Review: Love Letter - Strategy Card Game07 Nov 2018 1
Review: Love Letter - Strategy Card Game
Released 24 Oct 2018
Love Letter is a game of courtly intrigue in which two to four players seek to gain the affections of Princess Annette. However, the Princess is locked away in the palace and not accepting visitors, which means that her suitors have to rely on occupants of the palace to deliver their letters of undying love. I guess a trip to the local post office is not an option.
Love Letter was originally a Japanese game designed by Seiji Kanai. Its potential was quickly recognised and a version with a new theme and redesigned artwork was released for the Western market. The game proved to be hugely successful and triggered a trend for microgames. Typically, these games come in a tiny box, with simple rules and only take a few minutes to play. Not only did the original inspire a host of similar games but also led to a range of re-themes, which include Adventure Time, Star Wars and The Hobbit.
The game consists of a deck of just sixteen cards, only eight of which are unique. At the start of the game, to add a little unpredictability, one card is removed from the already skinny deck. Players are dealt a single card and then are good to go. On a turn, players simply draw a card and then play either of the two cards in their hand. Used cards remain in front of the player for the rest of the game to aid deduction and break ties. Each card represents a member of the royal household, from lowly guards to the princess herself. The world of romance can be brutal and unforgiving, which means that to ensure that your letter gets delivered to the princess, you must do your best to eliminate the opposition. You do this by enlisting the help of members of the palace, each of who have a special skill.
A round ends when there is only one suitor left standing or the deck of cards is exhausted. If more than one player is still in the game then the one with the highest ranked card in their hand wins. If more than one player has the same ranked card then the tie is resolved by adding up the ranks of the cards that they have played during the course of the game. The winner is awarded a point, with the amount of points required to claim victory dependant on the number of players.
To get a feel of how Love Letter actually plays we will need to take a look at the cards. Each character card has a ranking, with the highest being the princess. Having her in your hand is risky because if a player is ever forced to discard the princess then they lose. The King demands that two players exchange their cards, whilst the Prince forces a suitor to discard their card and draw a new one. The countess doesn’t have a special power and must be discarded if you also have the Prince or King. The Baron favours a no-nonsense approach, giving the owner the chance to challenge another player. Both reveal their cards and the player with the lower rank is eliminated. The handmaiden protects you from the effects of other cards for an entire turn, whilst the busybody priest will let you take a peek at another player’s card. Lowest ranked and most numerous are the guards. These give you a chance to guess an opponent’s card and if correct, then the unfortunate target is eliminated.
Love Letter is a wonder of minimalist design; it is incredible how just a few cards can conjure up such a delicious feeling of court intrigue. Deducing the cards in your opponents’ hands is obviously the key to success, There are obvious ways, such as playing a guard but also other subtler ways, which usually involve trying to read between the lines. However, beware because a smart opponent will be actively trying to distract you, leading you up the garden path, only to be waiting in the bushes to whack you over the head with a garden gnome. A shrewd player will keep a check on the cards played and those that possibly remain. They will try and put others off the scent by, for instance, using a guard to issue a challenge when they know very well that the target doesn’t have that particular card because it is already nestling in their own hand.
Each round plays so quickly that it never gets dull, even getting eliminated will not have you sitting on the sidelines for too long. The simple nature of Love Letter means that you never take it too seriously. Because the time investment is so short you are encouraged to be reckless, which makes the game so enjoyable.
The digital version looks the part, sticking closely to the art design of the original, complete with heaving bosoms and fluttering fans. Each card uses stars to provide up to date information regarding how many copies of each card remain in play, which makes things even easier. Options are pretty limited, you can play offline against AI opponents or online in public or private multiplayer matches. Playing the app also eliminates any potential cheating but there again why would you play with cheats in the first place?
The big question is why you would want to play this over the original card game? The physical version is cheap and portable and comes in a cool velvet bag. I guess the big draw is that you can play online whenever you want. However, transfer the game to a clinical online environment and the game’s shortcomings are thrown into stark relief. A lucky guess can have the game ending before it has even begun, whilst a lot of the time the game feels like it is playing itself with no real input from the player.
More than many other games, Love Letter relies on the human touch. The Princess Bride style bluffing just doesn’t work without that immediate interaction with other players. It is not a shortcoming of the game but a shortcoming of the digital medium that makes it an odd choice for conversion to the digital format.