Saturday, 15 June 2013

Love Letter Review

Pictured: cards, bag, little glass hearts. Not Pictured: Love.

A card game of romantic rivals for 2-4 players.

Alderac Entertainment Group made a name for themselves in the CCG boom years with my former addiction, Legend of the Five Rings, and a spate of so-so games. In the last few years they have made some really interesting hits, including their most recent release; Love Letter.
Set in their Tempest series of courtly intrigue games, Love Letter sees you setting out to win the hand of Princess Annette. It’s not going to be easy as not only are you just some Johnny-Come-Lately who has no contacts at court, but there are other rivals for the lovely Annette’s hand. You and each suitor all have to use your contacts to try and get a love letter all the way from the lowly streets of Tempest and into the princess’ dainty hand.
That’s the premise, so how’s it play?
Inside the lush cloth bag is a deck of sixteen cards and thirteen wooden blocks, replaced in my picture with little hearts because, well, it seemed more fitting.

The cards each have one of eight roles, going from a lowly guard all the way to Princess Annette herself, then there’s a reference card which isn’t to be eaten, thrown away or used as a roach unlike in most games. It tells you what each card does and most importantly how many there are in the deck. A card’s removed from the tiny deck to make things a little random for each game, then each person gets a hand of one card. Yep, just one tiny little card.
On your turn, you pick up and play a card. Each play involves dicking the other players over, checking their hand, making them discard their card and so on. There are player elimination cards too, which is a bad thing in a longer game, but again, it’s going to go by pretty quick and you’ll be back in soon. And this is why the reference card’s there, as you look at what your enemies have played and try to guess what they have and how to screw them over.
Fairly simple so far, but then there’s the guesswork, and cards which allow little bluffs. The Countess has to be discarded if you’ve got the Prince or King in your hand, so when you lay it down the vultures all dive in, playing Guard cards to guess ‘Prince’ or ‘King’, hoping that if they guess right then the guard will get in the way and you’ll be out of the round. You’re laughing though as you lied and all you’ve got is a Priest card so you’ve just bought yourself enough time to draw and something new which will hopefully win you the round. And then there’s the poor sod with the Princess. If he’s forced to discard her, she saw his love letter and burned it, knocking him out of the round. Maybe he shouldn’t have written it in finger-paints the fool. But if he can get a card to swap hands, or simply lie well enough to survive to the end.

The round ends when there’s only one player left. That player gets a little piece of love and wins the round. The other way of winning is whoever has the highest-numbered card when the deck runs out. The numbers go low to high according to the rank, so if you’ve got the Princess or something big, you’re a massive target in the end game, while the small ones might buy you a last chance at knocking the others out.
You play a few rounds and whoever has the most little bits of love (6, 5 or 4 for 2-4 players) wins the game. It’ll be done in maybe 20 minutes, perfect for when you’re waiting for the rest of your gaming group to show up or to cleanse your palate between ‘big’ games.

I’ve played Love Letter with gamers, relatives and a confused writing group. Each group spends the first round unsure what’s going on, but the learning curve is relatively easy and players will quickly learn to play the numbers. They use the maths and realise that all you have is the Priest and nobody wants him. Then the bluffing and the petty vindictiveness begins, making it go from good game to great game.
I have one friend I try to avoid competitive games with, but even he was laughing as he was being eliminated in this game, it’s so quick and brutal, there’s no real way to bear a grudge. I could see another friend’s mind working overtime when he’d worked out I had the Princess and used my other card to guess that he had the Princess. He’d figured it all out, but now he couldn’t be sure. Inaction ruined him and my letter reached Annette first.
After so much use, my deck needs card sleeves (red, of course) which I really recommend if you’re going to play this game, and more love-based alternatives to the tiny blocks of red wood the game comes with. At BoardGameGeek you’ll even see variants made using Batman, Adventure Time, Battlestar Galactica and more springing up. Some have better uses of the theme than others.
Love Letter is cheap, fast-paced and involves screwing with your friends’ minds, so for me it’s a perfect little game.

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