Full disclosure: A preview copy of Hardback was provided by Fowers Games. I generally try to keep my comments gameplay-focused (though I do love the art here), but please keep in mind that this is a preview of a currently unreleased game, so the rules can change (and already have changed, in some cases).
You don’t really see a lot of “sequel games”, especially when games don’t have an explicit storyline (for instance, Pandemic Legacy: Season 2 is a sequel to Season 1 [at least, maybe it is], but it is an explicit game with a plot), as you’ll usually end up with spiritual successors / spinoffs / expansions.
Hardback, however, endeavors to change that by presenting itself as a prequel to Paperback, another deckbuilder / word game by Tim Fowers. In it, you try to collect Prestige by spelling words that will earn money and Prestige, and buying extra cards with the money you got from the cards you bought. However, unlike Paperback, there’s Ink and Ink Remover, which allows you to make some risky edits to your manuscripts. Can you make all the write moves? (heh)
So, first, set up the board and give each player a pair of cubes in their color. Set the ink (black cubes) and ink remover (white cubes) near the board, and have the players put their cubes on the 0 Prestige and the P1 – P4 Advert spots:
Cool. Now, every player will have an 8-card starter deck. Look for grey cards with pips in the corner:
They’re all the same, so just make sure everyone has a full set of cards with the same number of pips. Then, shuffle and give each player two starting Prestige Cards, which they will shuffle into their deck:
Once you’ve done that, shuffle the various other Letter cards to form the Offer Deck:
And place 7 face-up in front of the board to form the Offer, and have each player shuffle their starter deck and draw 5 cards. You’ll also want to place the Bestseller cards near teh board, face-up. After that, you should be ready to start!
So, Hardback is a deckbuilder, which means it plays like Paperback, Dominion, and Flip City, but it’s also a word game, like Letter Tycoon or Wordsy. If you’ve never seen this sort of mashup before, I’d recommend reading my Paperback review, where I go a bit more in-depth, but essentially, here’s what you’re doing every turn:
- [OPTIONAL] Spend Ink to draw additional cards that you must use in your word. If you have Ink, you can use it to press your luck and draw cards that must be in the word you spell. You place the Ink token spent on them to denote that they’re required. You can do this before your turn starts (and honestly, should, otherwise the game slows down.)
- Spell a word or pass your turn. You must use the cards in your hand + any Inked cards + any opponent’s Persistent Cards (the horizontal ones). Here’s the deal:
- The word must be a valid English word. No weird proper nouns or Pokemon or anything. Use a Scrabble dictionary; it’ll save you time.
- At any point, you can flip over a card and play it face-down as a wild. You don’t get any benefits from it, but I’ll talk more about what the benefits are later on.
- Any cards with an Ink token on them must be in your word. If you have Ink Remover, you can remove an Ink token, which is handy.
- If you’re stuck, you can reveal your hand and take suggestions. If you take someone’s suggestion, they take an Ink token from the Supply. You may want to start a timer at this point, just out of courtesy to other players.
- You’re welcome to use your Persistent Card or others’. If you use yours, you get the benefit(s) whether or not you use it. If you use another player’s (and you can!), it provides no benefit but is immediately discarded. That’s usually enough to annoy somebody.
- Resolve card effects. I’ll cover this a bit more in a section further down, but different cards have different effects based on their genres. There are four different genres:
- Blue: Mystery (Magnifying Glass)
- Green: Horror (Spooky Skull)
- Yellow: Adventure (Compass)
- Red: Romance (Heart)
When you play a card, it will usually gain you money and / or Prestige, so tally that up now. However, some cards have a line below which is their symbol. This is a Genre Bonus, in that it triggers for a card if another card of that type is also in your word. It’s similar to Marvel Legendary, but there’s no ordering, so it’s a bidirectional trigger (basically, two Adventure cards with Genre Bonuses both trigger). This usually adds another effect, sometimes a genre-specific one. Will cover more later.
If you have Persistent Cards (the horizontal ones), you score their benefit whether or not they were included in your word. However, if you used another player’s Persistent Card, it’s discarded. You don’t get the benefit, but neither will they, now. Nice work, you jerk.
Anyways, Prestige is just points, so move yourself up on the score track. If you hit 60 Prestige Points, the game ends when the round ends. Even then, save the money for the Buy Phase.
- [OPTIONAL] Clear the Offer. You can wipe out all the cards in the Offer and refresh it with 7 new cards if either of the following are true:
- There are four cards of the same genre in the Offer.
- There are four cards that cost at least 6 cents in the Offer.
This allows you to completely refresh the Offer before the Buy Phase, but you can only do this once per turn.
- Buy. This phase lets you buy cards from the Offer, Adverts for pure points, or Ink tokens for 1 cent.
- If you buy a card from the Offer, you “pay” its cost in money (so you have that much less money to spend) and then add it to your discard pile. You immediately draw a new card from the Offer to replace it. That’s just the rule. You may not want to buy multiple cards at once, because of that.
- If you buy an Advert, you pay the price in the left column for the row immediately below your piece, and then you move to that spot. You have to pay 6 cents, then 9 cents, then so on up to 18 cents.
- If you buy Ink tokens, spend 1 cent and add them near you. You can buy as many as you can afford.
If you have the money, you can buy as much as you want of anything you want, in any combination. Take that, Dominion‘s buying restrictions.
- [OPTIONAL] Claim a Bestseller card. If you managed to do something really impressive and spell a word of 7+ letters, you are a bestseller! You can take the Bestseller card matching the length of your word and put it in front of you, even if another player currently has it. It is the bestseller, after all. But it gets worse! You also remove from the game every Bestseller card with fewer letters. There can really be only one. At the end of the game, the Bestseller card will provide additional points to whomever has it, so do not advance on the Prestige track when you take this card. You only score these bonus points at the end of the game. (NOTE: These are now referred to as “Endorsements”.)
- Discard cards. Discard all the cards that you played (except for your Persistent Cards) to their owners’ respective discard piles. Return Ink tokens you spent this turn to the Ink repository near the board.
- Draw your next hand. Draw 5 more cards from the top of the deck. If you don’t have enough cards in your deck to draw, shuffle the discard pile and draw the remaining cards from on that pile. It is now your deck. Do not shuffle your discard pile or deck otherwise unless explicitly stated. Part of the game is this “cycling” by which new cards get added to what will become your deck again.
Anyways, play continues until one player hits 60+ Prestige Points. Once the round ends, the game ends. Add up your points (and include the Bestseller) and the player with the most points wins!
Now, let’s talk about cards:
Each card will look either like the left card or the right card. The left card is your regular Hardback card, but the right is a Persistent Card. This means, as mentioned previously, that it sticks around and provides more benefits from turn to turn. However, it’s inviting other players to use it and then discard it, both for the extra letter and to deny you the free benefit of it. I don’t see them sticking around a lot in large games.
That said, each card has one of four different Genres:
So let’s explore them!
Meet the Genres – Adventure
Adventure cards are all about quick gains! These cards can have up to two genre-specific benefits:
- Instant Prestige: Look at the expanded price tag! This card gains you that Prestige value immediately when you buy it. A great way to get even further gains on a solid turn.
- Trash this Card: Did you buy a terrible Adventure card? Does it not fit with your strategy? Some Adventure cards have a “Trash this Card” benefit, in which you can earn money or Prestige for throwing this card out of the game. If you trash this card, place it outside of the game area — nobody can retrieve it.
Meet the Genres – Horror
Horror cards are all about choices (like, “Should we go upstairs and investigate the strange noise in the spooky house”!), and the choices are usually great ways to adapt your strategy as your goals change. Here are Horror’s genre benefits:
- Take Ink or Remover: This ability gives you the chance to get a free Ink token or a free Ink Remover token (not normally obtainable!). What would scare your opponents more than convincing them you’re about to mess up your turn by overusing ink, only to wash all the bad Ink tokens away with remover? … Probably lots of things, but hey, I’m doing what I can.
- Coins or Prestige: Many Horror cards give you a choice as to which you’d like to earn. Get coins for buying awesome cards, sure, but Prestige pushes you closer and closer to 60…
Meet the Genres – Mystery
Mystery cards are all about uncovering things that have been hidden (and the riches within) and strange disappearances! What will you discover? These are Mystery’s genre benefits:
- Uncover Adjacent Wild: You know how you play Wild cards face-down? Well, this card reveals one Wild card on either the left or right of this card. That’s cool and all, but then it lets you score that card normally. This includes genre bonuses! Did you buy some great cards that you’ll never get to play? Flip them down next to an Uncover Adjacent Wild card and unlock those hidden riches!
- Remove Card from Offer: This lets you get rid of a pesky card in the Offer. Discard it to the pile where you discard other cards cleared from the Offer (not the Trash pile; they need to be distinct, in case you run out of cards in the Offer and need to reshuffle). Great way to get rid of a card that your opponent had their eyes on, but I mean, cards disappear all the time, right? (NOTE: This has since been change to “Lock Up A Card in the Offer” — it’s more like Splendor, in that you “reserve” a card to a special pool that only you can purchase from in the future.)
Meet the Genres – Romance
Sure, romances are a bit trashy, but they definitely prove that things are always better with two… or sometimes three?
- Trash Another Card: As noted, Romance cards are trashy (I wish this were my pun), and you can use them to get rid of cards in your hand or your discard pile. If you’re unfamiliar with why trashing cards is good, ask a Dominion player about Chapel.
- Double Adjacent Card: This doubles either the money output or the Prestige output of the card on its left or right. That’s pretty good, no matter how you spin it. If you happened to play two cards that both doubled the same card, that card’s effect is tripled, not quadrupled. Three’s a lot, but four is definitely too many. Note that this does not apply to effects like “Remove Card from Offer” or “Take Ink or Remover”. You just choose whether you want to double the money output of the card or the Prestige output of the card.
That’s the whole game! Again, play until any player hits 60 Prestige Points, then finish the round so every player has the same number of turns. Add the Bestseller’s bonus points, and the player with the most Prestige wins!
Player Count Differences
I’d say I need to play it a bit more to come to a firm conclusion, but the game doesn’t really scale its victory condition to the number of players (Dominion, for instance, requires more Provinces be in play), so it just ends up taking the same amount of time per player, just with four players instead of two. I’d say at higher player counts I’d start enforcing things like a turn timer and using ink on other player’s turns to start getting ready for your turn. Right now I’m probably most likely to play this with 2-3 players.
- Keep to 1 – 2 Genres. Like most deckbuilders, you can run the risk of diluting your deck with “junk” and drawing cards that don’t help you. This problem is compounded in Hardback, as you generally want to draw two cards of the same genre (at least!) in a hand of 5. If you have a bunch of cards from all four genres, you run the risk of drawing a bunch of cards that won’t combo off of each other, which is worse than if you did draw a combo, as you might guess.
- Every genre has its strengths. Play to them. As I mentioned earlier, each of the genres focuses on different things. With Mystery, for instance, being able to uncover wilds means that you can take more risks with words, especially if you press your luck on nice cards and remove the Ink with Horror’s Remover. With Romance, you can very easily clear out your deck of nearly every other card, guaranteeing solid draws. Adventure cards are generally positive, but you can trash them for money when you really need it. Try to focus your deck around the things these cards do best.
- Flushing the Offer is usually a decent idea, unless you like the genre or have a lot of money. If you want all the cards in the Offer, don’t bother flushing it, but even if you only want one, you might just be better off flushing if you can. I’ve had a lot of success with it — it’s a great way to keep opponents from cards that, if you’re keeping track, they might need.
- Combos! It’s not just important to focus within a genre — you also want to make sure you’re getting cards that are good and comboable. For that, this often means not taking the X, Y, Z, Q, and J in five turns, because, well, that’s not as good of a word as it might sound.
- Persistent Cards essentially are just “you must use this letter in your next word” markers. You really don’t want your opponent to get free benefits, so it’s a solid constraint on your turn. Though, if everyone knows this, you might be able to just ignore it and pass the constraint onto the next player…
- Remember “useful” words. Sometimes you get lucky and you can focus on certain letters, rather than words. For instance, I kept drawing a J and an F. Jafar is, regrettably, not a valid word, but JUSTIFY is. Imagine my delight when I drew another J, F, and a U next turn. (It helped that I had remover, so I could use Ink and then spend them as wilds.) Similar to Paperback, it can be helpful to repeat the same turn if you want the same results.
- Try to remember your deck. This helps when buying cards (at least, you should remember what genres you have) and deciding whether or not to Ink (you should always know what the last card in your deck is).
- Focus on Adverts if you’ve got a lot of buying power. At a certain point, you have so much money that buying more cards will only serve to dilute the deck. If that’s the case, you should focus on Adverts! They’re a LOT of points once you get going. Doubling your coins via Romance cards might help with that…
- Ink Remover facilitates the Endorsement process. If you somehow get 7 Ink and Remover (or even remotely lucky), you can pretty easily burn them all for a 12-letter word that’s almost completely wild. 17 points is nothing to shake a stick at.
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I still love deckbuilders. Just a game archetype that I really appreciate.
- I also really like word games. It’s tough, but it’s a solid genre for me.
- The art is super cool! It’s nice, consistent, colorful, and looks very bookish. The cards are super pretty. Looking forward to seeing what I can do with the photography.
- It’s a fresh pivot from Paperback. It has some similar vibes, but the question I get asked a lot is if it’s “different enough”. They’re very different games, even though they’re both word games / deckbuilders. Hardback totally has a place on the shelf next to Paperback, though I might contend that Hardback feels like Advanced Paperback to me, in some ways. I’d be more likely to show someone just getting into games Paperback, first. Generally I’d compare Paperback to Dominion and Hardback to more Marvel Legendary, given how the comboing / Offer works.
- It seems like no genre is explicitly better than another, so it’s been pretty well balanced. I’ve been experimenting between genre types (and obviously I can’t do every combination of matchups), but I’ve been keeping to about 1 – 2 genres per game with a lot of success. I would not say any genre is “bad”, which is also nice.
- The cards themselves have been balanced against each other pretty well. In my initial playthroughs we found a few cards that were significantly better than other cards, so I provided some feedback. They’ve adjusted the cards and after comparing them to my preview version they seem to be better balanced to avoid dominant strategies emerging. I appreciate them considering my feedback, so I also wanted to reiterate that they’ve put a lot of work into balancing this game, here.
- The ability to make any card wild is very cool, but can also aggravate analysis paralysis. I think it’s awesome that you can flip over a card to make it wild (especially if you’re running a Mystery genre strategy and then using those buried cards for genre bonuses), but that also aggressively expands the decision space for any particular word. This can cause some players to slow down or lock up as they try to figure out every possible combination of every possible letter (myself included, sometimes), so keep that in mind.
- It can play pretty slowly, especially as you add more players. It’s tough to enforce a turn timer, but the whole “being able to Ink at any point” is helpful for letting you get your turn started a bit early and start thinking about words. That said, if you attempt to spell a word and it’s not accepted, you have to start your turn from scratch. My best advice? Let players use a Scrabble dictionary to look up if their word is a word; it’ll save everyone time. And honestly, just use a turn timer. Once time’s up, nothing bad happens — they just have to show their hand and everyone helps them. Once they accept a suggestion, normal suggestion rules apply. It’s just a courtesy thing.
Overall: 8.75 / 10
Overall, I’ve really enjoyed Hardback! For one thing, I love how the whole game fits together, thematically. I’m also a big fan of word games by default, but there are plenty of things to set it apart. The push-your-luck element is always great (even more so if you can get remover), the art’s awesome, and I love the genre synergies; I try to use a different setup every game. What would be really interesting to me is if we started seeing expansion sets in the Dale of Merchants vein, where they added additional genres (Biography, Sci-Fi, Fantasy, etc.) with their own effects as they explored the space. I think there’s a lot of potential, here, and I’m excited to see where Hardback goes next! I’ll almost certainly be backing it, myself.