Heading into a weekend visit to Metropolitan Wargamers, I often don’t know what kind of game I’m going to be jumping into. It could be a re-fighting of a World War II D-Day scenario with hundreds of finely-painted miniatures. It might be a gory zombie apocalypse boardgame. Maybe it’s a sci-fi deck-building card game. Or, it could be an abstract Euro-style game where great world civilizations are built over the course of a couple hours of play.
This past Saturday night it was Love Letter. Released in 2012 in Japan and quickly moving into multiple international versions, Love Letter is a seemingly unlikely game for a group of hardcore gamers crowded around a basement table. The game is comprised of just 16 playing cards, 4 reference cards and 13 tiny red square cubes — “tokens of affection.” Everything comes in a crimson crushed velvet drawstring bag with “Love Letter” embroidered in flowery yellow script. The simplicity of the game’s packaging, design and minimal components hides a pretty compelling strategy card game which even the most battle-hardened gamers will find engaging in just under a half-hour’s play.
In Love Letter, player’s vie for the affection of Princess Annette of the imaginary kingdom of Tempest. Players are dealt cards with values of 1 to 9, each depicting a courtly character with a specific ability. In turn, each player then draws and plays one card. Guards (value 1) allow you to guess a card in another player’s hand. The Baron (value 3) has two players compare hands with the lowest hand eliminated from the round. The Prince (value 5) forces a player to discard their hand and draw a new card. The remaining six cards reveal different types of actions, and some cards are plentiful while others are unique. After a round of play, the last player holding a card or the player with highest-valued card wins a cube and a new round is dealt. The first player to score four cubes — “tokens of affection” — over a number of rounds of play wins the hand of Princess Annette.
The trick of the game is to attempt to follow which cards are in the hands of other players and still in the draw pile. Love Letter is thus a game of memorization, strategy and deceit. The most powerful cards, while best at the end of a round may make a player a target early in the round. Playing cards may reveal information to you, but also allow your opponents to possibly infer who is holding what cards. Players may gang up on a leading player to force them from a round, leading to shifting alliances from hand to hand.
Despite its courtly conceit, Love Letter can turn into a bit of a raucous and cut-throat game, as ours did among four of us Saturday night. The game would be perfect to keep tucked in the bottom of your bag to pull out among a group of friends at a bar or around the table during dessert. Given that entire ancient battles have been fought and historic treaties struck over the union of two fated lovers, Love Letter provides a quick and challenging chance to play out the ultimate game of royal affection taken to extremes.