Review: Coup

pic16395322-6 players, 15 minutes

Coup attracted some attention after it’s first limited release, and so Indie Boards and Cards picked up the game, ran a very successful Kickstarter campaign, and transplanted the game from its sixteenth century European setting to the far-future dystopia of their popular game The Resistance. So, what do these two settings have in common?

As it turns out, a lot of lying to your friends.

At the start of the game, every player gets two coins is dealt two cards in secret, representing two characters the player can influence. You might be chummy with the duke and have the contessa keeping an eye out for you, or you might have a couple of thieving captains owe you a favor for services best left unspecified. Functionally, it’s a game of hidden roles, but unlike most of those games where you are what’s on your card, it wouldn’t make sense for you to be the duke and the contessa, or, for some reason, a double captain.

Your goal in the game is to eliminate the other players by taking away their influence—you want to be the last one standing with any political clout. The most straightforward way to do this is to pay seven coins to launch an eponymous coup, which automatically forces a specified player to give up one of their cards. You could use an assassin for less than half the cost, but they can be blocked by the aforementioned contessa.

Then there’s the exciting way—lying.

Pictured: Kickstarter edition. Regular edition may be less shiny and smugly satisfying.
Pictured: Kickstarter edition. Regular edition may be less shiny and smugly satisfying.

The clever thing about Coup is that it’s two-faced by design. On your turn you take one action, and some of those can be performed no matter what cards you have in front of you. Most of them, however, require you to say you have a particular character. You don’t actually have to show your card—unless someone doesn’t believe you.

Then again, it also punishes bluffing. There’s a reason you have two cards in front of you rather than just picking items off a menu of options. If someone calls your bluff and you can’t reveal the card you said you had, you immediately lose one of your influence. The game rewards catching your opponents in a lie.

But, it also threatens to punish you. If it didn’t, you’d have no reason not to accuse everyone of being a phony all the time. This isn’t Catcher in the Rye. If you accuse someone of lying, and they reveal the card they claimed to have, you lose one of your influence instead.

I said the game is two-faced. It’s not just that it encourages you to lie—when you accuse someone of lying, you’re guaranteeing that someone’s going to get punished, but you can only hope that it isn’t going to be you.

Since you only get two characters to begin with, it’s very easy to be knocked out. It’s a very short game, after all. Even then, the game provides ways of upping the stakes.

Try not to spend it all in one place.
Try not to spend it all in one place.

The Assassin lets you, well, assassinate people—pay three counts to make someone give up one of their influence. The only drawback is that there’s a card called the contessa, which does nothing but block assassinations. Say you’ve been targeted by a player who says they have the assassin, and you don’t have a contessa. You could accuse them of lying, but if you’re wrong, you get hit twice—once for the assassin, and once for a failed accusation. You could also say you have the contessa. The ball will be in your opponents court—if they believe you, you get away with it, but if they don’t, you just knocked yourself your of the game entirely. Maybe you should just take the hit.

Coup is full of those kinds of counteractions. Some roles might let you block assassinations or stealing, or prevent others from taking more than a single coin every turn. Besides calling bluffs, there are plenty of opportunities to do things during your opponents’ turns—whether or not you’re being honest about it. The game’s fast and exciting, and even if you get eliminated, you won’t have to wait long to play again. Meanwhile, you can just sit back as accusations fly, goading your friends into even more reckless behavior.

Don’t take too long to decide, though. If there’s a drawback to the game, it’s that there’s a learning curve. If you need to read through what each character does before you take your turn or react to something, the other players might be able to read you. It’s not huge, since you can completely botch your first game and do better in a few minutes when the next game starts. Then again, they might just think you’re pretending you don’t know what you’re doing. Their call.

I’m not being all that presumptuous when I assume everyone’s going to play again. Every time I’ve played this game, there’s always someone at the end asking for one more round. It’s obviously not going to create an infinite loop, but in all honesty I doubt I’d ever play just one game of Coup and then stop if I’m not pressed for time. The game says it takes fifteen minutes on the box, which is both too long and too short. A game may not take that long, but you’re likely to string a few together while you’re at it.

20131220_115947Coup is a remarkably efficient game. It’s just fifteen cards and some tokens, but it generates a lot of energy. It’ll get everyone feeling tense or excited, and get them laughing—and, in my case feel just a little bit guilty. In the first article I wrote for this site, I recommended Love Letter, which fills much the same niche. I still think it’s a good game and features some very clever game design, but to be honest, after playing Coup just a couple of times it dawned on me that I don’t want to play Love Letter when I can play Coup instead.

Like the box it comes in, Coup fits in anywhere. I’ve fit it in a jacket pocket on plenty of occasions, but it also slips in easily whenever you’d like to play a game. If you’ve got some friends over, it’s easy to bring out on a whim. Even if there are folks who don’t really play board games, it’s lightweight, accessible, and can show them that board games can actually be clever and fun. If you’re already planning on playing games, it’s a great filler to put around and between other games. Heck, I played Twilight Imperium just a few weeks ago, and we played Coup between some rounds as a break. From casual players to hardcore enthusiasts, Coup is just a lovely thing to have around.

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