Ah, Love Letter, that venerable game that Seiji Kanai released in 2012 (AEG, US release). Many of us own SOME form of this game. It is a game of court intrigue and is pure simplicity itself. Two to five people can play, assuming the role of court members attempting to deliver a love letter to the Princess. A deck of only 16 (!) cards is used, and each player is dealt one card to start. Each card represents a member of court and has a specific power they inflict upon the other players when played, with the idea of ultimately eliminating all the other players. On your turn, you draw one card and play one of your two cards, following the instructions printed on it. Different cards eliminate players in different ways. If you are the last player eliminated, you are the person to deliver the titular love letter to the Princess and you win. That’s it, really. As you can imagine, game play is very fast.
Photo Credit: Tiffany Hahn
Usually multiple rounds are played, striving for the most wins out of seven rounds, for example. So far, so good…
Now, you may be asking, what does a game of courtly love and intrigue have to do with the writer of the wretched and bizarre, Howard Phillips Lovecraft? That answer lies in the fact that Love Letter is so incredibly popular that it has been “re-skinned” MANY times. Re-skinning is taking the core mechanics of a game and simply slapping on a fresh coat of paint, so to speak, to give a different theme. Basically, you take an existing game (Love Letter in this case) and say it now revolves around a different mythos. Recently, we have seen Adventure Time, Batman, Archer, and even The Hobbit Love Letter. No, I’m not kidding. The way I see it, they each cater to the particular sub-genre you’re into, so no harm/no foul.
So, why should you care about a re-skin of this game with Cthulhu slapped on? I’m more than happy to answer that question: Because it is NOT just a re-skin. It is so much more. THIS version is the ULTIMATE gift to fans of horror AND Love Letter, in so many ways. You could say it is a love letter to Lovecraft fans, and what a letter it is.
No matter what else you might think of this game, the components alone make the game worthy of a spot on your Lovecraft shelf, whether you collect games or not. I was lured by the theme, but I was won over by the incredible components.
The game box looks like an old leather-bound book and opens with a magnetic clasp that heightens the tome-like quality of the packaging. When you open the box, you are greeted by some thematic art depicting an adventurer surrounded by various Old Ones and a “wax seal.” Very classy. To the right, however, is the really good stuff.
This time around, the game comprises 25 playing cards and 6 reference cards to remind players of the various powers of the cards. The cards are tarot sized and printed on good, thick stock, which makes them easy to handle. However, in a really amazing show of class from AEG, the player is supplied with high-quality sleeves for every card, depicting a suitably creepy letter image on the back and a silvery interior. There are even clear sleeves, front and back, for the reference cards. On top of that, AEG supplied EXTRA sleeves for the cards, in case one gets torn or the Elder Gods rend it into a fine red mist. Since the cards are handled a lot, shuffled a lot, and passed around the table a lot, the sleeves are going to go a long way to preventing wear and tear.
Below the cards are the Insanity/Sanity tokens. No mere carboard punch-outs here… these are thick, heavy, screen-printed poker chips that have a great heft when held and manipulated. They are printed on one side with Cthulhu, representing an Insane win, and the other side with and Elder Sign, representing a sane win (more on that later).
The manual is only 15 pages, half of which is references to individual game cards for clarification, so you really only have to worry about 7 pages of instructions, complete with lots of diagrams. After one read through, you’ll never have to refer back to the rules again, especially if you have played some form of Love Letter before.
Last but not least is the tray for the game components. There is a lot of discussion in the gaming community lately about how to present the bits and pieces that make up your game (the game Dice Forge seems to be the winner in that category right now). AEG went above and beyond the call of evil duty with Lovecraft Letter. The cards and tokens are cradled in a perfect-fit, simulated green velvet tray that keeps the cards from getting lose in the box and the tokens from getting jumbled as you transport the game. Bravo, AEG!
Setup is a breeze! First, you set aside the Mi-Go Braincase card (ewww… you’re going to need to do things to it later) and shuffle the remaining 24 cards. Depending on how many players are playing, you burn off/remove either 1 card (more than two players) or 5 cards (2 players), in order to thwart card counters. Next, deal one card from the deck to each player as their starting hand, and randomly assign the starting player (I suggest choosing the last player to pet a Hound of Tindalos and live). You are now ready to go!
Players take the role of explorers tracking down a relative that has vanished under very nefarious circumstances in Egypt. The gameplay is simplicity itself, basically following the same pattern as the original Love Letter, where each player in turn draws a card from the communal deck, picks one of the two cards now in their hand to play, discards it in front of themselves, and follows its instructions, for good or for bad (and yes, sometimes there is no avoiding taking the brunt of a card yourself). Then play passes to the left.
The round ends in one of two ways: (1) the deck is empty at the end of a player’s turn or (2) all players but one have been eliminated. If more than one player survives at the end of a round, compare the number at the top left of your remaining card, and the winner is the player possessing the card with the highest value.
But here is where things get *weird* (in a Lovecraft game? No way…). The quick amongst you may have noticed that the original game came with 16 cards, but Lovecraft Letter has 25. That is because there are new cards that introduce an Insanity/Sanity win condition that is unique to this incarnation of the game. Some of the cards now are “Insanity cards,” cards the represent the mind-boggling damage inflicted by coping with the Cthulhu mythos. Insanity cards look slightly different and present the player with two options: a sane action and an insane action. Once an insanity card is in the player’s discard pile, they have the option of enacting either the sane option OR the insane option when playing future insanity cards, either of which can be good or bad for that player. A further complication of having one or more insane cards in your discard pile lies in the fact that your level of insanity my break you and force you out of the game! If you have insanity cards in your discard pile, before you draw a card into your hand, you have to draw cards from the deck equal to the number of insanity cards in your discard pile. This is called a “Sanity Check.”
If you happen to have the misfortune of drawing an additional insanity card, you are immediately knocked out of the round!
If you win the round with no insanity cards in your personal discard pile, you earn a Sanity token. If you win the round with insanity cards in your discard pile, you earn an Insanity token. To win the game you must either be the first to two Sanity tokens or the first to three Insanity tokens.
The original version of this game that Kanai released in the US back in 2012 was a GREAT game. It was portable, easy to teach, and above all… FUN. It merits all of the re-skins that it has seen, in order to reach a wider audience. But up until now, there have been no major improvements to the game, in my opinion. Lovecraft Letter raises the bar, not only for future iterations of the basic game, but for all games, I think. The combination of a unique new Sanity/Insanity mechanic on top of the beautiful presentation of this game should make it a treasured part of a game collection OR a Lovecraft collection. I highly recommend Lovecraft Letter!
Designer: Seiji Kanai
Artists: Vincent Dutrait and Kougi Ogata
Publisher: Alderac Entertainment Group (AEG)
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