A Board Game of Secret Identities, Deduction, and Deception
I first learned to play Coup back in the summer of 2017. I really liked the game. For several weeks, we played the game almost every single day in the afternoon. It was perhaps one of my favorite memories.
Later, I bought the game myself. However, I was not able to find an opportunity to share my passion about the game with others, and the game was left gathering dust. When packing for college in the summer of 2018, I faced a decision on whether or not to bring it. Due to the compact size of the game and the slight hope that I would be able to play it again, I brought the game with me. Gladly, I was able to play the game quite a few times in this year, and I still enjoy it.
I have played probably more than a hundred sessions of the game. I am not claiming that I am the best at the game, but I would say I am a decent player. Coup is also the board game that I have the most experience with. So, I feel like I am qualified to write a review on this game.
Let’s talk about it. What makes Coup a good board game?
The post is pretty long itself so I do not want to put down the entire game rules. Here is a link to the official game rules. The rest of the post will assume that you know how the game works.
There are several expansions to the original game, such as Coup: Reformation and Coup: Rebellion. Due to my limited experience with these expansions, I would not discuss them here.
The rest of the post will focus on the gameplay aspect, so let’s quickly go over the physical aspect of the game. There are fifteen character cards, fifty coins, and six summary cards. The inclusion of summary cards is very helpful for beginners to learn the game. The art design of the characters is pretty nice. The coins are made of cardboard. Though I do not like the quality, I do not expect any higher quality material at the price and the coins do their job.
Secret Identities, Deception, Deduction
Coup, first of all, is a game of deception and deduction. The backbone of the game mechanics is the two secret cards, or “influences,” that each player possesses. Since these two cards are hidden from other players, the gameplay builds on players claiming what influences they have to use their unique abilities. One may or may not have a specific influence, but one can always claim to have that card to use its power. This introduces another important component of the gameplay, challenges. One can challenge another player’s claim of having a specific influence if one suspects that player is lying.
These mechanics make Coup a game of deception and deduction. Should one fake claiming a certain influence? Should one be honest and use only what one has? Should one choose to not reveal what one has? Are other players lying or telling the truth? Do they truly have what they are claiming to have? Should one challenge or let it slide?
Many other secret identities type games such as Secret Hitler, Mafia, Werewolf, and the Resistance have the gameplay style of two teams playing against each other: the members of the “evil group” trying to hide and pretend to be innocent while pushing to achieve their objectives, the members of the “good group” trying to find the evil members and prevent them from succeeding. Coup, however, is more similar to the game of poker. Every player, not just one team of the game, needs to participate in deception and deduction against everyone else. Each bluffing about their own hand trying to convince other players into believing what they are claiming to have.
Unique Character Power, Actions, Strategies
Let’s first talk a bit about game theory. Game theory is the study of optimal decision making of rational decision makers in a strategic setting – including, just as the name stated, games. Formerly, a game is defined to be a set of circumstances that has results dependent on the actions of players. A game consists of three components: players, payoffs, and strategies. A player is a strategic decision maker in the context of the game. A payoff is what a player receives from a certain outcome. A strategy is a complete description of actions a player will take in the game. What exactly does that mean? Well, an action is simply a move taken by a player at any turn during the play of the game. Say if a computer is playing the game for you, a strategy would be the complete description of how you would want to act in every possible situation of the game which you input into that computer.
Blah, blah, boring math stuff. So how do all these relate to Coup?
In Coup, every player at every turn chooses an action to perform. There are general actions which are always available to all players, including income (one coin), foreign aid (two coins), and coup, paying seven coins to eliminate one influence of another player. There are also other actions unique to certain characters, such as duke’s ability to take three coins, assassin’s ability to assassinate another player, or even ambassador’s ability to exchange two cards with the deck. These character specific powers make each character unique and desirable in certain situations in the game. However, these actions are not limited only to those who possess a specific influence; one can always claim to have a certain character to perform a certain action. In addition, there also exists the action of challenging the claim of another player. All these different actions build up a large action pool, and subsequently, an extremely wide range of strategies for players to choose.
BoardGameGeek describes a strategy game as “a game in which the players’ decision-making skills have a high significance in determining the outcome.” Strategy games include classic games like chess and Go, and board games such as Risk and Catan. Personally, I think strategy game should have an even playing field, fair access to abilities and opportunities, similar action pools for all players, a large enough “board” that provides a large selection of actions, and a long enough gameplay for planning and decision-making to be significant in determining the outcome.
The other secret identities games I mentioned above can be classified as party games, games that are heavily dependent on the social interactions – talking, lying, observing, deducing – of the group. Strategies are certainly involved, but minimally. The choices of actions are very limited, and not all players have equal access to actions and information. Coup, however, is more similar to a strategy game. All players play under the same rule with the same setup and have equal access to the same action pool. There is a wide range of actions to choose from that deal with either gaining coins or attacking another player. Coup also has the gameplay that requires both short-term and long-term decision making to ensure the victory.
Cards, Randomness, Luck
What differs most strategy board games from pure strategy games such as chess and Go is the element of randomness. Winning in a classic strategy game relies solely on one’s skill in the game while winning in a strategy board game requires some kind of luck. Some board games such as Catan introduce the element of randomness through the rolling of dice for the random distribution of utilities; some other board games, including Coup, accomplish this through the use of cards.
At the start of the game, every player is dealt randomly with two character cards. One may receive a more advantageous hand, while another may receive a less desirable hand. Though the secret identities aspect of the game allows every player to use whatever character actions one wishes, a player’s initial hand still has a great impact on how one strategize one’s gameplay.
The element of randomness is not only limited to the initial stage of role distribution. There are two other instances in the game that allow the reshuffling of a player’s hand. One happens after a player winning the challenge by showing the specific character the player claims to have, in which the player returns that card to the deck and receives a new random card from the deck. The other instance being the “exchange” action of the character ambassador, in which the player takes two random cards from the deck, chooses which card or cards to keep, then return two cards to the deck.
Randomness brings the element of luck into the equation. In classic strategy games, the better player wins almost every time. However, in strategy board games that involve luck, even a first timer can attain victory by being exceptionally lucky. Does the inclusion of randomness make the games unfair? I don’t think so. I believe this is what makes board games fun, the element of luck and surprise. This allows all players, no matter their skills and experiences, to have a chance to achieve victory. And also, winning with a bad starting hand does feel better.
Free for All, Elimination of Players, Direct Competition
This is another aspect of Coup that I like. Unlike other secret identities games that I mentioned above where there are usually two opposing teams, Coup is free for all. Though you do not know what other players possess, it is clear from the start that everyone else is your enemy. Negotiations and alliances are only temporary; there are no teammates. You cannot rely on or trust anyone else. Every player is playing for their own victory. This adds another layer to the theme of deception.
Additionally, unlike many other competitive board games where a player wins by achieving a certain objective for themselves, a player in Coup wins only through being the sole survivor, in other words, eliminating everyone else. And differ from games like Monopoly where there is no control over who to target and players are eliminated only by unlucky landing, elimination of players in Coup comes from direct targeting another player, either attacking or challenging. This makes the competition a lot more direct, personal, and bloody.
Easy to Learn, Quick Game, Convenient
Finally, the gameplay is pretty “light.” It is friendly to beginners and quite easy to learn. Though there are a few characters, all actions either deal with coins or cards and can be nicely described on a single summary card. The concepts of secret identities and challenges are not hard to grasp either. One can quickly learn to play the game within several sessions. This brings to another plus for Coup: the gameplay is pretty short. Each game can be finished around ten to fifteen minutes depending on the number of players. When playing the game, players do not need to commit themselves to an hour-long campaign. A group can play five to ten games within an hour and choose to stop playing any time they wish.
I would also say that the game is very convenient. There aren’t too many pieces involved in the game. All fifteen cards and coins are contained in a small box. Furthermore, you do not need to own the actual game to play it. I first learn to play this game with poker cards and chips. Kings can be used to represent dukes, queens for contessas, jacks for captains, aces for assassins, and any other kinds such as tens can represent ambassadors. Coins can also be replaced with any numerous objects, maybe even the remaining cards of the deck.
I was planning on including some discussions on strategies of the game. However, I feel like that may derail the focus on reviewing the game itself. I will include the analysis of strategies and characters in a separate post that will (hopefully) be posted in the near future.
So, what is my final verdict on this game? If you can’t tell from this post, I love this game. I love the thrill of bluffing, the endless strategies to adapt to, and the excitement from eliminating all other players to become the sole survivor. Is it the best board game I have ever played? Hmm… From the board game perspective, I would prefer the game to be a bit more complicated. I enjoy the overall thematic of Secret Hitler and Avalon more, and I always have a strange soft spot for Risk and Monopoly. However, from the gameplay perspective, Coup is my absolute favorite. I would give the game the rating of seven coins out of a double contessas hand.