How do you win at “Hardback?” (Revised 7/21)

As those who know me can attest, I’m a big fan of both board games and word games (I played my first game of Scrabble when I was barely old enough to hold the tiles!). So, naturally, word-based board games are a sweet spot for me.

Lately, I’ve been playing a lot of games on Board Game Arena, which is a fantastic site that I would recommend to anyone. On there, they have a digital implementation of Hardback, which is sort of a spiritual sequel (or prequel?) to another fun game called Paperback, which I have seen sold in Barnes and Noble and which I have played and enjoyed in the past. Hardback, and its sister Paperback, are both word-based “deck builders,” which is to say the gameplay loop is 1) Draw letters (cards) from your deck and spell the best word you can to earn currency –> 2) Buy better cards to add to your deck –> Repeat until you win.

I’ve played about 50 games of Hardback competitively on BGA at this point. I’ve won the majority of the games I’ve played (and I’ve also gotten creamed a few times too!). While I suspect I am wrong about some of the finer points, I also think I have a lot of the basic strategy of the game figured out, so I thought I’d write up a quick post on it for those who are interested–feel free to add your own thoughts to mine in the comments below!

**Note: I don’t intend to explain the rules of the game or the basics (such as how your starter cards are selected) in this post, but the BGA site for the game does include explanations and videos if you’re interested.

***Second note: I’m speaking here to the strategy that might be used in so-called “competitive circles.” In other words, I’m striving to discuss “optimal play,” not what might be needed to win casual contests with your buddies (or what’s “fun” for that matter)! I’m also discussing strategy for 2-player games, and I suspect the optimal strategy is probably different if there are more players.

First principles

Here are some things I’m pretty sure I’m sure about at this stage:

  1. Your starting cards are not worth enough victory points (VPs or “Stars”) to carry you to victory by themselves, even if you make long words with them. Thus, buying some better cards will be necessary for victory.
  2. Words of 5 letters or less (what you can spell “by default” with the standard number of cards you can draw in a turn) are not generally worth enough VPs to carry you to victory (although they can become good enough, if you build your deck right!). Thus, striving to make longer words will generally be necessary for victory.
  3. Given that buying cards requires earning cents (the in-game currency) and given that adding letters to your hand to make longer words requires spending ink (which is also acquired primarily via cents), being able to acquire cents effectively is essential. (Although, as it turns out, not as essential as you might think).
  4. (In what I’m sure will look like contrary advice) Given that cents do not contribute as directly to victory as VPs do, being able to acquire VPs effectively is essential.
  5. As with almost all word games, we must acknowledge that the letters of our glorious alphabet are not created equally. Ns and Is are much more useful (they are a part of more English words, especially short words) than Qs and Js. Additionally, some letter combos do not play well together. Consider how many words contain both W and U versus how many contain both C and K. Objectively, U is “better” than both C and K (because it’s a vowel) but not when you consider C + K jointly–it’s a useful digram! Lastly, some letters are even more valuable than normal when you consider that making long words is especially valuable in this game. For example, I don’t personally love Gs in abstract, but give me an N and an I (for -ING) to go with them and I become a big fan! So, when buying (or eliminating) letters, we can’t just consider the value of the letter as a “card in the game;” we also have to consider its value as a letter in spelling words! Sounds like a “duh,” but it bears stressing because this advice runs counter to other advice I might give and always needs to be top of mind.
  6. This is a “deck builder” (a classic kind of board game). As such, it behaves a lot like other deck builders. In most deck builders, the primary route to victory is to “build an engine.” What that means is a deck that is efficient and synergistic such that the odds of drawing really valuable and usable cards on every turn are high.

As it turns out, these first principles tell us a lot (at least I think) about how we need to play if we want to win consistently! From here on out, I’ll try to explain how.

Strategy

We cannot make long, high-VP words without ink to expand our hand size (although this becomes less important as the game goes on), and we also can’t make high-VP words without non-basic cards. We need to buy both ink and non-basic cards with money, so this tells me our engine needs to help us earn money (at least, early in the game). As such, I err on the side of purchasing cards that will increase my money gain over what I can get from basic cards in the first few turns. When making these purchases, I try to balance my need for money earning with the other features of the card and I prefer not buying letters that tend to be fussy (Q, V, C, W, J, etc.) unless I have no other viable choices. Of course, preference goes to letters with features that make them versatile long-term–cards that can provide a choice between VPs or coins, that allow you to ditch less useful cards, or that have useful special powers like “Double” or “Uncover” are attractive. Letters that are also extremely easy to use (the infamous “Wheel of Fortune Bonus Round letters of RSTLNE, e.g.) also get bonus points.

But here’s the major variable at this stage I’ve learned from playing a lot of games–You need to ask yourself, in the early game especially, “is the best card available a card I can afford? If not, could I maybe afford it next turn?” Let’s say I could buy a mediocre card for 3 cents but a much better card is available for 6 cents. Keep in mind that ink represents a sort of money bank in the sense that you can use ink on the following turn to draw more cards, make a longer word, and earn more money than you did on the preceding turn. Yes, there’s an element of gambling to this strategy, but since having better cards is much better than simply having more cards, being a little patient and not only ever buying just the cards you can afford right away can make a big difference in the long run. I mentioned above that a key feature of “engines” are that they are efficient. You ideally do not want any dud cards in your deck because then every card you draw is valuable. Dud cards are especially painful if you acquire them early on in this game because you will draw them again and again over the course of the game (your deck is not very big!). So, an important rule to follow at all times is it’s better to buy nothing at all than to buy a dud card.

Here’s a sort of irony, then: As the game goes on, cards that produce money become much less valuable (there are diminishing returns to ink and bought cards) and cards that produce VPs become much more valuable (they are not very helpful initially but obviously vital to eventually win the game). So, while cards that produce money are needed, we A) don’t need very many, B) don’t need them for all that long, and C) can treat them as expendable after a certain point. So, there is a certain point in the game at which you should switch from buying money cards to buying VP cards instead. When is this point? At this point, I’m pretty sure it’s pretty early in the game. On average, it looks like I buy about 9 cards over the course of the average game (most of these early on), and I *suspect* the switch point is after the first 2 +/- 1 bought cards (assuming these cards are good ones). I need these cards, but I don’t actually want them if that makes sense. So, the fewer I can buy, and the sooner I can start diluting them, the better. This is especially when you consider that 8 of the 10 basic cards you start with produce 1 cent each–you don’t really need to increase your money earning potential all that much to get where you need to be.

So, that describes the early and midgame. What about the late game? Once you have an efficient, powerful engine, it’s better to focus on exploiting it than adding to it–as such, the strategy in the late game is twofold: 1) Focus on judicial ink usage to make long, high-VP words [but not so long that you can’t use all your inked cards AND your high-value letters in the same word!!] and 2) Prevent others from getting high-value cards by trashing/jailing them or flushing the offer row. There’s really only one significant way to “sabotage” other players in this game, and it’s by affecting what they can buy–this becomes valuable to do in the late game (at least when you don’t have to go much out of your way to do it). A key point: The late game starts earlier than you might expect. The standard endpoint for the game is 60 points; I would say the endgame starts as soon as the first player hits ~25 +/- 5 points. This is because an effective engine doesn’t just “move;” it “accelerates.” In other words, if players are doing what they need to do, their ability to score VPs (and their focus on doing so) will intensify as the game goes on. So, the end of the game can sneak up on you quick! I have gotten 20+ points on a single turn multiple times, and I suspect even higher scores are attainable, to give you some perspective. As such, it’s key to switch to an endgame stance as early as you can manage it.

[Addendum: Also do not assume that just because the game ends at 60 that a score around 60 is sufficient–I have regularly seen winning scores in the medium-to-high 70s. Keep in mind that the round finishes after a player hits 60–this can be a significant advantage to a player that went second and a significant risk factor for a player that went first!].

Genres

And that’s most of the strategy right there, so far as I can tell! However, astute readers will notice that I haven’t mentioned one significant aspect of the game at all yet: the genres! There are four genres of bought cards in the game, each with select letters and “special abilities.” Abilities on genre cards activate when you make a word containing 2+ cards of the same genre in the same word. I’ll do a short recap of these below.

–Mystery cards (blues) offer the “Uncover” and “Jail” abilities. The “Uncover” ability allows you to flip back over one card next to the Mystery card that you had made a wild so you can get all the printed benefits from it anyway, as though you had played it as a non-wild. Because making long words is really valuable, and because it’s hard in practice to do so without making some letters into wilds, the “Uncover” ability can be super powerful. However, if you don’t need wilds all that often (which can happen with good decks), “uncover” becomes somewhat less valuable. Still, I consider this a good ability. I read a post by the creators of the game, and they pointed out that a heavy “uncover” strategy can be paired with a “buy high-valued junk” strategy to simply uncover high-value but hard-to-use letters like Vs, Qs, and Zs for big points! The “Jail” ability, meanwhile, allows you to “jail” an offer row card–making it so that you are the only one who could buy it (but, importantly, you never actually have to). You can also use the ability to just “trash” an offer row card, which replaces it. I think the “jail” power is more situational in value–it’s good when you can use it in the late game to deny an opponent a useful card, and it’s good in the early/mid-game when it allows you to set aside a valuable card for yourself you can’t afford at that moment. However, the only other value of it is to cycle a card from the offer row in the hopes it will be replaced by something better. In the late game, this isn’t super useful, but it can sometimes bring up a handy Adventure card for a quick point boost.

–Horror cards (greens) offer two abilities I’ll call “Choice” and “Ink/Remover.” Choice means you can decide whether you earn an equivalent amount of coins or VPs. Given that you often need coins or VPs but not both and your needs change over the course of the game, the “Choice” ability is valuable for sure. However, because of the flexibility, you sacrifice some level of output–these cards never make quite as many VPs as cards in other genres. So, you will often need to make longer words with Green letters to get the same impact. Appropriately, then, the “Ink/Remover” ability allows you to directly earn ink, which helps you make longer words! Or, instead, you can earn remover, which allows you to negate the ink effect on a card you’ve drawn with ink [When you draw an extra card with ink, you then *must* use that card in your word–the remover removes this requirement so that the inked card can be used as a wild or even not used at all]. Getting ink “for free” is nice, especially if it means you can therefore do without as many money-making cards. That said, there is a finite amount of ink you can actually meaningfully use. Since remover increases this amount by making inked cards less pesky, though, the “Ink/Remover” ability is generally solid. Just keep in mind that it doesn’t generate VPs directly, so it’s only as good as you make it!

–Adventure cards (yellows) have three “talents” but only have 1 true “ability:” “Trash this card for X resources,” which does what it says on the tin–you can remove the card from your deck and instantly gain some resources for doing so. Adventure cards tend to yield higher average amounts of VPs and lower amounts of coins than cards of other genres. Lastly, yellows sometimes come with “Immediate VPs” when you buy them–you might earn 3 VPs just for buying the card. The upshot of this genre is that its cards have less strategic synergy than those other genres, and they aren’t overly helpful in the early game because they rarely earn you money. However, because they don’t require as much synergy, this also means their value is more predictable and reliable than those of other genres. Their heavy VP focus also means they can help you make large VP bursts in the mid- and late-game, and they can also “weed themselves” out of your deck when it’s convenient with their “trash” ability. Interestingly, yellow cards can be used in an effective “rush” strategy wherein you just try to earn as many VPs as you can and cross the finish line before your opponent can build their engine! But yellow cards also synergize well with blue’s “Uncover” ability and red’s “Double” ability, so yellow can also be strong paired with other genres.

–Romance cards (reds) has two abilities, “Trash Discards for Cash” and “Double Adjacent Card.” The former allows you to eliminate cards in your discard pile from your deck for some quick cash. The amount of money gained this way is usually minor–the real strategic value here is in eliminating low-value cards from your deck (especially basic cards). This may not sound powerful, but it really is–if efficiency is the game, eliminating less efficient cards is often just as good if not better than adding more efficient ones. A good red-focused deck can end the game with just a handful of cards, making 5- and 6-letter words for huge points, thanks to its double ability, so don’t underestimate this power! Just keep in mind that the ability applies only to cards in your discard pile, which is significant because sometimes your discard pile will be empty or there will only be valuable cards in it. “Double adjacent card” is self-evident; it doubles all the $/VP rewards on one neighboring card., including those you get from trashing cards. In the late game, this can be absurdly strong when you have high-value cards in your deck. However, it often means the card itself is somewhat weaker in terms of rewards, so there is a bit of a trade-off there. Also, you must be able to put high-value cards next to the doubling card. That means that you will want to invest in promising digrams like NK or CH to really nail this strategy. [Side-note: Or do you?! With the blue uncover ability, basically anything can be dropped next to a red double card. I’ve seen a red-double, blue-uncover strategy utilized to devastating effect, and I think it might even be the single best strategy in the game!].

All the above analysis is to say the following: the genres seem pretty well-balanced to me and no one genre is an “obvious choice.” They do require you to play a little differently to win big though, and they all require you to think very carefully on the first few turns about what cards are available in the offer row and how you might put them together. The biggest thing I’ve learned so far about genres is that you rarely have good enough choices available to focus on only one genre–it’s often better to plan to have two that you invest in more or less evenly. Just keep in mind that you probably only need between 2-4 cards of each genre (or perhaps less, with a red-trash strategy) to draw multiples every turn and start earning big points!

Odds and Ends

There’s only a couple other minor points to mention, so I’ll just put them here in no particular order. First, your deck comes with 8 basic cards that produce 1 coin each (these are always the same letters) and then two “prestige cards” that are chosen at random from a pool and instead produce 1 VP. While I’m not a big fan of the abilities that weed cards out of your deck, they can be good for eliminating lousier prestige cards like Ps and Bs, so if I recognize early on that I have some of these in my deck [you DO keep track of which cards you have and buy, right?], those abilities gain some value for me.

Second, there is another ability in the game, one that spans genres–the “Timeless classics.” These cards are printed sideways instead of vertical to set them apart, and every genre has a few. These cards stay in play once you’ve played them, and they stay in play unless another player uses them in their word to clear them (which they receive no benefits to doing). If they stay in play, they generate benefits (including genre benefits) for you whether you use them in your word or not! As such, this is another way to interact with other players in the game. Now, many of the Timeless Classic cards are relatively underpowered compared to other cards of their genre, but they can be worth buying as a means of sabotage–your opponent will have to weigh whether they want to go out of their way to clear your TCs (and maybe play a less good word to do it) or leave them in play for you to earn steady income on. That said, sometimes they will enable you or your opponent to actually make a better word than was otherwise possible, so these cards can go either way a bit. Still, in my experience, having to deal with TCs is often annoying enough, as a defending player, that I can justify going a *little* out of my way to purchase one or two.

Third, as you craft words, consider carefully which cards you can more “safely” convert to wilds. Early, preferentially turn your VP-producing cards into wilds if you can to preserve the coin-producing ones; vice versa in the late game. Obviously, some genre special abilities (most notably “double” and “uncover”) make wild placement especially important to consider as well.

Fourth, you really don’t need to use all the ink you have every turn. I tend to take one ink at a time and then ask myself– How hard will it be to use all these inked letters plus as many of the genre cards I have in my hand at the same time? At a certain point, the answers to these questions will be “hard;” the ideal is to stop using ink before that point. You’re trying to maximize value–this doesn’t always come about by maximizing the number of cards you have in your hand on any one turn, especially when ink doesn’t expire. Plus, oftentimes even just two or three cards of a single genre can generate a relatively short word that is worth massive points! However, given that remover allows you to push the value of ink significantly, this advice changes if you have invested heavily in green cards.

Lastly, especially in the late game when money is less valuable, there’s one more feature of the game to keep in mind: The Adverts. These are 1-time VP boosts that you can purchase for money. The first one, worth 3VPs, costs 6 cents. The next one is worth 6VPs and costs 9 cents, and so on. In theory, there are enough adverts to win the game on them, but I’ve never in practice seen anyone buy more than one or two (but I’d like to know if a cash-advert strategy is possible!). Still, I bring them up for two reasons–they can be a good way to use spare cents in the late game, and they can also be a relatively good way to burst your way to 60 or beyond before your opponent expects it. So, if you’re close to 6 or 9 cents, you might consider whether you could re-arrange your letters to get there for the VP boost!

What do you think?? I’d love to hear your thoughts! Share them in the comments, and happy spelling!