I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, University of Waterloo, Williams College, Brown University, Roblox, Unity, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

McGuire House Rules for Love Letter

Love Letter is a simple card game for 2-4 players that takes about five minutes per round. I prefer it with at least three players. It is a great game to play with children as young as seven years, or with adults when waiting for something or between heavier games. You can even play it standing by simply holding the discards in one player's off hand and the draw pile in another's off hand.

There are many versions of the game. We prefer the American standard "Princess" version because the nonviolent theme of courtly love and intrigue and fact that over half of the characters depicted are female makes it a refreshing change from the violent/male themes of many games. However, we introduce house rules based on other versions to improve the balance. We also use the version that comes in the velvet bag instead of a box.

(Yes, even though it contains many female characters, everyone in the game is still clearly European. Ironically, the original featured all Japanese characters. If you're looking for more ethnic diversity, then this isn't the game for you. However, the standard version is still way ahead of the other Love Letter themes, such as The Hobbit and Batman, which lose the female characters.)

Although the game works by elimination of players, it is so fast and the theme so friendly that even younger children do not seem to be upset on losing. The strategy of the game is based on information. You play your cards to discover information about others or hide information about yourself. 

After two months of play I feel that I've largely exhausted encountering new strategic situations. However, going through those motions remains pleasurable in the same way as checkers or mahjong without all of the fuss. If you're looking for a more in-depth experience under similar mechanics, then Coup and Citadels are great next games. I'll discuss our Coup modifications in an upcoming post.

Base Rules

The base rules for the American, Princess-themed (standard) version are:

"Love Letter is played in a series of rounds. Each round represents one day. At the end of each round, one player’s letter reaches Princess Annette, and she reads it. When she reads enough letters from one suitor, she becomes enamored and grants that suitor permission to court her. That player wins the princess’s heart and the game.

Taking a Turn

On your turn, draw the top card from the deck and add it to your hand. Then choose one of the two cards in your hand and discard it face up in front of you. Apply any effect on the card you discarded. You must apply its effect, even if it is bad for you.

All discarded cards remain in front of the player who discarded them. Overlap the cards so that it’s clear in which order they were discarded. This helps players to figure out which cards other players might be holding.

Once you finish applying the card’s effect, the turn passes to the player on your left.

Out of the Round

If a player is knocked out of the round, that player discards the card in his or her hand face up (do not apply the card’s effect) and takes no more turns until next round.


A player could cheat when chosen with the Guard, or fail to discard the Countess when that player has the King or Prince in hand. We suggest that you don’t play with knaves who cheat at fun, light games. 

End of a Round

A round ends if the deck is empty at the end of a turn...

All players still in the round reveal their hands. The player with the highest ranked person wins the round. In case of a tie, the player who discarded the highest total value of cards wins.

A round also ends if all players but one are out of the round, in which case the remaining player wins. 

The winner receives a token of affection. Shuffle all 16 cards together, and play a new round following all of the setup rules.

The winner of the previous round goes first."

House Rules

We change the components quite heavily in our rules.

Rule and Component Changes

We replace the red cubes, which are ugly and prone to scratching the cards in the bag, with decorative flat glass marbles used for flower vases. I wouldn't buy those just for Love Letter, but we have them around the house for use as counters in many games. So, we put a handful into the velvet travel bag.

Love Letter has a small deck that is constantly being handled. The cards are therefore more prone to wear than other card games. To protect them, we use matte card sleeves. Fortunately, the cards are the same size as those for Magic The Gathering, so it is easy to find inexpensive sleeves.

The sleeves also allow us to modify the cards by printing inserts to sit in front of certain cards. We use this technique to use the Princess-themed cards with the superior rules from the Hobbit-themed version, plus our own extensions.

You can simply write the new rules on index cards and insert them into the sleeves. We went the extra step of trying to match the art style as well, which I'll describe below.

The rule changes are:
  • Remove the original two Baron cards.
  • Add one High Baron, who acts like the original Baron: the higher card wins (nothing happens on a tie).
  • Add one Low Baron, who compares like the Baron but has the lower card win (still nothing happens on a tie).
  • If you draw both the Low Baron and the Princess into your hand, discard both and draw a new card. That's your entire turn...the Baron comparison doesn't happen.
  • Add the Envoy. She carries the love letter from another realm. During the game she is in transit, so she is worth zero during comparisons. She arrives at the end of the game, and is suddenly worth seven.
Our modified card set, with the Envy in the center and the
blue card backs of the sleeves clearly visible on the borders.
When a Guard names a Baron, the guard must say which kind of Baron it is. That is, there are two distinct cards.

Here's how we produced the custom cards.

For the Barons, I scanned the original Baron, wrote the new text on it in Photoshop, and then printed it out in color and inserted that into the card sleeve. The result is indistinguishable from an official card.

For the Envoy, I replaced the artwork on the scanned Baron with an image from the Maiden Exemplar in Heroes of Camelot and then wrote the new text and number. The number font is "Bucephalus" and the rule and title text are "Black Chancery," both of which are available in free versions on the web. When printing, the cards are 63mm x 88mm. I backed the Envoy with one of the rule cards, but you can also use any Magic The Gathering card because the matte opaque card sleeves cover the backs completely.

Because these cards use copyrighted images, I unfortunately cannot distribute my high-resolution card templates. However, you can repeat the process that we followed or simply use hand-labelled index cards inside the sleeves. Of course, you can play Love Letter using a standard poker card deck and a key telling you what each card is for, but the artwork adds a lot of flavor and it is easier to learn the game with the rules right on the cards.

Two-Player Rules

The normal Love Letter rules for two players are the same as for more players, but three cards are discarded face up at the start of the game. While two-player under these rules is still enjoyable as a pastime, the moves frequently become forced because there is no choice of whom to target.

We modify the two-player game so that only one card is discarded at the start and that each player initially holds two cards in hand, and draws normally, to a total of three for each play. When one card is lost to a Guard or Baron that player is then down to a one-card hand instead of being immediately eliminated.

The per-card rules are then modified on the principle that they generally only affect one opponent card at a time, and the target chooses which one. Specifically:

  • Guard names a card. If the opponent has one of that card, then that card is lost...if the opponent has two of that card (which can only happen with Priest, Prince, and Handmaid), then the target choses which to lose and continues with the other.
  • Priest looks at one card chosen by the target player.
  • Barons compare against one card chosen by the target player.
  • Prince forces the target to discard one card of the target player's choice and draw a new one.
  • King makes players trade cards. Each player chooses one card and holds it out, face down. They then exchange simultaneously.
  • Countess must be played if she is in a hand with any of the prohibited cards.
If one player has zero cards that player immediately loses. Otherwise, the player with the highest value card wins the round at the end of the turn when the draw deck expires.

This introduces more choice into the two-player game and roughly emulates the amount of information and number moves that one would make in a four-player version.

Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and the Skylanders series for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.