Tabletop Review- Hardback
I was killing some time and browsing an FLGS in Georgia looking for a new game to fill some time and introduce to my wife’s family while we were visiting. My personal tastes lean more toward challenging games like Tainted Grail: The Fall of Avalon and Gloomhaven, rather than quick play games like Fire Tower. Trying to find a game that would still challenge me but be easy for my in-laws in their seventies to enjoy was not an easy task. Thankfully, the helpful staff at Level Up Games recommended Hardback to me as “the gamer’s word game”. Despite being on the fence, I decided to take the gamble and was not disappointed.
The premise of Hardback is that up to five players take on the role of novelists looking to write the next great literary classic. Players start with a deck of ten cards that each have a single a single letter on them. Players will draw five cards from their deck and use those to spell out a word using as many of those cards as possible.
What’s so refreshing about Hardback is that unlike other word based games, having an uncommon letter like “Y” or “X” isn’t a death sentence. As each letter is scored separately any card in your hand can be played face down as a wild card to complete your word. The trade off is that you don’t score points for any wild cards. If you ever get stuck with a bad hand, you can empty it out by playing the cards as wilds to get a fresh hand for the next round.
Depending on which cards you play to spell your word, players will either earn Prestige Points (represented by a star symbol) or a cent (represented by a coin). Players score by earning Prestige Points. The game ends when the first player reaches sixty points.
On the other hand, currency is used to purchase new cards. Set before the players is a market of seven new cards to choose from and add to their deck. As soon as a card is purchased, a new one is drawn to replace it.
Are you with us so far? Here’s where the “gamer’s word game” rears its head. With the exception of the starting hand cards, every card in Hardback is part of a color coded suit referred to as genres. Every card you add to the deck will either be a Romance, Horror, Mystery, or Adventure genre card. Each genre card has additional rewards that players earn when they play two cards of that suit in their words. What’s even more fun is that each genre has two exclusive reward types that will force players to more carefully consider what they spend their hard earned pennies on.
For example the Romance genre, notated by the dark red color of the cards, has two possible bonus rewards players can earn by playing two Romance cards in the same word. One of those is “double an adjacent card” reward which lets you double the rewards from (obviously) an adjacent card, like they’re holding hands. Of course, you can’t refer to romance literature without acknowledging all of the dime store trash out there. For that reason, the Romance genre also has the option to “trash” or completely remove a card from your discard in exchange for extra currency.
In contrast, the Mystery cards have Jail and Uncover mechanics. With Jail, players can take a card from the market, set it aside, and lock it. That card can no longer be purchased by anyone other than the player who locked it. Should they so choose, they could also remove it from the game completely. Either way, this ability can be used to deny opponents cards that they so desperately want. The other effect that Mystery genre grants are the opportunity to flip over cards that were placed face down as wild cards to gain their rewards, even after they’ve been played, not unlike uncovering a clue.
The use of suits/genres is what makes Hardback so intriguing. Players are not only putting their vocabulary to the test, but they’re also building a deck of cards with added effects that can create clever effect combinations not unlike Keyforge or Magic: The Gathering. The basic concepts of scoring and purchasing cards are incredibly easy to teach anyone, no matter what the range of their gaming experience is while simultaneously challenging players to think of their market purchases more strategically than they would in other word games.
Since getting my hands on Hardback, I’ve taught the game to a few different groups of people ranging from those who haven’t played a board game in a decade to friends who play constantly. In each instance, the basic construction of words was really easy for everyone at the table to grasp. Play cards from your hand, play face down if you need a wild card, stars are points, and coins are money to buy new cards. My friends and in-laws both understood it pretty quickly.
It’s when you start incorporating the strategies behind choosing which suit of cards to purchase that it starts to become challenging for every player to comprehend all of the rules and what their best options are.
And then there are the timeless classic cards. Most of the game’s cards sit vertically as one might expect in a card game. However, there are some genre cards that are printed horizontally and are referred to as timeless classics. These cards are used normally from a player’s hand to spell their word, then scored as any other card, but instead of discarding the cards played that round, the timeless classic cards remains in play.
The game continues as normal until it returns to the player who used the classic card. If all goes well, the timeless classic card will still be in play; this lets the player create a six letter word rather than five letters, giving them extra rewards. However, timeless classic cards in play are available to be used by any player. Should another player use the classic card for themselves, the person who originally played it removes it from play and puts it in their discard pile, unable to use it until they draw it again. This allows other players to reap the benefits of the timeless classic card. While it might force them to change their initial plans, all players now have the opportunity to generate even more rewards.
And then there’s the ink tokens. It’s not uncommon that players will end up with one or two spare cents at the end of the round that they aren’t enough to purchase any new cards. Instead, they could buy a little black inkwell to be used later. These inkwell tokens represent the push your luck element of Hardback. Each round, players can spend an ink to draw a card from the top of their deck and place it face up in front of them to be used in their next word. This is the easiest way to create larger words. The catch is that any card obtained by spending an ink absolutely must be used on the next turn face up and under no circumstances can they be used as wild cards. There’s no limit to how many ink tokens can be spent on a turn, but if players can’t spell a word with the cards they’ve drawn, they’ll simply have to pass and forfeit their turn. Using ink wisely late in the game is an excellent way to generate some great genre reward combos, but it will always be a risky gamble.
The only way to undo a disaster when a player has cornered themselves by spending too much ink is by using the ever elusive ink remover. Unlike ink, ink remover tokens can’t be purchased under normal circumstances. Instead, ink remover can be earned as a Horror genre reward. If a player ever finds themselves with a bad card thanks to an inkwell, they can spend ink remover to take one of those cards from play and place it back to their hand. Ink remover is not easy to obtain and therefore should never be relied on, but they’re arguable one of the most valuable pieces in the game and the only way to recover from a gamble gone wrong.
As if that wasn’t already enough, Hardback has five rule variants called Fan Fiction Cards that can be added to the game for an additional challenge. My personal favorite is the event deck. Every time a player reaches a new decade (scores into the next multiple of ten) a new event card is drawn that effects all players. One card reduces the number of letters players can use in a word to four and another prevents players from using the letter “N” in any of their words. It’s a great optional addition for those who might want to experience the added curve ball and factor of randomness.
But many players like to optimize their moves and go for the big scoring items. For those players, both the Adverts and Literary Awards modules are good ways to score extra points if the lofty goals can be met. Adverts allows players to advertise their work by spending money to automatically gain hefty point rewards. Spending six cents will earn players a measly three points, but if they play their cards right, a game changing twenty points are available for all the wealth S.O.Bs that can afford to spend eighteen cents. For game balancing purposes, each player can only use each advert value once per game.
Literary Awards are somewhat similar but instead of each player having their own set of rewards to earn, all players are competing for the same earnings. A Literary award is given to the player who has spelled the longest word. Beginning with seven letter words and going as high as twelve letters, players immediately earn the award card and place the award card in front of them upon spelling their word. The trick is that the points aren’t counted until the end of the game and these awards can be stolen by other players once they achieve the same feat. Spelling a twelve letter word awards a fifteen point boost, so these accolades are highly sough after.
There’s also an option to play with a set of unique abilities for each player that gives them bonuses along the lines of earning prestige points or forcing another player to play use a card from their hand without gaining points. In order to activate these powers, players must spend ink remover making each use a costly endeavor.
And last but not least is the cooperative game mode. As much as I enjoy board games, there’s always a chance that someone at the table is too competitive for their own good and spoils the night with their mood if they don’t win. For that reason, I prefer co-op games where players compete against the game itself. In Hardback players have the option to work together to against Penny Dreadful who is working to undermine the authors by stealing cards from the market. Penny will earn a series of points depending on which cards were removed and it’s up to the other writers to work together to prevent her from thwarting the next great work of literature.
There is a lot of content and variability in such a tiny box making Hardback a worthwhile addition to any collection. There are however a few caveats. Fowers Games sells Hardback for $38 which feels a bit high for a small box game. It’s also a little long. While I enjoy it enough to play just about any day of the week, the game can go on for an hour and a half at higher player counts. Most of the games I enjoy will take significantly longer than that, but in those cases they at least have a change in action such as moving around, combat, searching for items or clues. The repetition of spelling with cards can overstay its welcome after about forty five minutes. For that reason, we often play to a lower Prestige point threshold.
But I also say that as someone in their thirties who doesn’t have kids and has a collection of more exciting action games and deep strategy games. Hardback would be the perfect addition for families who are either working with their children on spelling or seeking to get them into more complicated games. There’s a lot of fun to be had with this one regardless of who you are, you just might enjoy it in different ways.
1 to 5 players.
45 – 90 minutes.
It’s easy to teach the round structure but players who aren’t familiar with deck building mechanics may struggle to quickly generate points.
The card art leans heavily on the leather bound book motif. Fowers Games did an excellent developing a literary theme rather than just thinly slapping it on.
Hardback has so many different combinations of modules that can be used that it will be quite awhile before we’re tired of it.