When I think of the game Love Letter, I’ll always remember our honeymoon train trip. The afternoon after our wedding, we set off on a week-long vacation. Walking into the train station downtown felt like stepping back in time. Since we’d booked a roomette (a private compartment with two seats that fold down into beds at night), we were able to wait for the train in the first class lounge. We enjoyed the comfortable couches and complimentary beverages, and then we boarded Amtrak’s Empire Builder. After we’d settled into our compartment and the locomotive carried us out of the city, I brought out the new card game that I’d bought for the trip: Love Letter.
I put a lot of thought into our honeymoon. I picked the historic hotel we stayed at on our wedding night. I bought a new train-friendly travel duffel so I didn’t have to try to maneuver a rolling suitcase through the train cars. And I’d heard about this new little 16-card-game-in-a-bag called Love Letter. It seemed almost too perfect: a game with a romantic name, small enough to take on the train, and inexpensive enough to fit in the budget even after we’d just paid for a wedding. I drove over to the nearest game store and bought a copy.
I’m still not really sure what the storyline of the game is. Nominally, it has something to do with getting a letter to a princess, but it doesn’t really simulate the process of doing that. When you’re playing, you always have one card in your hand. Each turn, you draw a second card and choose one of your two cards to play. There are eight different types of cards in the deck, and each one has a different character with a different ability. So, when you play, what you’re actually doing is using the characters on the cards, trying knock the other players out of the game, or else have the highest-numbered character in your hand at the end of a round.
It turned out to be the perfect game to bring on the train. We must have played dozens of times. At the beginning of each round, you’re mostly just bluffing and trying to guess what card the other player has. However, as each round goes on, more and more cards are revealed, so it gradually turns into a more deductive game where you can narrow down with certainty which card the other person has. I think, in part, Love Letter is so much fun because it takes advantage of our cognitive biases. At a subconscious level, there’s just something exciting about sitting across from another person and declaring, “You have the handmaid.” Logically, you know you’re just making a random guess, but cognitively you feel like you have ESP when you’re correct. There was a lot about our train trip that wasn’t enjoyable—like horrifying delays and a missing rental car—but those games of Love Letter are something that I will always treasure.
These days, there are countless different versions of the game, including the original Japanese version, Archer, Adventure Time, The Hobbit, Munchkin, Santa Claus, and more. Also, there is Love Letter: Batman.
Love Letter: Batman
A few months after our honeymoon, when Love Letter: Batman was first announced, I told my wife that it was what I wanted for my birthday. She probably got sick of me bringing it up all the time, but she did get it for me. Like some of the other versions of Love Letter, it has some minor rules differences from the original, but basically it’s the exact same game. I enjoy it, especially the tiny Bat Symbol tokens that replace the wooden cubes from the original version. However…
Ars Technica recently reviewed a number of the Love Letter versions and described Love Letter: Batman as, “The most kid-friendly version.” Love Letter: Batman is definitely not the most kid-friendly version. The artwork is very similar to the style of the recent Batman comics. And while I do like this style of artwork, the depictions of the female characters made me feel a little bit awkward that I’d asked my wife to buy it for me. It didn’t have to be like this.
If you want to get your kids a Batman card game, get them Batman Fluxx. If you want to get your kids a Love Letter game, just get them the normal version.
Have you ever noticed how traditional decks of playing cards always have a white border around the edge? There’s a reason for this: when you shuffle, deal, or otherwise handle cards, the edges get a lot of nicks and dings. If the cards have a white border, you probably won’t be able to see the marks. However, if the cards are printed edge to edge like in Love Letter, you’ll start to see marks after just a few minutes (also, storing them in a cloth bag doesn’t really do the cards any favors). Since Love Letter has a very small number of cards and involves trying to guess what other people have in their hand, a conspicuous mark on one of the cards can ruin the entire game. I’ve given up worrying about it and now depend on the fact that all of our cards are pretty much equally thrashed. But if you’re just starting out, it’s worth thinking about getting plastic card sleeves.
Love Letter is played with 16 cards, but it actually comes with 20 cards. The other four cards are reference cards (one for each possible player). I still find it useful to have a reference card even though I’ve played the game more times than I can count, but it’s really annoying that the reference cards have the exact same back as the game cards. I also can’t count how many times I’ve picked up the game and accidentally shuffled the reference cards in. Different types of cards should have different designs on the back.
Supposedly, the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. If that’s true, then love is as momentous and powerful as the collision of galaxies. Love is the definitive experience that we can have in this world. Sometimes, it’s very difficult to distill that into words. What do you put in a love letter? What do you say when your whole being is moved and consumed and focused into passion and desire? Love Letter doesn’t really have that much to do with love letters, so it probably isn’t going to help you figure that out. But, as a game to enjoy with someone you love, I highly recommend it.