Love Letter (2012) – Accessibility Teardown

Context of Document

This is not a review of this game. You will find the review linked in the introduction.

Meeple Like Us is engaged in mapping out the accessibility landscape of tabletop games. Teardowns like this are data points. Games are not necessarily bad if they are scored poorly in any given section. They are not necessarily good if they score highly. The rating of a game in terms of its accessibility is not an indication as to its quality as a recreational product. These teardowns though however allow those with physical, cognitive and visual accessibility impairments to make an informed decision as to their ability to play.

Not all sections of this document will be relevant to every person. We consider matters of diversity, representation and inclusion to be important accessibility issues. If this offends you, then please stop reading now. This will not be the blog for you, and we have no interest in debating with anyone whether these issues are worthy of discussion. You can check out our common response to common objections.

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Version Reviewed

English edition 2014 in box

Introduction

The fact I don’t like Love Letter shouldn’t sway your thinking at all.  It’s hugely lauded, widely appreciated, and generally considered one of the finest games available.   I freely admit my view is far from mainstream – it got two stars in our review.    You don’t care about that though – you care about whether you can play it.   Will we be writing a love letter to its accessibility, or spurning it like the over-zealous lovers of the game itself?  Let’s get our quills out so the princess can see what we’ve got.

Colour Blindness

There are zero problems here – every card has its own prominent art, its role is shown in large print at the top, and there are no other components except from the red cubes that act as markers of affection.   There is only one colour of cube, and only the presence and number of the cubes has any meaning.

Colour blind cards

Like a genteel Game of Thrones

We strongly recommend Love Letter in this category.

Visual Accessibility

Love Letter is a card game with no tactile identifiers to go with the roles.  As is usual in cases like this, it won’t be appropriate for those where total blindness must be considered although given the small number of cards you could almost certainly come up with some accessible identifiers if you were willing to mod the game.

For those where it’s possible to make out visual information with the use of an assistive aid, it’s generally a positive story.  Each of the cards has large text that indicates the role and rank, and each different kind of card has its own prominent art with a reasonably distinctive colour scheme.   The powers associated with each card are something more of a problem since they’re in a heavily ornamented font, but these are well contrasted and the rules are relatively easy to learn.   The backing plate for the text grows with the amount of text too, which is far better than the more common technique of shrinking the font sized until it fits a fixed and restricted aesthetic design.

Card roles

Wait, why are you delivering me a love letter? This is creepy, dad.

Each card comes with a star underneath the rank which shows how many of these cards are present in the game.  That’s the most significant issue here because it is often extremely poorly contrasted against the background colour.  However, each player gets a quick reference card that provides instructions and a card count that can be used instead.

Setup cards

All Love Letter knowledge contained in two slim cards

The largest problem in play is going to be leaking game information – the discard piles are public knowledge but checking through it to see how many of a particular card have been played can offer a lens onto player intention.  It could however also be a reasonable feint, so it’s not likely to be an insurmountable issue once everyone is familiar with the risks this kind of thing poses to their standing in the game.

Overall then, we strongly recommend Love Letter in this category too.  The unnecessary ornamentation on the descriptive text is a small black mark against it but the slim rule-set means that this is likely to be a self-correcting problem with a few plays.  Familiarity will smooth this issue away before too much time has passed.

Cognitive Accessibility

Love Letter is a shallow game that pretends to be a deep one.  Now, fans of the game will dispute that characterisation but the teardowns here have to reflect my understanding of the game.  While I accept there is definitely an impression that play benefits from deep tactical thought, my own experience is that it’s not quite like that in reality.   Your mileage though will vary.

The game requires a degree of literacy, but it provides a setup card that acts as a crib sheet that simplifies some of the language.   The rules generally speaking are learnable, but that may not be a reasonable expectation if considering the kind of impairments likely to manifest in this category.   The literacy level is not very high, but it’s there.

The game does depend quite heavily on numerate play if it is to be effectively mastered – on the simplest level this is the straightforward arithmetic of numerical comparison, but on a deeper and more intuitive level it requires an appreciation of risk and probability.   Consider a player with a prince and a handmaid working out the risks of playing the latter.  Let’s say there’s already been a king, two guards and a priest discarded.   What a player has to be able to work out, at least in general terms, is the reward associated with each card.   Assuming a four player game, here are the cards still in the play that have to be assessed for risk.

Card Num in Play % of remaining cards in other hands
Princess 1 10%
Countess 1 10%
Prince 2 20%
Handmaid 1 10%
Baron 1 10%
Priest 1 10%
Guard 3 30%

If playing the Baron, there is a 40% chance of picking a card that will be of higher rank than our handmaiden, and a 50% chance of picking one of a lower rank going by the cards in play.  I wouldn’t expect anyone to be doing this arithmetic in their head round by round, but most people will have a vague appreciation of the risks associated as the state of play changes.

Two rounds later, after a guard and the other handmaiden has been played, and the those exact same cards have a different value to them:

Card Num in Play % of remaining cards in other hands
Princess 1 12.5%
Countess 1 12.5%
Prince 2 25%
Handmaid 0 0%
Baron 1 12.5%
Priest 1 12.5%
Guard 2 50%

Cards don’t have a fixed value in the game, in other words – that have a contingent value that shifts in every round.  It’s that which gives Love Letter its appeal to many, but the implicit numeracy it requires is relatively high even if you never consider percentages in real-time.

The odds will alter too according to how well you can read other players (allegedly) and how the cards have come to be played.  To complement that situational awareness you really need to have a model of the risk in your mind.   That’s expensive both in terms of fluid intelligence and memory.  Good play is strongly correlated with playing the odds in a sensible way.

Social deduction is based on the ability to appreciate the possible and likely motivations for playing a card.  For example, if someone plays a baron and loses, you know that the winner has a card of larger value.  If someone discards a countess, there are four possibilities:

  1. They have a king
  2. They have a prince
  3. They want you to think they have a king or a prince
  4. They want to keep their other card because it’s more useful

This is where the remark I made in the review comes in to play – I have my doubts that it’s possible for anyone to read another person to ascertain intention where the results don’t strongly correlate with simple randomness.   While that’s an issue for the game itself, it does mean that for most players this can be resolved down into simple probabilities once again.   As such, while the game is ostensibly built around deduction, I think Love Letter is effectively playable with guessing and an appreciation of the narrowing of possibility space reflected by the discard piles in front of each player.

The game has few other serious cognitive barriers – the discard piles are there for investigation, and the distribution of roles in the pack is indicated both by star icons on the card and on the list of cards available to each player.

The game itself is very straightforward to play – you pick a card and then you play one of the two cards you have available.  The implication of each play is more far-reaching, but even the choice associated with play is often constrained by card synergies.   These synergies are evaluated on the spot (King/Prince and Countess, Princess and any other card, and so on) and only in one case have an outcome decoupled from action.  The handmaiden offers protection that lasts until your next turn.  That’s the only role where that’s an issue.

However, one major concern is that the cards a player has must be kept secret, and if someone with cognitive impairments requires assistance it can’t come from anyone else at the table.   There are only a few situations where that’s likely to be required since there are few ambiguous interrelationship of cards.  It is though something to bear in mind.

We’ll offer a recommendation, just, for Love Letter here.  That’s not because we believe the implicit numeracy is not a cognitive issue, but because we believe the game is likely still reasonably satisfying if played as a simple guessing game.  The efficacy of that strategy diminishes as the game goes on and more information is revealed, but that’s offset by the number of times a wild-swing in early stages will knock another player out of contention.  A good player, mindful of odds and probability, will almost certainly beat a player picking randomly.   The assumption here would be that if you’re considerate of this category nobody is going to be aggressively playing to win.

Emotional Accessibility

The randomness in play that we spoke about in the review is a saving grace here – it’s a great leveller, and a useful shield if playing with someone frustrated by their perceived inability to hide the role they are shielding.   Someone using a baron on you only to knock themselves out of play is abundant evidence that there are no sure things in the game.

Love Letter comes with an explicit player elimination mechanic and that’s something that we generally view as a significant worry in this category.   It’s true that it’s not the greatest thing for situations where emotional accessibility must be considered but games of Love Letter are very brisk and everyone gets dealt in again during the next round.    Nonetheless, this can lead to downtime that is especially focused on those least able to execute on bluffing and misdirection.  That can be frustrating.   A few turns of play followed by elimination is okay once in a while, but less so if it’s happening regularly.  We discussed in the review and the cognitive section that we don’t really think it’s a game where people can read tells, but that’s only true when everyone is playing on a level field.  There are numerous conditions relevant to this section that are likely to reveal attempted misdirection as a symptom of underlying behavioural and psychological factors.    Coupled to this is that if tells are possible to read, they may not be obvious to a player unable to pick up on social signals or verbal cues.

The nature of play does permit for a certain degree of ganging up, with only the occasional handmaiden working as a shield against being the focus of repeated interactions.  However, the structure of the game disincentivises it since many actions come with a degree of risk.  The target will be where the information is, and so even if someone is being constantly probed for what’s in their pocketses there’s rarely anything personal in it.

The player elimination aspect paired with the accumulation of affection tokens creates a compounding issue – not everyone gets the same opportunity to take part in the game, and ‘fun’ is distributed asymmetrically and randomly.  Some roles are more fun than others, and some roles are useful only at certain points of the game.  Guards have little utility as a first play in a round, and handmaids are worth using only when they protect something of value.   As such, it’s possible to begin play, do something you didn’t really want to do, and then be knocked out before you get to actually reap the benefit of any information yielded.    If that happens to someone unable to effectively navigate the social space of the game, it can lead to the situation where serious score disparities occur.

Taking all this into account though we’re still prepared to offer a recommendation, just, for Love Letter in this category.  As usual, please take the discussion above into consideration when evaluating it for adoption in your group.  More than any other category, this is one where it is genuinely difficult to offer any generally predictive recommendation without knowing the context of play.

Physical Accessibility

Physical accessibility is good, provided you can hold a card or make use of a physical card holder.  There is so little card management that realistically you can get by without any special consideration here.   As long as someone can verbalise ‘card one’ or ‘card two’, or indicate the same in some other manner,  they should be able to fully participate in all the fun of the game.   It is after all a game of deduction, rather than a game of card-play.

We strongly recommend Love Letter in this category.

Communication

There is a reading level associated with the game but nothing that couldn’t be solved with a simple crib sheet – there really isn’t much to the rules at all.   Otherwise, despite being a social deductive game there’s nothing to stop anyone playing it in silence – bluffs and misdirection are focused on card play rather than on social cues, and there is no need to verbalise anything throughout the game.   Players are individual agents, and so they don’t even need to communicate strategy.  Like all social games, it loses something if people can’t communicate and discuss what’s going on but the game itself is largely unaffected.

We’ll strongly recommend Love Letter in this category.

Socioeconomic Accessibility

The theme of the game is such that it might be difficult to get some men to give it a chance – much like Patchwork, the theme may be somewhat off-putting.   There are though many different variations of the game that are less likely to raise eyebrows on the hyper-masculine males in your life.  Do you want to help Batman capture the Joker?  You can do that!  What about digging up dirt on Mallory Archer?  You can do that too.  If opposition to sending love letters to a pretty renaissance princess is an issue you can find a theme to fit the preferences.

Gender wise, the game is a delight, from its balance of men and women to the distribution of roles.  The guards are women, which is a wonderful touch.  The outfits worn by the princess and the countess do show an awful lot of cleavage, but no more than would be expected from the fashion of the period.   They’re safely, I would say, in the ‘sexy but not sexualised’ category.   It could do better in terms of ethnic diversity, but I think the guard again does well in expressing range here.   More would have been good, but what’s here isn’t bad.

Women in Love Letter

Ladies.

As for the men, there’s not much to talk about– they’re present and accounted for, and while their outfits are definitely less revealing than the women, again it’s no more than you might expect from the time.

Gentlemen

Germs.

Interesting too is that while the people of the court are gendered, they are the agents we as mysterious suitors are using to get our letter to the princess.   ‘Suitor’ is, I believe, a gendered term for a man pursuing a woman but there is otherwise nothing heteronormative in the theme.   True, if you want to pursue the prince instead you’ll need to ‘head canon’ that into existence, but there’s no reason you couldn’t if you were willing to do a little modification to the game.   It doesn’t support it out of the box, but it also doesn’t make it difficult to do.

At an RRP of £9 for the bagged edition and £14 for the boxed edition, you can’t fault it on price either.  It doesn’t work very well for two players, but at three and four it shows itself off in a much better light.   With two players it is a straight up guessing game, but as part of the paper prototyping exercises I did with students this year I got a chance to play it with larger player counts.  It is a much more satisfying experience insofar as it can be.   It’s very affordable, small enough to fit into a pocket, and quick enough that you can realistically play it during even the smallest periods of downtime during the day.

We strongly recommend Love Letter in this category.

Intersectional Accessibility

If playing with a combination of memory impairments and visual impairments, the need to constantly keep track of the discard piles and the difficulty of doing so is going to be an issue.  I wouldn’t go so far as to say it would make the game inaccessible, but it would considerably undermine flow of play.

With the intersection of physical and communicative impairments, there may be an issue if it’s not possible to unambiguously refer to which hidden card should be played.  However, all that’s needed is the ability to express between two binary options and anything from a blink to a twitch would be sufficient for that.

Given the slim number of components in the box, there aren’t many other intersectional considerations.   It even does well in the usual discussion we have regarding time to play and how that dovetails with modulating severity of symptoms.  It plays very quickly, doesn’t ask much of people during each round, and can be played repeatedly until a flexible win condition is met.   As such, it fits easily around issues of discomfort and distress and is unlikely to exacerbate either.  It’s often called an ideal filler game, and that’s as true here as it is in any situation.

Conclusion

Yep, Love Letter is absolutely wonderful from an accessibility perspective, coming within a fairy-breath of games like Skull and Lanterns in the teardown.   A few tweaks here and there (such as to the on-card font) would nudge it ahead of both.   While it’s not the most accessible game we’ve looked at, it does so well across the board that it deserves kudos.  So, kudos!

Colour Blindness A
Visual Impairment A-
Emotiveness B-
Fluid Intelligence B-
Memory B
Physical A
Socioeconomic A
Communication A

We’ve seen in the past that simplicity of a game is not necessarily correlated with accessibility.  Both Once Upon a Time and Dobble are very simple games that have elements of play that render them inaccessible in several categories.   Love Letter then is not accessible ‘by default’, but instead is an excellent example of accessible design worth study.

Radar graph

Love Letter Radar Graph

We don’t much like Love Letter as a game, and we explained why in our two star review.  We are very much in the minority there, and I don’t expect anyone to be convinced otherwise.   Why believe us when you can believe the Dice Tower, Shut Up and Sit Down and the aggregated wisdom of Boardgamegeek?  You shouldn’t – you should pick up the game, and you can do so with very strong confidence that you’re going to be able to wring all the juice out of the experience.


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  • Pode

    It’s unlikely to make a difference to the rating in any of the categories, but your description makes it sound like there’s a single discard pile to investigate. Players should in fact be placing discarded cards on the table in front of them so that it’s obvious which order they were discarded in. This makes it reasonably easy to see (for those without significant visual impairments) which cards have been played and by whom without having to pick up a pile and browse through it.

    Otherwise, great teardown. I like Love Letter a lot more than you do, though I’d never try to claim it was a deep game with much strategy. It’s light, pretty, and a neat filler almost anyone can play.

    It might be worth looking into the Deluxe version though, if only for interest’s sake. It comes with bigger cards and more cards, including new roles, to take the maximum player count up to 8. Might be interesting to see if they came up with any of the same ideas your students did.

    • I’m planning to do a post on what our students did at some point, and talk about how we’ve been using accessibility in board-games as a teaching tool. I don’t feel comfortable doing that though just yet since there is still an ominious pile of marking from that module still to get through and I’d prefer that was all done and officially signed off before talking about what was done.

      I’ve used ‘discard pile’ informally here, but you’re right – it’s a little misleading so I’ll fix it up to point out there are multiple piles.

      You’re right too that anyone can play it – that was the reason we used it for UCD (along with Skull, One Night Ultimate Werewolf, and Tiny Epic Galaxies) – we could teach people how it worked *and* have them modding it within the same session. In that role it absolutely excels – I’m glad there are people that enjoy it as a game though, even if I don’t. As I mentioned in the review I think the design is masterful. It’s just not one that hits for me. 🙂

  • stormblazen

    I read your description of the rules in the review and must ask… Did you make sure to discard one card before each round? Or perhaps you just wrote it up wrong? You never play with all 16 cards – one is set aside at the beginning of each round. The final card played should be the 15th, and there’s still some tension as the final card play deduction should be a 50/50. This should change the game dramatically as far as odds are concerned.

    • ‘Wrote it up wrong’ is a somewhat pejorative way to refer to not my simply not mentioning it in the text. It’s a review, not a ‘how to play’.

      Regardless though it doesn’t change the odds as discussed above because the tables are written on the understanding that several cards have already come out of the deck. One of those would include the standard one discarded at the beginning of play. The tables show a calculation of the odds to illustrate how individual plays changing the value and probabilities of cards. What the *actual* odds are is irrelevant, as the text itself mentions. What matters is that they change from play to play, and often without your direct involvement.

      • stormblazen

        Sorry, I only referenced “written up wrong” from the comments regarding the Baron following the review. I was not trying to be pejorative. I agree that it’s just a review, but after reading it I wondered if you had been skipping a rule.

        • I realised reading over my reply that it come across as more hostile than I had intended, so I edited it. I hadn’t intended to be so bristly, but there I was – like the grumpy old man I am. 🙂

          We haven’t been skipping the rule, it’s just that I didn’t talk about it because – well, it didn’t come up in the text. I did look over the section above though and I agree it was somewhat misleading (like the discard piles above – my own informality sometimes gets in the way of the meaning) so I’ve fixed it up.