Decisions in Love Letter

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).

Matrix

See full-size 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.

Random Gone Awry

A recent event from the emerging competitive Hearthstone scene triggered a mini-panic. The event was a match between well-known players; the audience expected a highly skilled, interesting battle. Instead, a few cards with random mechanics dominated play, heavily favoring one side and allowing them to sweep up the games. Audience expectation was deflated by what appeared to be unpredictability gone awry.

There has always been a tension in game design between random events and player choice. Below I’ve outlined four reflective offerings of randomness gone awry; I don’t think they should be always avoided, but offer a glimmer of potential consequences when random events are unleashed in a game.

Random events that cannot be anticipated limit player choice

The significances of a random event should be foreseeable. This is partially what gives randomness its fun factor: it can shake a game up in an unexpected way, but it’s important to allow players some foresight so that they can imagine several decision trees in their mind. In games that utilize dice as the movement generator, players can anticipate (and hope for) certain rolls.

Random events that cannot be mitigated limit strategic decision-making

Certain games allow randomness to consume player strategy, relegating player choice beneath a chaotic sea the game-state has facilitated. Occasionally, glimpses of strategy emerge to affect the game-state, but more often than not players are frustrated by their lack of impact. Who’s playing the game, the rules or the players? Dungeons & Dragons is a game built almost entirely on rolling d20s, but it long ago introduced ways of modifying those rolls to allow players a feeling of control.

Random events that offer all-or-nothing consequences are frustrating

Random events that are all or nothing can lead to frustration. All or nothing scenarios can also incorporate power swings that are unacceptable. Positive random events give players something for the effort no matter what; yes, it may not be the optimal choice, but they are rewarded for rolling the dice or flipping the card.

Magic: the Gathering has evolved its thinking on randomness to a sophisticated level, and Mark Rosewater offers up the Cascade mechanic as a good example of positive randomness. Cascade allows players to flip cards of their library until a card costing X or less is revealed. The point is that whatever happens, you’ll get something: the event will ensure something unexpected, but you’re guaranteed to find something.

When the stakes are too high, the random event doesn’t value the game

Yes, it’s fun draw the right card at the right time and win the game. But those moments are exciting because the game-state is tense, the players are both close to winning, and the path to that end moment was filled with interesting decisions.

When the random events consistently overpower any other choices, players feel like they lose control and the rest of the game rules are undermined. The worst result should not leave a player with nothing, nor should the best result leave them with everything. Random events are supports: they should enhance and add value to the rest of the game and its players. The game road should not lead to a random event: instead, players should encounter interesting decisions along their way, which may include random events to disrupt or enhance their play.

—-

Randomness has always been present in card games and games in general, although this particular instance is evident of a game that may be in search of the right balance. In recent years, refinement of random design has moved the industry past things like rolling a die in Monopoly or Risk.

Newer editions of Dungeons & Dragons, which still relies heavily on dice rolls, pad the random roll with modifiers and penalties. Settlers of Catan moved dice rolling from random events to statistical chance, basing its strategic premise off the principle of normal distribution. These are two successful examples of moving away from “raw” randomness—randomness in its harshest, most untouchable form. In its place is a friendlier randomness—to be precise, it isn’t truly random—a randomness that allows strategic thinking because there are manipulation and interactions methods.