which cards were added later?

For me, Paperback is my favourite word game, narrowly edging out it’s pre-quill, Hardback. I love the deck building and the trade-off of buying wild cards that clog up the deck but provide the points you need to win the game. I’ve introduced Paperback to a lot of people, and it’s never failed to impress. So many people have played Scrabble that a word game is almost second nature, and the twist of deck building always excites, especially if it’s a mechanic that they haven’t seen before. Because it has such an appeal for people who aren’t into designer board games, it’s the perfect game to use to introduce your bibliophile friends to this wonderful hobby.

Why does my name have so many E’s?