Paperback Adventures is a superb mix of Slay the Spire and Scrabble that’s clever without needing a dictionary - Essen Spiel 2022 preview
Rad letter plays.
Paperback is, for my money, the greatest board game about spelling words out there. Slay the Spire is, for many players, the greatest digital card game going. Combine the two and you end up with something very special.
If the original Paperback was Scrabble meets deckbuilding granddaddy Dominion, with players gradually adding to their deck of letter cards by spelling words to gain coins (used to buy more letters) and points, Paperback Adventures is Scrabble crossed with Slay the Spire’s roguelike, boss-rush card combat.
Like Slay the Spire, Paper Adventures throws its solo player (co-op multiplayer variants are included), into a gauntlet of battles that they must overcome by carefully playing cards from their hand to damage their enemy, block incoming attacks and build up energy to spend on even more powerful abilities.
As in Slay the Spire, Paperback Adventures is designed as a roguelike experience. The player must take on six battles in sequence across three “books”, alternating between three minion-like lackeys and three more formidable bosses. Your character’s health carries over between fights; die, and it’s back to square one. For each foe you defeat, though, you’ll earn various upgrades and be able to modify your deck to help in future battles.
The player typically only has four letter cards in their hand, meaning that most words you’ll be spelling are fairly short and simple.
Of course, this is a Paperback game, so it’s not quite as simple as just playing cards for their attack and defence values. You’ll also need to spell a word with them. Before those of you with memories of excruciating Scrabble turns spent arguing over whether “OK” is a legal word (it is) or hours spent trying to use all seven letter tiles groan and leave, know that you probably won’t need to have a dictionary to hand.
In Paperback Adventures, the player typically only has four letter cards in their hand, meaning that most words you’ll be spelling are fairly short and simple. What’s more, you almost always have access to wild cards - which can count as any letter - and a boss vowel, which gives you a specific vowel to reflect the boss’ weakness, charmingly plucked from the boss’ own name. For example, the ‘U’ in The Sludge Alien.
The fairly low selection of letters each turn means that the pressure is relieved from spelling an impressive multisyllabic word. Using all of your cards can be helpful in totting up more attack, defence and energy resources, but often it’s how you play your cards rather than what you play.
This comes down to the ingenious twist designers Tim Fowers and Skye Larsen have put on Paperback Adventures’ word-building. Each card has icons down its left and right sides, plus ability text in its middle. You won’t be using all of your icons and abilities at once, though. As a word is constructed, the cards must be overlapped, leaving only one edge uncovered and only the top card’s ability visible.
Only the icons and ability you can see activate during your turn, making the true challenge of Paperback Adventures the dilemma over which way to splay your cards and which letter’s power to use - either the first or last letter, depending on which way you arrange them.
It makes Paper Adventures a brain-burning pleasure of a different kind, putting the focus on tactical cardplay and building around a specific aim - “I really need to block this, so I need to end on an R” - rather than simply regurgitating a dictionary for maximum efficiency.
Paperback Adventures puts the focus on tactical cardplay and building around a specific aim rather than simply regurgitating a dictionary for maximum efficiency.
It’s a relief that the wordplay is boiled down to a concentrated burst, because Paperback Adventures has plenty going on around the edges to keep players busy. Each boss comes with its own unique sequence of counterattacks that must be planned around, usually generating attacks and blocks dynamically based on the state of the field.
This includes the influence of boons and hexes, respectively positive and negative resources applied to both player and enemy. Both can be used to pull off specific abilities during battles, with boons additionally serving as currency for the shop visited by players between fights, from which they can purchase additional items, upgrades and other helpful items. A third resource of energy is typically used to activate unique powers and item cards.
Bosses can also throw up penalty cards - tricky letters such as X and Z - that awkwardly clog a player’s deck until used in a word, a fun and meaningful way of acknowledging those letters’ dreaded rarity.
Bosses aren’t the only ones with powers. Paperback Adventures is built around a set of different characters, each contained in a separate box that combines with the game’s core set (ie. you’ll need at least the core box and a character) to provide a very different experience for each run.
The characters let Fowers and Larsen add an entertaining layer of specialism to the core word-making - not to mention plenty of cheeky wordplay - via unique letter decks and abilities, with the piratey Plothook favouring long words and an aggressive playstyle, while the android Ex Machina leans towards defence and saving up energy for health-sapping laser attacks.
The number of possible character and enemy match-ups provides for a lot of variation out of the box(es), but it’s pushed even further by Paperback Adventures’ light roguelike progression, which throws even more into the mix. Players can obtain different items and McGuffins - cards with ongoing passive effects - from the shop as they make their way up the boss ladder, on top of swapping in a new card after defeating a lackey or adding an entirely new card to their deck as reward for taking down a boss.
It’s the type of word game that manages to make you feel smart without needing to show off your vocabulary, and a roguelike that begs for just one more run.
More experienced players can up the level of difficulty further by using alternate core cards unlocked by besting a final boss, as well as introducing plot twist cards that feature extra rules for both more forgiving and punishing variants. (Each plot twist has a number signifying its relative difficulty level, so true masochists can quantify their toughest victory.)
It’s worth saying that each run is more than a bitesize affair, with the two battles in each book potentially taking over an hour to finish - making a single run through all three books several hours long. Paperback Adventures’ smart storage allows progress to be saved partway through a run, with the game’s plastic trays - which tracks the player and enemy’s health and resources - serving as an effective way to pack things away and continue later on.
If you’re even shorter on time or intimidated by the many moving parts on the table, Flowers and Larson playtested the physical game using a digital version, which already has a demo on PC - letting you play through a full run with Ex Machina - ahead of a planned release next month. All but identical to the board game (aside from some slight UI tweaks to keep it nice and clear), it’s an excellent way to get to grips with Paperback Adventures’ gameplay before you dive in deep on the tabletop.
And deep you will dive. Even with only a couple of runs under my belt so far, it’s easy to see Paperback Adventures keeping me hooked for a long time to come on its smart mixture of accessible word-building and roguelike challenge.
As someone who’s played dozens (if not hundreds!) of Paperback matches and racked up hundreds of hours in roguelike games, Paperback Adventures scratches the genres’ satisfying itches of finding the perfect word at the right time and pushing to make it through with increasingly tougher odds. It’s the type of word game that manages to make you feel smart without needing to show off your vocabulary, and a roguelike that begs for just one more run.
Paperback Adventures is available for pre-order from Fowers Games ahead of its release later in 2022. The game will see a release on PC via Steam on November 16th.