Board Game Review: Coup—Enjoyable Bluffing and Betrayal

This week, we hone our ability to bluff and lie for Coup. And, with the Kickstarter up for just a few more days, hopefully this will help you decide whether to back the game. The Kickstarter has a lot of artwork changes, so this review concentrates on the first edition of the game.

The Basics. Coup is for three to six players and has a deck of fifteen cards. Each card represents one of five roles: Ambassador, Captain, Assassin, Contessa, or Duke. With fifteen cards, each role is represented three times. At the start of the game, each player gets two cards at random and two coins.

Cards are kept face down so that no one else knows the true identity. Then, on their turn, a player can take an action. Players all have various actions available to them. Taking income or claiming foreign aid can be done no matter which cards the player has. But, some actions rely on having influence with the right individuals. For example, a player can tax (and collect three coins), but only if he has a Duke card.

The player aids can be very helpful

Well, only if he claims to have a Duke card. Since no one knows who has what cards, the other players can’t be sure whether a player has that Duke or not. So, the other players only have two options: either don’t challenge it and let him have his tax, or challenge it and prove that he does not have a Duke. If the challenger is right, the challenged player loses one of their two cards. If the challenger is wrong, the challenger loses one of their two face up cards and the challenged player draws a new card to replace his exposed Duke. The face up card is revealed, but out of the game.

Play continues until there is only one player left in the game. Last man standing is the victor.

The Duke will take three coins from the bank

The Feel. The game is about bluffing and deception. Generally, especially with larger player counts (or new players), the early game starts fairly cordial. No one is willing to challenge any claims because you can get by without lying. But as the game heats up, things take a different turn.

Once a player has seven coins, they can implement a “coup” as their action. A coup kills one of the other players’ cards and a coup action is entirely unblockable. So, once players get to five or six coins, suddenly the attacks come out. Assassins try to attack players with money and Captains start extorting. The question: are those players trying to extort just to prevent a coup, or do they really have the card? Suddenly, calling them out becomes almost like a game of chicken.

The captain takes two coins from another player

Layered on top of these actions are the characters that can block. Captains and Ambassadors can block extortion. The Contessa can block an assassination. Even the Duke can block another player’s attempt to acquire foreign aide. So, a player extorts his opponent, but that opponent says, “I don’t doubt that you have a Captain, good sir, but I have an Ambassador who blocks your extortion attempt.” Now the onus is back on the first player. Does he challenge his opponent’s claim to have an Ambassador, or does he leave it alone and let it be the next person’s turn?

The Ambassador can also draw cards

Coup is filled with a number of interesting decisions in this vein. And, better yet, it doesn’t overstay its welcome at all. Even with six players, Coup rarely lasts longer than about fifteen minutes. The short play time also makes the player elimination a lot less obnoxious. While I find player elimination uniformly distasteful, it isn’t that huge of a deal here because players tend to sit out for less than five minutes as the game reaches its conclusion.

Now, there have been several comparisons of this game with Love Letter. However, I find the comparison very superficial. Yes, they are both card games and they are both quick. Each game has some element of bluffing (though the focus is very different). But other than that, it’s hard to see much in the way of overlap. In fact, I love having both in my collection. Love Letter works on all levels and I’ve found adherents even among family and non-gamers. By contrast, Coup performs much better with a group of gamers. For gamers, the experience may be slightly superior, but it definitely lacks the traction with casuals and non-gamers.

Only got three coins? Assassination is cheaper than a Coup

Components: 3.5 of 5. (Note: this refers to the first printing). The artwork on the card is great and the player aids are a big help to new players. However, the remainder of the components are average at best. The coins are simple plastic discs without further fanfare. And the cards themselves require consistent and definite shuffling, yet are an odd size. While sleeves are available, options are more limited. And, while I haven’t had any wear in my cards thus far, it’s only a matter of time given the shuffling involved.

Strategy/Luck Balance: 3.5 of 5. It would be wrong to say that luck is absent from this game. In fact, in a significant minority of games, it can be very determinative. Sometimes, a player gets dealt all the right cards so that they rarely or never have to bluff. That can be a problem for opponents that want to challenge him. However, that gets paired with a good deal of strategy. Who can you read? Who is lying? And how good are you at bluffing? Plus, sometimes there are simply better strategic moves. You want to keep your competition from getting that seven coin threshhold so they can’t coup you. And it’s important to claim the right role at the right time – regardless of whether or not you have the actual card.

Mechanics: 4.5 of 5. Coup is a wonderful in the mechanics department. It’s easy to grasp after a round or two, but the complexities keep the game alive for many plays. Plus, the game ensures that there will only be one winner. The coup action allows unblockable elimination and the game forces players to coup once they have 10 or more coins. The only negative here is the player elimination. Although, frankly, it would be hard to achieve the same tension and effect if a player was not eliminated on misreading his opponents.

Replayability: 5 of 5. Coup is wonderfully replayable. Not just because you might be dealt different cards each game. Instead, the replayability comes from your ability to read and react to your opponents. So, as long as you find the people you game with interesting, you should get an enjoyable time from coup. Plus, it’s short playtime facilitates repeat play – even in the same night.

Spite: 2 of 5. Players directly attempt to eliminate each other, so why the (relatively) low spite rating? Well, in Coup there are direct attacks, sure, but none of the attacks really hurt opponents without also benefiting you. That’s the definition of spite here. Still, there are opportunities to pick on one player and sometimes it’s best to eliminate someone with one card rather than drop a player with two cards down to one. So potential for hurt feelings is there, but there are no significant actions that are solely to harm an opponent.

You can’t kill me. I’m too pretty to be assassinated!

Overall: 5 of 5. Coup is a fabulous game – and one that is easy to replay. Bluffing, deception, and misdirection are the hallmarks. In fact, some of my favorite moves are drawing people in and getting them to challenge me when they shouldn’t. For example, I’ll allow someone to extort me and then, when the next player does it, block it with my Ambassador. They’ll challenge (since I didn’t use this alleged ambassador on the last extortion) only to find that I really have one. Coup practically oozes opportunities for clever play and successful bluffs feel quite delicious.

There are 2 comments.

  1. futurewolfie said on May 3, 2013 at 11:33 am

    I’ve only played on one occasion, although we did play 2-3 rounds, and I’m inclined to fully agree with your assessment of this game.

  2. mindg4m3 said on May 3, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Nice review!

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