This blog isn’t Marvel. We know this because I’m flat broke, and it doesn’t take a year to get a sequel. A couple weeks ago I reviewed Love Letter, and this week I’m back in the expanded Love Letter universe to review Lovecraft Letter. Although there are many flavours of the original game, Lovecraft Letter is the only version that revisits and re-implements core design of the game. It’s a 2-6 player game designed by Seiji Kanai and published by AEG.
How to Play
To be different, I’ll only cover what’s changed in this section. However, if you want to know how to play Love Letter, please click here.
Lovecraft Letter has the same 16 cards as the base game, in addition to nine new insane cards; numbered from one to nine. These cards have two effects on them, a sane effect and a more powerful insane effect.
Players start the game sane but become insane once they discard an insane card. Unfortunately, this was inadmissible to my insanity defence, and I’m headed for jail later this month for the murder of Professor Armitage. Hail Cthulhu.
At the start of an insane player’s turn, they must draw cards from the top of the deck equalling the number of their previously discarded insane cards. These cards are drawn face up and if any of them are insane cards, then that player is knocked out of the round. This is referred to as the insanity check. Afterwards, they continue their turn as normal, drawing a card, and then discarding one from their hand. Only now, if they play an insane card, they can use either the sane or insane power.
The end of the round has changed as well. While it’s still highest card wins, in the event of a draw, both players are eliminated, and the winner of the round is the next highest. This leads to the other big change. When players win a round they get a sane, or insane token depending on their status. To win the game players must earn either two sane, or three insane tokens. An alternative way to win the game, and destroy humanity, is by having discarded two insane cards, and then playing my beautiful lord Cthulhu.
As a certified board game armchair designer, this game is extremely interesting to dissect because it’s easy to compare to the base game of Love Letter, and the Premium version. Though the three board games share the same DNA each are different in their own way. How the designer moulded each incarnation creates a fascinating inside look at board game design, and the designer’s thought process about what he considered problems, and how he fixed them. It also allows you to see how your – or the case of this review, my – taste aligns with their decisions.
An example of this is in the Premium version there were too many cards when playing with more than four players. This bogged down the speed of the game. The solution in Lovecraft Letter was to remove seven cards, thereby having a deck of 25, for comparison Premium has 32, and the base game has 16. The insane mechanic also helps the game move quicker by eliminating players faster and increasing the speed of cycling through the deck.
The insanity checks, and insane cards are great additions. Checking your sanity in Cthulhu based board games has to be a trope by now, and as such it feels comfortable. It’s like watching a soap opera or WWE, and if we’re being honest, what’s the difference? There are key elements that each show must hit. Likewise with Cthulhu board games, we need insanity, and we need a way to check it.
They’ve taken the Love Letter philosophy of maximising game play, minimizing components and applied it to this mechanic. Sucking these additional cards dry of gameplay opportunities and implementing a simple risk vs reward structure. Players enter a gamble when they play their first insane card, knowing that their turns from now on their turns start with the added risk of being knocked out. However, the benefit of this comes in the form of more powerful cards. This adds a layer of probability to the game, as going insane early gives you the best chance to get another insane card, but at the same time makes it more likely that you’re going to be knocked out. The longer the game goes on the less worthwhile it is to go insane, remembering that it takes three insane tokens to win the game. This pushes the players to enter the gamble early or do their best to evade insanity entirely. Although as anyone who’s read some HP Lovecraft knows, that’s easier said than done.
This mechanic does come with detractions, for one it created an odd pace to the game. Though I think a lot of this has to do with the success of the original Love Letter. There’s no obvious way of telling what someone’s status is. Only by looking through their discards and seeing if there is an insane card. Because we wanted to play the game at the same speed as the original, we were often forgetting who’s insane, and who’s not. This ruined the momentum of the game for us, as someone would be midway through their turn before remembering that they were meant to draw cards for their insanity check. Had we been fresh to the game we mightn’t have had these issues, as it stands though even after twenty or so plays we were struggling to get the rhythm right. I’m scared my only option now might be A Clockwork Orange style brainwashing.
The components carry on the legacy of Love Letter Premium, in that they are fantastic. Poker chips for the sane/insane tokens, tarot sized cards with sleeves included in the box. In my opinion the art, while I appreciate it, detracts from the game. Cards like the Elder Sign, and Randolph Carter, don’t have the contrast needed to attract the eye to the abilities at the bottom of the card. This is not helped by the decision to have card art that goes all the way to the edge. The other issue I have is that they don’t have two distinct colour pallets differing the sane and insane cards, instead there are some insane cards that look as though they should be sane, and vice versa.
These abilities are a far cry from the balanced abilities found in the original. It’s OK that they’re not balanced, you’re taking a risk to get them. However, in this case the design of at least three of the insane cards feels lazy; Cthulhu, The Shining Trapezohedron, and The Hound of Tindalos. On someone’s turn they can pick you, and you’re out of the game, or worse still they lay down their hand out of nowhere and say ‘I’ve won the round/game.’ While there is a risk to be in a position to play these cards – via the insanity check – because they’re two separate actions (checking, and playing) this risk is disassociated from the playing of the cards. Which when used don’t allow the other players to play, really sucking the fun from their sails and when you or someone else does win like this it feels anti-climactic.
I need to deduct another point for the vocabulary. Not only did they change the card text to read as number instead of card name – which was a criticism I raised when reviewing the Premium version. They’ve made the card names long, and hard to remember. This directly contradicts one of the core tenets that I loved about the base game: the accessibility. Furthermore, because of the nine additional cards, the player information card no longer displays everything in the game, or at least not on one side, this again chips away at how accessible the game is.
Lovecraft Letter shows some lessons learnt by the designer from their attempt at expanding the game beyond four players in the Premium edition. It not only works now, but I like it a fair amount at the 5-6 player count, and for that reason I’m keeping this game in my collection – for now. However, in the 3-4 player range I feel it falls short when compared to the original game. Additionally, the game comes with that premium price tag, but since I got it for a deal I didn’t factor that into my verdict. Overall, Lovecraft Letter does enough to earn my recommendation, but with the caveat that you always play the game at that higher player count and swear your undying fealty to Cthulhu.
Love Letters not so triumphant return. Which version of Love Letter is your favourite and why, let me know in the comments below!