Love Letter Premium is an enhanced version of the popular deduction “microgame” Love Letter, designed by Seiji Kanai and released in 2012. The new 2016 version includes two major changes from the original game: upgraded components, and new cards and rules for playing with 5-8 players. These updates come at a price though, with the Premium version costing roughly five times as much as the original version. Are the enhancements worth it? In this review I will only discuss the new additions to the Premium version, if you would like a gameplay summary and my thoughts on the original version, you can see my review here.
The original Love Letter came in a small velvet pouch (though some later versions came in a small box) with just the sixteen game cards, four reference cards, and a small bag of red cubes for scoring. The new premium version comes with several upgrades to the components:
One of the perks of Love Letter is its extreme portability, so a larger box doesn’t seem like a necessary “upgrade,” but the necessity simply comes out the other new components requiring more space to store. The box is still small (2 x 6.3 x 8.7 inches), and is definitely high-quality material with a nice hinged, magnetic lid. Overall, I am a fan of the box as it is a little more natural to store on a game shelf.
Larger Cards with Sleeves
The cards in this edition are now a larger “tarot” size, and also made of a thicker (almost cardboard-like) card stock. The increased size is nice for being able to see cards on the table more easily, and they also just feel nicer to hold throughout the game (which you constantly do in Love Letter). As if that wasn’t enough, they also include a full set of custom card sleeves with nice envelope artwork on the back for all the cards. This is a huge boon for a game in which the same few cards handled frequently, especially a deduction game where marks on the cards could have a negative effect on gameplay. The sleeves should allow the game to endure tons of plays without showing any signs of wear, and it was a really nice touch to include them. I do wish the sleeves were just a touch larger as they fit extremely snug with the cards almost protruding out the top a bit, but it is really a small complaint.
Heart-Shaped Pieces for Scoring
When playing the original Love Letter, it was common for a player to ask, “why are they cubes instead of little hearts or something?” Well they did just that, the Premium version now has nice large wooden hearts to use for scoring (the golden heart comes in to play with a new card, the Jester).
New Cards for 5-8 Players
Expanding Love Letter to play with more than four players really makes it a game that can work in almost any situation. But with one of Love Letter’s biggest strengths being how quickly it plays, does playing with more players provide a worthwhile experience? To play with 5-8 players, you now mix a set of completely new cards into the deck. The new cards are as follows:
0. Jester (1) – You get to choose another player and give them a gold heart. If that player ends up winning the round, you also get a token of affection.
0. Assassin (1) – If a player tries to guess your hand using a Guard while you hold the Assassin, they are immediately out of the round.
1. Guard (3) – Exactly the same as Guard in the base game, but with a new illustration.
2. Cardinal (2) – You choose two players to trade hands, and then look at one of their hands.
3. Baroness (2) – You can look at the hands of one or two other players.
4. Sycophant (2) – You choose another player. If the next card played can target your choice legally, it is required to.
5. Count (2) – At the end of the round, when comparing card values, a Count in your discard pile will add one to your total.
6. Constable (1) – If you are knocked out of the round after playing the Constable, you gain a token of affection.
7. Dowager Queen (1) – You compare hands with another player (like a Baron), but the player with the higher valued card is knocked out.
9. Bishop (1) – You guess the value of another player’s hand (like a Guard), and if you are correct, you gain a token of affection and they may discard their hand and draw a new card. Despite having a value of 9, the Bishop still loses to the Princess in the end-of-round comparison.
The first thing I noticed about the new cards is that there are now ways for multiple players to gain a token of affection in a single round, or even for a player to gain more than one. This design choice helps to speed along the game, as it would otherwise take longer for one player to gain four tokens of affection in a larger game. Besides helping to keep the game length reasonable, the new “scoring” cards also can provide some interesting new dynamics that weren’t seen in the original game.
- Jester – This card has a couple of effects on the subsequent play. First, the player who played the Jester has essentially hedged his bets so that he can win if either he or his choice wins the round. But the other interesting dynamic is the fact that now the Jester’s choice has a target on his back, because the other players want to avoid a situation where two opponents score in the same round. This drastically changes how players choose who they will target for the remainder of the round.
- Constable – This card certainly seems overpowered at first glance. The player now will get a token of affection if they get knocked out OR if they win the round! The only way that the player with Constable does not score is if they make it to the end of the round and then lose by having a lower card. While that is definitely an intimidating effect, it is offset partially by the fact that all other players are aware of it. Once the Constable is played, players are likely to just not target that player, reducing the chance that they will be eliminated. But as the end game nears, this dynamic can shift. Consider if the round is down to just you and one opponent, and your opponent has played the Constable. You may want to avoid knocking them out so they don’t get a point, but what if you don’t think you are going to have the higher card at the end? Surely knocking them out so you both get a point is better than losing at the end, right?
- Bishop – The Bishop is a very unique card. In the end game, it is capable of beating every card except the Princess. On the other hand, playing it during the round could earn you a token of affection, and still leave you in the running for an additional token by winning the round! With all of the cards that could leave you knowing someone else’s hand, there are many opportunities to use it for a guaranteed point. The more interesting scenario comes when you don’t know what anyone has for certain. Do you take an educated guess to have the chance at a point, or do you hold onto it to try and win in the end game?
All of the situations described above are really unlike anything you run across in the original Love Letter. The intrigue of these interactions can be further enhanced based on how many tokens of affection each player has. If a player only needs one token to win and plays the Jester or Constable, the round takes a very interesting turn.
The new “scoring” cards aren’t the only additions that create new scenarios. Some of the cards don’t change much beyond allowing more players to have more information (Cardinal and Baroness), but others add some spice to the game:
- Assassin – It is really just bad luck if you use a Guard on the Assassin, but it definitely makes for a humorous scenario, especially if the Assassin-holding player plays it up a little with the element of surprise. There are some unique interactions that are possible though, for example, in one of our games a player had played the Constable. He happened to know that another player had the Assassin, and he went ahead and guessed with a Guard to eliminate himself from the round, scoring a point with the Constable as a result!
- Sycophant – Most of the time, the Sycophant does not have any significant impact. But there are several instances where a player being forced to target another player can have interesting results. A player might be forced to target the Assassin, or compare hands with the Bishop, or even be required to discard the Princess out of their own hand with a Prince.
- Count – This is really just a dead card during the round, resolving without effect. But it does throw a twist into the end game card comparison. Ties (broken by sum of discarded cards) are already more common due to additional cards of each rank, but the Count can potentially make it happen in a roundabout fashion. The more interesting dynamic is when it is nearing the end of a round, and players are trying to evaluate their chances of winning with the highest card. Now having the Princess isn’t necessarily a guarantee if the other player has played a Count or two.
- Dowager Queen – Now not even high cards are safe from comparison. The Dowager Queen seems even more powerful than the Baron, as there are many low-rank cards and other players are likely trying to hold onto higher cards as the round moves along. It is also a funny situation where a player uses a Baron to knock someone out, only to be eliminated by the Dowager Queen because they already have “proven” that they have a higher card.
All of the above thoughts really boil down to this: the new cards introduce situations and interactions that were not possible in the original game, and that is a nice change of pace for experienced players of Love Letter. The 5-8 player rules do have their downsides though. For one, the rounds are significantly longer. With the deck doubled in size, it takes roughly twice as long to reach the potential end game comparison. Couple this with the fact that a player could be eliminated on the first turn, it is much more common for players to be waiting a while before they can rejoin a new round. Another problem can be the sheer quantity of cards that can be played over the course of a round. Being a deduction game where players often scan the played cards to make an educated guess, there are now times late in a round where the game stalls while a player looks over all the cards and compares them to the totals on the summary card. Twice the cards simply has the potential to make these deductions take twice as long. For these reasons, I really would only recommend the 5-8 player rules for groups that are already very familiar with Love Letter. In a setting where everyone already knows the base game like the back of their hands, the 5-8 player game can move quickly enough and provide the interest of the additional cards and new interactions. With less experienced players, it can turn into a frustrating slog lacking the entertaining quick iterations found in the original game.
If you are a fan of Love Letter and anticipate playing it for years to come, the Premium version is well worth the extra money. The improved components enhance the experience, and the sleeves will help the cards hold up to repeated plays. The 5-8 player rules are nice to have and add some fresh situational gameplay, but you will just want to be wary to use them with anyone who isn’t already comfortable with the original game.
Enjoy my review and wanting to pick up Love Letter Premium? Consider buying through my Amazon affiliate link and I will get a small kickback on your purchase.