In Love Letter, by Seiji Kanai, 2-4 players vie for the love of Princess Annette by passing notes through members of court while trying to sabotage her other suitors. Will your letter reach her first, or will some other suitor win her heart and the game?
Although Love Letter can be played by 2-4 players, it is generally agreed that it is at its best when played with four. As such, it is the four player game that I will primarily address in this review.
The premise of the game is that the players are suitors for the hand of the shy and grieving Princess Annette. Due to her shyness, they are forced to pass her love letters through various intermediaries as approaching her directly would be doomed to failure. The goal is to end each round by either: Being the last suitor in the hand or to be holding the highest ranking card when there are no further cards to draw. The suitor’s letter successfully reaches the Princess if he meets either of these conditions and he takes one of the red tokens of affection (should be hearts). The first player to earn his fourth token (four player game) wins the heart of the Princess, and more importantly the game.
Shuffle the 16 card deck and remove the top one from the game face-down. Each player is then dealt one card which is kept secret from the other players. Either use the suggested method of determining starting player, the person who has most recently been on a date, or use whatever random method you prefer. Once starting player is settled, the game begins.
Each round begins with the starting player, which is initially random, but on subsequent rounds it is the player who won the previous round. All rounds are identical and the process is repeated until one player has obtained sufficient markers to win the game. A round proceeds as follows:
The starting player draws a card off of the draw pile and chooses one from his hand to discard face-up in front of him. The player then immediately resolves the card’s effect, even if it is bad. The cards are as follows:
Using a Guard gives the player the ability to name a non-guard card and target a player. If the targeted player has the named card he must reveal it, and is out for this round. If he does not have the card in question he remains in the round and the next player begins his turn.
Honesty: The rule book correctly points out, that the rules for the Guard are on the honor system. A player could lie when a guard would eliminate him. It recommends not playing with the sort of knaves who would cheat at light and fun games. I tend to agree with this advice, although it sounds vaguely like it is endorsing playing hardcore and heavier games with cheaters. Interesting…
The five Guards are a valuable tool in that they allow a player to directly target a rival with the hopes of removing him from the round. They become stronger as the round progresses as it becomes easier to guess what people as the options dwindle. However, it is also risky to wait too long as they are the lowest numbered card. If the round ends and you are holding a guard, you did not win.
Using one of the two Priests allows you to look at the card another player is currently holding. While this is most certainly useful information, its value is limited somewhat by the fact that you may not immediately play a Guard. The targeted player will get another turn before you can make use of this information. However, the best use of the Priest is to force a player’s hand. If he is holding anything other than a Guard, it highly likely he will play it or he is completely exposed on your next turn. It may even happen that he is holding the Princess and cannot get rid of her. Either way, the ability of the Priest to look into another player’s hand provides useful recon in a game that revolves around hidden information. For that reason alone, do not underestimate the Priest.
The Baron is one of the trickiest and potentially powerful cards in the game. The mere threat of one of the two Barons being played can force other players to make difficult decisions on their turn. Generally, if you are stuck with Princess in your hand it can be a difficult situation to deal with. However, the appearance of a Baron changes everything. As the Princess is the highest value card in the game she is unbeatable when combined with the Baron. This is a great way to close out a round or even eliminate an opponent early in the round if you have no choice. Depending what card your defeated opponent reveals determines how much information your other opponents gain. If he revealed a Guard, you could have anything, although in our group it is considered very rare for anyone to Baron with less than a Prince unless they had no choice. However, it can be a little awkward if your target reveals the Countess which can only be beaten by the Princess. Good luck making it out of that round without getting nailed by a Guard! While the Baron is the ultimate power if you hold the Princess he becomes more and more of a gamble the lower the card with which you try to use him. Be careful with this fellow!
Ahh…the sweet Handmaid. Is there ever a time to not player her the moment that you draw one of the two? The only one I can think of is if it is the last turn that you will get and you other card is lower. There is nothing sweeter than being completely safe in a game tha revolves around elimination and the Handmaid provides that safety for one full round! It is like having the immunity idol on Survivor. You are not sure who is going home, but you know for a fact that it is not going to be you! I have seen rounds in which a player played back to back Handmaids and virtually guaranteed their survival to the end of the round. Another interesting feature of the a Handmaid(s) being in play is that some very strange things can occur. If there are not and players that can be targeted and the active player discards a Prince, he must target himself. If this results in him discarding the Princess he is out! I have been caught in this situation and it sucks. With a Handmaid in play you may not be winning, but you are definitely not losing and sometimes in Love Letter, that can be enough!
The Prince is the final card of which there are two copies, and of those he is also the one with the highest value. This fact alone makes him a frequent target of blind guess Guards. While it is true that he is no more likely to be in a player’s hand than any of the other cards with two copies, if you are going to guess you may as well chose the highest ranking one. For this reason, as well as interactions with the Countess and Handmaids, players tend to not hold on to the Prince very long time. Besides being dangerous to hold, the Prince is also quick to be played because of his versatility. His ability may target any player including the one playing the Prince. This, combined with a little basic card counting and you can either vastly improve your situation, end the round early, disrupt an opponents plan, or even eliminate a player holding the Princess! The options that the Prince gives a player makes him one of the most valuable cards in the game!
It is good to be the King, or so they say, but it is not always the case in Love Letter. The King is obviously desirable to be holding at the end of the round as he is the third highest ranking card and will win many rounds this way. Unfortunately, his interaction with the Countess, and the fact that players start guessing high cards with late round Guards make him difficult to keep in hand. In addition, I rarely find his ability to be of that much use. Yes, it can be a round winner if you know for a fact that your opponent is holding a higher card at the end of the round, but if you draw him early playing the King can be a total crap-shoot!
The King is primarily useful for a slightly risky Baron or being held towards the end of the round. Both are gambles that will often pay off for you, but do not put too much faith in any action that you take that involves the King!
She looks shady! She is shady! She is also one of the most fascinating cards in Love Letter! The Countess has no outright positive effect from playing her. It is only through the confusion that such a play elicits that she reveals her true nature. The fact that she must be played when you hold either the King or a Prince (More honesty required) is an absolutely terrible ability! However, when you play the Countess, you are not required to announce why you played her and this fact creates a lot of speculation. The natural assumption is that you have the King or a Prince, but then someone brings up that you could be bluffing! Playing the Countess is a great way to throw would be Guard players off of the scent as to what you actually have. In addition to the bluffing opportunities she presents, when teamed with the Baron or held at the end of the game she is next to unbeatable! Given that she has tremendous value when played or while being held in hand there is truly much more to the Countess than meets the eye!
There is not a great deal to say about the Princess, other than the fact that she will cost you the round more often than she will win it for you. In a game called Love Letter, in which suitors are pursuing her hand, it is ironic that holding the Princess feels more like drawing the Old Maid! If she is discarded from a player’s hand for any reason, he is eliminated from the round! Drawing the Princess early can be a burden too great to overcome and often a player only survives this situation by luck, rather than skill. Her only uses are to be combined with the Baron for an auto-win, or to be holding her at the end of the round to earn the marker. It can be humorous when someone else chooses to use a Baron on you, but it is less than helpful when they show that they were eliminated holding the Countess! If anyone is left they are simply waiting to draw a Guard or a Prince and you are toast! The fact that holding the Princess puts you in such a tough position is one of the most common complaints about the game, but fortunately it is light enough and quick enough that it doesn’t hurt too bad!
All players repeat the process of draw a card – play a card until there are no players left in the round or no cards left to draw. The last player in the round or the one holding the highest card at the end of the round gains the marker. If the player has earned his fourth marker ,the game ends and he is the winner. If no one has gained a fourth marker, shuffle up the deck and play a new round with the previous round’s winner going first.
I remember my reaction when I first heard that there was a game called Love Letter, and that there were actually “guys” who thought it was a good game. Despite the legendary objectivity that I display in my reviews, in real life I am occasionally prone to bouts of “auto-mockery.” My feelings were similar to my reaction at hearing that “Duets” was a good movie or that (showing my age) Michael Keaton was going to be Batman, full of instant disdain, and completely wrong! I say this as card-carrying full-tilt gamer “guy” , it is a fun little game that leads to lots of laughs! My rating for Love Letter is an impressive 7.0. There is a surprising amount of fun to be had with these super simple rules and only 16 cards. This is because Love Letter is game played by people and not by the rules. Sure, sometimes you will get screwed, and be eliminated by a wild guess or get stuck with the Princess early, but this game is primarily a battle of wits in which players try to read into each others minds.
Why did he play the Countess? Does he have the King or Prince? Perhaps the Princess? Is he trying to throw me off the scent and just tossing her away? What did he do last time he had the Countess? Does he know what he did last time? Does he know that I know what he did last time? And so on and so on…
That is a big part of the fun of Love Letter. The second part is kind of related to the trying to read each others mind, and it is something I refer to as “Aha!” moments. It is not just that it feels good to guess right for the sake of eliminating a player, but that it actually feels good just to guess right! It is like winning on a scratch off lottery ticket or finding $20 in your jeans pocket. It just feels good! The funny thing is that it is even fun to be on the receiving end of such a guess. There is the tension of the build up, followed by the release of the reveal and regardless of the outcome there is a little magic in that moment. Because each round is so short, the sting of elimination is very minor and often leaves everyone laughing. Good times are had by all!
In addition to the “Aha!” moments that Love Letter provides, there are also a few other things that I really like about it. It is playable right out of the box. The rules are basically: Everyone takes a card. On a player’s turn the draw a card and play a card. Resolve the card. Last player standing or the player holding the highest card at the end wins round. Win four rounds and win the game. Congrats, you can pretty much play Love Letter after that brief explanation. Given the busy nature of modern life, a game that requires almost no time to teach, learn, or play, is a wonderful addition to any busy gamer’s collection. Due to those reasons, Love Letter is probably the ultimate filler game. Its simplistic nature makes it a good family game or even one to play with non-gamers at a get together. With simple reading and practically zero math it could probably be taught to children as young 7. Rarely has a game composed of so little brought so much to the table!
While I admit to liking Love Letter, there are a few negatives and other things to consider before running out and buying a copy. First and foremost, Love Letter is a filler game. It is an appetizer, not the main course and should be judged accordingly. If you are looking for a light social game with its share of luck and that is playable in a 30-45 minutes then by all means pick up a copy. If you are looking for a hardcore game that will be decided purely by skill and ruthless gamesmanship you will not be satisfied by Love Letter. Frankly this is a limiting factor in the rating that I gave it. There is only so much game to be had with those 16 cards. More than you would think, but there is only so much. Next, is the amount of luck contained in Love Letter. Personally, I think there is less luck involved than one might assume after just one play, but it is most certainly a large factor in the game. If you can not handle that, do not bother with Love Letter. I normally fall into this camp, but due to Love Letter’s short rounds and quick game play I find it less frustrating. If I was playing for blood at the moment, Love Letter would not be on the table in the first place. Lastly, and I know it is a mere trifle, the tokens should be hearts. I mean come one! A friend and fellow reviewer, Tim Norris of Grey Elephant Gaming who introduced me to the game, made this very point. He said that he even brought it up to AEG, but they were not interested in changing the situation. All I can say is, Booo!
Love Letter succeeds because it had a simple goal and stuck to achieving that goal. Create a simple, light, fun-filled, game with a mix of skill, psychology, and a bit of blind luck that can be played in around a half an hour and that is exactly what the designer did. Everything extraneous was stripped away and what was left is a pure expression of the aforementioned goals. If that is not your thing, I completely understand. If it sounds like your kind of thing, I strongly recommend giving it a try! You may very well have an “Aha! moment and fall in love with this one!
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