There are a few games in my collection where the review is a bigger story than just one solitary review. For instance, I wanted to review Lovecraft Letter but to do that I need to establish my thoughts on the original. Otherwise we’d be skipping forward to seeing Neo being The One, without understanding what the Matrix is. Although to be fair, even after three movies, and a mini anthology, I’m still not sure that I know. By the end of this review, you’ll hopefully be in a better place than I, so without further ado introducing Love Letter: Premium Edition a 2-8 player game designed by Seiji Kanai and published by AEG – for now.
How to play
Love Letter is a game of multiple rounds, where players compete to get their Love Letter to the princess. Depending on player count, four successful letters nets you the key to her chastity belt, and that’s when the real juicy details of my fan fiction begin.
Start each round by shuffling the deck, and dealing one card to each player, putting the top card of the deck aside for later. On their turn, a player will draw a card from the deck and then decide to either discard the card in their hand, or the new card that they picked up. Each card has a number, from 1-9, and a power. When a card is discarded the power on the card is activated. These powers give you information, protection, or allow you to knock other players out of the round.
To win a round, you must be the last one remaining. Alternatively, if there are no more cards left to draw, then the player with the highest card wins.
The premium edition of Love Letter adds 16 additional cards each with their own powers. When playing with four or less use the original 16, otherwise add both decks together. Same rules apply, only with 32 cards.
Love Letter is a prime example of a great game done well. It gets plenty of things right, but most importantly is how accessible it is to most audiences. It provides enough depth for interesting choices, the card powers are balanced in a way that makes sense, and whenever something goes wrong with its design it’s swept under the rug of short round play times. That’s for us gamers. For non-gamers it has few rules, and all information needed to play is on the table at all time. Making Love Letter a fantastic gateway game for new gamers, and for the rest of us a glorious way to fill the time.
Hand in hand with this accessibility is the player information card. Despite not being part of the game per say adding this card was an incredibly smart choice, and something I think other game designers – maybe even Seiji himself – have yet to learn. The card does a few things, it names the cards, it shows their strength and powers, but most importantly it shows you how many there are in the deck. This is important because it takes memory as a factor out of the game. This resonates with me from a design perspective, as good design is about removing friction between the core design of product and the people interacting with it. Within board games, memory is often a sticking point, whether it’s rules, or how many cards are in the deck. This card by itself removes this barrier, allowing new players to pick up the game faster as well.
Bouncing back to card balance, let’s take a deep dive to see what’s going on. Each card consists of both number, and power. These attributes always combine in a way where you’re always giving up one for the other. For instance, a high number – princess, countess, king – usually positions you well for the end game, but the powers on the card aren’t great. At the opposite end of the spectrum, the guard, the priest, and the baron all have powerful abilities, but won’t do you well in the end game. There’s a lot of risk and reward in this cross section, but it goes deeper.
One of the ingenious mechanics about Love Letter, is that when a card is discarded, it becomes an old man at a nude beach, unashamed and laying face up for all to see. This allows for two aspects of information gathering. First – and this is where the player information card comes in – you can cross check the info card with what’s been discarded and know for a fact which cards are left in the deck. This increases the chance of you correctly deducing what someone else has in their hand. Secondly, you know who discarded what, and then you can start to probe the reasoning behind why the player discarded the card when they did. Was it for activatable power? Or something much more sinister.
All this means, is that it’s worth hanging onto lower numbered cards for their power, until later in the game. This gives you the best chance at using them effectively. However, holding onto these lower numbered cards leaves you at a much higher risk of being knocked out, during, and at the end of the round.
When it comes to the premium edition, the components they’ve selected are fantastic, and it feels like a well-crafted version of the game. The tarot cards are nice, big and thick, just like my biceps – ladies. The sleeves are fantastic, and the heart shape tokens give the game an extra bit of thematic campiness.
I have nothing too negative to say about Love Letter, but it’s not great as a two player game. The premium edition also left me with some questions. For instance, when playing with more than four people the rules have you add all 32 cards to the deck. This drastically slows down the game and can leave some players eliminated early, twiddling their thumbs and watching the others waddle through the remaining cards. This is opposite of the speedy Love Letter experience that I love so much.
A smaller detraction is due to the increased amount cards per number, the wording on the guard has changed from guess the card another player has, to guess the number. This dilutes that aha moment a bit, as there’s an intangible quality to pinpointing the exact card an opponent has. When guessing a number, instead of a card, it feels like there’s still some vagueness to your guess.
The other thing is the price point. In Australia, you’re able to get the original Love Letter for $13, and the premium for $39, that’s three times the price. It makes the game hard to recommend, because although it makes sense – you’re paying for twice the number of cards and upgraded tokens – we found we never used the secondary cards much, and vastly preferred the four-player game.
If you haven’t played Love Letter you haven’t lived. This game should be one of the first in any board game collection, it’s so simple and engaging that you’ll find yourself playing it repeatedly. While it might not be the deepest or most interesting game, it does enough to satisfy most gamers, and acts as a great introduction to this wonderful hobby.
There’s a famous quote by Jaime Griesemer which goes:
“In Halo 1, there was maybe 30 seconds of fun that happened over and over and over and over again. And so, if you can get 30 seconds of fun, you can pretty much stretch that out to be an entire game.”
I think Love Letter captures this quote. A round may only last 30 seconds, but it is incredibly fun. There’s deduction, there’s bluffing, there’s take that mechanics, and a light smattering of strategy to go on top. Plus, like Halo 1, there are enough variables that go into that 30 seconds that it keeps the game from becoming stale.
Love Letter is undoubtedly a Critical Hit. The tougher question is whether to buy the premium edition. Component wise there’s a lot to like. However, the new roles don’t feel nearly as sharp as the original and going straight up to 32 cards slows down the game a lot. While I’m not a huge fan of what was added content wise, I don’t think you can go wrong either way, and the answer to this question is more about what your budget allows and how much you love Love Letter.
I’m back baby! Hope you enjoyed the review, will be looking to mix up my style in the coming weeks, so if you got any feedback, now is the time to give it. Otherwise, continue to look forward to the great gaming content coming your way… soon.