Travel to Egypt in search of your missing cousin: follow clues, deal with shady cultists and mysterious travellers, face terrifying monsters and do your best not to go too mad in Lovecraft Letter.
A Little History
In 2012 AEG released Love Letter – it was a small, cheap, quick, simple game, in which players tried to get their Love Letter to the Princess – obviously you can’t go straight up to the Princess, so you had to rely on guards, servants, and other members of the court, with the winner being the person who got their letter to the highest-ranking person.
Love Letter was a big success –it was cheap enough to pick up on a whim, small enough to carry around with you, wholesome enough to play with your granny or your youngster, and quick-and-simple to explain to new players.
In fact, Love Letter was such a success that AEG started releasing other versions – Batman Love Letter, Hobbit Love Letter, Adventure Time Love Letter, and even a Star Wars Love Letter that appeared only in Russian (no, I don’t know why, probably licensing).
The various re-skins met with mixed success – the title made no sense (Batman Love Letter is about capturing escaped criminals, not delivering affectionate notes), and they were all rather similar.
As Love Letter slowly expands to cover every conceivable Intellectual Property out there, and the number of board games with a Cthulhu expansion verges towards 100%, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened – Lovecraft Letter!! Lovecraft Letter is the game up for review today: is it anything more than a shameless cash-grab? Is it any good? Let’s find out!
Lovecraft Letter: What’s in the box?
Unlike the small box of cards that made up the original Love Letter, Lovecraft Letter is a relatively substantial game. The cards are large and come with custom plastic Art Sleeves to keep them from getting damaged. Rather than small wooden cubes to track how many rounds you have won, Lovecraft Letter provides you with some fairly hefty, double-sided, custom poker chips. All of this sits in a nice box which opens like a book, and has a small magnet to keep it shut.
The cards are nice, with most of the text being large and easy to read, there are 6 reference cards as well as the player-cards, and the art style is fairly clean. Insanity cards do use a slightly more ‘mad’ font and colour scheme, but it’s still fairly legible, whilst playing more strongly to the Lovecraftian theme.
This component upgrade comes at a price though, and a copy of Lovecraft Letter will set you back slightly more than the Premium Edition of Love Letter, itself 3 times the cost of the original game. It’s perfectly understandable why it costs so much more, as the volumes of material and the production quality can easily justify it, but is there enough gameplay in Lovecraft Letter to justify the jump?
Lovecraft Letter – what am I doing?
The premise in Lovecraft Letter is that you have recently reached Egypt, and are now on the hunt for your cousin who has disappeared – the card in your hand represents the clue that you have chosen to follow at that precise moment.
On your turn you draw a card (giving you two cards in hand), then discard one card, resolving its effect – ideally this will allow you to gain information about the cards the other players are holding, set up protection for yourself from other players events, or even eliminate someone else from the round. Of course, in the world of Lovecraft, things are rarely ideal, and as Lovecraft Letter requires you to play a card every round, sometimes you’ll be forced to discard something that will have no effect, or even when the consequence will be decidedly hazardous to your character’s health.
Often cards in Lovecraft Letter will allow you to eliminate other players if the card in your hand is better than theirs, or if you can correctly guess the contents of their hand. One card is always removed facedown, at random each round, to make it impossible to have complete knowledge of what other players might have drawn, but the game does correct slightly for the lack of players in a 2-player game, by revealing additional cards face-up, in order to give you a sense of what can’t be in someone else’s hand.
So far, so normal – aside from the notional change in theme, this is the basic mechanic of Love Letter. There’s something slightly off thematically about the desire to eliminate others (I can understand you not wanting me to send my Love Letter to the Princess at the same time you’re trying to get her to read yours, but what have I ever done to make you so determined that I won’t get to find my missing cousin??) This slight disconnect aside though, where Lovecraft Letter strays from the well-trodden path of earlier games, is with the introduction of a new mechanic – as you might expect from a Cthulhu game, that mechanic is one of insanity!
There are 2 types of card in Lovecraft Letter, the normal cards and the insanity cards. The normal cards play much like any other version of Love Letter – offering you the chance to guess another’s card in order to put them out of the round, trading hands, or to challenge them to compare hands with the lowest value being knocked out.
Some of the cards in Lovecraft Letter though, are Insanity cards – they have the same ‘normal’ effect as their sane counterpart, but they also have an Insane effect, which can only be triggered by players who are insane: often these insanity effects are noticeably more powerful that the standard ones, so there’s a definite incentive to going mad!
If at any point in the round you find yourself with an insanity card in your discard pile then you are insane (due to the way timing works in Lovecraft Letter, cards are only in your discard pile after you resolve the text on it, so you can’t choose to go mad and immediately trigger an effect). As explained above, being mad will give you access to other, more powerful effects, but it also comes with a downside – insane players need to perform a sanity check at the start of each round. To perform a sanity check, count the number of insanity cards in your discard pile, then reveal the same number of cards at random from the top of the deck – draw another insane card and you’ll be eliminated! I like the fact that Lovecraft Letter implements a push-your-luck element with the sanity check: even once you’ve gone insane, there is a decision to be made between trying to limit the number of cards you have to draw, and utilising those powerful effects.
The player with the highest-numbered card when the deck runs out, or the last one standing if everyone else has been eliminated, is the winner, and they are rewarded with a poker chip. If they were sane when the round ended, they can place it “sane” side up, displaying the Elder Sign. If you can collect 2 Elder Signs, then victory is yours. On the other hand, if you are insane when you win, you place the poker chip “insane” side up, showing Cthulhu. Unlike the Elder Signs, you need 3 Cthulhus to win, so there’s a further element to balance in deciding how happy you are to go mad.
Although it’s only really the one mechanic that’s new, I thought that, via insanity, Lovecraft Letter did enough to make it feel like a different (albeit very closely related) game to original Love Letter – this isn’t just the original game with cultists on the cards. Overall, I think Lovecraft Letter is a more complex game than Love Letter, although I’m not sure I’d call it any more strategic.
Lovecraft Letter – overall thoughts
Lovecraft Letter certainly isn’t a bad game – there’s a reason that the Love Letter franchise has been so successful, and the solidity of the basic mechanic is a major part of that. Due to the way that insanity works, a game of Lovecraft Letter can run quite long compared to its historical cousin (you can win 2 rounds whilst mad, and 1 whilst sane, and still not have won the game!), and this may not be to everyone’s taste for what is still, ultimately, a fairly light and luck-based game.
Lovecraft Letter also does a very good job of referencing all the key elements of a mythos experience, with Madness, Cultists, Monsters, even sacred cats, and Cthulhu himself is a particularly apt card offering either instant victory or death to the player holding it. Despite all that though, I don’t think that there was a single moment in Lovecraft Letter where we felt like we were really hunting for a lost cousin, and the random nature of the way the various cards interact prevent this from becoming a particularly deep or immersive game.
The editor of the Games Quest blog once referred to me as “the closest thing to an actual Cthulhu cultist” he knew, and I’ve reviewed and played a lot of mythos games over the past year or so. This is far from being the best of them, but it’s not the worst by any stretch, and on the basis of Cthulhu completism, Lovecraft Letter appeals to me. I didn’t own any of the other Love Letter games, so plan to keep this around as a welcome addition to my collection.
However, when I think about games I’ll introduce my son to, once he’s old enough to do something other than eat the cards, Lovecraft Letter lags a long way behind the original Love Letter. It lacks some of the simplicity of the other versions, and the loss of the family-friendly theme is a definite drawback.
If you like Cthulhu, like high-quality game components, or deluxe editions, then Lovecraft Letter is well worth a look. If you already own a Love Letter game though, or are just looking for something to keep in a bag for emergencies, then it’s probably hard to justify that price tag. 7/10
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I'm an avid board and card-gamer, still trying to figure out where Board Gaming fits into life as the dad of a very grabby toddler.
I enjoy thematic games (Fantasy, Cthulhu, etc) and play a lot of cooperative games, along with a bit of competitive gaming (currently Legend of the Five Rings) when I can make it out of the house.
When not playing games, I can be found doing a mundane office job, or working on my own Blog, Fistful of Meeples.