So, Twitter, huh? If you’re anything like this author, news that the massive social media platform might sell itself to a billionaire whose company is facing allegations of severe racism towards its employees probably put an expiration date on your account. In truth, we could all likely benefit from a little less time doomscrolling and more spent literally anywhere else.
Luckily, this is a tabletop games site chock full of activities that ask its players to roll dice, flip cards and shuffle meeples for hours at a time. But if even the interminable backlog of board games and tabletop RPGs can’t tear you away from refreshing your feed one more time, might I suggest writing a letter?
Wait! Don’t leave, yet! I’m serious - epistolary games, or letter writing games, are a small but passionate subsection of the tabletop space that design experiences around sending messages between two or more people. This can be via mobile message apps, emails, and online communities, but I want to focus on those that prioritise sending physical letters by post. During a period of reflection on our collective relationship to social media, it can be refreshing - even healthy - to craft a tangible, thoughtful missive for someone else.
Below is a list of eight epistolary games that explore relationships, history, adventure and our own place in the world by asking you to play a game where you send a letter full of intrigue and emotion to another willing participant and then, well… wait. These are games played beyond the concept of immediacy that will become part of the tapestry of your everyday. And there’s something special in that - tiny moments spent wondering, the thrill of finally receiving a reply - that we should all experience and cherish.
Love & Barbed Wire
Let’s start with a setting most folks likely already associate with sending letters home: World War I. Love & Barbed Wire puts one player in a trench somewhere in the European countryside while the other waits back home to hear of the reportedly horrific conditions soldiers often endured during The Great War. A deck of cards provides the prompts for your missives, but how they play out and what it means for the love shared between the two players will be discovered over the course of play. This game, designed by Alex White of Plane Sailing Games, was originally designed to take place in-person, but mailing letters back and forth makes the pining and anxiety a tad more historically accurate.
Find Love & Barbed Wire on DriveThruRPG
All We Love We Leave Behind
Ever wonder about the family and friends forgotten in the wake of a hero’s call to action? Single-player letter writing game All We Love We Leave Behind will have you answer those questions through a series of unanswered letters sent to someone called to a higher purpose. A king called to war, a scientific vessel on a one-way mission, or a child finding their place in the world - these characters will not respond, but you write them anyhow and regale them with the tribulations and triumph of your relatively mundane life. I include this one only because it came highly regarded and includes a 2-player variant, but you could also take turns playing the hero and their forgotten family to share in the abandonment.
Find All We Love We Leave Behind at World Champ Game Co’s website.
Originally submitted to the 200 Word RPG Challenge website (an excellent source of interesting games), Dear Elizabeth tracks the friendship of two friends in a Regency-era novel sharing their heart’s deepest hopes and dreads through the post. After creating characters and defining the relationship between them, players will take turns writing letters based on one-word note card prompts. These range from the frivolities of courtship and scandals to the solemnity of death and marriage. The author imagined one letter being sent in each season, so feel free to space the game out over an actual year, interpreting the events of your real life as if it were the plot of a Jane Austen story.
Find Dear Elizabeth on the 200 Word RPG Challenge website.
I was keen not to include any play-by-post games, as that’s categorically different from epistolary titles (he said, snobbily) but En Sattaur’s Epistolary manages to bridge the gap between these two approaches in a clever way. Players don the mantle of investigators chasing down a threat or mystery in their chosen setting, using details teased from the letters sent back and forth and written from the perspective of their characters to fill the world and piece together clues. The system includes plenty of prompts and examples to get the ball rolling, but the beauty of this game is excitedly wondering how your fellow players will add another wrinkle into the developing plot of your campaign - inadvertently or otherwise.
Find Epistolary on its Itch.io page.
Those wanting a more pastoral and calming exercise should check out Grandpa’s Farm, from Possible World Games. It draws direct inspiration from Animal Crossing and farm sim video games such as Stardew Valley and Harvest Moon for its design. It begins with a familiar setup: draw a card and use the corresponding prompt to seed a letter describing one season’s efforts to revitalise your late grandparent’s farmstead. The fun twist here is the addition of festivals and events that can modify the deck of prompts, and both players will compete with each other for top prize or trade goods for bonuses. It ain’t much, but it’s honest work, as they say.
Find Grandpa’s Farm on its Itch.io page.
Say What You Mean
Alright, enough forlorn love and yearning. Let’s get weird and angry, fraught and bubbling with words left unsaid. Say What You Mean is a simple game from Riley Rethal (Galactic 2E, Doikayt) where both players are wizards navigating the choppy waters of your relationship through letters. The players are free to interpret this as outright rivalry, simmering hatred disguised as passive aggression, or the frustration of a love without the words to be properly expressed. Rethal says the game was inspired by a season of actual play series Friends at the Table, so the truth is probably much more complicated.
Find Say What You Mean on its Itch.io page.
Have I Been Good?
Jeeyon Shim’s dog-and-human-partner simulator is a curious take on the epistolary model, but that’s hardly surprising to anyone familiar with her work. Have I Been Good? Asks two players (one of whom is an actual dog) to spend a day together as they normally would, then for the human to write a letter to themselves from their canine companion’s perspective. It’s an exercise in interspecies empathy for folks who often wonder what their animals dream about or if they wonder in awe at our having thumbs. This game can be silly but has the potential to unlock some powerful and tender feelings about the creature we share life with.
Find Have I Been Good? on its Itch.io page.
Signal to Noise
What do you say to someone you love but will never see again? How do you reconcile a loss with nobody to blame? These might be some of the questions raised during a playthrough of Signal to Noise, a game of letter writing between an interstellar explorer and the person left behind on earth. As time passes, each letter will become garbled by the vast distance until the accounts of both everyday activities and wondrous discoveries are rendered incomprehensible. LunarShadow Design’s exploration of a doomed relationship playing out across the stars was a project in 2022’s ZineMonth initiative and is a prelude to a future RPG project.
Find Signal to Noise on its Itch.io page.