Ask anybody what their favorite word game is, and I’d wager that the majority of them say Scrabble. Ask them what their second favorite one is, and there is a good chance you’ll get a blank stare. While there are in-fact other word games, Scrabble has long reigned as the king of the mainstream, word building games.
Paperback is a newcomer to the word building genre that cleverly combines elements from two very popular games. Game designer Tim Flowers took elements from Scrabble and tossed it in his board game blender with some parts from the popular deck building king, Dominion. What he ended up with was Paperback, a word building card game. Was this fusion a good idea? Let’s find out!
Paperback is a word building card game for 2-5 players that takes about 45 minutes to play. Paperback plays well with any number of players (see more on that below).
The two main mechanics in Paperback are word building and deck building. Each player starts the game with a hand of the same 10 cards. Half wilds (which are also your victory point cards, called Fame in Paperback), and half letter cards: R, S, T, L, N.
Each round, a player will have 5 cards in their hand to try to form a word with. Players may also used a shared common letter in their word (usually a vowel). Players must try to form the best word possible with the cards in their hand because doing so will earn them points to buy newer and better cards. These new letters will not only let them form longer words, but may also contain special powers that activate when used. In addition to letter cards, players may buy fame cards that will earn then victory points and also act as wild cards for letters in a word. At the end of the game, the player with the most fame will win.
Overall we had no complaints with the components in Paperback. The cards are all made of a heavy stock that should hold up well to repeated play. The main group of cards are the letter cards. These are sorted into stacks by their buying cost and many contain special powers. One of the unique things in Paperback is that some of the letter cards contain double letters (ED for example, or NG). These cards must be used with these 2 letters in the sequence shown on the card. This allows for some longer words, but also requires more thought to use.
Moving on, there are also 4 different piles of fame cards that provide victory points from 4 to 17 points each. These are well illustrated and look like retro book covers. I also thought that the whimsical author name on these cards was a nice touch.
Finally, the game comes with a number of optional variant cards to use. These include special powers players can take advantage of during the game, an end game bonus card, and a theme card that gets passed around as people spell appropriate words. All-in-all you can really feel like you are getting a good mix of cards for your gaming dollar.
How to Play:
If you’ve played both Dominion and Scrabble, then Paperback will be a breeze to pick up. Even if you haven’t played them, you should be able to jump right in with minimal effort. Once all the letter stacks are sorted and placed, each player is given an identical deck of 10 cards. Those cards are shuffled and each player draws 5 cards into their hand.
Each player takes their turn in order with the following steps:
1. Create a word: Using the letters and wild cards in your hand, create any legal word (no proper nouns, abbreviations, etc…). The player may also use the common letter once in their word. Based on which cards you played, you may also gain special powers, such as extra cards to draw on your next hand or extra money to buy cards with.
2. Check word length: If the word is long enough, the player gets to take the common letter into their discard pile. This card is now part of their deck. A new common letter will be revealed for the players to use going forward.
3. Score the word: Each letter is worth a number of buying points (wilds are worth nothing). Count up the total number of points from each letter in your word.
4. Buy cards: Using your points from scoring, buy any letter or fame card(s) from the offer that you can afford.
5. Clean up: Discard all cards left in your hand, that you bought, and that you played. Draw a new hand of 5 cards.
After that, the next player takes their turn. The game ends when either 2 of the fame piles are empty or all the common letters have been collected.
To jump right into it, I think the idea of marrying Scrabble to Dominion was a brilliant one. Both have pretty addictive game play (just look at each game’s longevity), but still have their drawbacks.
For Scrabble, one of the chief issues I have with the game (other than it can be really boring), is that having a much better vocabulary can sometimes give you an unfair advantage. That, and you are always stuck working with the letters in your hand, which are randomly drawn. So if you get drawn a bunch of Q’s, Z’s and P’s, you’re not going to be doing a lot that round.
One of the brilliant moves in Paperback was the use of the wild cards. This helps ensure that even those of us with a more pedestrian linguistic ability will still be able to compete. While I may not know the obscure words you do, I’m also not limited by the 7 random letters I drew this round. The wild cards in Paperback help make sure that you have a lot more options on your turn. I think that the starting deck really helps set players up for success by giving them a nice mix of wilds and very common letters.
This brings me to the deck building. Fantastic idea. In Scrabble, your letters each round are a total random draw. To compound that, if you get stuck with the aforementioned crappy letters, you might only be able to use a couple of them in a turn, meaning that your 3 letter word you just played will only net you 2 new letters. In Paperback, your deck is really what you make of it. Sure, the cards you add are going to be subject to what’s available when it’s your turn to buy (and how much money you have), but you still have total control over what you decide to add. This gives the game a level of strategy that Scrabble can’t hope to compete with.
The double letter cards in Paperback were really an interesting design decision. You can use these to great effect (to make longer words), but they aren’t always as easy to work in as you’d think. Sometimes I’ll grab one thinking it’d be really easy to work into your hand, but many times I find myself really wishing I could rearrange those two letters. Regardless, it’s something unique that stood out to me.
Paperback comes with a good amount of variety in the game that should help its replay value. There are theme cards, power cards and award cards, all of which you can mix in or out as you see fit. The game also comes with wooden cubes that can be used for an optional bounty system. This allows players to ask for help on their turn if they get stuck, earning the helper a discount on future purchases. After our first game, I found us always using many of these variant options.
To go along with that though, there are the attack cards. The rule book says these are optional to use (and not recommended for your first game) and I’m glad of that. To be honest, coming up with the longer words can be hard enough that I don’t feel like I need the added challenge of being crippled by my opponent. While they do add a bit of player interaction to the game that’s somewhat lacking in it, I still wasn’t a big fan of them. Not that they are badly designed, I just preferred the game without them.
As I mentioned, the down side of taking out the attack cards is that the player interaction in Paperback is about as high as you might expect. Which is not very high. Paperback is a very thinky game. Most every player will have their head buried in their hand of cards trying to come up with that perfect word for most of the game. This means that Paperback is not a very social game… at all. Other than the occasional “congrats” over a particular good word, there won’t be a whole lot of excitement or chatting happening.
Finally, lets talk about the player scaling. Paperback plays from 2-5 players. As to where it plays best, for once, I’d say that wholly depends on your group. A 2 player game will have the least amount of down time, but downtime in Paperback isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Near the end of the game when you are trying to use more obscure letters to form larger words, that extra time in-between turns can be very helpful. With 2 players, you might feel more pressure to come up with a word while your partner waits for his turn. With more players, every player has more time, but if you already have that perfect word, then the wait is going to be that much worse. So the optimal player count will really depend on the group of people you are playing with.
Paperback has made its way to my gaming table much more often than I expected since its arrival. To be honest, I don’t enjoy Scrabble very much and only keep a copy because I doubt my wife would let me chuck it. But I do enjoy Paperback and like the extra layers of strategy that the game provides. There were many clever additions to the game that help keep it fresh even after many plays now.
If you hate word games in general, than there is nothing here that’s going to change your mind. Even with all the bells and whistles designer Tim Fowers added in, at the end of the day, it’s still just a word building game, and in my opinion, an exceptional one. But if that kind of game doesn’t really scratch your itch, then you are probably better served by moving on to one of the other deck building games.
However, if you do enjoy the occasional game of Scrabble, or are looking for a game you can easily play with your family and non-gamer friends, then look no further. With its fresh take on a very old genre, Paperback rises to the top of the list for its fantastic game design. It has a lot of variety, is fun to play, and is much more portable than the former word building king. With a copy of Paperback in my collection, I honestly don’t ever see a reason to play Scrabble again. The king is dead, long live the king!
If you’d like to pick up a copy of Paperback, you can grab it from the designers website for $29.99
Final Score: 4 Stars – A very accessible word building game that has quickly become my new favorite in this genre.
• Easy to learn rules
• Fresh take on an old genre
• Very accessible
• Great mechanics give it a lot more strategy then expected
• Minimal interaction and conversations
• Downtime can be a bit much at times