- Number of Plays: 6
- Game Length: ~60 minutes (per book)
- Mechanics: Deck building, word building
- Designer: Tim Fowers and Skye Larsen
- Artist: Ryan Goldsberry
- Logo Design: Andrew Beck
Introduction – I am not a Solo Gamer by Choice
I’ve said before that I am not a solo gamer. Playing board games by myself was something I did as a wee lad living in a small village in northern Manitoba where there was no one around who wanted to play games with me. Since then, I have grown up, moved to a place where there is more than one street, and vetted a pretty fantastic friend group with whom I regularly play board games. Needless to say, I’ve never felt the need or draw to explore the world of single player board games.
Cue the pandemic. The world shut down, and so did in-person gaming. Although my group quickly adopted Tabletop Simulator so we did not have to survive the pandemic without ANY board games, it just hasn’t been the same. I’ve missed the tactile experience of moving meeples, placing game tiles, and holding a hand of cards. To fill this aching need in my soul, I decided to explore the solo modes in the games that I already own, and to my amazement, I kind of liked some of them.
After I wrote about Paperback and posted it on my Twitter, designer Tim Fowers reached out to me and offered to give me a preview of his latest game, a fully solo experience called Paperback Adventures. I leapt at the chance.
I’ve already written about Paperback at length, and if you know how the word building in that game works, you’re already halfway through learning how to play Paperback Adventures. The other half of the rule load comes from understanding how manage the AI enemy and the round structure, but I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
In Paperback Adventures you begin by choosing one of two asymmetric characters; the rogue Damsel, or the robot, Ex Machina. Each character has their own starting deck of 10 cards, plus a deck of 50 cards, some of which that may make their way into your deck over the course of the game. Each character has 3 sets of 2 core items. These items change how you interact with the ‘boons’ that you accumulate on yourself, and the ‘hexes’ you’ll inflict on your opponent. Each set of these core items will drastically change how to approach each combat and any future upgrades you may get. In addition, each character starts with 2 items unique to them that offers even more options during a combat, and one wild letter card that is essential when it comes to making words.
Once you have your deck and all your items, it’s time to embark on your adventure. Paperback Adventures is broken up into 3 books. Each book features 2 regular enemies and 1 boss that must be overcome. Each enemy you face will provide you with a vowel card that can be used in each of your words. On each of your turns, you’ll draw 4 cards and decide what word you want to make out of the letters the deck has decided to give you, including the wild card and the vowel the enemy is providing if you wish. Each of your letter cards has symbols along the left and right edges, these symbols provide attack, blocks, and mana (which is needed to use your items). In addition to all that, every card has an ability that can be triggered if the letter is the top card of the word.
Top card of the word? What does that even mean? Well, when you decide on what word you want to play, you also need to decide if you’re going to ‘splay’ your cards left or right (splaying is laying your letter cards in a line, showing only the left or right half of each card). Once you’ve splayed, the one card that doesn’t have anything covering it will trigger it’s ability. Then, you’ll count up all the symbols on the left or right sides of your letters, apply any hits you’ve accumulated, then perform the enemy’s action which varies depending on the enemy you’re facing. Assuming that neither of you have died after trading blows, your top letter card (the card which power you activated) moves into a ‘fatigue’ pile, and the rest of your cards go into the discard (except for your wild and the vowel provided by the enemy, those are available to you every turn). You advance the enemy action marker (so you don’t lose track of what they’ll do on the next round), then draw a new hand of 4 cards. As per expected deck building rules, if you need to draw a card, but can’t, shuffle your discard and keep going.
Once you knock the enemy’s health down to 0, they become stunned for the rest of that turn. You flip over their card, reset their health to it’s new value, and prepare for the second half of the battle. The enemy will now have different or stronger abilities for the rest of the combat. Assuming you’re able to overcome the challenge presented by the enemies second side, you’ll be rewarded with riches beyond your imagination. Just kidding, but you do get some rewards for surviving each encounter.
After each encounter you’ll draw a card from a basic rewards deck that will offer some bonuses. Perhaps you’ll be offered new letter cards from your character’s deck that you can use to replace existing ones in your deck (hopefully stumbling upon a wonderful synergy that you’ll be able to exploit to crush the upcoming enemies). You may upgrade cards that are already in your deck (more on this in a minute), obtain new items, find macguffins that offer you special abilities, and perhaps take some penalty cards that feature hard to play letters, no attack or block symbols, and often some drawback for not playing them in a word on the turn that you draw it.
After you’ve reaped the fruits of your combat, you set up the next enemy, steel yourself for the challenges ahead, and press on.
Review – How this game made me feel
I have not had a run where I’ve beaten all 3 books in a row yet. Only once I got as far as the boss in Book 2’s. Too many penalty cards and inopportune card draws sank my character. Paperback Adventures is a “roguelike” game; you always start from the same static and weak position. As you play the game, you gain random benefits and just might come across an incredible combo that breaks the game apart, while on your very next play of the game you’ll find yourself begging for mercy in the first encounter due to some terribly unlucky circumstances. The randomness is what makes a game like this so addicting. When you finally do win, you feel vindicated; powerful; unstoppable.
Paperback Adventures utilizes randomness in a satisfying way. By placing you into a situation with your hand of cards and perfect knowledge of what your enemy is going to do, it’s entirely up to you to decide how you want to tackle the challenge. You’ll weigh the costs and benefits of attacking vs blocking, and decide if you’re willing to take the 3 damage now in exchange for a big hit on the enemy, or if you should just bide your time, hoping your next hand will bring you the cards you need to bring home the victory.
It’s important to note that you can’t stay defensive forever, or even for very long. Because you have to fatigue a card out of your deck every turn, every encounter is on a timer. After half a dozen turns your deck is down to just 4 cards, which means you’re drawing your entire deck for your hand! The knowledge that each turn from that moment on will be drastically weaker propels you forward, encouraging haste as you to take a hit on the chin to frantically lunge for the kill before your deck becomes too weak.
I found the AI opponent and game system as a whole very easy to maintain. The round to round upkeep was quick, simple, and got me back to making interesting decisions quickly, rather than bogging me down with upkeep and game maintenance. The decisions that went into this design were obviously careful and deliberate. Tim Fowers has crafted an experience that is satisfying and sticks in my head like a catchy tune so I’m musing about it during the moments where I’m not playing this game.
A really neat feature that Fowers used for this design is the use of card sleeves to facilitate upgrades to the cards. Each card in your deck comes sleeved. When one of the letters in your deck gets upgraded, you take the card out of your deck and flip it around, showing off the upgraded abilities on the back, and place it back in its sleeve. Each card has a note on the bottom of the card telling you what the upgraded ability will be, so you don’t need to pull all the cards out of their sleeves to decide which one you’ll want to use. I have only played this game on Tabletop Simulator, so I cannot attest to the physical quality of the experience, but I do applaud Fowers for his creative genius when it comes to innovative design.
I really like Paperback Adventures. Were I younger, I’d say I “like like” Paperback Adventures. It’s the kind of game that lived rent free in my mind for days following my first couple plays, which is always a good sign. It’s challenging, entertaining, and it utilizes a theme that I truly enjoy. Having said all of that, I admit that I am biased. I love deck builders, I love word games, and I really enjoy Tim Fowers’ designs. For people who share my tastes, this is an excellent design.
All in all, I really enjoyed my plays of Paperback Adventures. Playing through the entire 3 book campaign in one sitting may be a tall order, as each book takes between 60 and 90 minutes. It’s easy to ‘save’ your progress after a combat and jump back in when you have more time. I’m absolutely looking forward to getting my hands on a physical copy and really diving into the adventure, probably dragging my friends into it with me, playing cooperatively. When I tell my friends about this game, I don’t say “It’s pretty good for a solo game”, as if it’s simply understood that solo games are somehow inherently inferior. I tell them that Paperback Adventures is an excellent game.