Designer: Seiji Kanai
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (in the US)
Time: 20 mins
Reviewed by Matt Carlson
Review copy provided by AEG
Sixteen cards, a few red cubes, and 2-4 players; a game doesn’t get much simpler than this. I know of no other game able to pack so much interesting interaction in so few components. In Love Letter, players are trying to get their love letter delivered to the princess who has locked herself away in sadness after the death of the queen. The cards in the deck represent the various members of the court. Players start with a card, draw one more, then play one of the two in hand. At the end of the game, the member of the court remaining in one’s hand represents who carries your letter to the princess. The player with the highest value card remaining in their hand wins the round, first to win a set number of rounds (depending on the number of players) wins the game. What looks at first glance to be a simple game of luck quickly turns into a challenging game of deduction due to the special actions granted by playing each card. Quick, fun, portable, cheap even! This is the quintessential carry-with-you game that you can play while waiting at a table, probably even waiting in line! It’s one downfall lies in its limited play of 2-4 people, 5 or more players need not apply.
The game is small enough that the gist of gameplay is related in the introduction of this article. However, some discussion of the card actions is necessary. The deck of cards consist of a few high value cards (8/7/6), two each of middle value cards (5 through 2), and five copies of the 1 value card. Each card has a name (1’s are Guards, for example) but for now we’ll stick by the numbers. The cards have cleverly designed associated actions which are what make the game interesting. For example, the level 8 Princess would be an automatic winning card BUT if you discard her for any reason you automatically lose the round. This means if someone plays a 5-Prince (one player discards their hand) or a lowly 1-Guard (name a player and a card, if you correctly name their card they’re out of the round) they can eliminate that high-value 8 card from the running. In a pinch, there’s the 6-King which lets a player outright trade hands with another player.
Other cards seek to grant information, the 2-Priest lets you look at a hand, while the 3-Baron makes it a competition between your held hand and another player’s with the low card holder eliminated from the round. Holding the 7-Countess is great, but if you ever draw a 6-King or 5-Prince you are forced to discard her. This not only drops you down in value but exposes to the rest of the players that you likely own a King or a Prince. A player’s one defense is the Handmaid card which makes a player immune to any “attacks” for a single round.
Using astute card play and wise deductions makes for a fun, intense (but short) game. While having a high card (via the luck of the draw) is helpful, it is even more important to play well. I’ve seen games go to a high card of value “3” as well as some where everyone (but one, of course) was eliminated from the round entirely. To keep the deduction component strong, one card is always secretly removed from the game before starting – thus making everyone just a little unsure where that “missing” card might lie.
Despite, or perhaps due to the small game size, it still has a touch of class as it comes in a nice little red velvet carrying bag, easily slipped into a pocket. Yet another way I can draw gaming newcomers into trying out a game. I like the portability, while the game isn’t deep, it is deep when contrasted with the time commitment. Even a full game is under 20 minutes. If it played up to 5 or 6 players I could find more uses for it in social situations (I’m rarely out and about in groups of 4 or less) but I can concede that the game might slow down or rely on far more randomness with more players present.
As the game stands, I rank it as an “I Like it.” It does what it is supposed to do (be a fun, quick game with depth) and I like that sort of game, there are definitely times where that’s the best game to play/have on hand. However, it just doesn’t quite make it into that upper echelon of “I love it!”, but it is close.
Opinions from other Opinionated Gamers
Joe Huber (played once): Love Letter is a charming game, and a very well designed one, but not one that I find very compelling – having played it once I’ve not sought a second play. I think the issue, for me, is that there’s just not enough to the game for it to be one I wish to play through many rounds, and it’s not as simple as the even more compact Pico 2, leaving it a game I’d be happy to play rather than one compelling me to play it many times. It’s right on the border between “Neutral” and “I like it” for me; I’m rounding down, today.
Brian Leet (played once): I suspect you will begin hearing comparisons between Love Letter and another recent small deck game called Coup. Disregard this comparison as they are very different games. Love Letter is a largely tactical exercise with a bluff element and a significant amount of luck. You only ever have a choice of two cards on your turn to play and generally the “right” play is readily apparent. Still, the game plays quickly, is fun, and has room for a bit of clever deception. I’d gladly play again as a filler.
Andrea “Liga” Ligabue: I played Love Letter countless times and I find it a really nice filler. More strategy and decision that it could seems in the first glance and game after game the playing experience is improving. Looking the cards and some little rules it looks like there are been much more design and test that it could expect in this kind of game.
Jeff Allers: I played this quite a bit in Essen last year, as it was easy to pull out at restaurants in the evenings while we waited for our food. I will echo the above comments that it is a quick, clever filler and well-designed considering the card constraints. I will certainly be interested in Kanai’s follow-up game, which was just announced and has similar mechanics (but with a second set of 16 cards to offer more variety). I probably would have put myself in the “love it” category immediately after Essen, but strangely, I have not played it much since then. Still, even after the novelty has worn off, it is a very nice game and well worth having in my collection.
Greg Schloesser: My opinion virtually mirrors that of Joe. Charming, cute and quick, but not very compelling. Playing until someone gets four cubes is just too long for such a simple game. I’ll play, but it is not one of my favorite fillers.
Mary Prasad: It’s a quick light game that makes a nice filler. It is also very compact so it is a good choice for travel (or even for something to do when waiting at a restaurant for food). As others have noted, there are not many choices and, being a card game, there is quite a bit of luck. It’s not a deep game, which is perfectly OK for something that plays quickly.
Larry: I’m sure I haven’t played this enough to fairly judge it, as I’ve only tried it once. All I can say, though, is that in that game, three of the four players were deliberately trying to lose, just so that we could end it. It just seemed so insanely random. It’s one of the few designs I’ve played where I’m tempted to use the Geek’s “defies description of a game” rating. Let me just charitably say that this game isn’t for me and leave it at that.
Luke Hedgren: Right in the rules of the original English edition of the game, Senji Kanai warns the players: “This is a light game of about 60% luck, 40% tactics, intended as something not so serious.” As long as you are on board with that, continue on to fun, laughs, bluff, reveals, groans and calls for more. If you aren’t, then I guess you should play to lose on purpose, and chalk up your play to a waste of about 5 mins if your time. A note also about the differences between editions of the game: the original rules are even harsher and more capricious than the AEG version. Also, somehow, better.
Ratings Review from the Opinionated Gamers
I love it! W. Eric Martin, Andrea “Liga” Ligabue, Ted C., Luke Hedgren
I like it. Matt Carlson, Brian Leet, Jeff Allers, Mary Prasad
Neutral. Joe Huber, Greg Schloesser, Tom Rosen
Not for me… Larry
I have been a bit behind on sharing my opinions recently due to some conflicting work commitments. But I did have a chance to play Love Letter several times this winter and would have certainly included it in the “Like It” camp. When it comes to true “fillers” — i.e., the games you only play as a means to pass the time between the games you actually want to play — I find Love Letter to be one of the better examples of the genre. Yes, the game is highly random and, at its best moments, highly tactical. But it actually contains considerably more true “deduction” (and thus more room for genuinely clever play) than its bluffing- or misdirection-based competitors, such as Coup or Rumble in the House (two commonly played fillers around these parts). I can’t possibly see it as a great game, since a win is never particularly fulfilling given the chaos, but I certainly wouldn’t object to playing it whenever I find myself in a situation where a true filler is needed.
Game on the way to my bungalow
“All I can say, though, is that in that game, three of the four players were deliberately trying to lose, just so that we could end it. ”
Sorry, but if you dont want to play, why play it and deliberatly trying to kill the game? That doest make any sense to me and is not really fair for the fourth player.
If this was more than a 5-minute piece of fluff, Peer, I’d agree with you. But it wasn’t like the fourth player was moaning that we were spoiling his highly strategic game; there was much laughter throughout as three of us independently tried to lose. That’s just the way it worked out and it was actually kind of funny.
As to why we played at all, it was a new game getting a lot of notice, so it was worth trying. However, after a while, it just started feeling pointless. We probably should have bagged it at that point, but there’s some sort of silly macho gamer thing about playing a game to the end. So people started playing badly, because it didn’t seem to matter. I don’t think there’s much more you can read into this than that the game didn’t work for us. Other people like it, so that’s fine for them.
I have to disagree with Brian on this one. I think the Love Letter – Coup comparison is completely fair. They are both 10 minute bluffing cards games with minimal components and rules that came out around the same time. The comparison is as sensible as it is inevitable. Now that’s not to say that they’re equal, just that they’re comparable. While I’d put Coup in the “I like it” bucket, I’m “Neutral” on Love Letter. Brian’s right that Love Letter is a largely tactical exercise, and that Coup is slightly less so. It’s true that the “right” play is less readily apparent in Coup. So that makes Coup better in comparing these games. For anyone who likes Love Letter, I’d say spend those 10 minutes playing Coup instead. And for anyone who likes Coup, I’d say don’t bother with Love Letter.
For what it is, Love Letter is a fine game for 3-4 players. For 2-players, I’d rather play Skittykitts, a comparable 21-card game (that is too random with 3-4 players). Both games get better with more plays as you learn the cards a bit more, but neither game is anything more than a light filler…
When I play the game I don’t care about the scores or to play a certain number of rounds. We play it as a filler when waiting for players to show up or finish a game.