The popularity of Love Letter has surprised a lot of the gaming community accustomed to critical praise focusing on lengthy, complicated games. Love Letter contains 16 cards and a simple premise: draw a card, play a card.
But if you give the game a few plays it’ll reveal some interesting play patterns. It is dynamic, packed with an endless number of game states, and the play interactions are fun to observe and engage in. I would argue that enjoyment comes from looking at how the cards are situated against each other and the unstable nature of a player’s position within the game. Because each turn involves playing one card or another card, play possibilities can be mapped onto a decision matrix (see table).
This doesn’t reveal much by browsing every individual play possibility. But some broader play themes can be seen in the ways the resulting card play helps or hinders a player, in addition to other benefits they receive from playing a card. In no particular order below are some themes I’ve discovered by playing the game and looking over the matrix.
Is card play always dictated by rank comparison? Mostly.
As indicated by the table, playing the lowest ranked card in hand will advance a player’s position. This isn’t surprising because it correlates to the win condition (highest ranked card wins). In a way, then, that choice (“what card do I play?”) is actually involuntary because players want to hold their highest ranked card.
So should a player ever play their highest ranked card? The table can’t answer that, but probably not. There are instances where playing the highest ranked card will knockout another player from the round. But like a million other brawl games (Bang! comes to mind), Love Letter is zero-sum so sacrificing your best card to attack one opponent thereby helps your other opponents.
However, when a player with a low ranked card draws another low ranked card (Baron and under, say) they can probably play either because the chance of an opponent holding a higher rank is so high. As I’ll get to in the third theme, players with low ranked cards can have the most power.
Players holding high rank cards are at high risk for detrimental interactions.
The interaction between high cards is inherently risky, so holding onto a high card can be dangerous. Additionally, players are encumbered by the high ranked cards they’re holding. The penultimate example is the Princess, which is essentially a dead card because it forces every subsequent draw to be a mandatory play. The Countess also has mandatory play effects, so mixing them with any other higher cards can create compromising situations.
Players holding high rank cards are also highly vulnerable to outside attack. The Princess is vulnerable to knockout attacks from roughly 2/3 the card pool: Guard, Prince and King. She’s additionally vulnerable to a follow knockout from a Priest play, and is dead against forced discard from opposing Handmaids. Of course the Princess can also offer up the best positions: Princess /Handmaiden is the safest combination in the game, and Princess/Baron is an easy knockout.
Players with the lowest ranked cards are often the most empowered.
Love Letter does a great job at giving every player, no matter their current position, opportunities to engage in risk and power plays. Players with the lowest cards are often the freest to employ aggressive strategies. Because both cards are low ranking they are open for use, the opposite of the above problem where one card was always your win condition because of its rank. So players with Priest / Guard or Guard / Baron can freely employ multiple-turn strategies because neither card is worth saving. And while weak to the Baron, low rank hands can actually benefit from trading or discarding attacks from other players.
The passive cards promote interaction between the other cards.
The Handmaid and Countess aren’t active cards. In this way, they’re somewhat anti-fun or anti-play because they inhibit player interaction. However, they foment important play dynamics amongst the other cards. The Countess is important because she creates an unstable footing for players holding onto a high rank card. This promotes a livelier game state instead of letting players hold high cards and coast to victory. The Handmaid’s role isn’t quite that pivotal and because of that she’s my least favorite card, although she does have important one-on-one effects (forcing Princess discard).
The human factor in Love Letter is around targeting and guessing.
The first theme I mentioned declared that choosing a card to play is a false choice and not really what the game is about. The game is really about the fallout after the card is played: Is the Guard choice correct? Who should be targeted with the Baron? These are the decisions that are interesting, and become more involved as the game grows because each player’s discard pile reveals more information.