Make a Million for You Overnight
Despite its staid outward appearance, Hardback is the byproduct of word game inbreeding. Its daddy is Tim Fowers, the same fella who brought us Paperback a couple years back, while its father is Jeff Beck, creator of last year’s Word Domination. Even a description of its particular playstyle feels like dendrochronology performed on a family tree: what Paperback was to Dominion, Hardback is to Star Realms.
Fortunately, that word-jumble statement is actually pretty easy to explain.
For anyone who’s played Paperback, Hardback’s central conceit will be instantly familiar. It’s a deck-building game like any of the other billion deck-building games out there, except you’re accumulating and deploying letters to and from your deck of cards in order to craft words. Letters provide pennies or prestige for buying new cards or winning the game, and every so often trigger additional abilities. Scrabble by way of Dominion. There you have it.
Paperback was a delight when it first appeared, blending vocabulary and card-based bonuses, and Hardback positions itself as a well-considered sequel in that regard. Nearly all of the original gameplay returns, with the significant difference that letters now belong to one of four genres. Yes, pretty much the same way that your warships and starbases belonged to one of four factions in Star Realms.
The trick to these genres is twofold. First, each genre produces its own special effects. The most thematically appropriate is the mystery novel, which uncovers face-down cards — literally revealing the unknown! Just like an actual sleuth! Adventure novels are thrilling but disposable (yep), romance novels tend to amplify the value of the other cards they touch (debatable, but okay), and horror novels, um, usually give you inkwells. More on those in a minute. Hey, not every genre was going to be a perfect thematic fit.
But this is where Hardback furrows its bushy eyebrows and starts displaying a miser’s shrewdness. Rather than having each letter merely provide a bonus, they all come with an additional locked effect. These are unlocked — again, exactly like in Star Realms — by matching it with another letter of the same genre. Thus, a word with four letters from different genres won’t be nearly as powerful as a word with two romance and two mystery letters. And don’t even get me started on the lexical beauty of a lengthy word that reveals face-down cards, doubles the right scoring bonuses, and picks up a pile of resources.
This need to create words with matching genres influences every aspect of the design, from deck construction to the words you’ll place on the table. It’s trickier than ever to craft a worthwhile word, and it’s arguable that Hardback is less about letting you flex your diction than it is about card combos. An eight-letter word can easily be less valuable than a properly-aligned four-letter word, which might make purists utter a four-letter word of their own.
Fortunately, Hardback is willing to meet its players halfway by introducing a few alterations that allow for true wordsmithery. For one thing, any card can be played face-down to act as a wild letter. They’re not worth anything, of course — at least not until you flip it back up with a mystery card — but drawing a hand of x, v, k, j, and t isn’t the death sentence it might have been otherwise.
The other big addition is those aforementioned inkwells. These can be picked up from the market or by writing horror novels (again: huh?), and let you pull additional cards from the top of your deck. There’s some danger to this, though, as anything drawn with an inkwell is locked onto the table and must be used in your upcoming word, smoothly introducing a minor press-your-luck element into the game. These locked letters can be “erased” with ink remover, though this is much harder to acquire, forcing moments where you’ll have to wager on how well you’ve arranged your deck. Will you draw something that will provide a huge bonus, or a letter that will be nearly impossible to use with your current hand? For a game about making words and matching colors, these occasional sprinkles of uncertainty are appreciated.
The process is familiar, perhaps even overly so. Most of the time, you’ll arrange a piddly word for a point or two, buy something trickier, and eventually loop through your deck to shape words of increasing complexity and value. For all its uncertainty, there’s a plodding predictability to deck-building that begs to be lifted up by the trousers and given a good shaking for all its pocket change.
However, one of the best things about Hardback is its understanding of how to spice up its core gameplay. Getting tired of pennies deflating in value as a match progresses? Toss in adverts. Now you can purchase prestige with your leftover cash. Want to encourage people to strive for longer words? Literary awards do exactly that. Need asymmetric player powers? Hardback doesn’t only provide them, it forks out both aggressive and heads-down options. Even its cooperative mode, which pits you against a rival novelist with her own powers and subtle manipulation of the card market, is a pleasant surprise. Just don’t expect to win too easily.
Just when I’d thought that word games didn’t have anything else to offer, Hardback proves me wrong. It takes everything Paperback did and does it better, more cleverly, and with a heady dose of combo-building, deck envy, and a few new tricks to alleviate the agony of a bad draw. It isn’t going to change anybody’s mind about the value of competitive wordsmithing, but those who know what can be accomplished with the letter j aren’t going to be disappointed.
(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign. You won’t even have to spell any words! Unless you want to, obviously.)