Jun 24

Review: Love Letter

love-letter-boxThere’s a train of thought that has 2013 becoming the year of the ‘microgame’.  What’s a microgame you ask?  Simply put, it’s a term that’s starting to gain traction and credence on boardgame podcasts and forums: it marks a game as being (in a number of ways) very minimalist, but quite deep.  To put it another way, someone started talking about ‘microgames’ and suddenly everyone was pretending they knew what it meant.  They’re small enough in size to carry in your pocket, handbag, saddlebags, badgerskin knapsack or whatever – and small enough to play on a pub table.  They’re probably small enough to play on a cafe table too, or the back of a well-trained dachshund.  You could probably play one whilst getting your hair cut.  I’d still recommend a good pub, though.  They manage to get by with a minimal number components… and yet have enough depth and interesting choices to keep the replay value high.  Importantly, I think it’s this last point that sets microgames apart from typical fillers.

Love Letter is one such microgame, and to read some reviews you might think it was a sign of the impending second coming.  It was designed by Seiji Kanai, who seems to be doing a good job of publishing lots of other microgames as well.  Love Letter was published last year, first by Japon Brand and Kanai Factory in English and Japanese; then later by AEG as part of their Tempest family of games.  The first AEG printing sold out quite quickly, and there was a great clamouring and noisome gnashing of teeth until another printing a few months ago.  It’s a pretty popular game, then.

Now, Japan shares a lot of things with the UK – we’re both populous island nations with great and bloody histories, and there’s a whole lot of importance placed on politeness and fairness and honour.  Well, maybe just Japan for that last one.  But I think there’s a lot of queuing that must go in Japan as well, because this is the sort of game that could be played during the interminable wait for the Post Office to open.  Standing in an orderly line is a well-renowned hobby in Britain and whilst you might get some odd looks if you spend it doing anything other than staring blankly into space, or tutting queue-jumpers, no one is likely to comment.  It’s just not done.


Despite Love Letter’s small number of components the production values are very high.  Gorgeous art and a very tactile, embroidered velvet bag to hold all the bits in.  It could be argued that it’s overproduced, but there are plenty of people ‘pimping it up’ by replacing the red cubes with heart tokens and suchlike.  Still, it’s exactly the sort of eye-candy that will garner an impulse buy when placed next to the till at your local boardgame store.

But when you start playing, these very simple rules and cards conspire to create a surprisingly

deep experience.  The basic premise is this: you are (as are your opponents) trying to woo the Princess of Tempest.  Apparently someone did something of great import and Theme in the last Tempest game, and she’s hiding in her chambers.  Maybe spilled wine or something.  For playing this fame, though, I think everyone’s just interested in getting their love letter of woo-age to the Princess.  The Theme is strong in this one.

To do this, everyone has a hand of card.  Yes – one card only.  Your hand is minimalist as well.  This represents who in the palace is currently looking after your letter.  Each turn you draw another card, and discard one of the two.  The card you discard has an effect that may knock an opponent out of contention, or allow you to gain a bit more insight into where their letters are currently.  At the end of the round (one night’s worth of deception, treachery and guesswork) whoever has the highest valued card has their letter ‘closest’ to the Princess and wins a Eurocube Of Affection in return.  A round ends when the draw pile runs out, or when only one person is left playing.

And then you play another round.  After all, the Princess isn’t going to be wooed that easily.  You need to show some commitment, young knave!

Love_Letter_Card_GuardEvery round has the potential for amazingly clever plays, gutsy bluffs and inspired flashes of deduction.  Each card is powerful when played the right way, or at the right time.  The Guards, for example, are the most numerous in the pack – and as such are only ranked 1 out of a possible 8.  But with some insight and a little luck, they can knock someone completely out – if you can name the card an opponent is holding.  The highest ranked card is the Princess herself, but if you discard her you are out of the running.  A winning card to draw towards the end of a round; a guaranteed headache if she’s in your starting hand!

The game allows for 2 to 4 players, and every number is smartly balanced to ensure deduction is rarely perfect and luck and bluffing play their part.  Setting it apart from a great deal of other fillers is the knowledge that winning and losing is, mostly, in your hands and the feeling that every choice makes a difference.  Sure, you can occasionally find yourself out of the running before you even get to play – but each round is over so quickly that it doesn’t really matter.

And the entire game rarely lasts longer than twenty minutes, meaning you might have time for another before the Post Office opens.  Another hand, then?  The Princess bored of her last suitor, it seems; and passing letters between courtiers seems a bit more reliable than the Royal Mail.

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