So, as I keep having to caveat, and despite the fact that I am Gameosity’s chief editor, I don’t really enjoy spelling games. Maybe it was one too many devastating losses at Scrabble, or maybe it’s just that there are words which I constantly misspell no matter how many times the little red squigglies of my spellchecker warn me I have gone astray – honestly, I couldn’t tell you why I have this aversion. However, there are a precious few word games which I don’t just tolerate, but actively enjoy: Letter Tycoon is certainly solid, as is Gil Hova’s wonderful Wordsy. However, at the top of the list, for me, has been Paperback, from Tim Fowers.
**Kickstarter prototype disclaimer, etc. – These shots are either of prototype components or lifted from the Kickstarter page. Nothing’s final!**
Hardback, live on Kickstarter right this very moment, is the second deckbuilding spelling game from Tim Fowers. And while having not one but two games of the same core mechanic and genre from the same designer may seem somewhat reductive, the fact is Paperback and Hardback live in two different, if incredibly adjacent gameplay spaces.
In Hardback, players will compete to achieve prestige points faster than their opponents can manage. Starting with a modest deck of core letters, each turn players will attempt to spell words so as to improve their decks and get ahead in prestige. Cards which don’t fit neatly into your imagined word can be used as wilds to fill in gaps, however, you won’t gain any benefit from these cards.
Andrew: The goal, of course, is to build the best deck you can, adding a variety of letters and using your mental muscle to contort every hand drawn into the best word available, giving you the possibility of adding more and more letters to your deck for future turns.
And players will accomplish this via the standard deckbuilding formula – some cards will give points, yes, but some will also give currency, which can be used to buy cards from the central offer. Each card purchased goes into your personal discard pile, to be shuffled and redrawn on future turns.
Aside from your starting cards, all letter cards belong to one of four genres; Adventure, Romance, Mystery, or Horror. Each of these genres specialize in a different mechanical aspect, and have special powers which may activate when you use them in words:
- Adventure letters generally generate lots of Prestige, but not much cash (adventurers, classically, enjoy more glory than fiscal responsibility). And many of them feature self-scrapping powers, perfect for ending with a cliffhanger.
- Romance letters spend a good bit of time (perhaps cynically) focused on generating cash, but they also have multiplicative effects on adjacent cards, making them extremely powerful in the right pairs. D’awwww.
- Mystery cards hunt through the purchase deck, uncovering wilds and securing future purchases.
- Horror novels force you into the nightmarish choice, between prestige and cash. They also provide Ink Remover.
(Ink cubes, and their counterpart Ink Remover, are part of a unique push your luck element in Hardback – for every Ink you spend, you can draw an extra card – however, you will have to use those drawn cards…unless you then spend Remover cubes to negate that requirement.)
Andrew: Genre types are powerful, because not only will they give you specific powers in a pinch, but they also work well together. Many cards have Genre bonuses – effects which trigger if at least one other card of that genre is played in the same word. By comboing a few genre bonuses, even a moderately long word can generate all kinds of currency and prestige bonuses, and more interesting effects besides!
There are also letters which remain out from round to round, always available for your use. The danger, of course, is that they are also open to other players’ use, and will get discarded as soon as someone else uses them. Still, if you can get a few rounds of use out of them, they can be incredibly valuable, especially since they too will trigger genre bonuses.
That said, we did have some minor quibbles. First and foremost, we felt the game dragged a little. Especially as turns ground forward and bonuses accrued faster and faster, turns slowed down as people wanted to make the optimal words they could. Another little quirk is that we did often find ourselves spelling the same few words over and over, at least until the opportunity to draw past the default 5 card hand became a regular thing. Both these complains are extra-unfortunate, as one of the things Hardback has going for it is the potential for incredibly quick, snappy turns.
Andrew: …Yeah. I guess it’s worth acknowledging.
See, we really enjoyed Hardback – we think it’s a great idea, well-implemented. However, it is also a very, uh, familiar idea…
Jess: It’s Star Realms.
Andrew: It’s not exactly Star Realms!…but yeah, it’s damn close. Like, incredibly close.
It is impossible for fans of the game not to see a great deal of Star Realms in Hardback. The ally bonuses which made Star Realms feel so fresh and accessible are essentially identical to the Genre bonuses in Hardback. The similarities don’t stop there, either, and we would be remiss in not at least pointing them out.
Andrew: Of course, if you’re a fan of Star Realms (or deckbuilding games in general), then that’s actually good news – Hardback uses these mechanics smartly, bringing a lot of life to each hand played as bonuses trigger each other and possibilities get bigger and bigger.
Jess: Yeah, I’m not mad at it – Hardback isn’t a Star Realms clone; it does its own thing, and hey, not everyone loves the Sci-fi theme as much as we do. But it would be silly not to draw the natural comparison. And besides, if you’re going to be like another deckbuilder, you can do a heck of a lot worse than Star Realms.
These considerations aside, there is a lot to like in Hardback. Simply put, Tim Fowers has done it again. I have never been the biggest fan of spelling games, but Hardback continues the work that Paperback started: combining smart mechanics with a well-known genre to create a game that is really quite satisfying as well as incredibly accessible.
As to the question of Paperback vs Hardback, well, as I said in the opening, for me, Hardback wins on mechanics. How much this has to do with its similarities to Star Realms, one of my favorite deckbuilders ever, is…well, it’s obvious enough, actually. But even judged simply on its own merits, Hardback does a lot right. Sure, it can sometimes slow down, but its proof that combining rock-solid mechanics and a classic genre can result in some genuinely fun gameplay.