Monday, March 26, 2018

Dave Reviews: The Other, Other Scrabble


Hardback is a game like Paperback, made by the same people as Paperback, and described on BGG as a prequel to Paperback.

Cool, cool, and... what?

Hardback is a close thematic sequel—prequel—some damn -quel to Paperback, so if you've played that game you'll understand the basics of this one. Players begin with a deck of ten cards possessing one letter each, draw five per turn, and spell whatever words they can with those cards. Those cards earn you money, with which you buy other cards that can earn more money and have special abilities. Where Paperback had decks specifically set up for each value of card you could buy, Hardback uses the more usual random tableau drawn from the deck, with the ability to wipe the whole board if there are four of a single type (more on that later) or four which cost six cents and up (to avoid a high-cost glut slowing the game to a crawl). Otherwise the play cards -> buy cards -> reshuffle discards deckbuilder style is the same.

What's different is pretty much everything else. Paperback was a great game for people who liked having a word game with the flexibility of deckbuilding gameplay and wild cards over the stolidness of classic Scrabble. Although the biggest pain in the ass about the game was cleaning everything up into their separate piles, the relatively small decks of each value created a certain sameness to the game after numerous plays. In addition, the books you bought for points double as wild cards potentially created an extra quirk of strategy, in general people would just grab books when money allowed and there wasn't a particularly good card on the board to buy. Then the expansion space bar, which allowed two words on a turn, made getting nine and ten letter bonuses a little too easy, but it probably exists because it was pretty hard to reach those lengths without it.

In other words, a number of small things that chipped away at an otherwise excellent game. Hardback fixes them all.

Well, changes. It feels like fixes if you didn't like those things. Let's go down the line.

  • Any card can be used as a wild.
This is enormous, and it makes the entire game. When playing early turns with your starting deck, it's mostly a question of what five-letter word you can make, and how many wilds will you need to do it. Cards are made wild by flipping them face down when you spell the word. You don't get the money or points on it, but if it lets you score more on your other cards, you can just go ahead and do it. Paperback took some out of the letter-pull luck that can make people crazy playing Scrabble; Hardback removes it completely. You can, with the resources available, play twelve letters in all wilds and just dare someone to take it from you.

Which brings up critical change number two.
  • The ink system.
Do you remember the cubes from Paperback? You could be forgiven if not. Throw out your hand to get a cube worth one cent on a future turn? What levels of desperation would be required to do that? What would have had to go wrong? They weren't even bad, per se, just pointless. Hardback's ink system does two things: it lets players strategize beyond simply looking at the most expensive cards they can afford, and it makes sure nobody ever wastes money on a turn. 

Black ink costs one cent, and you can buy as many per turn as you can afford. Using one black ink lets you draw an extra card. This is the only way to draw more than five per turn, which means if you're going for a twelve, you have to have seven black ink. However, it's not simply seven free draws; you place the card face up and have to use its letter—no turning it into a wild. There's a major press-your-luck aspect to these draws, because you can end up with extremely difficult-to-use combinations.

And thus, white ink. White ink (or remover) is only earned by playing cards which allow you to take one from the supply. If you draw a card with black ink, white ink allows you to pick it up into your hand and use it as a normal card. So, if you just want to draw an extra card, that requires one black ink and one white ink. Cards that grant remover aren't extremely common, and you rarely are able to trash cards out of your deck, so it can take most of a game to pile up enough remover to ensure you'll be able to make a 10+ letter word.

Personal experience suggests that playing a twelve-letter word with five wild cards after blowing seven black ink and four white on a single turn doesn't feel like you snuck around the point of a word game. It feels awesome.

Smaller changes: 
  • Starting decks contain eight standard cards and two randoms, rather than the same ten for everyone. Verdict: Reasonable.
  • Purchased cards only have one letter. Verdict: Fine. Works in the context of the game.
  • Cards can be worth points rather than money. Verdict: Probably better if you're looking for smooth mechanics in a game, since scoring is much smoother and everyone moves along a track rather than having points hidden in their decks.
  • There are different types of cards, many of which have synergy bonuses if you play another card of that type in your word (not as a wild). The synergy bonuses aren't insanely strong, more along the lines of receiving something similar to the base reward for playing the card, but if you get two or three on a turn, that's a huge turn. Verdict: Neutral. Feels like something they added because the game wasn't interesting enough without it, and it makes you think a little differently about what words to spell, but it's more useful to grab an R or an E that doesn't match most of your bought cards than to buy a Q that does.
  • Certain cards can be played in front of you and left there for future turns. However, other players can use that card as well. They don't get the card's reward, but you have to put it in your discard pile. Verdict: Meh. For the most part you're just giving your opponents a free letter to use. Probably much stronger in a two-player game.
  • Word length bonus (7+) goes to whoever gets that size word first, then keeps moving around to whoever does it most recently. Scoring a larger word than the bonus in action discards the current bonus and puts the new one in your hand. Caps out at twelve letters. Verdict: From the most objective perspective I can maintain, I think it's good because it's being the one with the long-word bonus is not at all guaranteed to win you the game. But I admit that I also like it because it works to my advantages as a player.
Oddly, Hardback didn't excite me the way Paperback did. I think that's because the concept of Paperback was new, whereas Hardback had to earn its respect completely on its merits. There's a certain sense that, because anything is potentially wild, the people with the largest vocabulary have a monstrous advantage; it helps, but if you struggle to think up words above seven letters, you can still compete by taking valuable cards and trying to abuse synergy bonuses to the best of your ability. I will acknowledge that someone with a large vocabulary and enough knowledge about how the game works probably does have a sizable advantage if they're liable to be the only ones who build up enough remover to definitely spell a twelve-letter word.

If you like Paperback, the only reason you might not like Hardback is if you particularly enjoy the aesthetic of Paperback (buying books for points, for example). Hardback is much more in line with traditional deckbuilding game mechanics, and in general it is a functionally superior game. It's definitely worth trying, and for most word game fans, worth buying.

Score: Thirteen books read out of fourteen in this particular series.

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