Love Letter is a clever little game that consists of nothing more than 16 cards and a few tokens for keeping score. When AEG released it last year, it was part of their Tempest line of games which have a shared storyline and cast of characters. They’re now re-releasing the game in a Kanai Factory Limited Edition which reproduces the look of the original design by Seiji Kanai, featuring artwork by Noboru Sugiura.
Overview: All the eligible bachelors are trying to woo the princess, but they have to rely on others to deliver their letters to her. Whose letters will reach her? (Or, in the Kanai version, you can choose to pursue the Prince instead.) Love Letter is a pocket-sized game, but don’t let its small size fool you.
Players: 2 to 4
Ages: 10 and up
Playing Time: 20 minutes
Retail: $9.99 for either version
Rating: Lovely and beguiling, like the princess herself. (And, perhaps like the princess, a bit slim and not a full deck of cards.)
Who Will Like It? It’s tiny enough that new gamers won’t be too intimidated to give it a try, but satisfying enough for experienced gamers who love strategy, logic, and card counting.
The Tempest version brings in some of the familiar characters from the other games, and includes a little booklet telling the story of each character and why they have the specific powers. The Kanai Factory edition (which is a translation of the original) is a little less detailed, just telling a tale of suitors trying to get their love letters into the hands of the princess.
Both versions of the game come with 16 character cards, 4 reference cards, and 13 wooden cubes for keeping score. The Tempest edition doesn’t have a box (it comes in a plastic blister pack) but has a little red velvet bag to store everything. The Kanai Factory edition omits the bag and comes in a box — it’s easier to stack, but the box is significantly larger than the deck of cards.
The cards are fine (though it’s always hard to shuffle only 16 cards) and the text on them is fairly easy to interpret.
The game takes place over a series of rounds (each representing a day). At the end of each round, one letter reaches the princess and that player wins a token of affection (red cube). The game ends after one player wins a certain number of tokens, based on the number of players.
Shuffle the 16 character cards and deal one to each player. In a two-player game, take three more cards and turn them face-up — these will not be used this round, but help to narrow down the number of cards left in the deck.
On your turn, you draw a card from the deck, and then discard one of the two cards you hold, following the directions printed on the card. You must apply its effects, even if it’s bad for you. All discarded cards remain face up, overlapping so everyone can see all of the cards that have been played. If a player is knocked out of the round by a card effect, they discard the card in their hand face-up and do not take any more turns this round.
The round ends when the deck is empty at the end of a turn. All players still in the round reveal their cards, and the player with the highest number (closest to the princess) wins the token. The round can also end if there is only one player left in the round, in which case that player wins the token.
There are eight characters total; some appear only once or twice in the deck, and the Guard appears five times. Most of the characters have abilities that may help you eliminate other players. However, if you discard the Princess card for any reason then you’re out of the round (Princess Annette is shy and will toss your letter in the fire if confronted).
One note is that the phrasing is different on the #7 character, but they have almost the same effect. The Countess in the Tempest edition says you must discard the Countess if you ever have the King or Prince; the Minister in the Kanai edition says if your hand ever has a total of 12 or more then you’re out of the round. The difference is that in the Tempest version you can bluff by discarding the Countess, leading people to believe that you may be holding the Prince or King. In the Kanai version, however, you’re just immediately out of the game.
Despite the weak-willed princess (or prince), Love Letter is a lot of fun to play. It’s quite easy to explain, takes no time to set up or put away, and still offers some great strategy and bluffing. Some of the card abilities in the Tempest edition do require a little bit of clarification (the rules printed on the cards are more detailed than the reference cards) but other than that it’s a very straightforward game to play.
The balance of ranks and abilities is excellent. The lowest-rank Guard/Soldier can eliminate any player if they guess correctly what’s in that player’s hand – and this ability becomes extremely useful late in the round when it’s easier to guess who’s left in the deck. The high-ranked Princess will win the round if you have her when the day ends — but if you get stuck with her too soon then you may find yourself eliminated by somebody who figured you out.
There’s also room for subterfuge — for instance, using the Guard/Soldier and guessing somebody else is the Princess can draw attention away from the fact that the Princess is in your own hand. The reference cards provide the number of each card, so as you play you’ll know how many of each character are left.
I love the fact that game designer Seiji Kanai was able to create such engaging gameplay out of only 16 cards. It’s incredibly elegant, and I’d love to see more designers try their hand at a tiny game like this. Of course, it’s not extremely deep strategy — you can’t generally plan ahead from round to round — but there’s still room in this tiny velvet bag for some tough choices and sneaky plotting.
Between the two versions I really like the look of the Kanai edition, but if you already have one you probably don’t need the other. The velvet bag for the Tempest edition is nice because it’s pocket-sized, whereas the black box of the Kanai edition seems designed to take up more shelf space at the store. Whichever flavor you prefer, Love Letter is an excellent game.
Disclosure: GeekDad received a review copy of this game.