Love Letter is a small deduction card game released in 2012 from designer Seiji Kanai. It has since become the poster child for a whole genre of “microgames” that provide a worthwhile gaming experience in as small of a package as possible. Players will simply choose one of two cards to play on their turn, but the various card abilities and interactions allow for interesting deduction as players try to be the “last man standing” in each round.
At the beginning of each round, each player is dealt a single card which they keep secret. One card is then removed from the deck, and the rest of the deck is placed in the center of the table. On a player’s turn, they draw one card from the deck, and then select one of their two cards to play face up in front of them. They simply perform the action specified by the played card, and then play passes to the next player clockwise. The deck consists of only sixteen total cards, giving players fairly limited information to work with in deducing what other players might be holding. There are just eight unique cards:
- Guard (5) – The player selects another player and guesses what card they have (cannot guess guard). If guessed correctly, the targeted player is eliminated from the round.
- Priest (2) – The player selects another player and secretly looks at their card.
- Baron (2) – The player selects another player and they secretly compare cards. The player with the lower card is eliminated from the round. If the cards are equal, both players remain in play.
- Handmaid (2) – The player cannot be targeted by cards played by other players until their next turn.
- Prince (2) – The player selects a player (possibly himself) and the targeted player discards their card and draws a new one.
- King (1) – The player selects another player and the two players trade hands.
- Countess (1) – If the player’s other card is a King or Prince, the Countess must be played. The Countess can still be played otherwise, and no action is taken in either case.
- Princess (1) – Discarding the Princess, whether by playing it or by any other means, instantly eliminates you from the round.
Rounds end when either only one player remains, or the deck runs out of cards. If the deck runs out, players compare their final cards, and the highest numbered card wins the round. The winner then takes a cube (a token of the princess’s affection), and a new round begins. The first player to get 4, 5, or 6 cubes (based on 4, 3, or 2 players, respectively) wins the game.
What Is It Like to Play?
At it’s heart, Love Letter is a simple deduction game. Each player only holds one of sixteen total cards, and on their turn, there are only two cards to choose from to play. The game is all about trying to figure out what cards other players might be holding, and then using the cards available to try and position yourself to win the round. While you only ever get to choose between two cards, there are actually 28 unique pairings that you could find yourself with. Combine that with the numerous variations of what you know at that moment about other players’ hands, how many players are still in the round, and what cards have been played and are visible to all players, and you will still be finding new situations even after many repeated plays. Here are some examples of the kinds of thoughts you might have while playing this game:
I have a Guard and the Princess, so I clearly need to play the Guard, but maybe I’ll act like I’m thinking so they don’t suspect that I have the Princess. Now I need to guess John Doe’s card… He has only played a guard so far, I think I am going to guess Baron because he wouldn’t have played Baron if he was also holding a Guard, and there are two in the deck which are as high of odds as any other option.
I have a King and a Priest and the deck runs out after my turn. The Countess has already been played, so I know that the only thing that can beat my King is the Princess. There is only one other player left in the round, but does he have the Princess, or is the Princess the card that is removed from the round? If I use the King to trade and he has the Princess I will win, but if I accidentally trade for a Guard then I will lose. His last card was a Prince and he didn’t select himself, so it seems more likely that he would have the Princess because he would have wanted to get rid of his own hand for a higher card if he had a Guard. Given that, I’ll play the King and hope I get the Princess.”
These little puzzles of deduction are endless, providing room for a good amount of mental reasoning and skill in what is otherwise a fairly light game. The rounds play really fast, and you will often find yourself laughing with the other players as people get eliminated in humorous ways, whether it is by someone just getting a lucky guess on the first round, or because they get stuck with the Princess and the King on the last turn and have no choice but to trade the Princess away. Just 20 minutes later it is all finished, but yet you feel like you made a lot of meaningful decisions in such a short time.
Most games increase replay value by adding more cards and content that allows you to change how the game is setup or what you access throughout play. It is really quite impressive that Love Letter retains a high level of replay value with just the same sixteen cards in play every game. But because at any given point, every player has different cards, knows different information, and the order the cards come into play is shuffled, the game stays really fresh even after playing it many times.
The game definitely shines with the full count of four players. It is alright with three, and playable with two, but I find myself playing it with four fairly exclusively.
Pretty much nonexistent. Just deal a card to each player and one to the side, and you are good to go.
The game is very easy to teach, especially since each card includes text describing its effect. Since rounds are so fast, you can easily introduce players by just jumping in after a brief overview.
Things to Like
There is not a lot going on in Love Letter, and new players are likely to pick it up quickly. But despite this simplicity, Love Letter manages to not go stale and allows for a ton of emergent, interesting gameplay. It certainly doesn’t have a high level of strategic depth, but the depth of unique situations and decisions is very rewarding.
You can pick up Love Letter for under $10, and it can fit in your pocket. With that kind of extreme affordability and portability, it becomes hard to make a case NOT to own it.
There are many opportunities in Love Letter for a player to select what other player they want to target in attempts to eliminate them from the round. This means that when one player is winning, they are more likely to be targeted by cards that could knock them out. Over the rounds of the game, this often results in a very close finish where multiple (or all) players are in a position to win in the final round. It is a game that is more fun when it is close, so the self-balancing nature is a positive in my book.
Things to Dislike
I typically only play Love Letter with four players, and while that is not a difficult number of people to round up, there are a lot of situations where I am looking for a game with the complexity of Love Letter, but with more than four players. It is worth mentioning that there is a new version, Love Letter Premium, that boosts the game to eight players, and I will likely post my thoughts on that version in the future.
Due to the same sixteen cards being used over and over in every round and being handled by the players, they are likely going to show some wear over time. This is particularly an issue given that Love Letter is a deduction game. It’s no fun if people know what the next card is just because there is a mark on the back of a worn out card.
Game Design Perspective
At first glance, one might think that a game like Love Letter would be easy to design. After all, it just has sixteen cards with simple rules; no need to design all the complexities of larger games. While it certainly has the advantage of fast iteration times due to its size, I think it can actually be harder to design one of these “microgames” well. With a larger game, there are a lot of things you can add to supply more variety, interesting decisions, etc. With a game as small as Love Letter, there is no extra fluff to hide behind; your simple ruleset needs to carry the entire game experience by itself. I am really impressed by how something as simple as playing one of two cards in turn can yield so many entertaining situations and decisions, and it certainly inspires me to experiment with similar small designs. You don’t see many tiny games like Love Letter with such high ratings, and I think that is a testament to how it truly is a remarkable game design.
If you are looking for a “filler” game for 3-4 players, there is really no reason you shouldn’t own Love Letter. It provides a fun and easy to teach experience for the price of a couple of <insert coffee-based drink of choice>s.
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