Paperback Plays Well, Looks Spartan

Tim Fowers’ Paperback card game is a unique crossover between word games and deck builders. I’m a big fan of both genres, so I couldn’t resist picking the physical game up after its 2014 release. I also couldn’t resist the new iOS version, so how does the game stand up as an app?

The good news is that the game is exactly the same. You play Paige Turner, an aspiring pulp novelist banging out books at pennies a word. (The theme is thin, but the victory point cards are decorated with cute book covers.) Each turn, you have a hand full of letter cards. You use these letters to spell out a word of your choice. You then add up the penny value of each letter in the word and spend your pennies on new letters for your deck.

Rare and expensive letters earn more pennies, and many letters have special powers. If you earn enough money, you can also buy wild card letters that give you victory points. There are a few other twists, but the game boils down to spell words, get more letters, spell cooler words. It’s clean system that encourages creativity, and if you like word games it’s a lot of fun.

The app version of Paperback executes the game well. The interface is simple, and I had no trouble moving my letters around the rack to try out spellings or different wild cards. The game has a solid dictionary, and the AI opponents have no trouble coming up with entertaining words. I felt challenged during my games, which gave me plenty of motivation to try to come up with my best words.

paperback play
This word was pretty good.

No Frills Paperback

Where the app is lacking is that there’s not much there except the game. Asmodee’s digital arm set the standard for this kind of board game translation with their Splendor app. It was a little difficult for new players to master, but presented a nice set of variants and challenges that showed off the flexibility of the game. Paperback has no variants, no achievements to pursue, and (for now) no online play. You can play the AI or pass-and-play with friends, and that’s about it.

The game also does a poor job of teaching itself to new players. It shares the basics of how to play with big, clear messages, which is good. But it tells you almost noting about the game’s theme, goals, and strategy. Even a simple web link to a rules page would have been nice here. As it is, the game is likely to be incomprehensible to anyone who isn’t already a fan of the tabletop version.

There are also a few annoying user experience errors. There’s no running scoreboard showing all the players at once, which is inconvenient when you’re trying to figure out if now is a good time for you to end the game. And when you do finish the game, there’s no “Next” or “New Game!” button on the final score screen. These are minor issues, but they’re typical of apps that needed another cycle or two of user interface design.

paperback end
Not much of an end screen.

The flaws and omissions put Paperback into a typical situation for these board game conversion apps. The game is a must-buy if you’re already a fan and want more opportunities to play. But the best board game apps win new converts to the game, and this app is not quite ready to do that yet.