Sunday, September 29, 2013

Love Letter Review

Love Letter did not initially appeal to me.  The sappy title and the romantic theme were both turn offs.  Plus I had already backed a game called Coup on Kickstarter, and they seemed like similar games.  But one day I was placing an order, and I needed to spend $10 more for free shipping.  We've all been there, right?  So now I own Love Letter, and boy am I glad that I do!

Love Letter was released in 2012 by AEG, and is actually a retheming of a Japanese game designed by Seiji Kanai.  With it's new theme, it now takes place in AEG's Tempest setting, along with Courtier and Dominare.  The Queen has been arrested, and various people of interest are trying to sneak love letters to the forlorn Princess for a shot at the throne.  If that theme doesn't sound like your thing, don't worry about it.  The game is an absolute blast.

Rule Summary

All set up and ready to play
Love letter comes with a deck of 16 character cards, 4 reference cards, and some little red cubes.  Each player gets a reference card.  Then you shuffle the character cards, set one aside face down, and deal each player one card.  On a player's turn, they must draw one card from the deck, and play one card.  All the played cards remain in front of the player, face up.  This is so that all the other players can keep track of which cards have been played.

There are 8 different characters.  Each character has a number, and a special ability.  The lower numbered cards are more numerous, and the higher numbered cards can be outright liabilities.

The most common, and the lowest, is the Guard (1), with 5 copies in the deck.   When you play a Guard, you pick a player, and name a non-Guard character.  If they are that character, they are knocked out of the game.

These guards closely control access to the Princess

The next card up is the Priest (2), of which there are 2.  All a Priest does is allow you to look at another player's card.  Next is the Baron (3), and there are also 2 of them.  When you play the Baron, you compare your held card with another player's card.  Whoever has the low card is out of the game.  If there is a tie, nothing happens.

There are doubles of these 4 personalities.

There are also two Handmaids (4) and two Princes (5).  When the Handmaid has been played, you are protected from all the other players until your next turn.  When the Prince is played, a chosen player must discard their hand and draw a new card.  In the event that there are no more cards, that player gets to take the facedown card set aside at the beginning of the game.  If all the other players are protected by the Handmaid, a person is obligated to play Prince on themselves.

And the most important cards, just 1 of each.

Lastly, there is one each of the King (6), Countess (7) and Princess (8).  The King allows you to swap hands with another player.  The Countess must be played if she is ever in the same hand as the Prince or King.  Finally, the Princess does nothing, she's just the highest card.  However, if you ever discard her, you are out of the round.

The game continues with each player drawing one card, and playing one card.  The round ends when only one player is left, or the character deck runs out.  If only one player remains in the round, he's the winner.  Otherwise, whoever has held onto the highest card is the winner.  They take a red cube to keep track of their score, and everything else is reset to begin another round.

The game continues like this until one player has won a certain number of rounds.  7 in a two player game, 5 in a three player game, and 4 in a four player game.

Timelapse of Play

How accessible is the game to new players?

Love Letter is probably the only game I own where I give a very brief rule explanation, and then say "Lets just start".  Every other game turns into a disaster when I do that.  But with Love Letter, it's almost best to do it that way.  It's just a very accessible game, and quite forgiving.

The only rule of the game is that you draw one card, and play one card.  Everything else is written on the cards themselves.  The reference card also contains all the pertinent information you may need about the card abilities, and how many of them there are.  Plus the card interactions are very easy to pick up on after a single round, since you will almost certainly see every type card.

What could have been done better?

The only tiny thing that is conspicuously absent from the reference card, is that Guards cannot name another Guard.  This is mentioned on the character card, but not the reference sheet.  It's a small thing.  A very small thing.  But sometimes players make decisions wishing they had known that bit of information.  Then they get annoyed when they discover it later.  Not hugely annoyed, because this is a fast and silly game.  But it's the only rough edge this game has for new players.

The reference material for the Guard is slightly incomplete.

How does the new player versus experienced player match up go?

An experienced player may have an advantage in the first round.  The keyword being "may".  Love Letter has a lot of deduction, and card knowledge can help.  However it can also be incredibly silly and arbitrary.  Also, because the game takes multiple rounds, new players have ample opportunity to catch on, and catch up.  It also self balances quite well with the leader being targeted pretty consistently.  Every time I've played has been extremely close, and I've never seen a more experienced player carry any advantage into the latter rounds.

Why is Love Letter so good for all experience levels?

This is a fantastic example of a game that doesn't sacrifice depth for simplicity.  The mechanics and the card interactions are very easy to internalize.  But of all the games I've played and enjoyed, you are definitely playing the other people at the table more than you are playing the game.  There is the deduction aspect, which grows in importance as more cards are revealed.  However knowing the personalities at the table can be far more important.

It's remarkable how often playing this game, your gut reaction is the correct one.  You can't put your finger on how you know what you know.  But some combination of body language, prior knowledge about the person, and raw instinct is telling you that guy you've known for 10 years is holding the Handmaid.  Then you over think it, guess that he's the Princess instead, lose, and its hilarious.

What are the feelings the game evokes and why?

Love Letter is a fantastic ride.  Sometimes things go completely out of your control, and you draw a suicide hand.  Other times you are faced with a difficult decision, which results in immediate victory or loss, and it feels great when you make the right call!  Other times you think you have a great plan, and it backfires completely.  The game just has a fantastic range of possible experiences.

But no matter what happens, the situations Love Letter puts you in are always novel and highly entertaining.  Many games annoy me with their arbitrary and random qualities, but this one doesn't.  The fact that rounds are short and always start from scratch makes the occasionally arbitrary and random play charming.

The situations just get so bizarre and yet strangely perfect that you can't help but sit back and laugh.  Like the time during a 4 player game when two players had played Handmaiden, funneling my attention towards the 4th player who was in last place.  I thought I'd do something harmless and play Prince, making him discard his hand.  But he had been holding onto Princess, so it knocked him out of the round instead!  Or the time someone played Baron, but tied with their target!  It turns out they were both holding Princes.  So when the next player went, whom had been the target, he drew the Countess.  This forced him to play the Countess, and keep his Prince, which telegraphed his held card.  Two Guards later they were both knocked out of the round.

Reading about these situations might make you think it was frustrating.  The game railroaded unlucky players to certain defeat.  But for whatever reason, these situations hilarious!  It usually takes a concerted effort for us to stop laughing, and get our heads back in the game after a scenario like that plays out.

What could have been done to make the game more enjoyable?

Player elimination is a controversial mechanic.  Some people, myself included, hate it with a passion.  And player elimination sometimes hurts in Love Letter.  But only because you want to get back in there, and keep having fun.  Every turn of Love Letter is a delight, and to be excluded from it sucks.

There is a bright side though.  Usually once the first elimination happens, the round doesn't go on too much longer.  Plus it actually is still be fun to watch things unfold.  To puzzle over how things will play out.  Especially if you possess any privy knowledge, for example if you'd been taken out with a Baron and got to see another player's card.

A part of me wishes there was something for an eliminated player to do.  But I feel it would erode the other strengths the game possesses.  Namely how quick it is, and it's simplicity.  It would just be too different of a game without player elimination.

Long term strategy, short term tactics, both or neither?

I think Love Letter is definitely a game that is all about tactics.  You really have to focus on the turn to turn.  The threat of elimination just looms incredibly large in your mind.  In fact, more often than not if you are playing a more strategic game, it's because you have to!  Usually when you are dealt the Princess as your starting card, and must hold onto her the entire round or lose.

The threat of elimination does wane as the round progresses occasionally.  Sometimes all the Guards and Barons get played early, to little effect.  But frequently by this point, each player may only have one turn left, if that.  So it still stays in the realm of tactics to do whatever improves your position the most on your last turn.

Are the dilemmas the player is presented with of sufficient quality?

The dilemmas definitely alternate between being dead simple, or incredibly engaging.  Many hands will force you to make certain plays.  For example if you have the Princess paired with any other card.  Other hands are just suicide hands, like Princess/Prince in the unfortunate circumstance that the other players have used Handmaiden.

But for every false dilemmas you are forced into, there are plenty of true dilemmas that leave the door wide open.  You could use King to trade with the person who just won when Baron was played, indicating they probably have a high card, but that could make you a target.  You could try to deduce someone's card and play Guard on them, but maybe you should wait and gather more information?  However holding a Guard makes you extremely vulnerable to the Baron.  You can attempt to play Prince to make someone discard the Princess, or use it on yourself and hope for a better card.

The deduction at the heart of this game is riveting, even when it's not your turn.  That single card held out at the beginning of the round usually serves as the tormentor for everybody.  You weigh the odds, you think about the worst case scenario.  But in the end, you have to make a decision, usually one that decides immediate win or loss.  It's just great.

What could have improved the dilemmas?

One thing that at first really bothered me about Love Letter was the way the luck of the draw occasionally railroaded you.  The first player has Princess/Baron their first turn and immediately takes you out.  Someone get's stuck with a Baron/Baron hand, and is forced to make an incredibly risky play, usually taking themselves out.  I could go on, but there are endless permutations of that situation within Love Letter.

The dreaded double Baron.
Worst starting hand ever.
But something strange happened as I kept playing.  I just let go.  I relaxed.  I stopped caring.  I enjoyed the situations where I had interesting problems to solve, and I laughed off the ones where I didn't.  And you know what else?  Everybody around the table was doing the same thing.

And then I wondered, would a game of deduction and player elimination be any good if it were 100% tense 100% of the time?  I absolutely detest Citadels for this quality.  It's mean, it's brutal, it's arbitrary, but it always holds out hope, however misguided.  The fact that Love Letter occasionally railroads you into funny situations really helps balance out the tension that the player elimination and the deduction create.

Physical component design and limitations?

Not a fan of stuffing sleeved
cards back into this sack.
For the most part Love Letter has good components.  The cards are good quality, the rest is sufficient, it's super portable.  But Love Letter depends on having unmarked cards.  However it comes in a flimsy cloth sack.  A good looking cloth sack, but a cloth sack that won't do anything to protect the cards all the same.  So you'll probably want to sleeve your cards.  Except the edges of the sleeves constantly catch on the fluffy material lining the inside of the sack, making it difficult to get the cards back in.  It rapidly gets frustrating trying to get these cards to go back in their sack, when the edges catch the sides every half inch.

What could have been better?

A standard 52 card tuck box would have easily worked with this game.  There would have been ample room for the 20 cards, the cubes and the rulebook.  The cards would have been more protected, and been easier to put back away when sleeved.  It's not as flashy, and less thematic maybe, but it's much more functional.

What I'm thinking of doing is placing a tuck box inside the sack.  Then I should have the best of both worlds.  I'd have a nice distinct cloth sack to store Love Letter in, but with more protection and without the frustration of the sleeves constantly getting stuck on the fabric.  Perhaps I'll update this whenever I get around to trying that.

Long term prospects?

I cannot imagine ever getting rid of Love Letter.  For starters, it takes up absolutely no appreciable space.  Second, it's just an endlessly fun game.  Third, this is the one true game I can play with anybody.  It beats carrying around a standard deck of cards for accessibility.  Plus after 10 plays it hasn't even begun to get stale.  That's not something I can say about many games.

I also want to add that the game is surprisingly good with just 2 players.  I know, I was surprised too.  But the setup instructions actually have you setting aside 3 extra face up cards.  This has the effect of seriously jump starting the deduction process.  It ends up feeling like a series of lightning rounds, and is actually really fun!  Still, I wouldn't buy Love Letter as just a 2 player game.  I'm just pleasantly surprised it's any good at all with 2 players.


  1. The awkwardly named "Love Letter" is a great game (I say awkward because the name scares off some potential players). The fact that the game designer was able to put that much intrigue into a grand total of 16 cards is incredible. We start most gaming nights with a quick game of LL.

  2. Thank you for another great review.

    About the storage situation: I don't know where you are location-wise, but if you have access to a Muji store you might want to check out their card cases. Some of them are big enough to hold sleeved standard playing cards. I use them for holding tradeable MtG singles and such, but they're also great for small games - one can hold a deck of unsleeved standard playing cards, for instance.

    As for Love Letter, you can get the game into one if you either leave the rule booklet out, or unsleeve the reference cards. Or you might want to but the cards in the case, and the case and the cubes in the original bag...

    Pic for reference. sorry about the bad quality:

    Anyway, hope this is helpful. Cheers!

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  4. I just got a set of these Heart Tokens! Much nicer than the little red cubes that come with the game and add a nice sounding jingle when you shake the bag.