Seiji Kanai’s Love Letter, a game about getting a princess to like you, has come a long way in five years. Back in the day, it was a shrewd little exercise in simplicity, featuring only eight different cards in a deck of sixteen cards. Your hand size was one. On your turn, you drew a card and then discarded down to the hand size, playing the ability of the card you discarded. In other words, all you ever did was decide which of two cards you’re going to play. It was over in minutes. After a few rounds, you moved on to play a Real Game.
But then came the rewrites. The latest rewrite of Love Letter has failed its sanity check.
Since Love Letter’s English language release in the US in 2012, there have been themed variations for The Hobbit and Batman. A friend of mine showed up one week with a print-and-play Aliens variation. Don’t tell Fox. Seiji has also created a spin-off series called Lost Legacy, using the same basic concept: a deck of sixteen cards; eight types of cards; on your turn, you draw one and play one. Still simple. But in Love Letter, you were trying to hold out with the highest card in your hand by the time the deck was exhausted. In the six Lost Legacy variations, you’re trying to track a card representing the legacy. Who’s got it? Is it still on the table? Two players switched cards, so does one of them have it? Is it in your hand? Can you keep it hidden until you get the chance to out it? Each variation, featuring different cards, has a different legacy and different gameplay mechanics. There’s one with murderous dragons, another based on amassing money, another based on a deadly Vorpal blade. Very clever stuff, and if you dare — I daren’t! — you can mix the cards into a crazy Frankenstein monster of gameplay from different sets.
In fact, I see now there have been two more Lost Legacies since I last checked. Ordered! Even though the themes are werewolfs and vampires. Lost Legacy: Twilight? But I trust Seiji’s design chops. Which is why I had no compunction about jumping into his latest game, which goes back to the original and arguably simpler Love Letter formula. In fact, it’s a direct reprint of the eight cards from Love Letter, with new Lovecraft-themed names on the exact same functions. For instance, the guard is now investigators, the priest is Cats of Ulthar, the handmaiden is an Elder Sign, and the princess is the Necronomicon. But they do the exact same things. So far, it’s just a Lovecraftian reskin.
What’s different is that the deck now includes a madness variant for each card. For instance, Deep Ones are the madness variant of the guard/investigators, Golden Mead is the madness variant of the priest/Cats of Ulthar, the Liber Invonis is the madness variant of the handmaiden/Elder Sign, and Cthulhu himself is the madness variant of the princess/Necronomicon. This adds eight new cards to the deck, and each of them does something arguably broken to the familiar latticework of gameplay. Love Letter was simple enough that it was nearly deterministic. These madness cards expand the possibilities in crazy ways that are too crazy for a Lost Legacy.
In fact, you’ll have to read the cards closely to fully appreciate what they’re doing. That Liber Ivonis doesn’t protect you until your next turn. It protects you for the entire round. You cannot be knocked out. It just can’t happen. You’re going to the end no matter what. Suddenly you don’t care about many of the rules. Get Great Race of Yithed. Discard the Necronomicon. Fail a sanity check. No matter what, you’re in play until the deck is exhausted. How crazy is that?
Pay attention to the Shining Trapezohedron. Now you can win without ever even playing a card. That has never happened in a Seiji Kanai game. Winning by just drawing the right card at the right time? Insane. And note the wording on the Necronomicon. Did you flip it up during your sanity check? Because you just discarded it and now you’re out.
And Cthulhu himself? If you’re mad enough, you didn’t win the round with Cthulhu. “You win the game,” it says. The whole game. It doesn’t matter how many victory chips anyone else has. You have just won anyway. The whole things. It’s all over. Utterly certifiable.
My favorite new card is the Mi-go. The Mi-go are creatures from Pluto who can fly through space. They bring people with them by transplanting the passenger’s brain into a jar that can survive the airless void. Now you, too, can experience distant worlds. Hope you’re not too attached to your body! The Mi-go card lets you take someone else’s card for yourself, giving your victim a low value Mi-go Braincase that cannot be discarded. It’s an epic “gotcha!”, mechanically and thematically. It’s not quite as tidy as the Hounds of Tindalos — they summarily dispatch a player who hasn’t used any madness cards — but it’s a lot more satisfying foisting a permanent zero-value card on your opponent. This is the sort of thing Lovecraft Letter does to bend and break a relatively simple game in ways that you might call eldritch. Cyclopean. Noneuclidean.
Although these madness cards that break the rules are more powerful, they also make you more vulnerable. If you’ve played any madness cards during the round, you have to make a sanity check before you take your turn. If you fail, you’re out. Furthermore, winning with madness cards is considered a lesser win. The first player to win three rounds with madness cards in play wins the overall game. But it only takes two wins without madness cards. The dark arts are the easy way out, but you’re on shakier ground. If you break the game, the game might break you. It’s the Love Letter equivalent of that old chestnut about staring into the void.
Publisher AEG has confidence in this release, as you can tell by the production values. This could have been as straightforward as my friend’s Aliens print-and-play variation, with pieces of paper slipped into card sleeves. AEG just prints the 25 cards, sells them for a tidy profit at $15, and calls it a day. Instead, they’ve put together a $30 package with oversized cards featuring splashy stylish artwork, card sleeves in case you’re into that sort of thing, hefty poker chips to track wins, a felt-lined insert, a thorough manual, player aids, and a box shaped like a tome with a magnetic cover flap that shuts with a quiet but satisfying thump. Love Letter had that little candy-red bag. You put the cards back and pulled the drawstring tight. It made nary a whisper. Lovecraft Letter will not go so quietly.