Beyond Poker: Coup
Beyond Poker reviews games which are not poker, but which scratch the same itch or exercise similar strategic muscles. In this series you’ll find games which involve hidden information and bluffing, probabilistic thinking, risk-reward estimation, or which simply apply poker concepts like the hand rankings in a novel context.
My first couple of Beyond Poker columns dealt with single-player digital games with a direct link to poker, but last time – which I’m shocked to see was all the way back in May! – I changed gears with the minimalist physical card game Welcome to the Dungeon, which has a strategic, rather than cosmetic resemblance to poker. Continuing in that vein, I present you with Rikki Tahta’s Coup.
Coup is, if anything, even more minimalist than Beyond the Dungeon, with the only essential component being a deck of just 15 cards. It has been released by multiple companies, with multiple themes; most use intrigue in an Italian Renaissance court, but probably the most available version is from Indie Boards & Cards, and has a science fiction theme, set in the same universe as that company’s popular Resistance series, which is itself likely to make an appearance in Beyond Poker at some time.
Aside from the deck of cards, what you’ll get in the box with most (probably all) versions is a set of money tokens – which could readily be replaced with pencil and paper for portability – and player reference cards, which you shouldn’t need after your first few games.
Like Welcome to the Dungeon, Coup comes in a very small box and features both high-quality production and a low price tag. The Resistance version is $11.99 on Funagain Games for US gamers, but should be available for not much more regardless of where you’re living.
Coup’s strongest cosmetic resemblance to poker is in its initial setup: the deck gets shuffled, and everyone gets two cards face down, as well as two units of currency. With 15 cards in the deck and the need to keep a few replacements on hand, the maximum number of players is six. There are five different cards – Assassin, Contessa, Captain, Duke and Ambassador – each of which has either an Action, Counteraction or both associated with it. The deck contains exactly three of each.
Also like a poker tournament, the short-term goal is to accumulate currency tokens and avoid elimination, and the long-term goal is to be the last player standing. How one goes about that, however, is quite different: rather than being one’s own lifeline in the game, the currency is used in one of two different ways to directly eliminate one of an opponent’s cards. Players who’ve lost both their cards are out of the game.
After the deal is completed, players look at their cards, and a starting player is determined at random. Following that, play proceeds around the table in the usual clockwise fashion, with each player selecting one action on his or her turn. For starters, there are three basic actions not associated with any character:
- Income: Take 1 Coin.
- Foreign Aid: Take 2 Coins. (But can be countered, see below).
- Coup: Pay 7 Coins, remove one card from one opponent.
If that was all there was to it, it would be a pretty stupid game. However, taking Coins one or two at a time and using them for a Coup when one reaches seven is not likely to be the path to victory. Getting ahead of one’s opponents requires taking risks, and this is where the character Actions and Counteractions come in.
The following are the Actions associated with the five characters. On one’s turn, one can choose any of these instead of Income, Foreign Aid or Coup. It’s critical that you note I said “any”: You do not need to actually have the card in question to use the action, you just have you say you do. However, using the Action for a character you don’t actually hold means you risk having your bluff called. (And now you see why this game qualifies for Beyond Poker!)
- Assassin: Pay 3 Coins, remove one card from one opponent. (But can be countered, see below).
- Contessa: No action. (She has only a Counteraction).
- Captain: Take 2 Coins from another player. (But can be countered, see below).
- Duke: Take 3 Coins.
- Ambassador: Draw two cards, mix them in with your character cards, then choose two cards to shuffle back into the deck.
So, here we see the actual game starting to emerge: The Captain and Duke allow you to accumulate money faster (and, in the former’s case, deprive opponents of it), and the Assassin lets you kill off your opponents more cheaply. It gets more complicated than that, however.
Three of the Actions can be Counteracted by a player claiming to hold the correct counter-card. When any of these is taken, each player, starting with the player to the acting player’s left, is asked if they want to counter. Just as with the Actions, players can choose to counter whether or not they hold the correct card, but with the same caveat that there’s a risk of getting caught bluffing. The Actions which can be countered are as follows:
- Foreign Aid: Countered by a claim of Duke.
- Steal (from Captain): Countered by a claim of either Captain or Ambassador.
- Assassination: Countered by a claim of Contessa.
The final wrinkle comes in the form of calling bluffs. Each time a player declares a character, whether for its Action or its Counteraction, each of the opponents (again, in turn, starting to the player’s immediate left) gets a chance to call the bluff. When this happens, the player in question can flip over a card to show the correct character, or else admit to bluffing.
If the player shows the right character:The challenging player must choose a card to lose, and the Action or Reaction proceeds normally. The shown card is shuffled into the deck and its owner draws a replacement.
If the player admits to bluffing: The Action or Counteraction fails, and the bluffing player must lose a card.
As should be obvious from reading the explanation of the gameplay, the focus of the game lies in inferring the opponents’ holdings while keeping one’s own a secret, and in choosing the right moments to claim a Counteraction or call a bluff.
What may not be obvious is just how severe the consequences of giving information away are. In poker, even if someone knows you’re drawing to a straight, you might still hit it, and even if someone knows you’ve got the nuts, you’ll still end up winning the pot when they fold, although you may have missed out on some value. However, in Coup, if even one opponent has correctly guessed what you have, you’re all but guaranteed to lose. The one notable exception is the Ambassador; it’s okay if people know you have him, but then you’ll want to use his action as soon as possible, so that your cards are once again unknown.
The reason for this is that it’s almost impossible to win if you don’t have access to all possible Actions and Counteractions. The moment your opponents know that there’s one move you can’t make, or one that you can’t counter, a fairly obvious weakness appears for them to exploit, and you’ll be dead in the water.
That, in turn, means that it’s necessary to bluff a lot, almost as often as you’re telling the truth and using a character you actually hold. In fact, in the early stages of a game with three or more players, you may even want to bluff more often than you tell the truth; this is because the cost of being down a card early is so great compared to the benefit of making someone else lose a card that players should not challenge your first few actions even if they think you’re more than 50% to be bluffing.
Even less intuitively, it means that you sometimes need to take a suboptimal Action, or forego your Counteraction, even when those options are legitimately available to you. To understand why, you have to consider the position you put yourself in when you don’t have that card. If, for instance, I never select Income or Foreign Aid when I’m holding the Duke (because he means I could take 3 instead), then the moment I do so, my opponents know I do not have him, and I’ve lost the ability to choose his Action as a bluff later. To avoid this scenario, I need to do the equivalent of slowplaying occasionally, and just take 1 or 2 Coins while holding the Duke, so that if I choose his action in a later round, my opponents can’t automatically call my bluff without risking falling into a trap.
Unfortunately, like any game that gives players the ability to target their hostilities at a particular opponent, Coup suffers the problem that in games of three or more, any player who gets ahead tends to find themselves ganged up upon by the others. Coups and Assassination attempts typically target players who still hold two cards, rather than eliminating players who are already down to one, and once everyone has only a single card, they tend to target those with the most money. That being the case, much of the strategic depth is lost from the early stages of the game, and the real game only begins once two remain. There are, however, special rules for playing with two to begin with (take any one character of your choice to start, then draw one randomly), which increase the depth of strategy even further, and it plays extremely quickly this way, making it easy to play a series of first to three, or five wins, or whatever number you like, further emphasizing the skill element.
Coup is not a game for everyone. One the one hand, it’s a masterpiece of minimalist game design, producing a lot of complexity and non-obvious strategy out of even fewer moving parts than Welcome to the Dungeon. By the same token, it’s often hard for first-time players to appreciate, and some people find it a bit dry once everyone’s got the hang of it.
Those who love Coup tend to fall into two categories:
First, there are the party gamers, who don’t take it all that seriously, play in large groups, and enjoy the “take that” and “gang up on the leader” effects that emerge. Here, the joy of the game is mostly in the odd and dramatic events that come up – for instance, Player A tries to assassinate Player B, who elects not to challenge, but rather counter with a Contessa claim, which gets challenged successfully by A. B loses two cards (one for the failed challenge, one for being Assassinated) and is eliminated in one fell swoop; later, it turns out that A did not have an Assassin at all, but rather two of the three copies of the Contessa. Hilarity ensues.
Second, there are those who treat it like a chess match. Players in this group find it to be not worth playing with three or more, or if they do, prefer the endgame. One-on-one, however, players of this persuasion find it an engaging battle of wits, assuming they find a worthy adversary.
Poker players could potentially appreciate the game on either of these two levels, treating it either as a way to unwind after a poker session with friends and a beer, or else as an intellectual challenge akin to heads-up poker.
In terms of what it teaches you about poker, the main strategic overlap comes in the need to be balanced. Discussions of poker strategy often focus on “the right thing” to do with certain cards in a certain spot, while overlooking or glossing over the fact that correct poker strategies are typically mixed strategies. Coup makes that much more obvious than poker does, because the game space is much smaller, and identical or near-identical situations come up much more often: A player who always makes the same move in a given spot will find himself getting exploited again and against once his opponents figure it out, whereas in poker, the situation in question may come up rarely enough that even the player himself does not remember what he did the last time around. I would especially recommend it, then, to those who feel their poker game is currently too “ABC,” and would like to learn to add more deception to their play.
Alex Weldon (@benefactumgames) is a freelance writer, game designer and semipro poker player from Montreal, Quebec, Canada.