When I was a kid, the most popular game to play in my household was Scrabble. I played it with my parents, with my aunts and uncles, with my grandmother. We played it a lot. As a kid, Scrabble kind of reminded me of school, but I let it slide because I cared more about playing a game than I did about what game it was. Now that I’m all grown up, I think I can be a little pickier when it comes to my word games.
Enter Hardback, the new novel deck-builder from Fowers Games and the latest addition to the Paige Turner Saga. Hardback is a prequel to Tim Fowers’ first Kickstarter project, Paperback, released in 2014. We play as Penelope Quill, Paige Turner’s great-grandmother, hard at work on her masterpiece. Rather than amassing a collection of book jackets for romance novels, Quill seeks prestige for her illustrious writing career. Players will race down the 60 point prestige track to win the game.
Tim Fowers collaborated with designer Jeff Beck to revisit the card collecting, word building system we found in Paperback. They added a push your luck mechanic that provides some tension within each player’s turn and genres (not unlike the factions of Star Realms) to build your collection of letters around. Both of these new mechanics encourage players to find longer words in their vocabulary and explore varying combos with card effects resulting in more explosive turns. Also, they give a little extra flavor to the game with inkwell tokens and genre abilities in sync with the themes they represent (for example, mystery cards often let you reveal face down cards).
Hardback encourages a level of player interaction in a deck building game we often crave but seldom find. Timeless Classics cards are a special letter cards played sideways that remains on the table until removed from play by an opponent. You’ll have to decide if you’re going to rely on other players to get rid of those cards for you, or if you have to make sacrifices yourself to get them off the table. Players can also help each other build words earning ink tokens that will allow them to push their luck in the future. Manipulating the relationships between players — from foes to friends and back again — lends to higher level strategies that often emphasize you succeeding in the game being tied to other players also being successful and having fun.
The system I’m probably the most fond of in Hardback is the notion of wild cards. When you need a card to be different than it is, you simply play it face down and it becomes a wild card with no attributes other than the letter you name. Because of this, players often have multiple choices of words they can build. The ability to compensate for random draws frees a player from worrying about what they have in their hand and allows them to focus on card abilities and strategies that trigger those combo effects I mentioned before.
Like most of Fowers’ games, this is just the tip of the iceberg. Inside the box are cards you won’t even touch on your first game. Once you understand the flow of the game there are four variants on gameplay, including competing for spelling long words and using unique abilities attributed to the characters you are playing as. There is also a cooperative mode in the game where players can instead compete against archrival, Penny Dreadful.
Hardback scratches a lot of itches for me. The theme makes the game accessible to a wide audience, set up is easy, and game time lasts a comfortable hour, which fits perfectly into the time we want to spend on a light to medium weight game. While I hesitated at first because of how similar this game sounded to Paperback, which I enjoyed, Hardback has exceeded my expectations. Hardback’s gameplay is streamlined and deeper than Paperback. In my case, Hardback has replaced Paperback on my shelf. For others, Paperback may still be the better option because it’s a little lighter. Needless to say, Hardback is definitely what adult me chooses over Scrabble.