Deconstruction Junction: Finding Strategies to Protect a Winning Hand
In a few recent games of Love Letter (from AEG) my friends and I got into a little, mini debate. While I contended that getting the Princess early was very helpful, a few others disagreed. They argued that it was almost always a curse, because they ended up being forced to discard the Princess and lose the hand. Who is right?
The Princess is the best (in other words, winning) card in Love Letter. But, if you are forced to discard it, you are knocked out of the round–so you have to protect your winning card from discarding effects. I understood what my friends were saying: if any other player suspects that you have the Princess, they are going to target you with a Guard or Prince (and perhaps the King). Or if a Priest is used on you, then your opponent knows what you have, which is going to make it difficult to survive the rest of the round. I argued that in my experience that I could often avoid detection of my Princess card and make it to the end of the round, and of course I would win the round.
So who is right? Well, I think neither. Having the Princess early (or even in your initial draw) is a good thing. Why? There are two ways to win a round of Love Letter: knock out all other players or have the highest card when the deck runs out. If you have the Princess you are sure to win in the latter instance. And of course, you can still knock out your opponents and win. All the other players can ONLY potentially win by knocking you out (or trading their King for your Princess which almost never happens). To make this clearer think about all the opening hands that are sure not to be a wining start: Guard, Priest, Baron, Handmaid, and sometimes the Prince. These players must draw good cards combo cards (for example, Priest and Guard) but if you have the Princess some combos cannot happen for your opponents (for example, Baron then draw a Princess, Handmaid then Princess). Having the Princess gives you a head start or one or two times around the table. Moreover, the more other players use those two Handmaids and two Princes (but not forcing you to discard) the quicker you get to winning. Also, the more players in the game, the less likely someone will be able to knock you out by a good Guard guess or with the Prince just because there are so many other targets.
So having the Princess is a good thing–but you have to defend her. The Princess has two weaknesses. One, if you get targeted with a Prince, the Princess is the only card that forces you out of the round. Two, given that the Princess is the highest card, all the other players are trying to figure out where it is (and they are indeed looking, because they know that they don’t have it). If any player figures out that you have the Princess, expect them to try and knock you out. So how do you defend the Princess against these weaknesses?
Love Letter is like a game of poker, a strong hand is better than a weak hand, but bluffing and deception can help any hand. So, like poker, if you have the strongest possible hand (in other words, holding the Princess), you are going to want to bluff a bit of weakness. How can you accomplish this in Love Letter? If you get a guard accuse someone else of having the Princess! That should throw them off your track! If you draw the Baron, go after the opponent whom you think has the weakest card. When they discard that Guard or Priest, the other players won’t assume that you have a Princess. When someone discards a high card, pretend that you wish you were holding that card.
Take Your Time When Playing Your Cards
Nothing signals to the other players that you have the Princess or Countess more than quick play on your part. You need to deceive your opponents a bit. When you draw your card, look at it, put it in your hand, shuffle your two cards, and then look at both of them. Pretend that you are trying to figure out which to play. Good poker players do this as a matter of habit–you should too.
Don’t “Tell” Your Opponents That You Have the Princess
Take another cue from poker here: when you draw that Princess stay calm and don’t make it obvious how happy you are. Don’t smile, make some positive noise, don’t look happy, etc. Also, don’t sell it too much the other way. We all know when a player starts moaning loudly about his bad luck that he probably drew a good card. Also, if someone else forces you into a Baron fight, don’t make it obvious that you are going to win. If someone hits you with a Guard and guesses wrong, don’t be so eager to triumphantly say how wrong they are. And as the deck gets low, try to look as concerned as the other players who are holding weaker cards.
Confuse Your Opponents
When you get that Princess early and make it all the way to the end and win, tell them that you drew it on your last draw! They will think that you have Lady Luck on your side and that they just can’t win. Again, deception is your friend here. Also, if you used the Guard trick where you accused an opponent of having the Princess, after you win let others know about your deception. This will get in their heads. The next time you are sitting on the Countess, use a Guard, and then accuse someone of having the Princess, everyone will think that you have it! After a short bit of time no one will have any idea when you have the Princess in your hand or not.
Learn to Love the Princess
So next time you play Love Letter, remember that having the Princess is always better than not having her. Use the tips above to better protect your winning card and maybe you will collect those little wooden cubes instead of watching others collect them.