Love Letter and Keeping Decisions Interesting

I had the opportunity a little while ago to play Love Letter. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but it turned out to be a great game–fun, a bit silly, easy to learn, good for a group that’s looking for something light. What particularly struck me, though, was the way its designer approached the very last decision players make. I went into the game expecting that to work one way, found that it was in fact completely different, and I learned a lot from the innovative solution.

For those not familiar with Love Letter, it essentially goes as follows. The game is played with a small deck of cards, each with a value and some text that does something when the card is played (e.g., look at the card an opponent has in hand or try to guess an opponent’s card to knock him or her out of the round). Players begin each turn with one card in hand. On his or her turn a player draws a second card, and then plays one of the two. When there are no cards to draw each player shows the card remaining in his or her hand, with the highest value winning the round.

The example of card text above suggests a fundamental strategy in the game: get information to make your plays more effective. Playing “look at an opponent’s card” first makes it much easier to guess that opponent’s card and knock him or her out!

In addition to cards that give information by their text, players can glean useful data by keeping track of the cards that have already been used. There are two Princes in the deck; if both have already been played, then no one has another in hand and “Prince” cannot be the right guess.

Most card games treat gaining information as strictly good, and use the last play as a reward for doing it well. Tichu rounds, for example, often involve a player with a strong hand tracking cards played (and the implications of those cards for what opponents have in their hands) until he or she knows the optimal order in which to put forward his or her remaining cards. If everything goes well, the last play is a formality that seals the player’s win.

Love Letter takes a different approach. At the start of each round, a random card is taken out of the deck and put aside without revealing what it is. As a result, one almost never reaches the point of having complete information. Even if one has carefully tallied all of the cards played, and made good judgments about what opponents are holding based on that information, one will still go into the last play with some uncertainty.

When we first encountered the take-out-a-card rule I was mystified. Introducing uncertainty to the last play seemed to take away the reward for gathering information–that “locked in” moment where one has complete knowledge of who is holding what and can make perfect moves. Preventing players from reaching total information, I felt, meant that the game could never amount to more than guessing; more informed guessing over time, perhaps, but guessing nonetheless.

Yet, as we played I noticed that the set-aside card changed the dynamic a great deal from what Tichu had accustomed me to. As a round of Tichu goes on it can become less interesting; the player with the best hand gets more information, increasing his or her control over the round, while the others see what is happening and start going through the motions. By contrast, everyone was engaged in rounds of Love Letter until either the round ended or they were knocked out. Keeping some uncertainty, even in the last play, meant that the last player could never set up a guaranteed victory and the other players could always hope to luck out.

In designing OtND I want to make sure that the players are making interesting decisions. Love Letter showed me that I need to expand that rule: those decisions should be interesting until the very end. Tichu is great, and its substantial rewards for gathering information are a part of its experience. However, I think OtND is closer to the casual Love Letter than to the brain-burning Tichu, and that the former is therefore a better model for OtND’s design.  I’ll be keeping an eye out during the playtesting project for situations where the endgame is locked in, and if that happens frequently we’ll explore ways to keep OtND engaging in the later rounds.

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