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Subject: Why I Love 'Love Letter' rss

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Peter Williams
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Love Letter: A Review


Up front: I’m not going to go into the rules or production quality of the game itself. You can read a dozen other reviews or just go to the AEG website to download them. I want to talk about the Love Letter experience and why I personally think it’s one of the best games I’ve ever played.

In a sentence, Love Letter is a game of luck, deduction, game theory and personality. I shall elaborate on each in turn.

Luck
There’s no denying it; Love Letter involves a fair bit of good and/or bad luck. You will have rounds where you don’t even get a turn, having been killed off by a wild guess before you draw a card. Usually this is a game-over for me immediately. I have played one and only one game of Flux in my life. It is so mindlessly random that I cannot bare to spend my time with it. Conversely, I utterly love Diplomacy, where there are no dice or cards or any element of chance.
However, in the context of Love Letter this does not bother me as much as I myself think it should. For, at its core, LL is a light-hearted romp full of joy and mischief. Random acts of unpredictability just add to that character. Plus, the luck component (I feel) is dominated by the deduction, game theory and personality…

Deduction
The essence of LL is deducing what your opponents are holding based off of what they have previously played. E.g. someone has played Guard, Priest, Guard: they’re likely to be holding a Baron. Someone targeted a Prince away from themselves: they could well be stuck with the Princess.
It’s the process of figuring out what they’re holding based entirely from what they’ve chosen not to hold. As a logical-minded individual, this completely intrigues me. The cards offer so many different ‘functions’ which serve to get you to a winning position; it’s about figuring out the correct sequence to play them in.
This also feature extends itself subtly and beautifully into…

Game Theory
I have been playing LL for about 5 hours per week for the last 2 years or so. It never gets old. And one of the reasons is watching the game theoretical elements evolve and ebb and flow. I’ll give you an example:
We had been playing for several weeks when a friend played a Priest against me and espied my Handmaid. He gave me a quizzical look and at the end of the round asked why I would ever keep one? The answer was simple, “The Handmaid is so good there’s no reason to ever not play it. Thus, nobody ever guesses you’re holding one. Therefore, holding one is reasonably safe – especially as you may need one in a turn or two.” Very shortly thereafter, everyone in our gaming group started regularly hanging onto Handmaids. And then they became a high-probability guess and people started dying whilst holding the most powerful card in their hands, and so on and so forth.
Love Letter presents loads of situations where you may need to make highly illogical moves just to hide your true position. Another example is having Prince and the King. Logic dictates that (say, early in the hand) you play the Prince onto yourself to rid yourself of the scourge King. But targeting someone else might surely signify you are holding something far better? Why on earth would you not get rid of the King? Thus, it can be a good option to keep the King.
And this line of thought segues us elegantly into…

Personality
Within our gaming group at least, there are quite a number of different play styles and different levels in bluffing abilities. Myself and one other follow pretty consistent algorithms, but must alter these every few days or weeks as they become predictable (see the Game Theory notes above). We are constantly in a battle to determine what each other is thinking each game. One other member is a terrible, terrible bluffer (you always know when he draws the Princess – usually by bluffing way too hard) and hardly ever changes his usual algorithm. A couple of others are pure Wild Cards – as near as I can tell they play almost completely randomly. This infuriates me because I can never predict what they’re doing, whilst simultaneously impressing me because they win the Deduction and Game Theory battle. Every person brings a unique spin on how to play LL, and every game changes dramatically depending on who you have playing. It’s magnificent.


There are a few more miscellaneous features which I feel compelled to mention as well:

Interaction
I’ve noticed more and more in recent years that a lot of games have minimal interaction (particularly with the proliferation of Eurogames). Sure, we might have some second-order interactions in terms of taking a particular resource or node away from others, but very little in the way of direct interactions. The games that do feature interplay between participants are mostly 1v1 combat games. I know there are games that fit between, but my point is that they are relatively rare. Love Letter is one of those such games. Obviously, there is the fact that 5 of the 8 cards ‘target’ another player; but outside of this are all the intellectual and comical interactions of reading your opponents’ reactions, predicting their preferential moves and evolving strategies and adapting to them. Being able to figure out what your opponent is holding is easier to do by watching their body language and facial tells then by pure logic and/or dumb luck. All-in-all, I don’t know of another game system that brings out so much ‘human’ complexity from such a simple rule set. (Unless you leap up 17 tiers of gaming and get into Diplomacy!)

Down-time
I’ve noticed this is an emerging issue with games lately. LL has none. At all. Your turn will come around in less than a minute and all the while you’re thinking of why your opponents played what they did, who knows what, and what your options are in your next turn. It is a quick, and violent, and chaotic, and subtle, and engaging game.

Self-Balancing
Without needing any rules to do so, LL self-balances beautifully. The moment one player gets ahead on the scoreboard, they start to get targeted by (presumably) all other players. Their chances of winning each round lessen until they’re no longer the main threat; then that mantle is passed on. This then leads to…

Changing Tactics Based on Position
If you’re low down on the leader board, you can play more aggressively as really nobody is attacking you. But when you’re on top the entire gameplay changes. Your strategy switches instantly from picking which is the best card to play to picking which is the best card to keep. It’s about staying alive and being unpredictable; not necessarily killing one other enemy and leaving yourself exposed to the others.


In summary: Love Letter presents you with a set of mechanics which are simple and tight, in a package which is light and breezy, and offers a delicate and complex experience which is just so much fun. Grab three friends who enjoy a good time and play it as much as you possibly can! Every time you play, you are guaranteed to see something you’ve never seen before.
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Zachary Pickel

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I think Flux has the same issues as Munchkin: it takes way too long for what t is. If a round of Flux took the same amount of time as a round of LL it would be a much better game, but last time I played Flux I won after over an hour with out playing any keepers out of my hand. Like you said, there's a lot of luck in LL but there's a lot of deduction too and even if you're eliminated early on a game will only last 15 turns (a few more with premium editions).
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Craig Blumer
United States
Oshkosh
Wisconsin
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Thanks much, I appreciate your close analysis of Love Letter.

I have added this comment elsewhere, but will say again that the game is just fun. Even with 2 players, which many consider to be a terrible player count; my wife and I invariably are giggling as we play. The twists and turns of the game just make us smile.

One other aspect has been a joy. We have gone one to make 3 Do-It-Yourself versions. My favorite is a Spy theme with art by my grandchildren. This inspired one of my grandchildren to make a Ninja version with his own art work.

Thanks again for your review.
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Charlie Pite
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I read this because I didn't really enjoy Love Letter. I have a soft spot for small games (Hanamikoji and Skull being two of my all-time favourites) so assumed I just didn't get it. You've convinced me to give it another chance.
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Peter Williams
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DubiousHubris wrote:
I read this because I didn't really enjoy Love Letter. I have a soft spot for small games (Hanamikoji and Skull being two of my all-time favourites) so assumed I just didn't get it. You've convinced me to give it another chance.


This is one of the greatest posts I've read on BGG! laugh I really hope you like it. Please give an update and tell us if you've been converted!


Plus, kudos to you for looking for the positives in a game you didn't like. Very admirable.
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