Every so often a game comes along that employs simple yet well-developed mechanics to create a surprisingly involved and enjoyable experience. Coup is such a game. With very few components, it derives much of its game play from well-designed rules and clever implementation of deduction/bluffing mechanics.
Set in the not-too-distant future, Coup is part of the Resistance series. While you don’t need to understand the lore to enjoy the game, it does provide a nice background story and context for your actions. You play as a powerful official in a corrupt government on the brink of collapse. Run for profit by a new “royal class” of multinational CEOs, this self-centered economy has brought all but a privileged few down to lives of poverty and desperation. In times past, a rebel group rose from the oppressed masses. Called “The Resistance” (creative, right?), they were an organisation focused on overthrowing those in power (these are the events covered in the first game of the series – The Resistance). Their valiant efforts resulted in political discord, intrigue, and weakness, which provides the perfect opportunity to manipulate, bribe, and bluff your way into power.
In Coup, your goal is simple – destroy the influence of your rival players (the other government officials) and drive them into exile. It’s an elimination game, so if you’re the only player left with influence, then you effectively control the government and have won the game. Not normally a fan of elimination games, I found Coup‘s size and speed of play quite endearing. With most games running for under ten minutes, it is perfectly paced to encourage strategic variety without ever becoming laborious. As mentioned above, Coup is a game of very few components – 15 character cards (3 of each) and 50 coins, to be exact. The character cards represent the members of court (government), and at the start of every game, players each receive two cards to represent their influence in court. If, at any time, a player loses influence, they must reveal one of their cards. If they lose all influence, then they are out of the game and have lost. The remaining cards are placed face down in the center of the table and represent unaffiliated members of the court.
Gameplay is extremely straight forward, but can seem complex initially. On a turn, a player must perform one of seven actions. Three of these are common to all, and the others directly relate to the members of court over which the player holds influence (the cards on the table in front of them). While there are only five types of character card, the variance in actions can initially be quite daunting. This is because players must be aware not only of the actions available to their characters, but of actions available to all other characters as well. Fortunately, Coup comes with an extremely well-designed reference card, which details all the actions a player may perform.
The reference card is duplexed, with one side showing a tabular view (shown above) and the other a list. Personally, I found the tabular view to be a more useful reference; however, the list view provides more detail and is probably of better use to first-time players. Once an action has been chosen, opposing players have the opportunity to either challenge or counteract the action. For example, I start the game and announce that I would like to take foreign aid. This action can be performed by any player and will give me two coins. If one of the other players wishes to stop me collecting these coins, they may opt to use their Duke’s counteraction and block me from receiving foreign aid. These actions are all clearly identified on the reference sheet.
As mentioned earlier, the player goal is to eliminate their opposition by removing influence. This can be done in one of three ways – the first of which is to perform a coup. This costs seven coins and can be performed by any player at their discretion. Coups cannot be blocked, meaning they are the only “sure win” means of removing another player’s influence. If a player accumulates over ten coins, then they are forced to perform a coup, effectively ensuring that games progress and don’t reach a point of “stalemate”. The second way to remove influence is to use the Assassin’s “assassinate” action. Costing considerably less than a coup (three coins), this should only be performed by a player with the Assassin card and can be blocked by the Contessa (about all she’s good for). You may note that I said it “should” be performed by a person with the Assassin card. As a corrupt member of court, your integrity is dubious at best – a concept Coup whole-heartedly embraces – allowing players the opportunity to bluff an action if so desired. Think carefully before bluffing, however, as if a player suspects your sincerity, they may choose to challenge and force you to prove your action is legitimate – which brings us to the third way to remove a players influence.
The third, and most common, means of removing influence is by issuing a challenge to a player you believe is bluffing. As the other players cannot see which court members you have in your hand, you may choose to perform an action that you don’t have the cards to achieve. If a player finds the legitimacy of your action suspect, they may choose to issue a challenge. If the challenge is successful (i.e., the player could not perform the action they announced), the challenged player loses influence and must reveal a card. If, however, they lose the challenge, the challenging player loses influence instead. With such a high “risk vs. reward”, you want to be sure of yourself before issuing a challenge. Whether deducing cards by what’s been revealed so far or “reading an opponent’s face”, you want to minimise the gamble wherever possible.
I recently learnt that I’ve been playing Coup’s challenges mechanic incorrectly. I thought it worth addressing anyway, as the way I was playing makes for an interesting variant. The way I played challenges was that when a challenge failed, the challenged player kept their card. This meant all other players knew what they had and a card counting/deduction element came into play. Coup‘s rules actually state that the challenged player should reveal their card, return it to the court deck, shuffle and draw a new one. This way they do not lose influence as a result of the challenge, but still have an anonymous card in their hand. The drastically affects the way you use characters like the Assassin, as you potentially lose the card rather than retain it if proven in a challenge.
Coup’s bluffing/challenge mechanic is what makes the game so amazing. With a basic deck, known quantities, and simple actions, players may concentrate on player interactions rather than hand examination or deck building. This is further enhanced by the ability for players to challenge almost any action. For example, Player A chooses to steal 2 coins from Player B. Player B is fairly certain that Player A has a Captain, so he agrees to the move, but decides to block it. Player A may then either accept that Player B had a Captain or an Ambassador card – or they could choose to challenge the counteraction. The level of suspense as the burden of responsibility is shifted makes for a really tense and enjoyable experience.
So what makes something so simple one of my absolute favourite card games? That’s a hard thing to put my finger on, but a key part is how well-balanced the card types are. Characters like the Duke or Captain occasionally feel more useful than ones like the Contessa; however, each has a distinct benefit when used well. The temptation to bluff and the requirement for consistency opens up a varying set of strategies that change depending on who you play against. For example, in one game you may have a Contessa, but consistently bluff as if she were a Captain. This gains you immediate benefit and makes you a potential target for assassination – which you can then block and, hopefully, be challenged on. The next game you may choose to take Income as your first action, but then block another player’s Foreign Aid. This is a counteraction of the Duke – a card whose other action is Tax (take three coins). The player you’re blocking may think they’ve “caught you out” as it doesn’t make sense to take 1 coin on your turn if you were able to take 3. They might then issue a challenge, which you’d win, costing them influence. For just five card types, the variety and balance of potential strategy is really quite amazing.
With simpler rules than Poker, yet more versatility than games like Cheat, Coup is very easy to learn, making it immediately accessible to a wide audience. Courtesy of simplistic rules and time-limiting mechanics, individual games are a good length, falling nicely between too short to be engaging, and too long to overstay their welcome. A rare feature of Coup is that rounds are almost as enjoyable to watch as they are to play. The “back and forth” gameplay, coupled with constantly changing conditions, makes for a suspenseful and thoroughly enjoyable experience. The artwork on the cards is beautiful and well suited to the game. It’s not often I stop to admire artwork on cards, however, Coup’s cyberpunk artwork is something to behold. Components are well built and designed to suit gameplay. The oversized cards and cardboard coins feel good when playing and convey information to the other players perfectly.
I can’t recommend this game strongly enough. If you like light bluffing games, this is an absolute must have game.