While there are many word games on the market, and more and more deck builders appearing with each passing year, it’s a surprise that the two genres have been combined so infrequently. In fact, as far as I’m aware, there’s only one game that has done so – or at least has managed to bring the two together successfully. I’m talking, of course, about Paperback, designed by Tim Fowers and published through his own imprint, Fowers Games. For someone whose word games collection numbered precisely one title before a copy landed on my table (Scrabble, naturally), I’m delighted to see something new that has challenged by little grey cells.
Where most word games rely on you simply spelling our words and scoring points from what you create, Paperback takes a very different turn. Sure, players all begin with the same small deck of cards, each of which represent some of the more regularly used letters in the alphabet, and the premise is still to spell out words with the cards you draw from your personal pile each turn, but the focus is on expanding your options by making money.
Paperback‘s conceit is that players are writers, desperately hammering away at their keyboards as they bid to make the next great novel. As your turn comes around, you draw from your card pile and see what the letters you have before you can make. After playing it down before you and saying the word out loud, you total up the amount of money it has earned for you, which is worked out using the numbers shown on each card in cents – we never said that a career as a writer was going to rake in a fortune…
That amount of money can then be used to purchase cards from piles that are found in the middle of the table, ranging in price from two cents to ten. On buying a card, it is immediately added to your discard pile and will soon cycle into your hand as the game progresses. The more exotic a letter – rarely used is a better description, I suppose – the more expensive it generally is to pick up from the central tableau. Each price level has a couple of options available to the budding creator, and even with a limited budget you’ll still be able to purchase something, assuming you’ve been able to make a legitimate word.
Some cards show a pair of letters rather than a single one, while others allow you to manipulate the rules a little on your next turn – drawing extra cards or using any one as a blank are particularly valuable. Most cards also have a small points value, and with the final aim of Paperback being to score the highest total, you’ll be looking to add the most useful and valuable cards to your deck in equal measure. It’s an interesting balancing act that keeps the game fresh and interesting.
Two other card types are also available – completed novels are the most coveted, and while they’re expensive, they will not only pull in big points, they’re also usable as wild letters. Sure, they may not be very valuable when purchasing new letters, but you’ll be glad of them when you need something, anything, to make something better than CAT or BOW. The other type act as objectives, allowing for the use of a space in what you play, or permanently bestowing another special ability upon you. While most people who are new to the game will concentrate mainly on just making words from their hands, experienced writers know that the game can turn on capturing these very powerful cards. Learn that lesson early!
Of course, any good word game lives and dies by the people who are playing it. The players’ vocabulary determines the level of skill in Paperback, so if you have one person who has a particularly expansive lexicon available to them, there is a good chance that they could run away with the victory. Playing with a reasonably equal group is where the game shines, but don’t shy away from trying the game out if you haven’t swallowed a copy of Webster’s Dictionary recently. It’s still a very fun experience where thinking fast is vital if you’re to maximise your hands of cards.
Production wise, the game is great. The letter cards are simple but clear, and the various books written by Paperback‘s mascot (Paige Turner – yes, it’s a rotten pun!) are beautifully illustrated by Ryan Goldsberry. The whole thing comes in a sturdy box that, admittedly, has a fair bit of air inside, but the game is so charming it deserves to take up that little extra shelf space. Word games aren’t beloved by many hardcore gamers – if anything, they’re a niche product in an already limited market – but Paperback shows how the genre can be woven into something fresh, different, and above all, fun. Fans of more mainstream titles may find the idea of deck building a little hard to get their head around initially, but a little tenacity and good teaching could well show them that there’s a whole new world of games out there.