Board Game Review: Love Letter—Best Light Game Ever
In Love Letter, each player is a suitor trying to court the lovely Princess. Unfortunately, after the terrible events in Courtier and the Queen’s arrest, the Princess has shut herself up in her room with grief. How then are we to court her? Each of us writes a love letter and then tries to get it into the hands of the closest confidant of the princess.
The Basics. Love Letter is a strict card game. The deck is composed of sixteen cards each numbered one to eight. The game is played over several rounds and, depending on the number of players, the first to win a certain number of rounds is the winner. At the end of the round, the player holding the highest numbered card wins that round a receives a token of the princess’s affection.
The players start with one card in hand. On their turn, they draw one card, then must play one of the two. But, it isn’t so simple as drawing and holding the highest card they can. Each card provides some special power when it is discarded. The Guard, for example, is only numbered one. But when played, the player can name an opponent and guess which number they are holding. If they guess correctly, that opponent is out of the round.
A player wins a round by being the last man standing or by having the highest card at the end. Individual rounds typically play in three minutes or less. A full game usually lasts about twenty minutes.
The Feel. Love letter is just delightful. And, I say that as someone who is rarely fond of shorter, filler-type games. But love letter packs a lot of enjoyment and skill into a very small package. High cards can be dangerous to hold, and misdirection is always necessary. The highest card, for example, is the princess herself. If you have her at game end, you win the round. But, her special power is that if she is ever discarded, you get knocked out of the round. And so you have to watch for attacks from other players’ guards, or even the Prince who can make you discard your hand.
The countess, at number seven, is the next best. But, if you ever draw royalty with her (the King, Prince, or Princess), you must discard the countess. While she can be effectively used for a bluff, it can be dangerous to hold her. If you draw royalty, you’ll have to discard the countess and potentially give away information that will knock you out of the round.
Other high cards, like the King and Prince, have the most useful abilities. So it becomes a tough decision whether to discard them and gain access to their powers, or to keep them in the hope that they will be the highest card at the end of the round. Then there are always the guards — a correct guess with a guard can knock anyone out at any time. So, it’s best to give away as little information as possible. After all, if you discard a five, then the odds may be that you have something higher than a five in your hand. Counting cards can be a good skill, but to prevent perfect knowledge, one card is removed each round.
Playing multiple rounds is necessary. In the swingyness of the draw, there will be times when one player gets a terrible hand or a phenomenal one. Drawing two barons together is generally a death sentence. But, over the course of several rounds, skill typically wins out over luck, and the funny and unique draws ensure that each game comes with a lot of table talk. Laughter and finger pointing is infused with every play of Love Letter.
Negatives are hard to find. As with most games that have you play multiple rounds, I sometimes get tired of it long before the full game is over. Repetition doesn’t mean enjoyment, but Love Letter does not have this problem. With the possible exception of a four player game with an even distribution of wins, Love Letter ends before most players are ready to be done. At the time of this writing, I’ve played Love Letter at least nine times and have no urge to cease.
Components: 2.5 of 5. This is the only disappointing aspect of Love Letter. On the one hand, the game comes in a lovely fabric pouch, has player aides for everyone, and the artwork is the same Tempest style that I really enjoy. Contrasted with this are the cards themselves: they are very much on the thin side, and while they have a nice protective gloss, I worry that they could be easily damaged given how much shuffling goes on in even a single game of Love Letter. After nine or so games, my cards were becoming a little too pliable and small nicks started to appear. And, if cards were to get marked, it would kill the bluffing angle of the game. I ultimately chose to sleeve.
Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. Love Letter has some swingy, swingy luck in it. Any given round can be decided by the luck of the draw as easily as it can by clever play from players. However, over the course of a game (where you might play eight or more rounds), this impact is mostly mitigated. Plus, the swingy luck provides fun stories and a lot of laughter. Because of its lighter nature, players are more able to laugh at their own bad luck than if they had invested an hour growing an economy.
Mechanics: 5 of 5. The game is just tremendous. Mechanically it allows for rich depth given the game’s play time. Everything works together to provide elements of deduction, bluffing, luck, and skill. Its a package that is generally only seen in much longer games, but compressed into a short and accessible timeframe. Even my brother in law enjoyed it.
Replayability: 4.5 of 5. Bluffing and deduction always greatly enhance the replay value of games. For Love Letter, you’re not so much just playing cards as you are reading and playing your opponents. Plus, the game is simply a joy to play and easy to grab off the shelf if you only have twenty minutes or so. Not a lot of good games fit into that play time, and of the good ones, Love Letter is the best.
Spite: 1.5 of 5. Spite is present, but muted in Love Letter. The most ruthless card is the Guard and, unless the hand has been revealed by another card, it is mostly an educated guess. The rounds move so quickly that even if you get knocked out of a round (which will happen), you are back in and ready to go within minutes.
Overall: 5 of 5. Love Letter is an amazing, short, filler-style game. Usually people call a game a “filler” if it passes the time OK while you’ve got nothing better to do. Love Letter is a true game, one that I would be happy to play at any time, that just happens to take up only a small amount of temporal space. Not only is it strategically fun, but it provides laughter, eye rolls, accusations, and all the thrill that comes with the best interactive games.
(A special thanks to AEG for providing a review copy of Love Letter)