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#6 — MAY 24th, 2013

of Love and Constraint




It's a paradox mused upon by artists across disciplines: constraints liberate creativity. From the constrained writing movement OuLiPo to the Dogma 95 manifesto of filmmaking, to the flat design trend currently sweeping the design departments at Facebook and Apple, creatives of many stripes voluntarily apply rules to themselves and their process, seeking a breakthrough.

Some might say that art can't exist at all without carefully applied limits, as Robert Frost did when comparing free verse poetry to “playing tennis without a net.” When the net goes, so does the challenge, the form, the spark. You're left with people in sweatbands smacking balls around. Tennis is like all games in this regard; what would Settlers be if you took it off the hex grid?

A four-player game in 16 cards and a handful of wooden cubes.

Now, consider the freedom of rules applied not only to games, but to the art of designing them. It's just this meta-constrained process that yielded Seiji Kanai’s richly textured but ultra-minimal game Love Letter.

It all started at the Game Market, a trade show in Japan. Another game maker, Takuya Saeki, issued an open design challenge: create a game that could sell for less than 500¥ (about $5). Kanai hit upon the idea of an ultra-low-cost process for printing a single sheet of 16 cards. Could a game emerge from such a limited set of components?

Slowly, it did. Initial versions only worked for two players, until Kanai came up with an elegant mechanic that made the game work for up to four: “draw one, discard one.” On your turn, you must choose to keep either the new card you drew, or the one you already held. Your hand is ultra-constrained to a single card.

This mechanic fits nicely with the game’s story: the Princess has sequestered herself in some forgotten tower of her castle, and you play a suitor trying to sneak her a love letter. To get your message through, you'll need a friend on the inside, represented by that one card in your hand. Your friend might be a lowly palace guard, a minor royal, or even the Princess herself; each card has a rank and a unique effect when it’s discarded. When the slim, 16 card deck is exhausted, the day is over and whoever is left holding the highest ranked card (i.e. closest to the Princess) wins the day.

Love at first sight: a game that’s quick to learn, fun to play, and comes in a lil’ red velvet pouch.

While there’s a fair bit of luck involved, the game is exceedingly well balanced and involves enough bluffing, card counting and people-reading skill to keep you interested. In all of its slim, velvety simplicity, Love Letter is close to the platonic ideal of a rules-light game. It brings the experience of play to places Dominion or Catan would never go, by virtue of being so small and quick to learn. While it retails for slighly more than 500¥, every time I undo that goldenrod drawstring I'm thankful that game designers are embracing constraints.


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Made with love in San Francisco, California.