Tim Fowers is known for running a scrappy little board game shop producing fun and unique games like Burgle Bros. and Now Boarding. He followed up his original Scrabble-like deck-builder Paperback with a sequel called Hardback, and now Paperback Adventures carries on in that vein, merging the word-building mechanic with roguelikes. If Scrabble and Slay the Spire had a baby, here’s what it would look like.
You’re going down, Sludge Alien! i just have to find the right 4-letter word. Hi – it’s Ryan from Nights Around a Table. Here’s how you play Paperback Adventures.
You play an archetypal character from a particular genre of literature, who is fighting other archetypal characters from their various corners of literature. Your challenge is to defeat the lackey and boss characters from three different books, or levels, as the game’s difficulty increases, but your hitpoints don’t, using words as your ammunition. Thankfully, you’ll be aided by powerful items, ability-granting McGuffins, and an increasing hand of letter cards that you can upgrade to pack a more powerful Pulitzer Prize-winning punch. If you manage to defeat the final fiend from book free, you’ll unlock a new card for your character that lets you play the game in a whole new way. But if your enemies end up ensnaring you, you’ll get knocked back to the first page of book one where you’ll have to start all over again!
Paperback Adventures is a “roguelike” board game. Rogue was a dungeon crawling video game from 1980 with a unique approach: if your character died, you’d have to start over again from the beginning. So the challenge was to see how much better you could play on each successive run through the dungeon, and how much farther you could make it towards the finish line. If you’re familiar with modern roguelike video games like Slay the Spire, FTL, and Rogue Legacy, you’ll feel right at home here. If you’re new to roguelikes, the most important thing to keep in mind is that dying is a feature, not a bug!
You kick things off by choosing a character. I’ll demonstrate how to play with Ex Machina the sci fi robot, but later on i’ll show you some of the differences that other characters bring to the game, like Plothook the swashbuckling pirate, and Damsel the fantasy rogue.
Each character has a board and a character card in the middle of it that’s double-sided – special ability instructions on one side, and unobstructed character art on the other for more experienced players. We’re new to the game, so let’s use this side. You get three tokens to mark your energy, boons, and hexes, which start at zero, as well as an orange marker to keep track of your hitpoints, which start at 20.
This is the Archive, which has a deck of regular McGuffins, Boss McGuffins, items, a library of letter cards you can earn by defeating enemies, and a stack of penalty cards that you’ll be required to use if things go terribly wrong.
Over here is the Shop, where you can buy additional items, McGuffins, and letter cards whenever you defeat an enemy. “McGuffin,” by the way, is the literary and filmic term for any object that kicks off the plot, like the bird statue in the Maltese Falcon, or the rug in The Big Lebowski. You know – the one that really tied the room together.
You’ll grab two random Book 1 enemies: one lackey, and one boss. You’ll fight the lackey first. Like your character, the enemy gets his own board and a double-sided card, but you have to start with the stage 1 side face-up.v The enemy also gets markers for boons, hexes, and energy, as well as an HP marker that starts wherever the card says it should.
Instead of tracking the enemy’s energy level, the blue marker tracks the enemy’s abilities. It always starts off by pointing at the topmost ability. This lackey only has one ability, but other enemies have multiple abilities that you cycle through while you fight.
Each enemy also has a secret weakness tied to a vowel in its name. The Pesky Suitor is vulnerable to the letter I, so you grab that enemy vowel card from the core box and put it face-up in front of you. You also get a wild card, and your starting deck of 10 letter cards – those are the ones with a little circled arrow on the bottom. Make sure that none of these cards say “Upgraded” at the bottom – if they do, just flip them around and resleeve them.
Your character has a couple of unique abilities – Ex Machina has Reboot Switch and Laser Eyes – and a starter item. Ex Machina’s starter item is Rocket Punch.
We’re almost ready to fight, but since this is the training mode for absolute beginners, we have a couple of other things to set up.
These purple Plot Twist cards make the game more or less difficult. In Training mode, you use two of them: Inside Intel, and Animal Companion. Inside Intel lets you use the more powerful side of the enemy’s vowel card that has these helpful icons on it. And the Animal Companion plot twist gives you the Strange Egg Boss McGuffin right from the start of the game, which gives you an extra wild card. Finally, Training Mode gives you the Lady’s Favor McGuffin, which lets you start with an extra 5 hitpoints.
Looks like everything’s where it should be. Are you ready? Let’s get ready to fight!
You begin your turn by drawing 4 cards from your deck. You get to strike first, and the blue marker shows you ahead of time what your enemy is planning to do. In this case, the Pesky Suitor is preparing to deal 5 damage to you, and then heal 5 of his own hitpoints. Let’s see if we can’t mitigate that move.
The green shields on your cards block the damage your enemy deals, and the red swords cause your enemy damage. The blue lightning bolts let you increase your energy, and spending energy lets you use your items. To find out how many of each symbol you get, you have to form a valid word using the letter cards from your hand. Generally, the longer the word you make, the better, because any letter cards you don’t use in your word will get discarded.
Now, here’s the key thing going on in Paperback Adventures: you have to decide whether to splay your word right, so that the first letter in the word is on the top of the stack, or splay your cards left, so that the first letter in your word is on the bottom of the stack. Generally, if you splay left, you’ll get more defense icons, and if you splay right, you’ll get more attack icons. The other thing to consider is that whichever card is on top – which’ll be the first or last letter in your word – gives you a special extra ability or effect. However, at the end of your turn, all of your cards go into your discard pile, but the top card goes into your exhausted pile, and you won’t be able to use that card for the rest of the fight. So your deck of cards gets smaller and smaller with each round of battle. That’s why it’s generally best to defeat an enemy in as few moves as possible.
Once you’ve decided which way to splay your cards, count up the blue energy symbols you see and move your blue marker up that many spaces on your player board. You have one wild card you can use in your word – or in Training Mode, you have two wild cards – just stuff it in there if you need an extra letter to make a valid word. If you use a wild card and it’s on top of the pile, you treat the card beneath it as your top card.
If you don’t use any wildcards in your word, then for each wildcard you didn’t use, you gain an extra energy point.
Finally, it’s time to dole out the hurt!
Fire off the special power on your topmost card. Then, count up the red damage icons on your splay and knock the bad guy down that many hitpoint notches. Depending on who you’re fighting and which power your enemy’s using, your enemy may block part or all of your attack – remember to factor in your enemy’s defenses when you tally up any damage you do. You should also keep an eye on the bottom of your enemy’s card, where there might be some extra abilities you need to pay attention to.
Once your turn is finished, it’s the enemy’s turn to go. You have to execute whatever’s written in the slot the blue marker is pointing to. In this case, the Pesky Suitor does 5 damage to you, and makes you lose an energy point. If you had any green icons on your splay, you could block some or all of that damage. But if not, you have to move your HP marker along the track to mark the number of hitpoints you just lost.
When either you or your enemy heal any amount of hitpoints, like the Pesky Suitor does, you can never heal past your maximum health, which is the number of hitpoints you started the battle with. So you can never heal past 20 hitpoints (or 25 hitpoints in tutorial mode), and in stage 1, the Pesky Suitor can never heal past 5 hitpoints.
Blocks and damage icons don’t carry over into future turns, so if you have 20 block icons and your enemy only dings you for 2 damage, the rest of your block icons go to waste.
There are two other trackers that are a little more situational, and you might only see them if you fight certain enemies. The little crowns are called boons, and the skulls are called hexes. Different enemies respond in different ways to these icons. So for example, the Muscle gains boons as you fight him. Whenever he attacks you, he gains 1 damage for every boon he has. The strong get stronger!
If you fail to block attacks from the Baroness, you gain hexes. Those hexes weaken your ability to damage the Baroness. Both you and your enemy can gain and lose boons and hexes.
When you’re finished your turn and your enemy is finished his, you take the top card from your splayed word and put it into your fatigue pile. This card is “out” for the rest of the clash. If the top card is something special, like a penalty card or a wild card or an enemy vowel card, then the card beneath any of those counts as your top card.
Penalty cards will tell you where they’re supposed to end up if you use them in a word. Most often, they go back to the penalty deck.
The rest of the cards from your word go into your discard pile, except wild cards, which go back here, and since this enemy vowel card is the top card in this example because it’s the first “real” letter card we reach after dealing with the the penalty card and the wild card, it goes back to the game box after you use it. Enemy vowels are “out” for the rest of the clash when you use them as the top card in your word. Otherwise, they go into your discard pile.
You move the blue marker so that it points at the next action on the enemy’s card. The Pesky Suitor only has one action, so the marker stays put, but other enemies have multiple actions, and the marker cycles through them.
Then, you draw 4 new cards from your deck. If the deck doesn’t have enough cards to give you, you draw what you can and then shuffle the discard pile to form your new draw deck – remember that the fatigue pile is off-limits, so you don’t touch it.
You can use the enemy vowel card in as many words as you like, but if you form a word with the enemy vowel as the top card, it goes back to the box. If it’s the top card, its big advantage is that it moves the enemy’s blue pointer to the next action. So if the bad guy’s about to take a really powerful turn, you can incorporate that special vowel into a word to skip that action. For now.
ITEMS, McGUFFINS & CORE CARDS
Unlike damage and blocks, energy points don’t reset at the end of your turn. Now that you’re starting your next turn with maybe a little energy under your belt, you can spend it to use some of your items. You can use each item you own once per turn during the Prep phase, and it costs a certain amount of energy to activate them. So spend 3 energy to fire off Ex Machina’s rocket punch, which gets you 2 more damage and block icons. Tip the card a little to remember you’ve already used it – the Rocket Punch item will refresh at the beginning of your next turn.
Some items, like the Force Field, have you rotating them completely upside down to use them. These rotated cards stay in effect until the end of the battle.
McGuffins give you abilities too, but you don’t have to spend energy to use them. They’re double-sided, and when you get one, you choose which side you want to use. So the Express Mail McGuffin lets you gain energy when you spell short words, and t he Prized Hat on the other side lets you gain energy for spelling long words. Because these cards are double-sided and the game wants them to be a surprise, any time you gain one, you draw it from the bottom of the McGuffin deck.
Boss McGuffins are more powerful than regular McGuffins, and they’re one-sided with a purple banner. You generally earn them for defeating bosses. The Miniature Heart lets you draw an extra card on your turn. The Perfect Slice gives you an attack bonus if you don’t use any Wild Cards or enemy vowel cards.
Each character has a few core cards that describe special abilities that may crop up during gameplay. For example, Ex Machina can spend 1 energy to activate its laser eyes, which convert hexes into hitpoint losses for the enemy.
Each enemy you’ll face has a double-sided character card. If you manage to whittle the enemy’s hitpoints to zero or less, you flip the card. Stage 2 defines a new hitpoint maximum – so now the Pesky Suitor has 13 HP. Any damage you did carries over. So if you socked the suitor for 4 damage when he was only at 1 hitpoint, then when you flip the card and set his HP to 13, those extra 3 points of damage carry over. You reset the blue action indicator to the first action on the enemy’s card. When you flip the enemy’s card to stage 2, you stun the enemy, so the enemy doesn’t get to do anything this turn. Then you clean up, draw new cards, and take your next turn, at the end of which your enemy gets back on his feet and will respond with this action.
If the enemy hammers down your hp until the marker reaches zero, you lose the game! But if you manage to reduce the enemy’s HP to zero on stage 2, you’ve successfully defeated that enemy.
When you finish off a foe, you get a little breathing room to improve your deck and your abilities.
First, you get to put all the cards from your discard and fatigue piles back into your deck.
If you defeat a lackey, you look at that lakey’s reward card. Pick a side, and take all the rewards from that side of the card from top to bottom. Lackeys may let you replace cards in your deck from your library. Sometimes, they let you upgrade your cards by flipping them to their more powerful reverse sides. Certain lackeys let you heal some number of hitpoints. Other than these specific healing rewards, your hitpoint tracker doesn’t move between battles – you don’t heal back up to your max of 20 or, in training mode, 25 hp before fighting the following foe.
Defeating a boss gets you even better rewards. Once again, you choose a side of that boss’s rewards card and bomb down from top to bottom collecting your loot. But instead of replacing cards in your deck, you get to add cards to your deck. If you defeat a book 1 boss, that boss and its lackey go back to the box and you randomly draw a boss and lackey from book 2, and set up that lackey on the stage 1 side of its card to prepare for a new clash. If you defeated the book 3 boss, you’ve won the game!
Whether you defeated a boss or a lackey, you have a chance to spend your accumulated boons to buy new stuff in the store. Any new item from this row will cost you 2 boons, these McGuffins will cost you 3 each, and these extra letter cards cost you 1 boon each. The ones with diamonds on them cost 2 boons. When you buy these letters, you don’t add them to your deck – they have to replace a letter in your deck, and you return the replaced letter to the box. When you buy a McGuffin from the shop, you’re allowed to look at both sides of the card, and choose which side you want to use.
If you don’t like what’s on offer, then once per shopping trip, after you defeat a lackey or a boss, you can pick any row or column in the shop and replace it with fresh cards. The cards you knock out go to the bottoms of their respective decks in the archives, except for McGuffins, which go on top of their deck, because that deck is always backwards-style and new cards come from the bottom of it.
So that’s the whole flow: defeat stage 1 and stage 2 of a Book One lackey, collect some rewards, possibly go shopping if you’ve got boons to spend, defeat stage 1 and stage 2 of a Book One Boss, get some rewards, maybe go shopping, and repeat that process for Book Two and Three lackeys and bosses. If you clobber that book 3 boss, you win!
You’ll have to reset everything to play again. That means downgrading all of your letter cards, sorting your deck so you only have the starter cards, getting rid of your additional items and McGuffins – strip everything down to the metal.
The first time you beat the game, you get to pull out the two secret Core Cards from this envelope. We won’t look at them, because that would spoil some of the fun, but they give you another way to play your character. The Core Box also has an envelope with four secret Boss McGuffin cards in it. You get to pull one of those out and add it to the deck for your next game.
There’s also a deck of purple Plot Twist cards that you can use to make the game easier or more difficult. We were just playing on Training Mode, which uses the Inside Intel and Animal Companion plot twists – that’s why we had extra hitpoints and a card that gave us an additional wild card. See the numbers in the corner? That puts our game difficulty rating at -3. If we played without any plot twists, we’d have a difficulty rating of zero. That’s a standard game. And there are even some plot twists that make the game more difficult, like this one: In the Dark adds 3 points to the game’s difficulty, and it means we can’t use any enemy vowel cards. So if you beat the game on Training Mode, try beating it on Standard. And if you make it through on Standard, you can use plot twist cards to amp up the challenge.
Paperback Adventures was designed so that you can play it with different themed characters to switch up the feel and strategy. Each character is tied to a different genre. So Ex Machina’s cards are all themed around sci fi, while playing Plothook will add piratey cards, and Damsel will introduce fantasy stuff. Each character brings their own unique villains, core cards, items, McGuffins – both standard and boss-level – and a library of letter cards. They play differently, too. Plothook has these crew cards that you can rotate and use a second time for their icons after you send them to your fatigue pile. One trick up Damsel’s sleeve is the Critical Hit: if you make a word with this card on top and you have no cards left in your hand, you get the listed bonus. And then, of course, you can mix and match. Letter cards, core cards, and starting items with character-specific icons on them are locked to those characte rs, but beyond that, you can go wild. Can Ex Machina the robot defeat the dragon? What happens if we give the Ancient Wand to Plothook the Pirate? Each new character also has one of those envelopes with secret cards in it that you can unlock once you beat the game.
There are two different ways you can play Paperback Adventures with two players.
In Two-Headed Giant Mode, you and your partner are working together to defeat the bad guys, and you take turns making words. You share your letter deck, but you each have your own items, McGuffins, and core cards. You have to divvy up those cards between each other at the beginning of the game. Any time a reward card tells you to gain a McGuffin or Item, you both gain one. But whenever you spend your boons at the shop, any McGuffin or item you buy goes to one player or the other. McGuffins only activate on their controlling player’s turn, and you can’t pay energy to activate each others’ items.
In 2 versus 2 mode, you have to have three character boxes at your disposal. You each choose a character and set up like you would for a solo game, except you’ve got both characters’ library cards in the archive, and you need a second row of letters in the shop – one row per character. For each section of the game, you set up two enemies at a time, so you’ll need the tray and pointers from the third character box. You each decide which baddie to battle, and then you go at it simultaneously, each player fighting their own chosen enemy. When you’ve both defeated your lackey, you gain rewards and go shopping in lockstep, and then deal out two book 1 bosses and decide who’s going to tackle who.
The key difference here is that you can spend a boon to buy a card from your partner’s hand. The boon transfers from your board to your partner’s board, and you take the letter and use it as if it was your own. Once you’ve finished with this turn, the letter you bought goes to your partner’s discard pile, or to your partner’s fatigue pile if it was the top card in whatever word you made.
Keep defeating enemies side by side until either one of you runs out of hitpoints, in which case you both lose the game, or you each defeat your book 3 bosses and you win the game together!
And now, you’re ready to play Paperback Adventures.
At 7:01, i depict the player using damage icons from the right side of a card in a word that’s splayed left. Only the icons on the left side of each card are used in a left-splayed word! Our rules checker has been F-I-R-E-D.
Get Your Own Copy of Paperback Adventures
Don’t let the 2-player mode fool you: to me, it felt like more of a concession than anything. Paperback Adventures was clearly designed as a thoroughly solo affair, and it plays best at one. You can pick up your own copy from the Fowers Games website.