I’m a fairly discriminating gamer, which is to say Chutes and Ladders is not in my collection, and Uno only makes the cut out of nostalgia. When a game is nominated for an Origins Award AND recommended for a Spiel des Jahres Award it normally earns a space in my gaming closet without question, and particularly so if it wins one of the awards.
Unless that game is Love Letter. Then I roll my eyes, summarily dismiss it, and walk away.
Love Letter is a card game set in the world of Tempest by Alderac Entertainment Group. The game itself is relatively simple. There are sixteen cards numbered 1-8. Each player starts with one card in their hand. Players then take turns a) drawing a card and b) playing one of the cards in their hand, with the object being to have the highest ranked card at the end of a round (or, to be the only person left standing at the end of a round), and thus getting their “love letter” through to the lonely-hearted princess, apparently starved for love, affection, and a suitable spouse. The winner of each round gets a “token of affection,” and whoever earns the agreed-upon number of tokens first wins the game. There is some luck involved, some card counting, and some strategy based on the abilities of the cards.
The game is light, portable, has solid mechanics, is quick to play, and has a low MSRP at around $10. GAMA likes it. Spiel likes it. Gamers like it. Wil Wheaton recommends it. By all objective measurements it is absolutely a game worth owning and playing. And yet that still isn’t enough to influence me to buy the game.
Problem the First: The Visual Aesthetic
I may sound like a broken record on this, but I can’t emphasize enough how much art style emphasizes some of my gaming choices. Appearances can draw you in or turn you out, and this one does the latter for me. Ascension should probably be in my closet (it’s at least on my phone), but the art is simply unappealing to me. While I think the quality of the art is slightly better – although not by much – in Love Letter, the style itself is similarly unappealing. It literally makes me want to look away. It’s that simple. What’s interesting is that AEG authorized an alternate, Kanai Factory limited edition after the original printing of the game which featured some of the original Japanese art and a more noir, purely graphic box cover. Had they led off with this version it might have held my interest long enough to at least play a demo at the store. But…they didn’t. They followed that up with two other releases – a Legend of the Five Rings theme, and sets specially created to be played by guests at weddings. I’ll pass on the former, gag on the latter. Moving on…
Problem the Second: The Premise
From the get-go, the game has you scheming and backstabbing folks all in the hopes that some needy princess reads and appreciates my love letters the most. How is this appealing? I wrote my fair share of “love notes” in junior high. I took dates to all my homecoming dances in high school. I did the whole prom thing for two different schools and went out with my fair share of ladies in college. Now I’m happily married, and have no desire to re-live my dating and courting years. It can be fun, but let’s face it – dating is a complicated, oft-painful game, and I’m glad to be through with it. I find the premise of wooing another lady via love letters and espionage immediately exhausting and unappealing, thus this game loses my interest straightaway. If there’s wooing to do, it will be for my 21st century wife and not some stuck in the past archetype, which brings me to…
Problem the Third: The Setting
AEG’s world of Tempest is relatively unique in the board gaming world. You could somewhat draw a comparison between the Tempest series of games and ArenaNet’s “Living Story” in Guild Wars 2. Each game set in the Tempest world references the same characters, same over-arching storyline, and same general setting. If the setting were, say steampunk London, outer space, or even the animals withing the confines of the Broklyn Zoo, I’d be more interested. When you put me in circa 18th century western Europe, however, I close my eyes, ears, and brain. It’s somewhat sad, really, because the Tempest games in general could all be fantastic, but I’ll likely never play anything set in the Tempest world. In AEG’s defense, I’m not one for historically based settings. I want fantasy in my gaming. Most realism is a little to real, and part of what’s enjoyable about games is the temporary escape to fantasy.
Problem the Fourth: The Physical Aesthetic
To varying degrees, people can be particular about what they use to game – just ask Chessex, UltraPro, and any major chess set manufacturer. Part of what I enjoy about new games is the pieces. Tokens, cardboard punchouts, tiles, boards, maps, currency, ships, books, accessories, sleeves…the list goes on. Pieces are fun! The less pieces, the less fun. The less unique pieces to the game, the less fun. As for Love Letter, it can VERY easily be represented with two decks of playing cards and some pennies. All you would need is the PDF rulesheet to pair the numbers on the cards with the proper game text. Since I don’t care for the art on the cards and the tokens aren’t anything special, there’s no physical incentive for me to buy the game.
Along Comes a Munchkin
It’s decided, then. Love Letter is the best game I’ll never own [insert random "doomed fate" lightning and thunder here]…unless Steve Jackson and John Kovalic have something to say about it. A few months ago Steve Jackson Games announced that they were partnering with AEG to make a Munchkin-themed version of Love Letter under the title of Loot Letter. Sneaky bastards! This solves three of the four problems, and the fourth isn’t a meaty enough objection to resist buying. Besides just slapping a new theme on the game, the package will also include one new unique Munchkin card for the regular card game. At an MSRP of $10.99, one doesn’t need much incentive to pick up a Munchkin game with solid mechanics behind it, but having a bonus card sure doesn’t hurt! The clamshell version will also come with a velvet bag similar to the original version, and the game is currently in production, due to hit shelves this fall.
If I have to swallow the medicine that is Love Letter, then I’m glad that Munchkin is the spoonful of sugar that helps it go down (as my level goes up, because Munchkin).
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