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Subject: Love Letter - Some thoughts on strategy. rss

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Andrew Ashdown
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NOTE: I am writing this from the perspective of a three-four player game, not necessarily a two player one. However, a lot of what I say here can be applied to a two player game but the 'sudden death' aspect of some cards tends to be more dominant, simply because the round then immediately ends. Also, I am going to assume that people reading this are familiar with the game as I will not be rehashing the rules in great detail.

As a simple game involving a set number of cards Love Letter at first seems like a game that is in theory mathematically solvable - that is, for every combination of cards that is possible (at any given time, there are 32 possible choices for what you can have in your hand, with various degrees of probability for each one) there is a discard that is the correct one and one that is the wrong one. Of course, some of those combinations are merely two of the same card, so this seems to limit your choice of plays even further.

The other is that each game round is a closed system - the cards are reset, and therefore there is no continuity of deduction. As such, it has come in for criticism in some quarters for a perceived lack of choice and little strategic depth. This is in some ways a response to that, however I will start by saying that a game consisting of 16 cards does not have a deep strategy is a little disingenuous.

Love Letter at its heart is a game about three things - luck, incomplete information and calculated risks based on that information, and bluff. This last element often gets overlooked in a simple mathematical approach, and it is this element I want to concentrate on.

But first - the cards.

The core rule of Love Letter is that the higher the number on the card at the end of the round, the more likely you are to win that round. In fact, some of the higher cards are active liabilities, with the Princess valued at 8 as the only card that can instantly knock the owning player out of the round. Likewise a Countess (valued 7) discarded late in the game can be fatal to the owning player if there is already both princes and/or a king out of the round. A king requires you to be fairly certain about who is holding what in the same way as a guard or baron does, but with the discarded card valued at 6, you need to be sure in order to take the risk.

At the other end of the spectrum you have guards, priests and barons. Guards and Barons have the ability to knock people out of the round instantly if you either guess an opposing card correctly or beat it in a straight up number comparison, and priests are the only cards which allow you to view what is in an opponents hand without one of you being knocked out or you obtaining it. Another overlooked ability is the guard being immune to itself, and people guessing what you have should give you an indication of what they don't have (unless they are being exceptionally sneaky.)

As such, it becomes apparent that the bottom three cards also become more powerful as the round goes on, as you are able to make more and more educated guesses of what your opponent has and knock them out. Conversely, the Countess and the Princess get weaker, as the less players know about their potential whereabouts the better.

And this is where the game gets interesting, because despite it being a potentially mathematical puzzle, actual human beings make this game a far more interesting metagame experience than has been suggested by spreadsheets and odds calculations.

If I hold onto this guard, I may be able to use it at the end of the game to knock out a leading player but if someone uses a baron on me I'm in serious trouble...

If I hold onto the Countess it's possible that I'll get to the end with it and win but if the King and Princes get played I'm in trouble and I really must try and make a show of considering between two cards rather than just playing what I get...

I wonder what the buried card is, because the King, Princes and Countess have all gone and everyone is eyeing one another. I wonder if it's the Princess...

Every time Player 3 gets a good card his eyebrows go up, but they didn't this time...


I've seen games where people have protected a Baron with a Handmaiden and won the round. I've seen rounds where the Princess has been guessed by a Guard first correctly simply because of the way someone held their cards. I myself have used the King to swap hands with someone, and then immediately used the Guard I kept next turn to knock them out.

All of these things, in a purely mathematical approach, wouldn't have happened. In fact, players who approach the game with this mindset often tend to worse than average, simply because they assume everyone else is playing this way as well and are surprised by the 'sub-optimal' moves that can change the way he has to play.

One of the things I am beginning to understand about high level poker is that to consistently win you must treat it as an exercise in calculated risks and odds. Love Letter, with a much simpler mathematical model, is the opposite, because to consistently win you must be able to look into an opponent's eyes and think with confidence:

"This man has the Princess. Now what can I do about that?"
 
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Lars Wagner Hansen
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Jagrafess wrote:
I myself have used the King to swap hands with someone, and then immediately used the Guard I kept next turn to knock them out.

That's not possible. If you play the king, then you can't at the same time keep a guard. You would have to swap that guard with whatever your opponent had. He would ´know what he gave you, and since he has turn before your next turn, he could use the guard to "guess" what you have on hand

And if your swap resulted in you having a guard on hand, then you opponent would know that, and you would know what he had on hand, but since he had turn before your next turn, he would be able to play whatever you swapped with him, and then you wouldn't know what he has on hand any more.

Using the king usually mean the opponent just play whatever you swap to them, so you don't have an advantage any more.
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Andrew Ashdown
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Ah yep, my mistake, I swapped hands with them to gain a guard from them in exchange for the Princess. I then knocked them out with either the guard I drew or the one I gained from the swap. It was an unusual situation, and I obviously didn't recall it correctly - thanks for pointing out the mistake.

The fact is, under a purely mathematical model, getting rid of the Princess is never a good move (as well as difficult), but because I gambled on gaining a guard from him I was able to pull it off.

My point being, I guess, that in an optimised game, this move would never have happened.
 
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Christopher Dearlove
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Sometimes you play the percentages, for example using a Guard guessing something that comes in pairs rather than singles. Sometimes you are in an endgame situation and can see all the possibilities, so you sold the problem you are now set. Sometimes the situation is desperate, there's only one thing that might work. So you do it. And more cases like those. Sometimes of course you bluff, use a Guard to guess the Countess when actually she's in your hand. Or discard a Countess unnecessarily. (The gain there is in part people knowing you sometimes do that, unlike the first case where it's better they don't suspect.)

But my best play ever? Using a Guard to guess Countess, when the Countess was already face up on the table. Special circumstances, which I'll withhold for the moment. (It was a good play, and succeeded. And the followup ended with the most unusual end of game I've ever seen. So memorable.)
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Christopher Dearlove
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Jagrafess wrote:
The fact is, under a purely mathematical model, getting rid of the Princess is never a good move


Nonsense. When you have King and Princess you have no choice other than getting rid of the Princess. But if it's known you have the Princess, and it's not close to the end, then a known Princess (from Priest or a deduction after Baron) is a poisoned card you wanted to get rid of. To someone other than the person who knew you had it, as now two of you have an easy kill. Nothing unmathematical in that (valuing the Princess as a bad card to have, with negative value, that is).

Now an unknown Princess, that depends quite a bit on player behaviour with Guard and Prince (and to a lesser extent Baron and King) whether it's a positive asset. But positive or negative, you never have the choice.
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Andrew Ashdown
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I realised that after I typed it, that that was a very bad choice of analogy as I had no choice in that particular situation and was lucky to get the guard when I did.

Also, now you've got me curious, why would you guess a card already face up?
 
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Sebastian Zarzycki
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You should really play Android: Netrunner. Coming to a game of Love Letter with a whole math model all loaded up and ready feels so weird in my book. It's a super hiper light game, the decisions are pretty much always clear, you can only look at how many cards remained and calculate the odds, but that's a simple thing to do. The strategy for this game is to have laughs and fun. Could it be any different in a game, in which you can end playing, before even having a chance to act?
 
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Christopher Dearlove
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Jagrafess wrote:
Also, now you've got me curious, why would you guess a card already face up?


OK. the score is 3-3-3-2. Three players are left in, the player on 2, and one of the players on 3, who is protected by a Handmaid. I am, for some reason I don't recall exactly, toast. (I think my non-Guard card is known, but what exactly the situation there was I don't recall. Suffice to say, I'm not going to win this one.) So I need the player on 2 to win. He's the only person I can choose with Guard, but I need to fail. Hence I call a card already face up. (This makes me guess that my other card was a known Princess. Known to the player on 3 at least. Who I probably assumed could find a Guard or Prince.)

To cap it, the play works, he (on 2) does win. It's now 3-3-3-3. I win the last hand on an all cards played two player showdown of Priest beating Guard, the only time I have ever seen that happen.
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Christopher Dearlove
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rattkin wrote:
Coming to a game of Love Letter with a whole math model all loaded up and ready feels so weird in my book.


Playing a game that you can often increase your odds of winning by sensible plays, without making those sensible plays (which are usually fairly elementary logic) is weird in my book. It's not as if they take long. (Occasionally you need to quickly check all the face up cards to check what's the other card out there you don't immediately know.) It's because that sort of play is possible that this is a great game. If it were all just random, and plays took no thinking at all, it would be boring.
 
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Barry Quick
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I played Love Letter one time with a group of 3 others who stated hey had played this games at least a hundred times. I had no idea how to play and we just started and they explained as we played.

I won the first round even though I had no idea what was going on. I then went on to win 4 rounds first (which I'm told is a "full game") with second place sitting at two wins. I used no strategy whatsoever and won. I just pointed at people and guessed their cards.

To me this game was no fun whatsoever. Play a card, guess a card. Watch others do the same. Blah. No thanks. Will never play it again.
 
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Lars Wagner Hansen
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Shooter McGavin wrote:
I played Love Letter one time with a group of 3 others who stated hey had played this games at least a hundred times. I had no idea how to play and we just started and they explained as we played.

I won the first round even though I had no idea what was going on. I then went on to win 4 rounds first (which I'm told is a "full game") with second place sitting at two wins. I used no strategy whatsoever and won. I just pointed at people and guessed their cards.

To me this game was no fun whatsoever. Play a card, guess a card. Watch others do the same. Blah. No thanks. Will never play it again.

Only 4 of the 15 5 of the 16 guards require you to guess anything?

And despite that you will never play this game again, you still follow the forums for the game. At least it must have made some impact on you :-)
 
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Shooter McGavin wrote:
I played Love Letter one time with a group of 3 others who stated hey had played this games at least a hundred times. I had no idea how to play and we just started and they explained as we played.

I won the first round even though I had no idea what was going on. I then went on to win 4 rounds first (which I'm told is a "full game") with second place sitting at two wins. I used no strategy whatsoever and won. I just pointed at people and guessed their cards.

To me this game was no fun whatsoever. Play a card, guess a card. Watch others do the same. Blah. No thanks. Will never play it again.


No game is for everyone. If not fun, move on. But you have missed a lot of the point.

If things were as you describe then the obvious possibilities are that you were lucky (it happens, it's a game with significant luck, the very best player just has an increased chance to win against play such as you describe), that they may have played a hundred times but not learned anything (that happens too), or they spent all their effort against each other rather than against you, even when you were winning (a special case of not having learned enough).

And sometimes the unluckiest cases can be the funniest.
 
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Christopher Dearlove
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l-hansen wrote:
Only 4 of the 15 guards require you to guess anything?


The 5 Guards, of 16 cards, require you to guess a card. There are some other decisions to make that may involve guesswork (who to target with Baron, Prince or King in particular).
 
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Shooter McGavin wrote:
I played Love Letter one time with a group of 3 others who stated hey had played this games at least a hundred times. I had no idea how to play and we just started and they explained as we played.

I won the first round even though I had no idea what was going on. I then went on to win 4 rounds first (which I'm told is a "full game") with second place sitting at two wins. I used no strategy whatsoever and won. I just pointed at people and guessed their cards.

To me this game was no fun whatsoever. Play a card, guess a card. Watch others do the same. Blah. No thanks. Will never play it again.


Your unpredictable play may have been the very thing that threw them off. With any game a group of people play together repeatedly, player patterns emerge. I think it highly likely their unfamiliarity with your play and knowledge of each other led to you being the dark horse.
 
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