“Bartolemew, old boy! You heading up to the Palace? Is that a letter I see?”
“Matt! Why, yes I am.” He leans in conspiratorially. “It has been heart breaking to see our dear Princess Annette so sad for so long. It has been said that she barely leaves her room! So, I am sending her this Love Letter to help cheer her up!”
“Oh… a Love Letter? Really? Umm… you know her mother has just been executed for treason right?”
“Precisely! What better way of cheering her up than with romance!”
“So you don’t think it’s a little, I don’t know, insensitive…?”
In Love Letter, and its multitude of re-releases, sometimes its better not to examine the theme too closely. But that’s fine. Because it’s the mechanics of the game that are the key to its overwhelming success.
Some games are vast, sprawling affairs, with hundreds of cards, forests of wooden chits and mounds of plastic miniatures. But for all that can be achieved by the Terra Mysticas or the Twilight Imperiums of the world, sometimes it is sobering to see what can be done with just 16 cards. That’s right, 16 cards.
This is a game you can fit in your pocket, that can be slipped in your bag and then played on the train. Or in a pub (though mind the beer!). You can finish a hand in 5 minutes, but you can play on again and again for hours. It squeezes more fun and hilarity into 16 cards than many games manage with 10 times that.
The game itself is so simple that anyone will understand it by the end of their first hand. You start off with one card. Then, each turn, you draw a new card from the deck and chose one of them to play. That’s it. You really don’t get much simpler rules explanations! The winner is either the last player standing, or the player holding the highest value card once the deck runs out.
Each lovingly illustrated card represents someone in the palace you could give your letter to. The closer to the princess, the higher the card’s value, starting with the lowly guards and finishing with the princess herself. However, the brilliant part of the game is in the ability that occurs when you play a card.
The Guard allows you to eliminate a player if you can correctly guess the card that player has in hand. Initially this is hard, but as more cards get played, the more powerful the guards become. But you don’t want to be stuck at the end of the game with the lowest value card! Timing is critical. When someone lays down a guard, then starts looking around the table for someone to target, everyone is on the edge of their seats. And when someone manages to guess correctly on the first turn? With no information at all? That’s hilarious!
Then you have the Priest, who’s a nosey bastard; he lets you look at another players card. Immediately you see how nicely that combos with the Guard. A target of the priest is going to want to play that card next turn in case you get a guard. But if you see they’re holding the Princess, who can’t be played or discarded, that’s funny! And of course, everyone else see’s you laughing and they start to wonder why.
And yes, that technically sucks for that player. The one who is knocked out because they were unlucky. Player elimination is generally a bit sucky in games. But it works here because you’re never waiting more than 5 minutes to get back in the game. Just enough time to grab a fresh drink!
The Baron has you compare your other card with an opponents card, with the lowest card being eliminated. That’s tense! You cockily play the Baron with the Princess in hand, guaranteeing you the win, only for your opponent to have the Countess, the card immediately beneath the Princess in value, and you realise everyone else around the table knows what you have. That’s funny!
The Handmaid prevents anyone from doing anything to you for a turn. The Prince forces a player to discard their card, and draw a new one, making him perfect for taking out the player with a Princess. The King allows you to swap your card with another player. Very situational, but potentially game winning. Or game losing if you get him last turn with the Princess as your other card, forcing you to give the winning card to your opponent. But that’s funny!
The Countess does nothing, except she has to be discarded if she’s caught in the same hand as the King or the Prince (if you see what I mean 😉 ). That immediately gives everyone else information about what you have. Unless you just discard her at random as a cunning bluff?
Oh! What’s that? You can bluff too? Of course! Want to sow misinformation? Play a guard and guess the card you are already holding. You won’t knock your opponent out, but then your opponents wont go after you for it either. Unless they’re wise to that strategy!
Everything about this game is perfect. Its tiny. Its simple. Yet it contains a wealth of difficult decisions, tension and hilarious moments. It plays quickly so that a meta game level of humour starts to develop. Always guessing the same target card with a Guard on the first turn, is hilarious when someone actually has it. Someone playing the priest on the first turn of seemingly every game, is ridiculous and hilarious. Watching your opponent be forced to play a card that knocks himself out because everyone else has played Handmaids is hilarious. Even when these things happen to you, you just groan then get your revenge next time!
We absolutely recommend Love Letter. It’s a game that everyone should have a copy of. To throw out there for newcomers or to fill a gap between heavier games. You will not regret it!