If the Highlander series had been set in a future run by plutocratic civil servants, Coup is the game that would likely have been made in its honour. It’s a tiny box consisting of fifteen cards and a stack of money – it leverages those sparse components into a bloodthirsty battle for power and authority. Coup is set in a world where your political mandate is derived from the barrel of a gun, but that gun is wielded by ruthless agents striking from the shadows. The box itself proclaims ‘Only one can survive’, and you’re going to need pretty canny instincts if that one is going to be you.
It doesn’t look like it from the components, but Coup is actually an exciting game. It draws its energy though not from its sparse game mechanics, but from the social context in which those mechanics float. As you might expect, it’s a game that doesn’t especially thrive if the chemistry of the group isn’t right. You need people prepared to outrageously bluff, and other people prepared to call people on those outrageous bluffs. You also need people that are forthright and honest, but not always. You need people that will lie and scheme, but not always. You need people who can counter-bluff, and stonewall, and manipulate the people around them into focusing on their mutual opponents. When we say Coup is a social game, we’re not being merely descriptive. Coup is all about the social interactions around the table.
Here’s how a game of Coup works. Everyone around the table is secretly dealt two cards. These represent markers of influence you have over the courtiers indicated in the game’s strikingly dystopian aesthetic. There are three of each courtier, and multiple players can have influence over the same courtier at the same time. Knowing (or deducing) who has what influence is key to play. Everyone has access to a set of three baseline and reliable actions they can perform, regardless of their political affiliations. Everyone can take a coin of income on their turn. Everyone can request foreign aid, which gets them two coins. And everyone, if they have seven coins available, can enact a coup and cost someone else one of their influence cards. Every other action is derived from having influence over an appropriate courtier.
The two cards you have in your hand represent that influence. There are five possible courtiers you can manipulate to do your bidding, and nobody knows which two you have in your metaphorical pocket. There’s the Duke, who you can leverage to enact a lucrative tax on the populace. The Captain is an institutional bully and can steal coins from the wallets and purses of other courtiers. The Ambassador is a master of blackmail and permits you to trade in your influence over him for influence over someone else. Then there’s the shadowy assassin who can kill off someone’s route to influence – for a price. And finally there’s the Contessa who cannot be assassinated, presumably because she’s the only person that is truly indispensable at the Court.
However, it’s a little bit more complicated than that. The captain can steal, but if another player also has influence over the captain they can block it. Similarly, nobody can steal from a player that has leverage over the ambassador. The Duke can block foreign aid if someone attempts to collect it. This set of counteractions lets you influence the turns of other players, throwing a spanner in the works as they develop their plans for political dominance.
Sounds pretty dull, yeah? Not a lot of room here for fun, right? I know that’s how it sounds, but that’s because I’ve saved the best bit for last. Your leverage over courtiers give you legal authority to act in their name. But, in Coup, you can perform any action you think you can get away with. You don’t need a Duke to block foreign aid. You don’t need an assassin to execute a cheap kill. You just need to convince everyone else at the table you’ve got a hold over the courtier you claim. A lot of fun is found within this one simple system of bald-faced mendacity.
Let’s say you and three other people are playing. You’ve all been dealt your cards and your starting balance of two coins. You’re looking at your Captain and your Duke and eyeing up the table. You hum for a moment and then say ‘I’m going to steal from you, Pauline, because I have a Captain’.
Here, Pauline has a choice. She can say ‘God, I hate you’ and let you scoop two coins out of her pockets. Or, she can say ‘No, you don’t have a captain. I don’t believe for an instant you have a captain. I’m challenging you’. If she’s right, you lose an influence. If she’s wrong, she loses an influence. Man, that can be tense because for a lot of the game all you have to go on is the read you have on other people. You just need to look into the cold, dead eyes of the villain sitting across the table from you and work out what’s happening in the decaying meat-box they call a brain.
Or she can say ‘You can’t steal from me, I have an Ambassador’. And suddenly that changes the whole tenor and pitch of the experience. In doing that she throws the risk over to you. It’s now all on your shoulders – you just got played, buddy. You just got hustled. You can say ‘Oh, my mistake’ and come away from your turn empty handed, looking like an absolute chump. Or… you can challenge her. ‘No you don’t, prove it’ you might say, sure in the knowledge that she’s bluffing only for her to reveal that she was telling the truth. There’s a real sting that comes from someone hitting the ball you lobbed at them and sending it flying back into your dumb stupid face.
Upon revealing an influence marker in a challenge, the winning player discards the revealed courtier and grabs another one – perhaps replicating what they had but more likely giving them some other power-play they can perform. A hand in Coup doesn’t dictate what you can do – nobody can stop you claiming anything. The hand you’re staring at though puts the weightings on the risk you’ll be facing. Cards can be swords and cards can be shields, but the most effective cards are those that you leverage without swinging them at all. After you’ve made your move, play moves on to the next player, and so it continues in a tight, tense wheel of escalating suspicion and rampant paranoia.
This dynamic means that even someone with the weakest hand can end up essentially bullying everyone else into doing what they want by simply acting like they want to be challenged. A lot of the plays in Coup end up with you being Dirty Harry, pointing your gun at a street tough and politely suggesting that they act as the high-point of your current day. It’s not just that though – Coup is also a game of fraught, fractured negotiation. It’s about convincing other people to do what’s in your best interest whilst convincing them it’s really in their own. ‘Seriously, you don’t want to challenge me here. Look at the discards – statistically speaking you’re going to lose an influence and really I need you in the game because we both need to crush Michael’. A diplomat, it has been said, can tell someone to go to Hell in such a way as to make them look forward to the trip. Everyone in Coup can benefit from being able to talk people around to the correct course of action with a combination of savvy suggestion and blatant self-serving manipulation.
Ah wait, but there’s more!
‘I’m going to enact a tax’, says Jasmine. She’s only got two Contessa, but that doesn’t matter – what matters is what everyone else thinks she has. People only know what’s been revealed, and everything else exists in a shadowy hinterland. Does someone want to challenge her, because that’s the thing – anyone can issue a challenge whether it’s their turn or not. It doesn’t matter if they’re the target of an action, anyone can say ‘hold on, that’s bollocks’ and insert themselves all up in your bid’ness. You can be blindsighted out of nowhere just because someone had a different read on the situation. You might reach over into someone’s treasury only for the otherwise silent stranger to grab your wrist and say ‘Hold on there, pard’ner – I’m paying to see your cards’.
Ah, but that’s where the social game of Coup ratchets everything up one more time. Have you ever heard of the bystander effect? It’s a psychological phenomenon where in group situations individuals are less likely to act because they think someone else in the group will act instead. Coup leverages this brilliantly with its challenge system because the cost of a failure is significant. Obviously Jasmine doesn’t have a Duke, right? Everyone can see she’s lying, yeah? So why should you be the one to take the risk in calling her out on it? Someone else is going to do it, surely. Nobody is going to just let her…
No, you all kept quiet and she scooped up her coins, and now everyone at the table thinks everyone else thinks Jasmine actually has a Duke. Social proofing starts to have a corrosive impact on your own sense of what is right and what is wrong. It’s the Asch Line Experiment and you’re in danger of falling for the hive-mind if you don’t take a stand. I mean, maybe they’re right, But maybe they’re not? The question really is why should you be the one to risk it? How sure are you, really? There are three Dukes in the game and you haven’t seen any of them. Maybe she does have one…
And on to this you add an extra dollop of danger because some challenges are simply far riskier than others. They carry a weight of consequence that has the same leaden impact as someone going ‘all in’ on a high-stakes poker hand. Imagine the danger that comes with someone brandishing an assassin at your pair of Dukes. For the low price of three coins, that assassin permits an enemy to kill off an influence card in your hand. ‘I have an assassin, and I’m spending three coins to kill you’, someone might say. And then you think ‘Well, bugger’ because the risk here is distinctly asymmetrical.
You might say ‘Nope, sorry – I have a Contessa, you can’t do that’. Man, you’d better hope you don’t get challenged because if you do you are straight up buggered. If you blink the wrong way, or twitch at the wrong time, you’ll be revealed as a fraud – you’ll lose an influence for the lie and another for the assassination. Claiming a Contessa that you don’t have is an incredibly risky play – it knocks you out of that round immediately if you fail to convince everyone. Remember – anyone can say ‘Nope, that’s bollocks’. Genuinely this is so high risk as a strategy that nobody is ever going to do that. Probably. So if they say they have a Contessa when you hurl an assassin their way it’s maybe best to just accept the futile loss of your three coins with good grace.
Like One Night Ultimate Werewolf, there’s a social meta-game that emerges around Coup. The plays and counter-plays are going to mould themselves to your group and the experience you have. Someone that always lies about having a Duke is going to shape the game around them, and that’s going to result in everyone else shaping the shape of their response. It’s going to be a different experience with different groups, and an evolving experience if played regularly and consistently within the same group. Unfortunately though some of those experiences are going to fall flat – Coup is a game where you need some people that can lie convincingly. Everyone needs to get into the spirit of trying to push the boundaries of what they can get away with. If you don’t have that, you’ve got a staid, stuffy game of permissive bylaws that won’t be fun for anyone. At its best Coup is a game of dueling insight where players size each other up based on sketchy theories of intent and precedent. At its worst, it’s mostly about weaponising probability in the same way I found so deeply unappealing in Love Letter. Unfortunately, ‘at its worst’ also includes two player games, and many three player game setups. You need time to tease out the contours of the influence map in Coup, and that really needs larger player counts with more signalling behaviour from which to draw. You need time to consider the implications of play within each round, as well as to become familiar with the meta-game that emerges in the aggregate. The energy of Coup grows and shrinks to match the enthusiasm of the group, and that’s great. However, that group needs to be of a particular composition and disposition, every single time. A rogue, unwilling participant in Coup is like filling a petrol car with diesel – it’ll bring everything to a juddering stop. That makes it great under the right circumstances but a very precarious proposition in an uncertain social context.
Like many of these small box micro-games Coup is forever at war with the constraints of its own design space. We often run into this when discussing smaller games on Meeple Like Us – it’s possible for a design to be beautiful and well executed without it leading to a genuinely great game. Coup, for me, follows that same well-worn path. What it does, it does very well – it’s definitely a good game. However, it doesn’t do a lot and that has an impact on how enthusiastic I can be with a recommendation. This isn’t a game that I’ll break out again and again and again just to tease out its mysteries. This is a game I will break out when in the mood, enjoy with a good group of people, and then put away without thinking about it until the next time. There’s no hunger in me to play Coup – no real appetite to get stuck in. It’s a little bit like someone putting a cheese sandwich in front of you – you can add whatever salads and accompaniments you like, but it’s ultimately still just a slice of cheese on bread. It doesn’t have to be more than that to be worthwhile. It just needs to be more before it can be genuinely mouth-watering.
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