Seven coins and anyone you choose will die.
There is nothing in this world that can stop this.
Death and Taxes
Coup is not a “nice” game. It isn’t about making friends, building something together or sharing an experience. It is a game about cut-throat Captains and Assassins, amoral Ambassadors and corrupt Contessas, where your only goal is to kill every other living soul sitting at your table.
To achieve this simple task you will need to lie. You will need to lie well, and you will need to lie often. If you don’t like the sound of that – you probably aren’t going to like Coup.
Coup is a card game that fits into a small box for two to 10 players (with the sweet spot for players being somewhere in-between that range). Players take two cards at random from a shuffled deck of rogue-ish characters, keeping them secret from the other players, along with two coins (that look like futuristic SIM-cards) from the pooled “bank” of money. Play proceeds in a clockwise fashion around the table, until there is a winner – or more accurately, a single survivor.
On their turn a player chooses one action to take:
- “Income”- Receive a single coin from the bank. Unblockable.
- “Foreign Aid” - Receive two coins from the bank and risk being “blocked” by a player claiming to have the “Ambassador” card.
- Use a character specific power.
- “Coup” - Coup by paying seven coins directly into the bank, at which point a player of your choosing must discard one of their character cards. Unblockable.
Character cards are essentially your “lives” in the game. Lose both of them and you’re out of that round. Make it to the end of the round as the only person left with at least one in hand and you can declare yourself the winner.
The character cards are the deadly backbone of Coup. Without including the expansions and variations of the game, there are five characters each with their own special power:
- Assassin - Can pay three coins to the bank to attempt an assassination on one player. If successful they must discard a character card of their choice.
- Contessa - Blocks the action of the Assassin.
- Captain - Steals two coins from one other player. Blocks theft from another Captain.
- Ambassador - Blocks theft from a Captain. Can look at two character cards from the draw pile and swap out any from their current hand.
- Duke - Takes three coins from the bank. Can block players trying to claim “Foreign Aid” as their turn action.
These are all uniquely powerful cards with different advantages and disadvantages. The Assassin can get you an early advantage, killing off a foe for the cheap price of only three coins. But that turn might be squandered if someone has the Contessa, wasting not only a turn but those precious coins. The Duke can gather a huge hoard of money, amassing the means to perform an unblockable Coup on anyone they desire. But they’re open to abuse from the Captain, who can steal from them, or from the Assassin – who might target them before they themselves become the target.
This interaction alone is complex, and indeed, interesting enough in a card game. But the thing that makes Coup really shine is the fact that you can lie. In fact this is the crux of Coup – bluffing whilst in turn trying to figure out who else is bluffing.
For example, you’ve spent the last two turns gathering coins from the bank as the Duke, scrounging just enough to pay for your own Coup. But just before your turn comes around, someone pays three coins to assassinate you. You have two character cards in hand, neither of which are the Contessa – which would otherwise allow you to block the assassination.
You now have three choices:
- You let the action proceed – Choosing to lose one of your character cards (essentially giving up one of your “lives”.
- You lie – Claiming to have the Contessa when really you don’t, hoping they don’t call your bluff.
- You accuse the other player of lying – Hoping that they’re the one actually lying about what character card they have.
Someone Always Dies
Correctly catching another player in the act of a lie forces them to discard a character card. Similarly, being wrong about an accusation forces the accuser to give up a character card. Either way, someone’s going to die.
Examples two and three, as stated above, are thus particularly dangerous. If the player with the Assassin card accuses you of lying (e.g. “I don’t believe you have the Contessa) when you don’t actually have the Contessa, then you lose both character cards – one for being caught lying, the second as the Assassin’s action of paying three coins to kill a character. Both character cards gone in a single turn.
Example three is equally dangerous. If you accuse the other player of not having the Assassin card, only to have them flip one over – then you lose both character cards again, one for an incorrect accusation and another as the Assassin’s action.
But both options have equally good outcomes. You might flash a wry smile, gently tapping the back of one of your face-down cards, whilst confidently staring into the Assassin’s eyes.
“I have the Contessa.”
You say it with such belief and conviction (despite your dry mouth and slight tremble) that even your own mother would believe you. You say it so truthfully that you even start to believe it yourself. It’s no wonder the other player believes you as they nod their head in agreement, rendering their three coins and their action null.
You live to fight another day.
This is the thrill of Coup. You lie, you cheat, all in the knowledge that everyone else is doing the same. Sure, there are times where you get caught and are instantly out of the game on the first turn. It happens to everybody at some point. Thankfully the games are so quick that you’ll be back playing another round in a couple of minutes, ready to claim vengeance on the one who bested you.
Beauty is Skin Deep
Coup is a pretty game. The artwork is fantastic, the vibrant colours and cast of characters really lending itself to the steam punk vibe. If you like The Resistance then you’ll be happy to know that Coup is set in the same universe, with similar motifs and tropes abound. The characters are instantly recognisable (even if you use the alternate card artwork supplied in the box) through great use of palette consistency and style. As mentioned previously, the SIM card coins are pretty in their own way, although some component critics might have preferred something a bit weightier.
The cards are made of good linen stock, but do tend to roughen around the edges given the amount of handling they endure – so some card sleeves seem almost a necessary extra.
As is often the case with modern expansions, Coup Reformation adds a whole list of new additions for you to cherry pick what you’d like to include in your game.
This includes what is essentially Team Coup, in which players are split into “Loyalists” or “Reformists” (Red and Blue, respectively). Players may only target “opposing” players (of a different colour) with actions. The only exception to this rule is the new mechanic of paying coins to swap your own colour or someone else’s colour – effectively allowing you to change your own team or the team of one other player. Eventually players are whittled down until only a few remain, and if at any point all players are the same colour, then a free for all can ensue.
The team variant adds a depth of complexity to Coup that it might not necessarily need. It does work well, especially with more players, but does force the game to go on for longer than its standard counterpart.
The other addition is the “Inquisitor” card, which replaces the Ambassador. This cunning character has similar standing to the Ambassador, able to block stealing from a Captain and can look and exchange one card from the deck of characters (as opposed to the Ambassador’s two cards). But they can also force a player of their choice to exchange one of their cards with the deck at random.
It’s an interesting variant that gives the Ambassador a slightly more aggressive ability that is otherwise missing. Whether you’ll use it is entirely up to your gaming group.
Coup is a quick paced card game that thrives on player interaction and subterfuge. It’s hostile at every turn, unashamedly so, but with deep strategy that continually changes as your gaming group does. It serves as a fun “early night” game, before the heavy hitters come out, or an excellent pub-game thanks to its small table profile and slim-line box.
It isn’t necessarily a nice game.
But it is a good one.