Word games meet deck builders in this great mash-up
Android & iOS
# of Players
Hardback is a deck-building word game from Fowers Games. One to five players work to add purchase and prestige power to their deck by acquiring stronger cards from a common purchase row. Use more powerful cards to spell more valuable words, earn more points, and repeat until one player has gained 60 prestige points, this usually takes about 10 minutes.
Hardback is a spiritual prequel, but mechanical sequel, to Paperback. We’ll try to explain Hardback on its own, but note that the games are similar from a high level but the mechanics have changed drastically this time around. Very little except “deck-building word game” is shared between the two games, although I certainly expect Paperback fans will be delighted with what Hardback has to offer.
Hardback starts with the familiar deck builder setup; ten cards, split between purchase power (coins) and victory points (prestige). Each card has a single letter on it, and on each turn the player draws five and must spell a word using as many of those cards as they want. Each card will, at a very minimum, provide coins or prestige when played. After their word is played, players purchase new cards which are added to their discard pile. Playing as many cards as possible increases the coins/prestige you receive which helps to buy better cards or get closer to winning. Once a player’s draw pile runs out, their discard pile is shuffled and cards are drawn from there. Players take their turns until one player reaches the prestige goal (defaulted to 60, but this can be adjusted), after that turn ends, the game is over and whoever has the most points wins.
Hardback, on the surface is a fairly simple game. However, there are numerous additional mechanics which add all of the depth to the game. For starters, any card in your hand can be flipped over to create a wild card. The downside of this is that the card produces no reward when used as a wild, the upside is that one wild might allow you to use a couple of extra cards in your hand as it helps complete a larger word.
Another twist brings Hardback into the realm of many great deck builders by adding a genre system with purchased cards. There are four genres and cards of the same genre/color will produce additional benefits when played alongside cards of the same genre. Each genre has its own theme and the special abilities play along with that theme. For example, the red romance genre allows for trashing of other cards (trashy romance novels, get it?). The benefits of pairing genre cards together is significant and becomes a driving force in the game strategy.
There is also an Ink system which is a risk/reward way to use extra cards on a turn. Unlike most (all?) other deck builders, there are no cards in Hardback which allow you to draw more from your deck. Instead, you use Ink (which can be purchased with coins) to turn over a card from your deck. You may do this as much as you would like, as long as you have the Ink to pay for it, but the all-important catch is that any card you turn over using Ink must be used in the word that turn. Note that many cards from the horror genre will allow you to generate Ink-remover which can be used to remove that “must use” restriction. The Ink system is a great risk/reward mechanic. If you get a letter that fits into your current hand well, it is a great way to earn more prestige or coins. If you get an oddball that simply doesn’t match up well, you could have hosed your whole turn by using Ink.
The last major mechanic is the Timeless Classic card. These cards are specially marked and, once played, enter a persistent card row on the board. If a card you played is still on that row when you take your next turn, you gain its benefits without having to use it in your word. However, any other player may use it on their turn, but won’t get any of its benefits for doing so. Once used, the Timeless Classic returns to its owner’s discard pile. The result makes these Timeless Classics quite powerful. You can gain strong benefits if other players don’t use it before your turn, which naturally incentivizes others to use them despite not getting any benefits for doing so. This is a fun balance and another small, but important, mechanic involved.
Hardback offers a few additional game variants which can be added to any game, online or off, those will be discussed later.
Hardback takes the really good idea presented in Paperback and turns it into something really great, and this is coming from somebody who is a big fan of Paperback. Hardback does more traditional deck builder things, namely the genres, but also forges more of its own identity with some very clever, unique mechanics. The Ink system is brilliant as a risk/reward proposition and is entirely necessary as you can’t draw additional cards otherwise. Timeless Classics are a fun thematic fit that forces other players to play a card which does nothing for them. Making any card wild is simply genius.
One potential downside for some might be that the sum of these mechanics shift importance from being creative with your spelling skills to being creative with your deck builder skills. Without cards which allow for extra card draws, you rely on Ink and Timeless Classics to spell any words longer than five letters. Ink is a risky proposition so the chances of using it multiple times per turn are likely low. Timeless Classics are risk-free, but offer no direct reward (only prevents opponents from gaining rewards), so its usage isn’t quite vital. In Paperback, long words were encouraged and necessary to play the game well, in Hardback they are certainly rewarded, but much less vital as the importance shifts to pairing genres together. This could be taken as a plus or a minus, depending on your point of view.
Barrier to Entry
Hardback contains a tutorial and a PDF rulebook (which is included in the app, not a link to a web download, which is nice). The tutorial is fairly brief but covers the basics while the rulebook is the one for the physical game. There are some entire sections that can be skipped as additional features/game modes that exist in the physical game weren’t ported to the app, but if you want a thorough understanding of the game, the rulebook works well. Paperback players and deck builder fans will pick this one up quickly, but those new to the genre will likely need a few games to get their bearings.
Starting a game
Playing a word
Look and Feel
Like the other Fowers Games apps, Hardback has been given a great looking and easy to use port. The familiar art style is there and the controls are simple and easy to use. Drag and drop is an option when it makes sense, or you can always click-and-confirm. There isn’t an undo option but the cases where you could actually undo without having turned over a hidden card are very minimal so that isn’t a big issue here. The one minor gripe here is that some of the letters are tough to read initially, specifically the Horror genre letters. Each genre gets its own font and the horror font has some confusing letters until you get used to them. You can click a card to see what letter it is (by way of a normal font), but this was a bit confusing initially.
The game plays very smoothly, your turn will automatically end once you have spent all of your coins. The first few games I kept wanting to press an “End Turn” button that didn’t exist, but once I got used to it, I found myself loving not having to make that extra click. The AI turns are taken essentially immediately and then you review each of them at your own pace by clicking through them (the same goes with online games). This is all to say that Hardback provides a great digital experience, with an attention to detail that suggests the developers play these apps quite a bit.
Hardback features cross-platform asynchronous online games. Games are joined via lobby or invite system. When creating a game you choose the target prestige points, which game variants to use (more on those below), and how many players. The game has system notifications when it is your turn. Online play seems to work just fine, although I admittedly have not had the chance to finish a full game as this point. Being a brand new release the lobby has been mostly empty of games and the ones I have joined or started have not yet finished.
Hardback also features local pass-and-play which works well given the lack of hidden information. Unless you really don’t want your opponent to see your hand, of course.
The game features three AI levels: Easy, Medium, and Hard. When playing against a handful of Easy bots I usually easily defeat them all except one which will be neck-and-neck with me the whole time, always scoring significantly more points than the other Easy bots. Medium presents a solid challenge and Hard is fairly difficult. I see the AI bots being difficult enough to present challenges for a long time, which is all you can ask for.
The app offers three game variants/options to play with. Hardcore is a new mode to the app which prevents players from using any repeat words. This may not seem like a big deal, but early on when your card count is low, you might find yourself with many of the same cards in your hand and the temptation to play the same word will certainly be there. Literary Awards is a second option which provides an additional end-game bonus to the player who played the longest word (of seven or more letters). The final variant, Adverts, offers advertisements which can be bought with coins to directly provide prestige points. These three modes spice up the game in different ways to add to the game.
You can also specific how many prestige points will trigger the game ending, anywhere from 10 to 199, or infinite, if you want an extremely long game. The game doesn’t keep any stats or have any achievements to chase.
Reviewing the AI's words
The primary difference between the digital and physical versions of Hardback are the game modes/options. Adverts and Literary Awards, mentioned earlier, are included in the app, but a few other variations are not. Co-op mode has players pooling points against an automa. Player powers add additional abilities to the game and can really increase the direct player interaction from the near zero level seen in the base game. Events are shuffled into the purchase deck and effect all players when turned over. The modes that were left out of the app are larger and more game-changing than those that were included. The app doesn’t feel lacking without them, as the game still shines, but if you are a Hardback veteran you might find yourself missing them. It should also be noted that Fowers Games has historically provided major features via free update after an app’s initial release. That’s not a promise of more features for Hardback, but it wouldn’t be surprising given the precedent they set with Paperback and Burgle Bros.
The Wrap Up
Hardback is a fantastic game which has been given a fantastic digital implementation. The gripes are minor to the point of them feeling silly to even point out. The only meaningful complaint right now is the lack of online player base, so I’d suggest bringing a friend or three along if you want to play other people. The underlying game expands on Paperback in meaningful ways, almost to the point of rendering Paperback obsolete. I’d still use Paperback as a great “first deck builder” when trying to convert Scrabble fans, but outside of that I will be playing Hardback over Paperback going forward, which is impressive considering I am a big fan of Paperback.