If Books Could Kill

Fun fact: "Paperback Adventures" is an anagram of "paapdverebnatcurkes"

It’s hard to go even one minute in the presence of Paperback Adventures, the latest word game by Skye Larsen and Tim Fowers, without drawing comparisons to Slay the Spire — specifically, the original digital game by Anthony Giovannetti and Casey Yano, not the forthcoming cardboard adaptation by Gary Dworetsky. At this point, a Mormon genealogy project would struggle to detangle its heritage. Slay the Spire spawned entire crowds of imitators, but it was also a successor in its own right, drawing on both roguelikes and the tabletop deck-building craze. It’s been almost a decade since Fowers’ original Paperback, itself a deck-builder. Now it’s back after some liberal cribbing from Slay the Spire. Trace that lineage and you get a time paradox.

Here’s the crazy part: Paperback Adventures is possibly the finest title Fowers has produced. It might even be superior to Slay the Spire. Hear me out.

Which is which? Nobody knows. Paperback Adventures also contains moral ambiguity!

Good guy, meet bad guy.

For those who’ve been so invested in the tabletop realm that they haven’t touched any of the digital platforms where Slay the Spire can be played, here’s a quick primer. Imagine yourself at the bottom of a very tall staircase. At periodic intervals, monsters stand astride the steps, hoping to push you back down to the bottom. Along the way there are nooks filled with various tools: weapons, trinkets, anything to give you some advantage. Your goal is to pick up the best items that will let you defeat the monsters and reach the summit. Unfortunately, only specific combinations of tools will really be worth a damn. Prepare to bounce off some steps.

Paperback Adventures adheres to pretty much the same format. You’re one of three heroes trying to defeat six sequential baddies. Each baddie is a puzzle in miniature, with its own moves, tricks, and innate strengths. The metagame between battles has been streamlined until it has all the friction of an ice rink. After each fight, you’re presented with a couple of upgrade options. Maybe you buy something from the game’s plentiful (but readily untouched) marketplace. Then you’re tossed into the next fight, hopefully prepared but more likely not quite ready for what’s coming.

Slay the Spire famously portrayed its heroes’ moves as cards. This generated a crucial recombinance: your abilities and attacks were closer to organic creatures than a simple list, complete with random mutations, fortuitous assemblages, and untimely failures. Because you were rarely certain of what would appear in your hand, it wasn’t possible to build your hero around a single linchpin. Instead, it was necessary to consider your deck holistically. Every flimsy card mattered as much as the good stuff. At its best, you were husbanding something living. Often something surprising.

What makes Paperback Adventures such a delight isn’t its adherence to formula. It’s the words. This is a game that loves words. It loves their construction, their malleability, their ability to speak the ineffable into being. Sometimes, even, their uncertainty. Because your cards are letters, the game’s ceiling isn’t hard-coded. It’s as limitless as your own intuition for how language can be bent to your advantage.

SOMOMY: adj. The quality of being too much like mommy. "Summer, you are being somomy today."

I have the heart of a teenager.

To use your abilities — to attack a foe, block an assault, generate energy for tools and trinkets, or trigger special powers — you spell a word. Not to be too fartsy about it, but there’s something beautifully annular about using literal spelling to cast a spell. It speaks to the magic of language itself. Fiction tells of wizards mastering long-lost tongues to wrest secrets from the dead. Paperback Adventures replicates that process verbatim, only the tongue you’re mastering is your own. It’s so literal, in fact, that should there be some uncertainty about whether a particular spell is close enough to its accepted spelling to qualify, you can even crack open a dusty tome to check. (Or, fine, look it up on your phone. But I submit it’s more suitably arcane to dig through a stack of books in your search for the dictionary.)

In general, you draw four letters. You also have a wildcard. In most cases your foe will grant you an additional vowel. From these six cards, you create a word. But wait! That’s only the first part of the conundrum. It isn’t enough to cobble together any old locution. Every letter also comes with untapped potential. There are magical icons on its sides, little swords, shields, and lightning bolts. As you spell a word, these must be splayed right or left, accessing certain icons at the expense of others. Even more importantly, this arrangement determines which letter comes out on top. This is the sole letter that also deploys its special ability.

There are dozens of these, ranging from common effects like extra swords and shields to the separate abilities of the game’s three characters. This is where Paperback Adventures starts to run with the idea, offering little quirks that set apart its heroes and justifying all those individual decks. Ex Machina, for example, tinkers with the arrangement of your word, offering bonuses when your bottom letter is a consonant or letting you hold onto certain cards until the next round. Damsel is all about timing, with critical hits that only land when there are no cards left in your hand and sneak attacks that rely on your discard pile being empty.

My personal favorite is Plothook. One of the game’s best ideas comes from none other than Gloomhaven. When you finish a word, your top card triggers its special ability but is then fatigued and removed for the remainder of the fight. This depletes your hero’s deck turn by turn, forcing you to craft words despite a diminishing pool of letters. Plothook inverts this limitation thanks to crew cards. These punks flip over when used, becoming temporarily more powerful. They still fatigue once you use them again, even if they weren’t your top letter, but they let you get in an extra punch before falling off the table. This helps trigger Plothook’s second personal ability, barrage, which offers greater bonuses for longer words. And you know I love my long words. I recently used “tergiversation” in a conversation. In part to avoid making a clear-cut statement, which made the use of that word doubly delicious. Long live Plothook.

LAID: n. lay-EED. A bundle of heather. "The boy carried his laid to the market."

And the mouth of a teenager.

This is possibly the smartest part of Paperback Adventures. Too often, word games retreat to the safety of anticipated combos. That simply isn’t possible here. It’s easy enough to stumble upon a word. Larson and Fowers are too shrewd to let that be the end of it. Now you’re checking the word to make sure its best effects will fire off. Which direction should its letters splay? Should this really be the top letter? How can you get that powerful Q on top when you aren’t holding a U? What about when a penalty letter finds its way into your hand? These act as debuffs, forcing you to handle errant Js and Vs and Zs lest you incur some penalty. More than any other roguelike adaptation, it genuinely feels like you’re struggling to string effects into the right order to topple a monster before they slug you for crippling damage.

At times, that struggle elevates the game through the roof. Despite being principally a solitaire game, Paperback Adventures lends itself to the breezy collaboration of solving the Sunday crossword puzzle in bed. That’s how my last session went, Summer and I guiding Damsel through stage after stage. We specialized in poison attacks, building up trace amounts in our foe’s bloodstream until we brought them down with a single dose of her venom vial. This approach was going dandy until we ran headfirst into the Sentient A.I. — who happened to be nearly immune to poison. Where before we had been coasting on chance upgrades, suddenly we were forced to work against our own build. The match was a close one. Every tool at our disposal was examined with each passing turn. Every card, every combination, every spelling was evaluated and reevaluated. We emerged bruised but triumphant.

More importantly, we emerged from that battle feeling like absolute wizards. Not only because we’d put our combined vocabularies together. But also because this was possibly the closest any game had come to the sensation of becoming the protagonist of a fantasy novel. There was a freewheeling, improvisational feel to the battle. Even though we could see our foe’s upcoming attacks — another choice bit borrowed from Slay the Spire — we were forced to think on our feet, adapt to changing circumstances, and overcome a challenge we didn’t think we could beat. It was a feeling that couldn’t be replicated, not wholly, by ordinary card combos. It had to be letters and words and vocab we were learning from one another while we played. It had to take advantage of the wide-open space that is human language.

SIREN. n. A jerk who forces me to make words with like two cards.

I hate sirens.

As an aside, this is exactly why the digital version of Paperback Adventures doesn’t measure up. In that one, you’re allowed to trigger any letter’s ability rather than only the one on top. It’s a misunderstanding of the tabletop game’s smartest trick, letting players return to easy spellings over and over again rather than hunting for the best combination. Although it may seem counterintuitive, limitations are often what force us to think spontaneously; there’s no need for creative thinking if there aren’t hurdles to surmount. Sadly, by opening up its play space, the digital version loses its spark.

Good thing I’m not writing about the digital version, then. On the table, Paperback Adventures is a supernal solitaire game. It’s evocative of an unexpected feeling. Not only does it capture the thrill of putting together a solid combo in Slay the Spire, it also revels in the construction and deployment of language, the unplanned openness of magical fisticuffs, the swelling feeling one gets when surmounting an obstacle. This game is downright fantastical.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on April 19, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Awesome game Dan, fully agree. With 2 players did you follow one of the 2p official variants or did you just play with an open hand cooperatively?

    • I haven’t played at 2p! I’ve been treating this one as a party game, so the flexibility is appreciated. (I even played with something like 10p at one point, since there’s really nothing that stops it from functioning at that point.)

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