The stately simple less-is-enough elegance of Love Letter

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Love Letter is a ten dollar card game from AEG that only comes with sixteen cards. That’s right, just sixteen cards. What kind of game has only sixteen cards, especially when a whole bunch of them are identical? Among the sixteen actual cards, there are only eight cards types. For instance, there are five guards. But only one countess. You get a pair each of the barons, princes, and priests, and handmaids. What’s going on here? It’s like downloading a game that’s less than ten megabytes.

After the jump, how good can it be?

In the case of Love Letter, the answer is very very good. Its simplicity is a real virtue. You play a series of short matches and the first player to win a given number is the winner. The objective is to be last man standing with the highest value card, so try to hang on to the 8-point princess, who trumps even the 6-point king and 7-point contessa. On your turn, you draw a card and then play a card face up in front of you. Each card has a special ability, often related to trying to suss out or trump the card another player is holding, forcing him out of the round. For instance, the guard, whose name is Odette, can guess which card another player is holding. If she guesses correctly, the other player is out. So if you’ve used a priest (Tomas) to suss out the princess (Annette), the guard will win the game. But if you use a baron (Talus) to blindly challenge the princess (Annette), you’re out.

These card interactions weave some delightfully convoluted gameplay from a handful of permutations. So he knows I’ve got the princess because he saw her with the priest, but if I play the prince to trade hands with him, can I count on getting a guard to out the princess in time, since there are at least two more still in the deck, or have I just handed him the victory at the end of the round? Did he let go of the powerful contessa because he had to — the contessa must be played if the king or prince show up in your hand — or because he’s trying to fake me out? And here at the final moment, is that the king in his hand or just a baron? Because each round, one of the sixteen cards sits face-down out of the action. As the match progresses — this is never going to take more than five minutes — the face-up cards in front of each player narrow down the range of possible hand cards. But you never know which card isn’t in play this round.

You’ll have to play maybe two or three games before the card interactions really click, but when they do, you’re smack dab at the center of elegant court intrigue. It’s quick, simple, and wonderfully involved for everyone at the table (up to four). This is one of those rare examples of elegant gameplay with just the right amount of rules bendiness to make you want to play again immediately after losing, and especially immediately after winning. It’s like the disarming simplicity of Cosmic Encounters or Small World in a tiny micropackage.

The card stock is slight, but it apparently afforded the developer the budget for a bright red velvety drawstring bag that looks like something for a bottle of cheap cherry liqueur, or something you’d keep your lipstick in, except for the fact that it has a big bright Love Letter logo embroidered on the side.

  • Love Letter

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • All of the eligible young men (and many of the not-so-young) seek to woo the princess of Tempest. Unfortunately, she has locked herself in the palace, and you must rely on others to bring your romantic letters to her. Will yours reach her first? Love Letter is a game of risk, deduction, and luck for 2 to 4 players. Your goal is to get your love letter into Princess Annette's hands while deflecting the letters from competing suitors. WHO WOULDN'T WANT TO PLAY THIS GAME?????
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