Paperback Adventures: The Best Word Game You’ve Never Played

Wordsmiths and wordnerds alike are sure to enjoy Paperback Adventures from game designer Tim Fowers and his own Fowers Games. While the recent smashing success of the 10th anniversary and updated version of this game’s predecessor, Paperback, shows that when plenty of people love this game engine, they may not all have found out that Paperback Adventures (available as a board game or on Steam) is a magnificent evolution of what the designer did so well with the original.

In this review, I’m going to review both versions of the game since I’ve spent a lot of time playing it in both formats recently. Perhaps that’s a spoiler alert moment: I really love this game. Playing it first on Steam was enjoyable and I thought it would be my go-to version of the game. Yet, when I got my hands on the physical version, I switched allegiances – or at least I have done so lately. I’ll come back to that subject a bit further on but let’s talk about the actual game first, shall we?

Solo Word Nerd Heaven

Right off the bat, this is a solo game using the mechanisms of Paperback with a lot of new ideas and a campaign element. Sure, you can play it with two people with a variant included with the game, but I’m reviewing it as a solo game, which is probably where it sings best. I have not tried it for two yet and if I do, I’ll update the review.

I played the game as a Steam download for my Mac first. I’m not a huge fan of playing games on my computer for the simple reason that I’m sitting and typing on my computer most of the day….and just about every day. When I want to play a board game, I want to look away from the screen and talk to people. Since this is a solo game, I gave it a try. I do sometimes play board games on my iPad, but it’s rare. Only a desire to explore what Tim Fowers and his co-designer Skye Larsen had cooked up with the Paperback engine got me to reinstall Steam. I’m glad I did.

What’s It All About?

If Paperback is a gamer’s version of Scrabble, then Paperback Adventures is a solo gamer’s dream evolution of Paperback. The game has you taking on the role of one of three pun-ified heroic folks (Ex Machina, the Damsel, or Captain PlotHook) all created by our fake writer “Paige Turner” whom we all know from Paperback and its sequel, Hardback (so this is the third evolution of the game?). Regardless of which character you choose, you are trying to defeat three pairs of underlings and big bosses (well, variants in some cases) while collecting treasures and power-ups, all while building a deck of letter cards to create words and get to the end of the game by vanquishing your foes.

Mechanism-wise, it’s like Paperback in that you are building words with a deck of letter cards of various values, with special powers on the cards. The original Paperback was a combination of Scrabble and Dominion (the category-defining deckbuilder), Paperback Adventures also tosses in a Rogue-like adventure experience that many have likened to Slay the Spire, a popular deckbuilder adventuring game for one that you can find in various electronic forms.

If you’re like me, you may be saying “Slay the What?” So, I acquired and played that game specifically to compare it with Paperback Adventures. They are different games, but I see crossover in the best possible way. While both games have some elements that offer you insight into the other one, they both have unique elements that offer distinct game experiences. Spire is a solid game, but Paperback Adventures is more my style.

Paperback Adventures in Roguery and Diction

If you’re a fan of Slay the Spire, the “Rogue-like” format and combat system in Paperback Adventures will be familiar but also new. Sure, you take turns drawing cards from your deck and use them to fight the minions and bosses, defend against enemy attacks, and use special abilities to gain advantages in battle. Of course, instead of low-res beasties like in Spire, Paperback Adventures gives players a host of literary enemies with jokes and word nerdery all over the place, like the Chekov’s Gun, Plot Armor, and the Spinning Wheel.

Your character and the bad guys all have a health number to track how much damage each of you can take before defeat. Energy and health are precious so be careful to maintain your strength enough to go the distance. Thankfully, you do get rewards like new letter cards, items to use with your energy and supercool “McGuffins” that give you boosts to help you along the way. The combat is the bulk of the game and you win by getting through the gauntlet of six battles, although you can easily house-rule to finish earlier if you like.

Splay the Spire?

Playing Paperback Adventures feels like most deckbuilders on a basic level. You have a starting deck of letters with various values in the currencies of the game. You will acquire more to optimize and build out your deck purchases and bonuses. On your turn, you draw four letters and have access to a perpetual wild card to make words that would be usable in, well, a Scrabble game.

The big new concept for Paperback Adventures over previous games in the series is how you splay out your cards determines the rewards you get. So, if you splay the cards from your hand going left to right, you will see the icons for what you get from your cards on the left – and vice versa. See the picture below for reference. This interesting mechanism adds a little more strategy to your word choice because you may want to change it based on how well your letters will pay off.

What will those icons do? Mostly, they are Attack or Defense icons that will help you in battle, but some just give you extra energy. Depending on the number of those icons on the card side splayed, you will collect that number of hits, blocks, and energy bolts to apply to your enemy, protect yourself when they strike back, and add to your energy level. The cards kind of lean right for attacking, and left for defending so you can react to the anticipated response of your enemy (something you generally know).

Each card also has actions and your choice also designates either your first or last card as being in full view, which means you can also use the special power of that card immediately. This also exhausts the card, meaning it will be put into an exhausted stack until the end of the current battle. It’s a clever wrinkle for deckbuilders, and one I admire since it gives you more than just raw points or power to consider. Lastly, you can also upgrade cards, which means flipping them over and using the backside, which increases some number of values on the card. This also helps improve your deck as you proceed, giving you more power to your punch as you face more daunting versions of your foes.

Word Monsters

Each adversary has its own unique abilities and strengths, so it’s essential to strategize carefully how you’ll handle them. While the core component of the game is still coming up with words from your letters, use of special abilities with your Energy allotment and which way you splay will vary depending on the foe you are trying to defeat with your wordsmithing.

Paperback Adventures retains this essential element that made word game fans love the original game so much. Like Scrabble, each letter has its own set of icons and power, with more challenging letters like Q, J, and Z holding more power. But it’s not just about those icons – Paperback brought in special powers on the letters that would allow you to get more cards, add points to other cards, and even change adjacent letter. Paperback Adventures builds on that concept hugely, giving you a varied and fun experience exploring the possible items, power-ups, and letters to acquire and upgrade.

A Spellbinding but Challenging Experience

The game is not easy! Players must carefully balance their deck, choosing which cards to keep and which to discard in order to create the most effective word combinations and maximize their attacks and defenses. Plus, the individual characters you play have their own cards, strengths, and styles of play. While I’m still exploring them, they offer enough variety into the game that it’s adding a lot of gameplay value into the mix; that is, you get a lot of hours of fun and exploration with each character, so adding another one to your collection once you’ve fully explored the first one will still reward you with a new kind of play.

I’m a big fan of that experience, where I can get more gameplay out of a game with the introduction of new characters, as in Marvel Champions. That speaks to the strength of the design that changes in cards can give you such a fresh experience, and I think Paperback Adventures is right up there in design sophistication without adding endless exception rules like some collectible card games do.

Moreover, you get to battle characters twice in the game (as in Marvel Champions, too), which means you learn more about how to handle them and can apply those skills this time, rather than hoping you remember what you’ve learned for the next time the game makes it to the table.

There’s so much more, too, but not in complexity. There are just a lot of options, additional items and power-ups to acquire – all with that trademark Fowers Games wit that gamers (myself included) have found so appealing. Grab the Cooking Herbs, acquire the Magic Beans, or add the Eye Patch to your inventory. Readers will certainly enjoy these little asides to those who love words on a page.

Paperback Adventures IRL

Post-pandemic, there’s a real battle between online play and getting back to the table with friends. If you are anything like me, you supplemented what in-person play you could during the lockdown with online play on platforms like Yucata.de and Boardgame Arena. My frequency of play skyrocketed during this time, as did my play in apps on my phone and iPad because I could only bribe my wife and kids to come to the game table so often. Now that the pandemic has been declared ‘over’ by the WHO and the US government, I’ve been slow to return to much organized play and still game online a lot. Thus, playing PA in digital form first just made sense.

Yet, I’m glad that I stopped and shifted to the physical game. Not only because of the gorgeous job that Fowers Games did on the physical components of the game, but also because I find it much healthier to get away from the screen to enjoy board games. For me, board games are my self-care and an ideal way to unwind.

There’s something to be said about the peaceful experience of simply opening up a game, setting it up, and working through the puzzle of play. I take pleasure in the setup, the placement of the cards, the market, and each component. Even sorting the cards to get the right mix of cards for the game is enjoyable because I’m touching physical components and not just reacting to pixels on a screen.

I believe one of the best things modern board games can do for us is to provide an indoor outlet for getting away from screens. This can be much more satisfying than another night staring at Netflix or, heaven help you, TikTok.

Components and Artwork

While I’m mostly focused on gameplay when I think about a game, I’m not some philistine who doesn’t care about the materials and look of a board game. Fowers Games always has truly wonderful artwork that is ideal for my taste. Ryan Goldsberry taps into a mod-60’s look that always reminds me of one of my favorite artists, the California-based Shag. There’s even a touch of monster-loving Tim Biskup, another SoCal artist whose work I love. Fowers Games’ commitment to the exceptional artwork would keep me interested in their titles even if they didn’t make great games. Thank goodness that’s not a concern.

The components in Paperback Adventures are similarly stellar. The box includes cards, premium sleeves themed to the game so you can upgrade your cards with a simple flip, and plastic player and minion/boss holders that you use to track the health, energy, and other elements of a character. Players even get nice metallic score-tracker pieces. Notably, when some of the original players expressed concern that the metal tracker pieces didn’t fit perfectly into the plastic character holders, Fowers Game came to the rescue with a free upgrade. If you order the game from them now, you’ll get a pack of the updated metal pieces that fit perfectly at no additional cost. Indie game companies know how to take care of their customers!

The Final Word: Play Paperback Adventures Digitally or IRL

Paperback Adventures is a must-have for any solo board game enthusiast seeking a wonderful blend of theme and mechanisms that makes for a great gaming experience. Adding this Rogue-like game experience to the word deckbuilder might not have been the Reese’s experience I would have expected, but the result is a small wonder that I know I’ll be playing for a long while. With its high replayability and structured challenges, I expect to go through the whole of the characters on my own. My wife is currently playing the Damsel on her own campaign, which is delightful to see and shows me that even more casual players can get into Paperback Adventures and discover the rewarding experience it has to offer.

If you buy the physical board game online, be sure to buy the Core Game and at least one of the characters. This page helps you buy a copy of the core game as well as one of the characters. While I am glad to have all three characters, Ex Machina is the easiest starter character from my experience, but you’ll probably enjoy having them all. If you prefer your Rogue-word experience in a digital format, here’s a link to the excellent Steam version, which is compatible with Macs and Windows machines.

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Disclosure: As with many companies and designers featured on Boardgame Babylon, Tim Fowers is a personal friend and my creative game agency 3SidedCard has helped with promotion and playtesting of Fowers Games for years. A physical copy of the game was provided for independent review.