Buzzworthiness: Love Letter

Today, I review the game that gave birth to the microgame/pocket game craze:

image by BGG user edbolme
image by BGG user edbolme

Love Letter is a game designed by Seiji Kanai that was originally published by Kanai Factory and Japon Brand.  AEG picked it up for the US, and it was that pickup that really launched the game’s popularity.  The game is for 2-4 players, and takes 20 minutes to play.  The idea of the game is that you are trying to deliver tokens of affection to the princess, but you have to use the people around her to make sure she gets yours and only yours.

The game itself only comes with 16 cards and 13 red cubes (as well as four reference cards, the rules, and a nice velvet bag to carry the game in).  You shuffle up the cards and remove one, then deal one card to each player.  On your turn, you draw a card, then play a card.  Each card will do something different based on its type:

  1. The Guard allows you to pick one other player and try to guess the card they have.  You can’t name Guard.
  2. The Priest allows you to look at the card of another player.
  3. The Baron allows you to compare hands with another player.  The player with the lower value is out of the round.
  4. The Handmaid protects you from others until your next turn.
  5. The Prince allows you to choose someone to discard their card and draw a new one.  You can choose yourself.
  6. The King allows you to trade hands with another player.
  7. The Countess does nothing.  However, if you have the King or a Prince in your hand with the Countess, you must discard the Countess.
  8. The Princess does nothing.  If you discard her, you are out of the round.

A round continues until all but one player have been eliminated, or until all cards have been drawn.  At that point, the player with the highest valued card left in their hand wins the round.  The round winner gets a token of affection (red cube).  You then start a new round.  The first person to a certain number of cubes (4 in a 4-player game, 5 in a 3-player game, or 7 in a two-player game) is the winner.

COMPONENTS: As I mentioned, there are very few components here.  Sixteen cards and thirteen cubes, and that’s everything you need.  The cards are very well illustrated in the style of the Tempest games (more on that in a moment), and are good quality.  The Princess was apparently designed by a twelve-year-old since she’s kind of falling out of her dress.  Also, the Prince looks like Brad Pitt.  Or Robert Redford, depending on what generation you’re talking to.

My favorite component in the game is the velvet bag.  It’s quite lovely, and makes an attractive carrying case for such a small game.  Saves me having to find a baggie or make a tuck box.  There are editions that come in a box that do not have a bag, but I suggest finding a bag.

THEME: AEG’s version of the game was set in the Tempest universe, a shared world they were really trying to push that year.  The theme is not strictly necessary, but they were able to fit it into their theme pretty well – the Princess’ mother was arrested in a previous title, so her wooers are trying to comfort her.  The original version was just a random kingdom.  But now, AEG is licensing the game out and all kinds of weird themes are popping up – Legend of the Five Rings, Adventure Time, a Wedding edition, Munchkin…this should prove that the theme isn’t terribly important to the game.

MECHANICS: Love Letter is a very stripped down role selection game.  You have two roles in your hand, and you choose one of them.  It’s not the same as the role selection in Puerto Rico, but each character you play has ramifications on the game.  It can be a tough decision sometimes.  The roles are all fairly well balanced – the Priest is the only one I think is kind of useless, but all others have some good strategies associated with them.

The other big mechanism in the game is player elimination.  Yes, you can be knocked out of the game.  However, the game is so short, you’ll be right back in it for the next round in no time.  So it’s not really an issue.

STRATEGY LEVEL: For so few cards, there’s a surprising amount of strategy in the game.  You are going to be subject to luck.  There’s nothing worse than being caught by a random guess with the Guard on the first play of the game.  On the other hand, there’s nothing better than catching someone with a random guess by the Guard on the first play of the game.  Beyond that, there’s deduction elements as you try to logically figure out what someone else has to determine if you can get away with a Baron, or maybe making them discard their hand with the Prince.  Or, if you have the Countess, sometimes it can be advantageous to discard to make people think you have a Prince or King.

The big thing that keeps you on your toes in the game is that one card is removed.  So you know something isn’t in the deck, but you don’t know what.  This makes it a guessing game, but one that you can logically figure out and play the odds.

ACCESSIBILITY: This is an easy game to learn.  You can teach it in a couple of minutes, and everyone will understand.  It’s very accessible, and one I’d probably put easily in the Gateway category.  It looks nice enough, particularly with the velvet bag, that you could also consider it as a good Bait game.

REPLAYABILITY: This game is very replayable, which again is kind of shocking considering how little is in the box.  It plays quickly, which helps.  Plus, the inherent uncertainty of the distribution means that people will happily play up to 13 rounds in a row (which is the maximum length of a game), and may even want to play multiple games.  A lot of replayabilty here.

SCALABILITY: Love Letter plays with 2-4 players.  I really like the game with 4, but 3 works well too.  The 2-player version is also fun, but it’s a little different since three extra cards are taken out of the deck.  These three are revealed, so both players know they aren’t available.  It adds an interesting layer, but I think I still prefer to play with more players.

FOOTPRINT: I think I’ve made the point already that this is a very small game.  It takes up hardly any room in storage or on the table.  This is definitely a game you can play in some pretty tight spaces.

LEGACY: Love Letter launched the current microgame craze, which honestly has gotten a little out of hand.  The games are cheap to produce and fairly trendy, so I think a lot of substandard titles are getting out there.  Still, I think Love Letter has earned its place in the pantheon of influential games, especially since it’s just that good.

IS IT BUZZWORTHY? Yes.  If you haven’t played, do.  It’s fast, it’s simple, and it’s surprisingly deep for its tiny size.  And it only costs $10.  Thanks for reading!

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