Game: Love Letter

Release Year: 2012

Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group

Designer: Seiji Kanai

Player Count: 2 to 4 players

Play Time: About 20 to 30 minutes (at 3 to 5 minutes per round)

Rules Complexity: Very simple

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We, as board gamers, owe a lot to the legacy of Seiji Kanai's Love Letter. This tiny 16-card game that released in 2012 revitalized public interest in so-called "microgames," and so many other great games never would've gotten the time of day if Love Letter hadn't shown us what's possible with so little.

Keep reading for an overview of Love Letter, how it plays, why it's iconic, and whether or not it's still worth getting if you're looking for a microgame.

This review is based on my own personal copy of Love Letter, which I acquired in a math trade on BoardGameGeek.

The Gist of Love Letter

The gameplay of Love Letter boils down to this: draw one, play one. You start the game with one random card in your hand, so you'll always have one card left in your hand at the end of every turn.

The goal of the game? To be holding the highest-value card compared to everyone else when the deck runs out. (If multiple players hold the same value card, the summed value of all played cards is used to break ties.)

The Princess is the highest card in Love Letter.

But here's the twist:

Each value of card has a special ability. When you play a card, the ability of that card kicks in and lets you do something special or provides a benefit that lasts until your next turn.

The weaker-value cards have stronger abilities while higher-value cards might restrict you in certain ways. In fact, some abilities may eliminate players from the round! And if you're the last one standing, you win by default.

Here are all eight cards that appear in Love Letter: Guard, Priest, Baron, Handmaid, Prince, King, Countess, and Princess. (The stars under each card's number denote how many copies of that card exist.)

So, it's not as simple as always playing the lesser of two cards and hoping you hold the highest card by round's end. (Plus, one random card is taken out at the start of each round, so you can't count cards with 100% certainty.)

The rounds are short and you play multiple rounds to see who can win a certain number of rounds first. That player wins the game.

Love Letter's 16-card deck is numbered 1 through 8, with higher-value cards only having one copy while lower-value cards have multiple copies.

Here's a rundown of all the cards:

  • 1 x Princess (8) — If you discard this card, you are out of the round.
  • 1 x Countess (7) — If you have this card and the King or Prince in your hand, you must discard this card.
  • 1 x King (6) — Trade hands with another player of your choice.
  • 2 x Prince (5) — Choose any player (including yourself) to discard his or her hand and draw a new card.
  • 2 x Handmaid (4) — Until your next turn, ignore all effects from other players' cards.
  • 2 x Baron (3) — You and another player secretly compare hands. The player with the lower value is out of the round.
  • 2 x Priest (2) — Look at another player's hand.
  • 5 x Guard (1) — Name a non-Guard card and choose another player. If that player has that card, he or she is out of the round.

The Core Experience

You have to temper your expectations right off the bat: Love Letter is an incredibly lightweight game. Some might even say there's no game here at all, although I personally wouldn't go that far.

When you boil it down, Love Letter is one part bluffing, two parts deduction, and three parts luck. Your goal might be to hold the highest-value card by round's end, but you also need to survive the round—and in order to do that, you need to make it through without getting knocked out while knocking out others.

The central draw-one-play-one mechanism really only serves one purpose: to drip feed information about what's in your hand. You're always forced to play one of two cards... and the card you play offers hints as to what you didn't play.

With only 15 cards in play in a given round, you can gain a good amount of information from a single card. For example, if someone plays the Countess, it might mean their other card is a King or Prince. But if the King and Princes were already played? Then maybe they're holding the Princess.

Or maybe not.

Maybe they're actually holding a Baron and chose to play the Countess so you think they're holding a King, Prince, or Princess.

It's not just the card you play but what you do with the card that gives away information. And you can use this to your advantage!

For example, suppose it's your first turn, you have a Guard in hand, and you draw the Princess. You're kind of screwed, right? Since you can never play the Princess, you'll need to be crafty about making it to the end without giving yourself away.

Once you have the Princess, you might think you're set to win—but now you're always forced to play the non-Princess card in your hand, which can be tricky.

When you play your Guard, you could play it straight and try to guess what John might be holding—or you could "guess" that they're holding a Princess, even though you know they aren't. In doing so, you might throw others off your trail for a few turns by making them think you aren't holding the Princess.

At the same time, you have to be careful. A clever player might wonder why you guessed that John has a Princess when John hasn't given any indications that they're holding such a card. That clever player might sniff out that you're trying to pull one over them, then pounce when they have an opportunity.

You're also giving away information when defending yourself against others.

If someone plays a Guard and incorrectly guesses what you have, you might be safe from elimination—but everyone else now knows what you don't have in hand, making it easier for them to deduce what you do have.

Similarly, if someone plays a Baron and chooses to compare hands with you and they end up being knocked out despite holding a King, then suddenly you're in a bind. After all, there are only two possible cards you could have!

And if one of those cards is already out of play?

Well, now everyone knows exactly what you have... and you probably aren't going to make it out alive this round.

Love Letter is a fast-paced dance between reasoning what people have while masking what you have, with some luck management mixed in.

You have to do the best with what you get. With only two cards to choose between, your options will always be limited—but if you're paying attention to what everyone else is playing, you might be able to make the most of it.

And if you don't? Well, rounds only last a few minutes, so you can shuffle up and get right back into it soon enough for another try.

The Repeat Experience

The problem with Love Letter is that it sounds more fun than it is.

For all the ways you can bluff about what's in your hand, there's actually too much opportunity for misdirection.

It's great that every card played can have multiple reasons for why it was played. In a game like this, you don't want every action to be obvious, and you want some degree of ambiguity so you can choose to be deceptive at times.

But there's too much ambiguity for how short the rounds are.

With 15 cards in play and each player starting with one random card, you really only have 12 total turns (with 3 players) or 11 total turns (with 4 players) to deduce what people have. So, unless someone makes a serious misplay, there just isn't enough time to deduce anything substantial before the round ends.

What ends up happening is that you sort of get an idea of what everyone might be holding through process of elimination—based on which cards have been played and which cards remain—but ultimately you just... guess.

Because not only do you need to deduce what they have, you also need to draw the right cards to act on your deductions.

What good is it if I know you have the Princess but I don't draw the King (to bring the Princess into my hand for the win) or draw a Prince (to eliminate you)?

What can I do if everyone else is eliminated, it's just you and me left, but I'm holding both Barons and I know you have a Countess? That's an insta-loss for me and there's nothing I can do about it.

What if I'm holding both Princess and Baron? I can play the Baron and compare my hand with any player to knock them out. If I end up choosing you, you're now eliminated and there's nothing you could've done about it. Was that a skillful play on my part? Or did I just get lucky?

Princess/Baron might just be the strongest hand in Love Letter. It gives you free rein to knock out any other player in the game (as long as they aren't protected by the Handmaid).

What if you have the Princess and Baron but I'm protected by the Handmaid, so you can't eliminate me? It's not like I played the Handmaid knowing that you would draw the Princess/Baron combo. Rather, I just happened to be protected at this crucial time due to coincidence.

What if I draw two Guards on the very first turn of the game? I have no information yet so I'm pretty blind. Suppose I successfully guess—based on nothing—that you're holding a Handmaid. Not only do you end up getting knocked out before you even get to play, but it's not even satisfying for me.

For a game that's supposedly about bluffing and deduction, Love Letter is really a game of guesswork. You might have a few turns to mold your odds, but nine times out of ten you're still just putting in a guess.

On the whole, Love Letter is a lot like playing poker.

It's not about how well you perform in any given hand but how well you perform across multiple hands. There's some skill, some bluffing, some deduction, and a lot of luck. You're ultimately playing the odds.

But Love Letter is also decidedly NOT like poker.

The thrills of poker come from the betting action, from the risk of losing what you've brought to the table, from the promise that you could win big and walk away with pockets stuffed with cash. The cards in poker are just there as a way to circulate chips between players.

In that sense, Love Letter feels like playing poker without any chips—and that's a huge, huge difference that changes everything.

If you know what it feels like to play poker without chips, then you know what it feels like to play Love Letter. (Photo by Michał Parzuchowski on Unsplash)

Poker without chips is barely a game. It's an empty activity where nothing means anything. Why? Because the cards are just a means to an end. The chips are the heart of the game, and the threat of losing real money is the foundation on which all of the bluffing, deduction, and decisions stand.

The drive to gain more, to preserve what you have, to convince others to commit more when they're in a losing position—that's the incentive to play with intention, the basis on which you can uncover what people are thinking. Otherwise, you might as well never fold and leave every hand up to chance. Because why not?

That is the difference between poker and Love Letter. Whereas the winner in poker is whoever can collect the most chips from others, the winner in Love Letter is whoever can win the most hands. This crucial distinction is what makes Love Letter a toothless luckfest.

You win some, you lose some, but ultimately it all feels meaningless. There's too much randomness and ambiguity to feel like you have any control over your results, which deflates whatever tension there could've been. Even when you win, you don't feel like you earned it.

And without an overarching meta game (e.g., chips) to tie it all together, the whole experience feels like an aimless waste of time.

In the end, Love Letter is more of a social lubricant than it is a game.

I've had fun playing it, but I've also seen it fall extremely flat. It really depends on who you're playing it with and under what circumstances.

Since the game has little mental overhead and simplistic decisions, players are freed up to inject their own fun into it. You can socialize about life, about work, about the fun games you intend to play when Love Letter finally comes to an end. You can even drink while you play and it won't affect a thing.

It's the perfect activity for when chatting is what you really want to do but you also want to keep your hands busy. But as an actual game? Love Letter is not it.

Art and Components

The cards will show wear over time, but they look great and feel good in hand.

The main component here is the cards, and the cards in Love Letter are really nice. Made of thick card stock and finished with a satin sheen, they feel good in the hand and make you feel like you're playing a "real" game.

The point-tracking cubes are just cubes. The red is a nice touch, though.

Love Letter also comes with some red wooden cubes, which are used as counters for round wins. Totally unnecessary but useful to have so you don't have to tally wins on paper or track them with a mobile app. The cubes are just cubes, though.

Always a fan of player aids! Nifty as reference when you're trying to deduce a player's card.

I'm always grateful for player aids, and Love Letter comes with four double-sided cards that explain what each of the cards do and what turn order looks like. It doesn't matter how simple the game actually is—player aids are GOOD!

Love Letter has a soft and inoffensive theme.

As for theme? It's definitely tacked on, as evidenced by the dozens of re-themes that barely change anything yet still play the same. The princess theme is more accessible than, say, Star Wars, so that makes it easier to play with non-gamers. But the idea of "getting your letter to the princess" actively complicates the teach for new players, so I'd say it's best to ignore it altogether.

Setup and Table Footprint

I struggle to think of a game that sets up faster than Love Letter does. Maybe Timeline? (Which I reviewed here.) But even then, it's about the same.

All you have to do is open the box, take out the cards, shuffle them up, deal one to each player, then remove the top card of the deck. It can literally be ready to play in under a minute, which is why so many like it as a filler game.

The face-down cards are actually held in hand, so Love Letter needs even less space than you see in this photo. You can really play this game anywhere.

And Love Letter's table footprint is quite tiny.

Players each hold their single card in hand, with a draw deck in the middle of the table. As players play cards, those cards are lined up in front of them on the table. If you play with the wooden cubes, they're negligible space-wise.

The Bottom Line

Love Letter

Substandard Score Guide
  1. Tiny table footprint and portable box size
  2. One of the simplest card games to learn
  3. Rounds are fast, so it's an easy way to kill time
  1. Theme makes no sense and makes it harder to teach
  2. You can be eliminated before your first turn
  3. Deductive elements aren't substantial enough to outweigh the luck factor
  4. Too swingy and luck-heavy, especially at 2 and 3 players

Just because a game is important or innovative or interesting doesn't necessarily mean it's good. Experimental games are often like that, earning their attention for trying something different and introducing us to new concepts.

And that's Love Letter, a game that's more widely recognized for what it accomplishes than how it plays. It does pack a surprising amount of gameplay into just 16 cards, even if that gameplay is lackluster.

It's a lot like Ernest Hemingway's famous six-word story: "For sale: baby shoes, never worn." Is it a deep, compelling, or satisfying tale? No. But it's impressive for how much it conveys with so few words—and that's how I feel about Love Letter.

I'm a light gamer, but Love Letter is too light even for me. It's a product of its time that is now outdated, and I cannot recommend it given that there are plenty of better small card games now worth getting instead.

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