Playing time: 20 minutes
By: Seiji Kanai / Alderac Entertainment Group
Rank on BoardGameGeek: 164th
Love Letter is a game I got my Legion of Super-Bloggers writing partner Shotgun for Christmas a couple years ago, but it seemed that our game nights always had more than 4 people, so we never broke it out. After playing a couple games with smaller groups lately, I'm ready to give it a bit of a review.
Almost silly in its simplicity - this is a game where your hand consists of a single card - the game nevertheless offers some interesting strategies that change the direction of the game. Someone wins a point each round, and those rounds are quick and don't really impact your success in the next, except that those with more points might find themselves targets of the others and have to play more defensively. Essentially, you are a courtier trying to get a letter to the Princess. Each round, you have one card in hand representing someone from the Court who is your "in" to the Princess. Each character has a number value. On each turn, you draw a card and play one of them (they have an effect). When the draw card is empty, show your remaining card; highest value got the letter to the Princess and wins a point. 4 points wins you the game. There's always one card in a "blind" so you can't use memory tricks to figure everything out.
Seeing as there are only 8 characters, and only a few repeat, it's quite surprising how much depth the game can have. Play a big card, you might get a better effect, but then be left with a low-value character in hand. You can set up some interesting combos, where card trades might allow you to take out another player with the next card. It can be cut-throat for such a "small" game, and its learning curve is pretty steep, so everyone can get in on the action by the second or third round.
Most of the the rules booklet is about telling the story of this Court (all the characters have actual names and a back story for why the Princess is looking to get married to the best possible match), so they really did think about theme. The higher the value of the character, in fact, the closer he or she is to the Princess and likely to deliver your love letter. Highest is 8, the Princess herself. The powers each card has can seem like abstract card manipulation effects, but most are rooted in the story. The Guard, for example, lets you take out a player if you guess another player's card, i.e. the Princess has ordered that person be barred from her presence. The Priest looks at cards, likely in the Confessional. But I admit I can't do that give a real-world explanation for each. Still, I do love that the next round starts with the player who won the previous because "the Princess was going on and on about that courtier at breakfast". Each point represents the Princess' favor, and whoever her heart swells for most gets to wed her.
While there's a Premium version of the game in a wooden box, with bigger card and such, the basic game comes in a small red velvet pouch that's perfect for bringing on trips and the same size as the cards. The art on them is pretty good, even if everyone I've ever played with has remarked on the Princess showing that much skin. The only let down is the points, represented by small red cubes, which aren't very evocative. Couldn't they have been little hearts? I have a game called Looterz that uses heart tokens... but then they really look like upside down testicles, so maybe cubes are a mercy.
House Rules and Expansions
Change the theme, keep the same effects, and you can probably created all sorts of variants of Love Letter. There are, in fact, several versions based on licensed properties, sometimes with additional cards or rules. For example, the Adventure Time edition has a bromance mechanic for when the Finn and Jake are played. The Batman edition isn't too different, but the theme is capturing villains, not hearts. In the Lovecraft version, you have to make a Sanity roll at times. The Hobbit's uses a One Ring card worth 0 with its own effect. There's a Star Wars one too, but I'm pretty sure you're delivering Death Star plans rather than love notes. The Premium edition adds enough cards to make it playable for 8, including assassins and sycophants (haha).
In conclusion: A portable, quick and easy ice breaker that allows player rivalries to bloom fairly innocently, wheting your appetite for the rest of the night.