Full disclosure: A review copy of Love Letter was provided by Z-Man Games.
I’m beginning to question the contextual [ ] I’ve been using after titles. Does it help? Does it properly distinguish that this isn’t the same Love Letter as the one I reviewed a very long time ago, before I had things like “practiced photography” or “taste”? Not sure, but as I approach potentially diversifying the types of games I review on this site, I have to think about tagging and labelling. I don’t want folks looking at a 5+-year-old review of Love Letter and thinking that that’s this new (as of 2019) edition! I’ll think more about it. But enough of that; let’s get to Love Letter! This is a new edition from Z-Man Games, and I’ve been interested in seeing what’s changed, so let’s find out!
So you’re a suitor, which I guess just means you’re trying to marry into royalty? Good on you, unless the target of your affections is Penelope, but thankfully this isn’t that story. Instead, you’ve got your sights set on the Princess and you believe that your letter can convince her that she feels the same way about you, if only you could get it to her! You’ll have to rely on your network of nobles and castle employees if you want it to be delivered safely, but be careful: if the Princess is caught with your letter, she’ll throw it into the fire rather than admit to reading it! And naturally, your letter is harder to read if it’s burning. I’m not sure I made that clear. Hope that helps. Will you be able to prove your worth to the Princess?
Pretty much none. Take the cards:
Shuffle them, and deal each player 1. Set one card from the deck aside, as well. Also set aside the Favor Tokens:
You’re ready to start!
The gameplay of Love Letter hasn’t been significantly updated since the original, and that’s largely fine. We’ll go through it, quickly.
Your goal is to get your letter to the Princess, either by finishing the round with the highest card or by being the last player left in the round. Easier said than done.
Every round, players start with one card. To begin your turn, draw one card into your hand. Then, play one card from your hand and follow its effect. Some cards will give you additional information, some cards will move other cards around, and other cards still will give you the chance to eliminate other players (or yourself, if you played poorly). If you’re eliminated, you’re out for the round. Tough break.
If the deck is emptied, the round ends. All players with the highest card gain one Favor Token. If you’re the last player in play, you gain one Favor Token. Fun bonus: if only one player played the Spy, they get a Favor Token as well! It is possible for one player to gain two Favor Tokens after a round, this way (if they win and played the only Spy).
As soon as any players gain the required number of Favor Tokens, the game is over and they win!
- 2 players: 6 tokens
- 3 players: 5 tokens
- 4 players: 4 tokens
- 5 players: 3 tokens
- 6 players: 3 tokens
Note that if you don’t like the new Love Letter hijinks, you can return to Classic Love Letter by removing the Chancellors and the Spies. At that point, however, Love Letter only supports 2 – 4 players.
Player Count Differences
Honestly, the place where I noticed the biggest difference was at two players. At two, Love Letter always felt a bit … goofy? So much of it was out of your control. There was no way to really predict or plan, and sometimes you’d draw a Prince and the Princess against a Handmaid and just knock yourself out of the round. The Spies help a lot with that, since if you played a Spy and then get knocked out, you just advance the round and both players score. That’s not bad, which might as well be good. At higher player counts, the game plays mostly like I remember, with some whimsy and occasionally just torpedoing a player because you drew the Baron and by his hand someone’s gotta die. As you do. I’m not completely sold on this as a 6-player game, though; partially because, I mean, who even has five friends within reach, these days, and also the player elimination aspect can make this a bit frustrating (though the rounds are even shorter, since there aren’t that many cards in the deck). Plus, at that player count, there are typically other games that I like to play more, like Insider, Just One, or even the Lost Legacy series, which I need to break out and try again, some day. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by this in the 2-player space, since I normally write off Love Letter there. Adding more cards helps weaken Guard a bit and the new cards are a nice addition. I’d still play up to four pretty readily.
- Keep track of what’s been played. I’d argue this is the crux of Love Letter, and that’s part of why it’s a solid mainstay in this space. It’s a light, simple game that teaches new players the importance of keeping track of public information to guide strategy. At the simplest level, knowing what cards are no longer in play lets you know which numbers to stop guessing when you play a Guard. At a higher level, you can start estimating what the likelihood that a player’s card is higher than your card before you play a Baron, or guessing if you have the highest card and using that to determine which card you play on your turn. It’s important to think about these things, and I think a strength of Love Letter is that it gently guides players along that strategic path from the get-go.
- Use the Chancellor to gather more information. The Chancellor is an extremely powerful card, in the right hands. Not only do you get to see two cards, but you get to put them back on the bottom of the deck in the order of your choosing. This can allow you to set players up for a loss if you count cards correctly, as you’ll end up with a Guard and they’ll have the Princess. You can also use it to bury cards like the Spy if you’ve already played one and don’t want the other to get played. If you’re able to use it for long-term planning, it can lead to a lot of success.
- You gotta play the odds from time to time. Sometimes there’s no way to be sure what card a player has and you’ve got a Baron and a death wish. I mean, do it. The worst thing that will happen is that you’ll knock yourself out of the round and have to start up again next time, and that’s hardly a consequence at all. I may hold back on that death seeker urge if you’re in the final rounds of the game, but I’m a board game review, not a cop.
- If you’ve already played a Spy, it’s to your advantage to end the round quickly, even if you lose. If only you have played the Spy, you are guaranteed at least one Favor Token. That means in a 3+ game, even if you lose, someone’s not getting any points, which is pretty good for you. Just make sure that if you eliminate another player they don’t discard the other Spy and negate your bonus! Ideally, you would hold on to the second Spy or it would be out of play. If you can win the round, though, that second Favor Token can potentially turn the game around.
- If you get the Princess early, get rid of it! If you get the Princess late, be careful, but hold on to it. You do not want to be holding on to the Princess for long; players get wise to that sort of thing. Not that every player is going to be looking at your hand to see if you tend to favor your new card (that would be weird and was Definitely A Problem when we used to play in-person, weirdos), but, players get suspicious if they don’t see the Princess. Plus, there are tells that may occur that can possibly indicate that you have the Princess, and the only thing worse than getting the Princess early is someone else finding out that you have the Princess.
- Know your combos. There are a few good ones and some bad ones. Princess + Baron is extremely good, unless doing so forces your opponent to discard their Countess and reveal that you must have the only card higher than the Countess. That’s bad. Spy + Spy is not bad at all, unless literally anyone decides to go after you on their turn with the Baron. Prince + Princess is not bad, unless your opponent played the Handmaid and you have no player to target but yourself. Baron + Baron is just … a little bit funny, to be honest. It means someone’s going to die, and it will be you with roughly even odds (depending on what cards have already been played, of course). If you see these come up, you should be prepared for them, but a responsible strategist can turn most hands to their advantage (except for the Prince + Princess + Handmaid scenario; you just take the L on that one).
Pros, Mehs, and Cons
- I really like the new cards, actually. I think the Chancellor was exactly what the game needed, and the Spy incentivizes a type of play that I never really thought about from my previous games of Love Letter. This feels like a different game than the original, but not so much so that it’s like, complicated, or something. It’s still very familiar! And I think that’s the kind of note that’s not always easy to hit, but they did a pretty good job with it.
- I love the new art. This was really the draw, for me. I love that there’s a diverse cast of characters for this one, and it makes me more excited to try it. Andrew Bosley did a phenomenal job updating it. I had actually been wanting to try it since I heard about the new art, and the new cards were just kind of icing on the cake, I suppose.
- Still very portable! It’s not really gotten that much bigger. 5 new cards, maybe? It still all fits in a pouch. Portability doesn’t really matter anymore, since, we don’t go anywhere, but it’s still something that I appreciate in games for the possibility of going places one day in the future.
- The new points tokens are very nice, as well. They have a solid thickness and weight to them. I’m not totally sure why they use the scales (I think it’s a reference to the original series that Love Letter was a part of, along with Dominare, Mercante, and a few other games), but, they look nice.
- The “draw a card, play a card” games have very low cognitive overhead to learn, usually, and that makes them easy to get to the table. It’s sort of a classic quick game, in that sense, and I think these updates do a nice job elevating this to a modern response to the classic. Imagine that, a couple quick tweaks.
- Each round goes pretty quickly. The new cards don’t slow things down too much, beyond the Chancellor occasionally gumming up the works a bit because players have to make the most complex decision of the game.
- Whew, playing this at 6 is … an ambitious notion. It just seems like a weird state, to me. There are, what, 21 cards? So each player gets two turns, three tops? That doesn’t seem like enough time to do much of anything, since your cards don’t target multiple players. I think Lost Legacy addresses this a bit better with cards that can eliminate multiple active players, which Love Letter just doesn’t have. And that’s fine! It just means I’ll probably stick to four.
- While I hate player elimination, the rounds go quickly enough that you’re never out for too long. It can still be annoying, but it’s usually less than a few minutes before you’re back in the swing of things. In a two-player game, it’s instantaneous.
- While I like the Chancellor a lot, it does sort of junk up the quick flow of the game, a smidge. It, as I mentioned above, presents players with a dilemma. No other card in the game does that, beyond choosing who you will target. Here, you need to plan, count, and strategize, and that can slow things down a bit. Not enough that I’m really that bothered by it, but enough that it’s worth mentioning that it’s noticeable that the Chancellor was added after the original set.
- I used to kinda just play Love Letter as a multi-round quick game where we didn’t keep score, and the Spy works directly against that. It made me a bit sad, but it also drastically improves the two-player experience, so, mixed bag.
- This particular blend of cards kind of lends itself to longer games, as players tend to gang up against the player with the most points until everyone has enough points to almost win. I think that’s most of my problem with the “multi-round game” style play for Love Letter: if you do well early, then you’re immediately targeted by everyone behind you to try and slow you down, and this isn’t a game where you can survive being dogpiled for long. That was part of the original motivation to play it as just single rounds, but then the Spy wouldn’t make sense beyond “if you’re the only person to have played the Spy, you also win, even if you lose”, which I suppose is kind of funny. We’ll have to try that out in subsequent plays.
Overall: 7.5 / 10
Overall, I think this new version of Love Letter is a solid iteration on the original! I think it establishes itself nicely in the two-player space, along games like Fluttering Souls that are quick to get set up for two and have some good depth to them without being too complex. Santorini and 7th Night kind of beat everything else in that category, for me, but they both have either big / weirdly-shaped boxes, so you’ve sometimes gotta make do with smaller and more portable games. They each have their strengths. Obviously, the new “big” thing about this version of Love Letter is the art, and I’m over the moon about that. There’s people of color, there’s generally some great use of color on the outfits and the backgrounds, and the whole game looks pretty great, right down to the Favor Tokens. That’s definitely a plus. There are also some new cards, which will add some strategies to mess with even the most die-hard Love Letter fan. That’s cool, in my opinion. It’s a bit more complex than the original Love Letter, but it’s not as much so as, say, Love Letter Premium. That’s a particularly happy medium for me, especially on days where I don’t have the bandwidth to play anything more complex than this (and lately, that’s been happening a lot). Honestly, this has made me kind of want to go back through and play some more games that I haven’t played in a while and see how my feelings on them have changed / evolved, and I might have more to say about that in the coming weeks and months. Until then, though, I like this new version of Love Letter, and if you’re looking for something quick to play (especially with two), this may be worth checking out!