Political intrigue is afoot in the fantasy world of Tempest. The king has imprisoned the queen for treason, the princess has locked herself away in her grief and in her tower (metaphorically and literally, respectively) and the empire is having a not-so-great time. Into these turbulent times come 2-4 opportunistic suitors who, in order to ease the princess’s suffering (for which read “seduce the princess in her moment of weakness”), are all vying to get their love letters into the hands of the palace’s most influential denizens.
You and your friends are those suitors. Which makes you and your friends a bunch of selfish, heartless pricks. But that’s a very happy bunch of selfish, heartless pricks because Love Letter is both an absolute joy and the perfect way to introduce new gamers to the world of modern card games.
In a round of Love Letter, each player is dealt one of the game’s 16 cards. The card you have tells you who currently holds your letter and that person’s influence with the princess. On your turn you’ll pick a second card from the deck, compare the two cards and decide which you would like to keep. Bear in mind that at the end of each round, the player with the highest value card wins a token of affection from the princess, and so you probably want to keep the higher value card. But bear in mind also that each character has a special ability which is triggered when you discard that character. So the priest will let you look at another player’s hand. The guard will let you knock a player out of the round if you correctly guess which card that player is currently holding. The king makes you swap cards with another player. And so Love Letter is not just about choosing the highest value card but about choosing the best card to play in any given situation. Besides, the mechanics in Love Letter mean that rounds often end with only one player remaining. Having the highest value card is no guarantee of anything.
And that’s Love Letter in (almost) its entirety. All that’s left to add is that the first player to get a pre-determined number of tokens of affection, depending on the number of suitors playing the game, wins the heart of the princess. And then you play again because Love Letter lasts 20 minutes and is so simple and fun that it’s impossible to play it only once. Rounds last one or two minutes, sometimes even seconds, meaning that even if you’re knocked out of a round you’ll be playing again in a short moment. Besides, being knocked out of a round doesn’t mean you’re not involved; you still get to enjoy the tension of your friends trying to out-manouevre and double-guess each other. In other words, Love Letter is enjoyable even when you’re watching other people play.
I said earlier that Love Letter is the perfect game with which to introduce new gamers to modern card games. It’s true. Love Letter has the exact number of rules it needs, and those rules perfectly capture the most basic essence of card games. Love Letter’s rules can be taught in a couple of minutes and yet they all work together in perfect harmony. Love Letter offers, in one tiny package, a brilliant marriage of mechanics and theme. Consider the countess, who is second in influence only to the princess. You have to discard the countess if you have a prince or the king at the same time. All very simple, but in terms of theme you get to enjoy the fact that the countess’s relationship with the princess’s family has deteriorated to the point where she can’t stand to be in the same room. She literally has to leave the room. Or consider the princess herself. If you have to discard the princess you’re out of the round. And it turns out that this is funny. It’s funny because you and your friends get to imagine that the princess finally got your letter…and was so disgusted that she tore it apart and threw it in the fire.
Love Letter is perfect in other ways. For one, it comes in a little red velvet pouch which will fit in your pocket and asks for such little space that you can play it anywhere. Anywhere. Got a few minutes spare while you’re waiting for your friends? Play a quick game of Love Letter. Waiting in the airport for your plane? Pass the time with Love Letter. Inefficient waiters taking too long to serve your dinner? Play a couple of games of Love Letter! The set-up for Love Letter is taking the cards out of the pouch. That’s how efficient it is. And not only that, it costs what in modern gaming terms is a frankly ludicrous £7.99.
In fact, Love Letter is so simple and precise that perhaps the most complicated thing about it is selling its backstory to non-gamers. After all, this is a game set in a fantasy world called Tempest, so maybe non-gamers are going to flinch at the thought of the word ‘fantasy’. Non-gamers’s minds might start drifting towards orcs and elves, and towards geeks pushing miniatures around a board. For a game that’s brilliant for the pub, those people with more “matey/blokey” friends might find those friends wondering why you’re telling them about this trite, velvet-bagged game in which you’re trying to seduce a princess and get little love tokens. Because you literally get love tokens.
But none of that is going to matter once you’re as little as two rounds into Love Letter simply because the game itself is so easy to teach and so precise and yet so brilliantly conceived that everybody who plays this game instantly “gets it”. And you’ll not just get it, you’ll embrace Love Letter’s theme. Before long you’ll find yourself attaching characters to these cards, imbuing them with personalities and fleshing out the courtly intrigue of Tempest. You’ll start to resent the nosy priest telling everyone which character you’ve got. You’ll resent that there’s always one cowardly player who keeps hiding behind his handmaids (perhaps even literally). You’ll laugh at the thought of obdurate guards throwing the king out of his own realm. And suddenly you’ll realise that what makes Love Letter such a good game is that it allows you and your friends to flesh out the world around which the game takes place. You’ll create in-jokes and in-game personalities and you’ll enjoy what all good games allow you to enjoy: the company of your friends.
Love Letter’s other great selling point for new gamers is that it’s a game anybody can win, regardless of skill or how much you’ve played it. There’s none of the grand strategising of more complex games, because you’ll only ever have two cards at most. Just two cards. Which one do you keep? This makes Love Letter competitive but never aggressive. If anything, Love Letter’s competitiveness makes it funny. You have more tokens than anybody else, so your friends are going to put aside their mutual enmity and band together to stop you. But it’s all so short and quick and funny and the balance of the game will change so quickly that within two rounds somebody else is the princess’s favourite and now you all hate that person instead. It’s political intrigue and courtly gossip fully rendered with only 16 cards. And because it all lasts 20 minutes, bragging rights are really only ever fleeting and momentary. You’ll be playing again within seconds of finishing your first game, cursing the princess for being so fickle, yet vying for her heart all over again.
If you have to pick a problem with Love Letter, it’s perhaps that with two players the game can descend into a series of mechanical moves which end rounds very quickly and with very little demand on the players’ mental faculties. In other words, with two players Love Letter can sometimes feel less like a game and more like you’re just mechanically playing the cards as they appear. But this is only a problem if you make it a problem. And certain people certainly will find it a problem. But for a game that lasts 20 minutes, and which is great for passing the time, we’re really in the realms of nit-picking.
If, however, you want a more concrete fault with Love Letter, it’s that the game accomodates only four players. But even this can be remedied if you buy the premium edition, which adds new characters, actual wooden hearts, and rules that scale the game up to eight players. Having not yet played the premium edition, I’m in no position to comment on whether added rules and characters and players makes the game better or detract from what makes Love Letter so great. And while the premium edition comes in a very nice-looking box, it’s a box that’s not as portable as the original game. Oh, and it retails at £27.99. That’s a whole £20 more than the original game.
But all of these quibbles are minor faults, and they’re only here in the interests of making me look like an unbiased and fair reviewer. And with that out of the way, let’s just say that if you want a quick, easy card game to carry round in your pocket and play with anyone at anytime, then Love Letter is without doubt the best £8 you’re ever likely to spend.
Number of players: 2-4
Playing time: 20 minutes.
Designer: Seiji Kanai
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)
(In)appropriate soundtrack: Careless Whisper by George Michael