Hardback is a deckbuilding word game. Every card is a letter; to get their benefits, you must use them in a word. Earn cash to buy more letters, use ink to press your luck, and become the most prestigious author of your era.
The deckbuilding aspect is key to winning but feels minor in play. The “press your luck” and word game aspects take on greater prominence.
Hardback’s deckbuilder aspects are a lot like Ascension. Hardback has an offer row of seven cards, and a new card is drawn when one is bought. It makes the game more tactical than strategic. You cannot plan ahead much because you do not know what will be available. You react to the options available at the time.
The deckbuilding aspect is still key because your turn-to-turn success will depend on the flexibility of your letters and your genre consistency. All things being equal, it is easier to make use of a common letter or vowel. If you buy letters indiscriminately, you may end up with few options for scoring words. You can always flip a card over and use it as a wild card, but wild cards do not get you points or cash. By “genre consistency,” I mean the game’s mechanic of assigning letters to one of four genres (mystery, horror, romance, adventure) and increasing rewards for using multiple letters of the same genre. Your rewards are much better if you focus on one or two genres of letters, although that limits the pool of letters you could buy.
Ascension players should recognize similarities. Cards award money or points, and points are tracked separately (“prestige” not “honor”), although not mediated by monsters to defeat. The four genres are like the Ascension’s four factions. There are even “timeless classic” letters that stay in play like Ascension’s constructs (much easier to destroy).
The “press your luck” mechanic is strong. Money you do not spend on cards buys you “ink.” No Hardback cards include extra card draws. Instead, you use ink. When you use an ink, you draw a card and place it face up in front of you, with the ink on it. You must use this letter in your next word. You can keep using ink, but using all those letters in a word gets harder as you have more. If you want a long, valuable word, you are going to need to take some risks (and probably reduce its value by using letters from your hand as wildcards).
The genres come back by interacting with these. Genre cards can have special abilities, so your overall approach is affected by what genre you are playing. Romance favors high value letters: coupled cards can have doubled vaule, and trashy romance novels let you trash your low-value cards permanently. Mysteries uncover wild cards (getting you rewards despite using them as wilds) and “jail” cards so only you can buy them. Horror is the genre of long novels and flexible rewards, giving you ink remover that makes pressing your luck safe. Adventure letters provide immediate rewards, quick thrills.
The big picture is trying to buy letters that play well together, by genre and for spelling words. An advanced step would be to balance cards that earn you money or prestige points, but I have usually found that happening without really trying. Deckbuilding takes just a few seconds of each turn, as you go shopping. Once you are committed to two genres, that limits the span of decisions for buying new letters. Thinking of words turn-to-turn dominates your time: trying to combine these letters, make best use of your genre letters, and work around required letters you inked in.
I should note components. The box is great, although so big that it seems intended for the base game plus a couple of expansions. The scoreboard is hard to lie flat without something weighing the corners down; it gets folded in half in the box. The cards are glossy and solid, but they are easy to bend and hard to shuffle because they are glossy and stiff, and the offer cards come from a stack of 140. You inevitably get lumps in the offer row cards, so it helps that there is a rule about when you can clear them out and get a new set.
It’s fun, like a version of Scrabble where you have more control over your letters and do not worry about board placement.