Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Friday, 14 February 2014

Courtly Missives

Turn the clock back thirty years and the ‘Microgame’ was a small board game packaged complete in a small box. Typically they were a type of wargame printed on paper stock and heavily themed. The first was Ogre*, published in 1977 by Metagaming Concepts, but over the course of the next decade, it would be joined by titles from notable publishers such as Steve Jackson Games, Task Force Games, and TSR, Inc. In modern gaming parlance, a Microgame is a little game, a game that can be played in fifteen minutes or less. The other change to the Microgame concept is that they are no longer wargames, but are instead mini-euro style games that emphasise competition rather than combat.

*The irony is of course that the most recent version of Ogre, published by Steve Jackson Games weighs close to 30 lbs. Some microgame…

Love Letter is typical of this new style of Microgame, although untypically, it is not a European game. Originally published in Japan, Love Letter has since been published in several English language editions by Alderac Entertainment Group, better known for the games Smash Up! and the Legend of the Five Rings RPG and the Collectible Card Game (CCG) it is based upon. The first is Love Letter – Tempest Edition, which is set in the City-State of Tempest and comes in a cute velvet bag; the second is Love Letter – Kanai Factory Limited Edition, which uses the art from the original Japanese version of the game; and Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition, which is set in Rokugan, the same setting as that of the RPG and the Collectible Card Game. It is this version of the game that is being reviewed today, suitably on St. Valentine’s Day.

The Imperial princess, Iweko Miaka, the youngest of Empress Iweko’s children is eligible for marriage. Her betrothal is set to be a great contest between the seven samurai clans of the Emerald Empire—for in winning her hand in marriage a samurai will bring great standing and glory to his clan. Of course, such an important marriage will be entirely political, but surely the only daughter of the Empress has her mother’s ear and so will have some say as to the man who will marry her? Thus what better way to influence the decision than by winning the heart of the princess herself? Unfortunately, Iweko Miaka is a shy young creature, one who hardly speaks at court and interacts rarely with the visiting courtiers. Thus she cannot be approached directly and another means of contacting her must be found—that of the courtly letter. Her suitors are thus trying to get a letter to the princess via one of her inner circle, from her guards and her courtiers to her hatamoto and her sensei, all the whilst fending off the suits of rival samurai.

Designed for between two and four players aged ten and up, Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition is card game that consists of just sixteen game cards, four reference cards, and thirteen Tokens of Affection as well as a tiny, thirty-two page rules booklet. The game altogether comes in an attractive velvet bag, this time green rather than the red of Love Letter – Tempest Edition. (Unlike the Love Letter – Kanai Factory Limited Edition, the Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition does not include any promotional cards). The game is played over a series of rounds in which the players attempt to press their suit. Their aim is have the card with the highest value at the end of each round—if they do, then that player is awarded a Token of Affection. Garner enough Tokens of Affection, the number depending on the number of players, then their suit has been successful and Princess Miaka’s hand has been won.

Each of the cards has a value of between one and eight, ranging from one for Seppun Tasuke, the Guard to the eight of the Princess herself, Iweko Miaka. Each card also has an ability that is triggered once it is discarded. Seppun Tasuke, the Guard, can select a player and ask him if he has that card, forcing him out of the round if he does. The Courtier, Shosuro Yamazaki, can examine another player’s cards, as can the Diplomat, Kaiu Akemi, but when the Diplomat does so, the two cards are compared and the suitor with the lower value hand must retire from the round. When discarded, the Shugenja, Isawa Tenkawa, prevents a suitor from being targeted for a whole turn while Matsu Misato, the Hatamoto, forces another player to discard his hand and draw a new hand. The Manipulator, Doji Takato, forces another player to trade hands with the suitor, while Togashi Gozato, the Sensei must be discarded if a player has either the Manipulator or the Hatamoto in his hand. Lastly, if the Princess is discarded, she has received the suitor’s letter and thrown onto the fire. That suitor—or player—is out of the round.

At the start of the game, the sixteen card deck is shuffled and one card discarded face down. This acts as a random element so that the players do not know ‘exactly’ what is in the deck. Then each player receives one card—this is his hand. On his turn, he draws another card and must discard one of the two cards he has. Each discarded card has an effect as described above, but is discarded face up so that every player can see what cards have been played. There only being fifteen cards in the deck, the players have some idea as what cards have been discarded and what still remains in play—essentially, Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition encourages the counting of cards—as do the other versions of the game! Play continues until the last card is drawn and its player discards one of his cards. Then each player reveals the single card he has in his hand and the player who has the card with the highest value has successfully pressed his suit and earns a Token of Affection from Princess Miaka.

Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition is a game of deduction and risk, one in which what a player can do on his turn is limited to just one of two actions. These will often force a player to do something to his disadvantage because it is the better of his two options. For example, Louise holds Princess Miaka in her hand. It has a value of eight and if she can hold it until the end of the round, then Louise will have managed to get her letter directly into the hands of the Princess and thus won a Token of Affection. On her turn she draws the Manipulator, Doji Takato. Her choice is to discard the Princess, but this would force her out of the round, or Doji Takato, which means that she has to trade hands with another player. She opts for the latter, trading hands with Dave, gaining Seppun Tasuke, the Guard. While the Guard only has a value of eight at the end of the round, it can be used to name another card and if successful, force a player out of the round. Louise has gained valuable information—she knows what card Dave has. Dave also knows this, but likewise cannot discard the Princess. Fortunately, on his turn Dave draws the Shugenja, Isawa Tenkawa, and goes to pray with him, preventing his being targeted until his next turn. Thus Louise cannot use her Guard to name the Princess—yet!

So is Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition a fitting Legends of the Five Rings game? Thematically, it is perfect fit. Not least in the fact that the bag it comes in has the symbols for Rukogan’s five elements—air, earth, fire, water, and void—embroidered on the back, and that the art used to illustrate the game is drawn from the publisher’s extensive back catalogue used to illustrate both the CCG and the RPG. The art also specifically illustrates characters within the setting of the Emerald Empire. Further, within the Emerald Empire, the sending of letters is a courtly art. In addition, the functions of the cards have been mapped onto particular figures. For example, the most common card type in Love Letter is the Guard, but here the same function is performed by Seppun Tasuke, a member of the imperial family tasked with protecting the Empress. Similarly, the ability of the Clown in Love Letter to examine another player’s hand is adopted by the Courtier Shosuro Yamazaki from the Scorpion Clan and the ability of the General in Love Letter to trade hands with another player has been given to Doji Takato of the Crane Clan who is described as a Manipulator.

The setting of the imperial court of the Emerald Empire is supported by the rulebook. It runs to thirty-two pages, much of which is devoted to detailing the characters on the cards, which if the players want, adds depth and feel to the game. Fans of Legend of the Five Rings, whether of the CCG or the RPG will appreciate this aspect of the game. Certainly there is enough background here that knowledgeable players could bring a degree of roleplaying to the game as they play.

With a playing time of some thirty minutes, Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition is perhaps a bit too long to really qualify as a Microgame. Although it is possible to play with two suitors, it is not as enjoyable a game to play—simply it plays better with three or four players. (It is disappointing that the game does not accommodate more players, but that should not be held against Love Letter). With three or four players then, it is a solidly designed filler game, one that combines the need for careful deduction and a little guess work with a fitting theme. Managing to be both charming and quick, Love Letter – Legend of the Five Rings Edition is a lovely game that fits nicely into any games collection.