A Thousand Pages, Give or Take a Few
I’m going to tell you something I’ve never confessed to anybody: I was raised from vat-birth to be a Scrabble-playing genius. Yes, it’s true. Unlike some of the gene-factory’s other assigned Mothers, mine spared not an iota of self-esteem when it came to her favorite pastime. She would scrub the floor with me, assembling words like SYZYGY for hundreds of points while I scrabbled in the dirt with SCOOP. I finally thought to put an S on the end. “SCOOPS,” I announced with no small note of triumph in my voice, picking up 10 points, my first double- digit accomplishment. “QUETZALS,” she countered, using my own S, my pride and joy, as the key to my undoing. From beneath the table, she produced a calculator and starting tallying her triple word score.
When I saw that Tim Fowers — who also designed the delightfully surprising Burgle Bros. — had put out a game that was simultaneously about deck-building and word-building, I knew my chance had arrived. I would finally defeat Mother.
The most immediately cool thing about Paperback is that it’s such an obvious idea. Deck building? Word building? Why not! It’s got this veneer about being a struggling paperback writer getting paid pennies by the word, and using those pennies to, well, I don’t know. It’s a veneer. The point is, you string together words from a combination of letters and wild cards, maybe including the “common” card at the center of the table, and the higher your score, the better the letters you can purchase. The final result is what people mean when they say Why hasn’t this been done before?
But that’s really just the crude concept. Paperback would be nothing if it weren’t for the fact that it feels so assured, so confident in its design. Rather than contenting itself with merely being Scrabble Via Cards, this is an actual deck-building game, one that flows every bit as smoothly — and as cleverly — as the best of them. When you buy a letter, you aren’t simply picking up an M. You’re picking up the 5¢ M, which gives you an extra card next turn, though only if you actually work it into a word. Or you’re using the 4¢ M, which gives you two extra pennies for buying letters if you somehow use all the letters in your hand at the same time. Or, my personal favorite, the 7¢ M, which doubles the value of your word, but only once before it’s trashed. That’s an M you might not want to waste on the first hand it appears in.
So far so good, but that’s still not all you’re doing. In order to win, you need to string together high-paying words in order to purchase fame cards, which are to Paperback what the estates and duchies are to Dominion. The rub, however, is that these will gum up your hand, acting as wilds but adding precisely zero pennies when you score. Putting a bunch of low-value fame cards into your hand will therefore make it that much harder to continue earning pennies.
Alternatively, you could try to nab the common letter, the one I mentioned earlier that sits in the middle of the table and benefits everyone. Unlike fame cards, these are not only worth points at the end of the game, but also pack some actual value when building words. Most are vowels, but a couple are especially clever, like the “space bar” card that lets you build two words at a time rather than just one. The problem is that you can’t just buy a common card outright. Instead, they’re awarded to players who flex their Brobdingnagian lexicon with longer words, at least seven letters long to begin with and stretching to as many as ten by the end of the game. But with only a meager five cards per hand, you’ll have to set up a multi-turn combo using letters that let you draw extras on a later round, or use one of the cards that boast two letters rather than one. Appropriately, these are some of the toughest cards to use in the entire game.
However you go about winning, one of the most amazing things about Paperback is the way it scratches two very different itches at the same time. There’s the part of us that strives to put things in order, to assemble fine-tuned systems, and Paperback’s deck building is the antidote to that urge. There are plenty of ways to build your engine, from grabbing letters that will give you extra cards or let you earn extra cash to making attacks on other players by not letting them draw extra cards for a round or penalizing them for using wild cards.
At the same time, there’s also the part of us that loves language. We’re a vocal species, after all, and we can’t help but enjoy a clever turn of phrase or surprising use of wit. We even like a good pun, heaven help us. And that very human part of ourselves is pulled in a second direction, to a place that considers which letters you lack and which sounds might not work together. We instinctively recognize, for example, that having a bunch of Qs, Zs, and Js might look nice on paper, but once it comes time to line those babies up, the resultant migraine might not be worth the effort. Better to take the occasional wimpy S.
Putting everything else aside for the moment, by far the best thing about Paperback is that it occupies the perfect niche between the hardcore and the casual. When I went to play with my Mom, she’d never even heard of a deck-building game. It took a round or two before she understood why she would waste time buying letters that went straight into her discard pile. The rhythm of the genre that was so reflexive for me — draw, purchase, shuffle — was entirely alien to her. But the allure of cobbling letters into new arrangements kept her going until she had the motions down. I won — and I’d like that emphasized for posterity — but by the end of the match, she was starting to make me sweat a little. Next time, who knows?
That’s Paperback in a nutshell: brilliant and complex, but never complicated. Why hasn’t this been done before?