Hardback Board Game Review
By MARK WILSON
Year Published: 2018
Playing Time: 45-90 Minutes
Word games. Inherently problematic. Not in the sense that we think of, say, racist tropes from old cinema as problematic. But in a gaming sense.
Playing with a kid? The adult will have a categorical advantage. Playing with a non-native speaker? Spelling will likely be a nightmare. Hell, even if spelling simply isn’t your strong suit, you may be in store for more frustration than fun, regardless of the game in question.
So we’ve established who our audience isn’t. But games like Scrabble are still beloved by millions, so it’s possible to still have loads of fun putting together words from permutations of letters.
Hardback – The Premise
Hardback exists in this lineage. Here, you’re building words that are worth either points or money (or, occasionally, both), and the money is used to buy more and more beneficial letters into your hand of cards. These cards cycle into your usable hand throughout the game, and you’re tasked with maximizing your hand to make the biggest words.
Hardback is the direct successor to Paperback, a word game that could be described using almost the exact same paragraph above. In both, you’re building decks of cards that you use to build large, point-scoring words.
Paperback’s letters often have abilities attached to them. For example, draw two additional cards in the next round if you use a particular letter in a word, or the card is worth more money if it’s the first letter in your word.
Press Your Ink
Hardback trades these powers in for Ink and Remover. Buy ink instead of a new card, and you can use ink to draw another card, but it HAS to be used this round. Draw more in this way, and they also have to be used. Hopefully you see the problem.
Draw too many, and you’ve pressed your luck too far and will have to forfeit your entire hand if you can’t use all of the “inked” cards.
Enter: Remover, which lets you remove the necessity of using a card drawn with ink.
These mechanics allow you to tie your own noose and hang yourself with it, or perhaps narrowly escape if you have enough remover or are clever enough to utilize multiple mandatory letters in a word.
Downtime and Interaction
Paperback has fans, and I consider myself among them. But it also breaks a really strong rule for me. Namely, it’s a game that doesn’t feature much player interaction. Like, at all. There are a couple optional, lightly “take that” cards, and optional rules to make things a touch more collective. But the heart of the game is you and your cards, and the internal puzzle of the words you build.
This also results in ample downtime on occasion.
Hardback attempts to solve one of these issues (downtime), though it makes only cursory efforts to increase interaction. This is still a mostly solitary game.
On downtime, though, you can be (and should be) using Ink and Remover when it’s not your turn, and sussing out the word for your next turn. There are also communal cards that are technically owned by one player, but can be used by all. It doesn’t mean you need to pay much attention to them, frankly, but it’s something.
In doing this, Hardback amenably cuts down on analysis-induced downtime, so it will be an improvement for some over Paperback.
How Forgiving is Too Forgiving?
I mentioned the Ink, and how it deliciously allows you to tie your own noose, so to speak.
Hardback also sands off some of the sharper edges of Paperback by making any card (besides Ink-drawn cards) capable of acting as a wild card. There are wilds in Paperback, but they’re not as reliable at acting as a parachute.
This means that you’ll always have something decent to spell, even if it costs you an extra point or cent (the game’s money). Technically, these are your penalties for turning regular cards into Wilds. But in practice, it doesn’t feel very punitive, but rather as though the game is afraid of letting you fail too hard.
The genre system in Hardback, which incentivizes pairing certain letters that you purchase for additional rewards, also isn’t quite as much of a necessity as many of Paperback’s abilities. It creates more flexibility in when and how you use letters, safe in the knowledge that you’ll rarely have a round bad enough to sink your chances.
This makes the triumphs less dramatic, because you’re generally going to be able to craft solid, 4- or 5-letter words no matter what. Paperback’s more catastrophic rounds necessitate bolder comebacks. An equivalent exists here as well in the form of 2-5 Ink draws that turn sour, but if you have Remover to be able to turn most of these into regular cards (capable of becoming wild), spelling an 8-10 letter word is more rote.
The one time I spelled a 10-letter word in Paperback, it felt epic, and it won me the game on the spot. I still enjoy recalling that session years later. I can’t say the same for Hardback, which holds my hand a bit too much to feel like those same moments are truly earned.
Hardback – Conclusions
If there’s some ambiguity here, it’s deliberate.
Is Hardback a better game than Paperback? By most conventional measures, yes. And I suspect that more people will enjoy it compared to its older sibling.
But Hardback’s comparatively more gamified elements also create less stark contrasts in the game’s moments. I own Paperback, and haven’t been moved to replace it in my collection with Hardback, or to keep them side-by-side. And yet, for a general gaming audience, Hardback is probably the safer recommendation.
The good news is, if you like flexing your lexical creativity, either will suffice. I dislike Scrabble, because competitive play necessitates the memorization of a bunch of obscure 2- and 3-letter words, to cram into every nook and cranny of the board. Many other word games suffer similar fates, where you’ll routinely top out at 4-letter words, and the whole thing becomes a bit boring.
Here, though, you really could push for a 12-letter word by the game’s end. There’s a thrill in that. Sure, half of them are likely to be wild cards. But you still had to wrap your brain around how they all fit together, and accumulate enough Ink and Remover tokens to even make it possible. It’s a cumulative effort, and one that will scratch the lexophile’s itch. It perhaps has a few too many bells & whistles at times, but thankfully, these are on top of the consistently strong word puzzle.
Want to try Hardback before buying? It’s on Board Game Arena, and imo doesn’t suffer a ton from digital play (though it’s an easy one to cheat at online, so I’d recommend playing with friends).