Review: Love Letter

function get_style7 () { return “none”; } function end7_ () { document.getElementById(‘bobwig7’).style.display = get_style7(); } LL_tempest-cover-759x1024It’s hard to imagine a rewarding game can come of sixteen cards and a handful of cubes, and the little red velvet pouch it comes in certainly doesn’t help.

But trust me on this one.

Love Letter is a card game designed by Seiji Kanai, and the rules are dead simple. You shuffle the deck and remove the top card, face down. Each player is dealt exactly one card. There are eight different types of card, each with their own rank and effect. During their turn, a player draws a second card and picks which of the two to play. The player with the highest ranking card at the end of the round wins, but more often then not it comes down to the last man standing.

And that’s it for the rules. Brutal, isn’t it? Well, maybe not at first glance, but hear me out, because the game unfolds from these very simple mechanisms.

Every detail of the design seems geared to use only the bare essentials to create a functional card game. Your hand is as small as possible at just one card, during your turn you draw just one more, leaving just two options in front of you. However, it pays to know more than just what’s going on in your little corner of the game, because some of those cards are absolutely vicious.

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Take the guard—if you can guess the card another player holds, that player is immediately out of the round—that’s it, they’ve just lost—and it’s the most common card in the game. If not the guard, it could be the Baron, which lets you compare hands with another player, eliminating the one holding the lower ranking card—it’s risky, and in all cases but a tie someone is going to get knocked out of the round. Other cards tie into this, like the Priest, who simply lets you look at another player’s hand, or the Countess, whose drawback enables some interesting subterfuge. You simply must discard the Countess if your other card is the Princess or the King, but if that’s not the case, nothing is stopping you from doing that anyway as a bluff.

Knowledge is power in Love Letter, and you start with precious little of it. Your opponents could be holding anything—well, almost. You get to see your own card, and even if there are multiple copies of it in the game, you are slightly better equipped to navigate the remaining options. As players draw and play more cards, those get whittled down even further.

In the same way that knowledge is dangerous ammunition, mystery is a defense—the more options your opponents have to consider, the less likely they are to choose correctly, and the safer you are. A Guard on the very first turn of the game is unlikely to succeed, but in later turns they get frighteningly better at their jobs. While the turns tick along at a steady pace, the danger accelerates.

That feeling of acceleration is the fun of Love Letter. Early turns are breezy, later turns feel heavy and even claustrophobic. Wasting a turn in the early rounds is fine—go ahead, play a guard on turn one, it’ll be funny if you’re right—but failing to eliminate a player in the later rounds is a blunder you might not be able to survive. Players will try desperately to glean more information in other ways to improve their odds, leaving them staring at the table and mulling over their options and why their opponents played the cards they did.

That said, in the same way that the game seems larger than it is, at also seems to be more clever than it really is. Yes, the later rounds involve more thinking, but a good chunk of that is still just counting. Unfortunately, a good chunk of Love Letter is just taking inventory—looking around the board and mentally checking off what you see from the list of all the cards in the gam. Even if an educated guess is better than a random guess, it won’t be that much better, as the random guesses get more and more effective as the round goes on. Love Letter is, essentially, just tricking you.

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Pictured: Emotional Satisfaction (at least enough for a 4-player game)

But so what if it does? The game may pretend to be more than it is, but it’s convincing, and it doesn’t outstay its welcome. Even if you realize that there’s a little bit of empty underneath the surface of the game, there’s still a game there worth playing.

If there’s another issue to be had with the way Love Letter feels, it’s that it’s just too exciting for the theme pasted on top of it. You play suitors trying to court a princess by secretly delivering to her your titular love letter—which is nice, and adorable, and so very, very boring. The game feels like a gunfight with people dropping left and right, or a game of espionage where you need to collect intel and take out other agents, or even still like courtly intrigue, but in a way that doesn’t feel like leaving a note in your crush’s locker.

Sorry, Odette. No one really cares.
Sorry, Odette. No one really cares.

It wouldn’t be so bad if the game were light on its theme, but it’s heavy with it. Publisher AEG places Love Letter in the “Tempest” series of board games, all connected through a shared narrative, but instead of feeling like a rich setting, it feels like they’re trying to sell more board games through a small excerpt from a cheap romance novel. The rules could fit on the back of the reference card—and probably should—but instead the booklet is nearly half-full with narrative. This is a small game—does it need a plot? In the end, is it really that important to know that the guard is called Odette?

Maybe I care too much about Love Letter’s branding, but that’s just because I care. It’s a game that could find a home with just about any player, from the niche board gamer looking for something to fit in between heavier games, or the new player who will find it accessible and fun. It’s a little funny-looking, but it’s really quite nice once you get to know it.

 

If you would like to support Groom Porter, please consider purchasing Love Letter through our Amazon Affiliate link.

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