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LOVE LETTER

15 min.
2-4 Players
By Seiji Kanai


INTRODUCTION:

I can just imagine the designer, sitting at a table, trying to come up with his next card game, when suddenly he gets an outrageous idea: “What is the smallest hand-size a player can have in a card game? One. That’s it! I’ll make a card game where players’ hands consists of just one card!”

Preposterous, you think. How can this possibly be fun? On top of that, the most you’ll ever have in your hand is two, and only for a second because you have to play a card every turn. So, right away you have a design with a minimalist’s approach to game play. If for no other reason, this is interesting for the sake of novelty. I suppose once you scale down a thing like “hand-size”, it only seems natural that the entire deck shouldn’t be more than a handful of cards anyway. After all, this isn’t canasta.

BRIEF RULES OVERVIEW:

Love Letter is at its heart (no pun intended) a bluffing/deduction game. The object is to try to either be the last person standing with a card in hand, or else have the highest ranked card of all players when the round ends. If you’re card is ever revealed or correctly guess, you’re out of the round. Cards are ranked from 1-8, with an irregular distribution, totaling a mere 16 cards (plus 4 reference cards). Each card is a character of a royal setting (king, princess, etc.) and has a simple effect that must be carried out when played. Because cards are played in front of the player, staggered – showing only their rank – players try to reveal their opponents’ cards whilst keeping their “identity” secret, simply by process of elimination. Play until a certain number of rounds are won, and that’s it.

MUSINGS:

First off, if you’re going to do “player elimination”, this is the way to do it right. Each round won’t last more than literally a few minutes, if that. Unlike Ultimate Werewolf (or Monopoly), players can watch the rest of the game and not feel like they don’t have anything to do, because by the time they feel that way they’re back in the game for the next round.

I want to focus on two aspects of the game that I find fascinating: thematic integration and card distribution.

1) Thematic integration

What are you talking about? I hear you ask, it’s just a simple card game of bluffing & deduction. Even so, there is, in fact, plenty of “thematic integration”, and I’m not simply talking about what’s already provided in the rulebook. I’ll illustrate with a picture of all the characters and a bit of fictional “flavor text” penned by yours truly, followed by a brief explanation.



Guard – “Halt! Who goes there? Is it you, P-------?” As the proverbial “gatekeeper”, it’s the Guard’s job to protect the Princess by making sure she knows who is trying to reach her. Hence, the card’s ability to guess the identity of another player.

Priest – “How long has it been since your last confession?” It’s the Priest’s job to solicit the confidence of a sinner (players are lying, after all). Hence the card’s ability to see another player’s true identity; no bluffing, just honesty. You know, like a real confession.

Baron – “You, my dear, shall win the favor of the Princess, not some other suitor.” We’ve all seen this in the movies before. Some “dear old dad” wants to position one of his children close to someone in power, in order to set himself up for retirement or something. Hence, the card’s effect to compare hands with another player. Of course, this Baron isn’t anything special, which is why if he’s the lower value that player is out of the game.

Handmaiden – “This way, Princess, I shall cover for you.” The confidante, the best friend, the “maid of honor”, however you want to think of it. The president has secret service agents who will take a bullet for him. Even queen Padme had a decoy. Hence, the cards protective effect until the start of your next turn.

Prince – “I shall follow in my father’s footsteps.” This cad is the most obtuse, and perhaps makes more sense if described after the King. The Prince (who incidentally looks like a cross between Brad Pitt and Mark Hamill) is trying to wield his power. But his influence is limited. Hence, the card’s ability to only affect a single player’s hand in its totality. In essence, he hasn’t yet learn the art of political negotiation.

King – “I’m glad our kingdoms have come to an agreement.” Like I said, political negotiation. Hence, the card’s effect of trading hands with another player. Here, we can see the King’s power to actually influence the goings-on between two players, unlike his neophyte son, the Prince.

Countess – “I am ruled by my heart.” If I were to make a completely unfair and sexist hypothesis about the Countess based solely on the artwork, it would be that she’s a trouble maker. Hence, the card’s ability to discard itself if caught with the King or Prince. Even though it could be argued that the Princess appears in a similar fashion – for the sake of the drama in the unspoken narrative of the game – the Countess is shunned, almost as though the King and Prince deny ever being with her. What a royal scandal that would be!

Princess – “Who, me?” Since the object of the game is to (secretly) get a message of amour to the Princess, it stands to reason that she is to be concealed for as long as possible. Hence, the card’s effect to auto-lost should you be found out.

As can be seen, there is a tremendous amount of correlation between the characters’ effects and the roles they happen to inhabit. In this way, a simple game like Love Letter is filled with thematic integration. To be sure, it’s very subtle and nuanced, but it’s there to be had if your imagination is agile.

2) Card distribution

I am not a math guy in the slightest; I don’t even understand decimals – what’s the point? However, I think it’s fascinating to note the distribution of the cards that have particular effects. It is in this aspect that the game becomes more or less balanced. I realize that everything I am about to say will be drastically affected by the order of the cards, the number of players, the bluffing, etc. Still, I couldn’t help but think about such things. The thoughts that follow are less a guide to strategy and more something that made me cock my head to the side and go, “huh, that’s interesting.” Fair warning, my math won’t be precise, and that’s okay. I’m only a simpleton.

There are 16 cads. 5 of them are Guards, which leaves 11 cards left to guess…nearly half. Think about that, you can flat-out take a “stab” in the dark about 50% of the time. This game is dangerously nail-biting right out of the gate. The other card that has a “direct conflict” effect is the Baron, who thinks he can out-“out” you. There are 2 Barons in the deck. That makes a total of 7 cards that have the potential to make a player lose; again, nearly half of all the cards. It’s like a fractal – almost 50% when viewed from the Guards perspective, and again almost 50% when viewed from all possible cards that can “hurt” in proportion to the entire deck.

Two cards have the effect of making players reveal their hand – the Priest and the King, except in the case of the King, you get to keep the revealed card; there is only 1 King in the deck. In the case of the Priest, the knowledge only goes one-way; there are 2 Priests in the deck. I suppose it might prove too powerful to have more than one card that forces payers to swap hands. Too much knowledge would be flying around.

The Handmaiden is the only Character who has any protective powers. Interestingly enough, the Guard doesn’t protect, but functions more as a metaphorical “alarm” of sorts. In the instance of protection, the responsibility falls to a character not carrying a weapon. There are 2 Handmaidens in the deck, or about 12.5% protection. That’s not very secure. But then again, it’s only a love letter, not an assassination attempt.

The Prince has the effect of forcing a clean slate, tabula rasa, on any player. There are 2 Princes in the deck. This means that a player can essentially perform a “magic trick” and disappear only to secretly reemerge as someone else. In the rare instance that you reemerge as the other Prince, then you suck at magic. Perhaps it would have been too presumptuous to include a Wizard in the deck. Regardless, the Prince makes up another 12.5% of the deck.

Finally, we have the two ladies – the Countess and the Princess. There are only 1 of each in the deck. These characters are tricky because by playing each of them, their effects are potentially the most revealing about a player’s hand. In the case of the Countess, it means the player also holds either the Prince or King (if they are being honest about it, which they don’t have to be). The Princess is the most dangerous in that once revealed, that player loses the round. Again, 12.5% of the deck.

Let’s see how this all “stacks” up. There are three characters that directly reveal identities – the Priest (x2), Baron (x2), and King (x1). This is about 30% of the deck; one simply reveals, another compares, and the last trades, making 5 cards responsible for “direct” information. 5 Guards out of 16 cards is also approximately 30%. Combined, that’s about 60% of the deck that enables players to see / guess a player’s hand. When the other 6 cards’ percentages are added together, it totals 37.5%. 4 of those cards (Handmaiden, Prince) are responsible for misdirection, or at the very least, the delay of information; 25%. The Countess and Princess are really more the “wild” cards, 1/8th of the deck.

CONCLUSION:

Put in slightly different "terms", here's the final breakdown: about 60% of the cards are used to try to undermine players; 25% of the cards are used to try and deflect those undermining attempts; and approximately 12.5% of the cards are one-offs that interact with every other card in some way or another that have to be handled carefully when drawn. Each of the individual card’s abilities don’t seem so threatening by itself. But it’s because the deck is so small that the “magnitude” of a card’s effect seems so big. Therefore, the “weight” of the game play has a lean-ness of thought to it that enables a quick “filler” to feel surprisingly satisfying.

Purchasing Love Letter? $10. Playing the game for money, a la Texas Hold’em style? $75 an evening. Replacing the table you damaged by flipping it over after being just shy of bluffing your way to victory? The same $75 you just won the other night. Delivering an amorous note to the lady? Princess. For everything else, there’s MasterCard.

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