Review: Paperback04 Oct 2016 4
Released 27 Sep 2016
Often the best ideas are the simplest ones. Taking an old concept and putting a very modern spin on it being a classic example. This is what Paperback does; It belongs to the venerable genre of word games,a genre which felt like it wore out its mobile possibilities years ago. Yet it has updated the formula with the smart, modern concept of deck-building games which were first popularised by Dominion in 2008.
You start with a deck of letter cards, most of which are "wild" and can used for any letter. Draw five and try to make a word. Any non-wild cards in your word are worth a dollar and you can spend your dollars on buying better letters and adding them to your deck. An "IT" card, for example, scores two dollars since it has two letters on it. As you begin to build higher totals you can also purchase fame cards that work as wild letters but which also count towards victory. The player with the highest fame at the end of the game wins.
That would make an entertaining game concept by itself. Try to work with increasingly difficult selections of letter cards from your deck, building toward fame. But Paperback goes further because many of its cards have additional effects. Some score high but are then discarded on use instead of getting shuffled back into the deck. Others give you bonus dollars or extra card draw. Some are situational: they only work if used at the end of the word or in words of a certain length.
Most deck builders work on the same concept of slowly revving up an engine. It generates increasing amounts of income until you reach the point of buying victory cards. Yet in the majority, the skill is in buying the right cards at the right time to build said engine. The act of actually running it, of playing the cards from your hand, is pretty much on autopilot. It's obvious what cards to play in what order to maximise your income for the turn which I personally find rather dull.
Paperback, by contrast, makes you work for each point in every single hand. Building a word from a bunch of letters is fun and challenging enough by itself. The popularity of any number of existing word games attest to that. But in this game you've got a whole bunch of other things to consider, like trying to use letters in their best positions or making effective use of wild cards with other effects. And, of course, planning what you're going to buy with the income of each word.
The basic grunt work of word building is also harder in Paperback than in many of its peers. To begin with you only have five letters plus a bonus one which everyone can use. Chances to extend your hand don't come every turn. Then you'll find a number of cards have two letter combos on them like ED or IN which score well but are obviously more difficult to use. It's a challenge for even seasoned lexicographers.
According to the tutorial, players are cast as aspiring novelists, churning out cheap paperbacks. The covers of these yarns make great art for the fame point cards. And there's something hilariously appropriate to the concept in the elevator muzak soundtrack. Like most deck builders, though, theme falls apart on examination. You make up a bunch of unrelated words and you've suddenly written a novel? Better to keep things abstract.
But underneath the presentation and the neat ideas, Paperback ultimately lacks functionality. It's enormous fun in pass and play mode but there's no online match-ups, asynchronous or otherwise. Playing against the AI is also a bit of a disappointment. In spite of three difficulty settings, none seem particularly challenging. That's surprising given that you'd have thought a comprehensive dictionary would be enough to provide a stimulating AI. All of them, however, make poor purchasing decisions for upgraded letter and scoring cards.
As ever, there's hope these shortcomings will be addressed in a future update. And let's be optimistic about it, because Paperback is otherwise a quality release. It's smooth, good looking and fun to play. Best of all it does something interesting and different while sticking to the well-worn deck-building formula. And all for far less than the price of an actual paperback.