I don’t like Love Letter, and I’m not entirely convinced that’s not a failing on my part.
How could I not experience moments of self-doubt in making a statement like that? It’s love letter. It’s a beautiful game adored by almost everyone. There are sixteen cards and that’s it! It’s so smart, so elegant, and so filled with gorgeous art that it absolutely has to be my fault. I’m sure it’s my fault. So let’s talk about what it is that I’m clearly not getting about this staggeringly popular little micro-game.
Love Letter is a light (extremely light) social deductive game where everyone is looking for the princess – she is the target of the love letter you’re all trying to get to her. Your cards represents the intermediary agents that you are entrusting with your missive.
You all start with a single card. The active player draws a second card from the draw pile, and then chooses which to sacrifice to thwart the desires of the other players. It’s a game of accusation, feints, and knock-outs.
Guards can accuse other players of being a certain thing, and if the accusation is correct the target is knocked out of the round. Eliminated. No hot royal nookie for them.
Boom, it happens that quickly.
The Baron permits two players to compare hands – the lowest ranked player is then out of the game. Each card has a rank to go with them – the guard is a lowly rank of one, and the Princess is a lofty rank eight. The Baron is a dangerous card to use unless you’re reasonably sure of what’s still floating around in the game.
Some cards permit you to look at which courtiers are currently busy passing letters around the castle. Others protect your agents from the inquisitive suspicion of your fellow suitors. Like an Ealing farce, nobody knows what anybody is up to and flawed inference is as good as physical evidence when it comes to deciding loyalties.
Some cards are present in larger quantities than others. As players make use of their roles the inevitable result is to cordon off whole swathes of the possibility space. If someone plays the King, you know His Majesty is not coming back because there’s only one King in the deck. If you take a swing at the king, you’d better not miss. If you’re the Baron, you need to eye up the cards remaining to be drawn, consider the discard pile, and choose your target carefully. If you were planning to use the presence of the King as a feint in a future play, then you better be ready to adjust your plans on the fly to deal with the new state of affairs.
On the other hand, if you’ve got the Princess you’re going to be forced to play your draw card every turn. That’s going to cause you some problems because everyone is trying to find that card, and everyone is watching what you do. If you picked the King up though, you can just pass that problem on to someone else and then you know where the princess is. Plays like that open cracks of information in the wall of secrecy. What is illuminated in the process is all you have to go on. When you reveal key elements of game state, you need to track it as it merrily waltzes in and out of play and visibility.
You continue in this manner until all the cards are drawn (which at sixteen, doesn’t take long) or until all the other players are eliminated through the leveraging of special powers. At that point, the winner takes a favour of the Princess’ affection (represented by a little red cube) and the game starts again. When one player has accumulated enough affection, they are declared the winner.
Nice, right? Pleasant, yes?
Absolutely. It’s a charming game. A very likeable game. A nice game. A very nice game.
It’s also a game that is tremendously easy to teach – it’s about as instantly understandable a game as you can hope for. Like One Night Ultimate Werewolf you can really just say ‘Okay, let’s play’ without worrying about the rules. Thirty seconds of explanation is enough to get everyone up and running. You can pick this up and play it happily without ramp-up or tear-down getting in the way and you can play it until you get bored. It is indeed a very nice game.
And it has a star studded cast! Look, Steve Coogan plays the priest, and Cliff Richard has a cameo as the prince.
In play you have a branching possibility space that you’re exploring – every turn of Love Letter is a Robert Frost poem in miniature. Two roads diverge in a yellow wood, and the path you take will change the whole dynamic of everything that follows. Discard a high card, and all the barons in the game will eye that play with increasing interest as it changes the risk/reward ratio of a challenge. Throw away a countess, and you just outed yourself as having a King or a Prince to protect. Or did you? Maybe you just want people to think that because it serves your current purpose. Playing a guard permits you to explore the contours of your hunches, which in turn are the contours of the solution space left in the game. You probe at your friends like a tongue investigating a loose tooth, hoping to knock it free.
It’s nice. It’s clever. It employs an efficiency of design that is borderline masterful.
With sixteen cards, there’s enough room to hide, lay traps, and launch outright offensives against everyone else at the table. It’s a slim and elegant package that you can learn a lot from studying.
In fact, we did just that in one of my User Centred Design classes at Robert Gordon University. We got our students to paper prototype Love Letter and play it, looking for things they could improve in the game with their own additions. I’ll do a proper post on that topic in the future, but it was interesting to see what new roles emerged as a result of the experience. Love Letter is a game that is full of teachable design. It comes in a simple enough format that anyone can realistically explore it and associated variations with nothing more than a few sheets of paper and a marker pen.
I put off writing this review for quite some time because I didn’t trust myself to be able to do anything more than gesture inarticulately at the box in a futile effort to express some indefinable dissatisfaction. I’ve mulled it over for a while now, and I think I’ve managed to finally put my finger on what leaves me feeling empty every time I play it. In the end, as clever as the design is it doesn’t feel like it has much of a role for the player. When I play games, I prefer to feel like I’m more than the physical cog that turns over the cards according to algorithmic efficiency.
Okay, let’s break that down and analyse what I mean. Every turn you make a choice between two cards. Those cards are drawn from an increasingly diminishing pile in the centre so while there is a possibility for looping back on previous states, that chance becomes reduced with every play that is made. So, that’s good. But the problem is that states often lack any real choice.
For example, if I have the princess in my hand I have no choice in future turns – I have to play the card I just drew. Sometimes that will move the princess on and open up my options for the future, but more often than not (statistically speaking) it will require me to play a card that cannot actually benefit me. If I have a countess and draw a king or a prince, I have to discard the countess. There’s no choice there. However, it’s more than just a rules-based restriction of option. There is often no tactical reason to play a card that you have because all you do is yield information to the table that you can’t use. You might reveal something of the underlying probabilities in the game, but by the time your turn comes around you don’t benefit directly from it.
If I begin play with a guard and a baron, what am I supposed to do that is a meaningful choice? Either I play a card at random or I just rely on the basics of probability to guide my decision. In doing that I’m simply going to pick the option that is most mathematically likely.
With a Baron, the risk that you’ll be knocked out depends on the value of your other card. The other card I hold will skew that calculation, but essentially it comes down to playing the odds. If I have a card of two or less in my hand, I’m mathematically more likely to lose. If I have a card of four or more, I’m mathematically more likely to win. Those odds changes as the game goes on and cards are discarded and played, of course – but there are many game states where random selection is indistinguishable from player choice over the long term. The reason I don’t like Love Letter is much the same as the reason I don’t like Texas Hold ‘Em. It feels like it’s more about playing the odds than playing the game.
A common counter to that particular argument is ‘duh, it’s social deduction’, meaning that the onus is on me to read the other players as much as it is to assess the cards in a systemic context. However, unlike One Night Ultimate Werewolf or Coup, there’s no way for players here to bluff other than what is permitted through card play – that bluffing is extremely shallow. You bluff either through an unforced discard or by making guesses with a guard that are intended to mislead people. You might ask ‘Do you have the princess?’ when she’s safely tucked away in your loving embrace.
You’re forced to guess at intention, and that’s always going to be difficult to do in a game where so much is shadowed from the player and where everyone is after exactly the same thing. It’s not a game of ‘reading tells’, because the dynamics of play are not sufficiently rich for anyone to have tells. You’re as likely to win by random bumbling as you are through careful unpicking of evidence. The balance between those two extremes however tends to shift in the other direction as time goes on. That is a lovely bit of design that I would have liked to have seen more strongly emphasised even if I’m not sure how it could be done.
I often remark in these reviews that I think we give ourselves too much credit for our accomplishments in games such as this. Sheriff of Nottingham is one obvious example where it’s easy to mistake luck for intentioned success in the social meta-game. I think skillful play can certainly skew a player towards success, but I don’t ascribe to the semi-mystical ‘people reading’ ability so many profess when discussing games like these. Love Letter is often described as a perfect gateway game – one that allows players of mixed skill to play together easily. That’s true, but I think it’s because randomness is a great leveler. There is a lot of randomness in Love Letter, but it looks like it’s a game of finely tuned mastery of social cues. Your successes feel more substantial because of the smokescreen around what are fundamentally stochastic outcomes.
All of this said, my objections to Love Letter are likely bound up in my own expectations. It’s quick paced and largely, but not entirely, luck based. It’s an endearing game of guessing within constraints. That ought to be enough for a game so small and so cheap. It’s not though, not for me, and I can’t pretend otherwise.
In the end though, not every game has to appeal to every person – and Love Letter appeals to an awful lot of people. The fact that I’m not one of them is neither here nor there in the great scheme of things.
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