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Coup: Sex, Lies and Vicissitude

coup“Insurrection is an art, and like all arts has its own laws.” – Leon Trotsky

I was in a discussion some time ago regarding various places on the spectrum of the sexual persona. The woman I was speaking to said that she leaned submissive. The reason she cited for this was that in her life outside of the bedroom, she was in control of everything. Her family, her management job, etc. Being submissive was an exciting fantasy to her because like all fantasies, it didn’t really apply to her day-to-day life. She loved being submissive because it was everything she was not otherwise.

You may be asking “uh…Joe? What in the actual fuck does this have to do with Coup?”

I’m an unflinchingly honest person. Lies waste time, the most precious and finite resource in the human existence, making dishonesty an almost unforgivable sin. Steal from me, I can replace the stolen whatever. Hurt me, I can heal. Lie to me, and I can never get the time back that was wasted laboring under a falsehood I believed. I respect the people I deal with enough to always be direct with them regarding my feelings on things. This is who I am in the day-to-day basis, and Coup provides me the escapist fantasy of being rewarded for clever lying. This is probably the same reason I love The Resistance so much.

It was a more innocent time before my exile into the burning wastes of Kickstarter Ignorance, when I came across Coup. The header included something to the effect of “in the setting of The Resistance.” I stopped reading and pledged.

No, really.

In fact, I never read a single thing about the game. Not on the campaign page, not on Board Game Geek. The first time I played it months later, I was doing so completely blind to the game. And one game later, I was in love and ready to play again…and again…and again.

The first thing that endeared me to Coup was reading the background story describing the game. I’m paraphrasing here, but it said that after the fall of the governing body, a number of opportunistic individuals are scheming to advance themselves in the ensuing power vacuum.

This really happens.
This really happens.

OK, that’s a pretty cool concept, I love political intrigues; but what I loved most about it was the assumption that the governmental overthrow in The Resistance was successful. As someone who has played a LOT of Resistance, I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit.

So what actually happened? The only plausible solution is that the despotic regime in The Resistance was so unfathomably unpopular that it had hundreds, if not thousands of underground militia groups looking to bring it down. In order to sow the proper dissension in these groups, all but two government employees had to become spies. The government fell because they were just outnumbered. When that one lucky group infiltrated the government superstructure, there was nothing but a janitor and a comptroller to stand in their way.

About the game:
Coup doesn’t have a lot of moving parts. The entire game consists of 15 Influence cards some reference cards and a pile of community coins. The 15 cards are 5 Roles at 3 copies each; Duke, Assassin, Contessa, Ambassador and Captain.

At the start of the game, every player receives two coins gets two coins and is dealt two cards which are kept secret from other players. Each player represents a shadowy power figure, (no doubt a sufferer of acute affluenza) and the cards are representative of important influential bodies tied to your bid for power.

Even worse than these guys.
Even worse than these guys.

The object of the game is simple, be the last person standing. How this is accomplished is of course the tricky part. Obviously, if you’re going to assume power and create your own despotic regime to replace the one toppled by the insurrection, you’re going to need to eliminate all of the other people trying to do the same. But as a potential figurehead, you can’t dirty your hands with such subterfuge. Background checks on public officials are a bitch.

You’re going to have to have your loyal servants pulling all the strings for you, but being associated with them performing such misdeeds is just as bad as being caught with your hand in the cookie jar, so a lot of discretion needs to be employed. If your underlings are exposed conducting mischief, the shame will drive them into exile, and once you run out of loyalists to conduct your shady dealings, you’re done for. Controlling these subordinates (both yours and those idiotically loyal to your unsavory opponents) is the key to victory at Coup.

There are a few ways to remove your rivals from the contest for power. The most direct and brutal way is to pay a lot of money and launch a coup. 7 coins and the pointing of a finger, and one of your opponents loses one of their Influence cards. Boom. Done. It is a vulgar display of power, and while unquestionably effective, it is both expensive and attention gathering, two things you can live without. You can hire an Assassin for a much lower cost to quietly dispose of one of your opponent’s puppets, but this can be foiled by the watchful eyes of a Contessa, who keeps well informed of money movements in these underground channels and has key contacts who can cancel a contract kill you’ve ordered.

…or you can go about it my favorite way, by tricking your enemies into into political blunders that will prematurely end their career. As mentioned previously, revealing your connections to known undesirables is troublesome to one’s ascent. When someone levels an accusation of falsehood, there will be blood. If you claim an ability, someone challenges you and you cannot prove that you had legal right to that ability, one of your supporters (i.e. Influence cards) will desert you. However, the reverse is equally true, if someone accuses you of falsehoods and you can exonerate yourself by showing that all of your moves were legitimate, one of your opponent’s followers, their belief in their leader’s competence shattered, will abandon them. It’s free, extremely effective, and keeps the heat off of you. You’re not really destroying them…they’re destroying themselves.

On your turn, you can take one of several actions, defined here.

Income: Collect one coin. Simple. Unassuming. Not a huge monetary gain, but deceptively strong. Best of all, there is no counter for it.

Request Foreign Aid: Collect two coins. A stronger money grab than relying on your income, but be forewarned, the Duke has the final say in the approval of such requests, and his denial will cost you the turn to make the request.

Launch a Coup: Spend seven coins to cause another player to lose an Influence card. (Note: If you begin your turn with 10 or more coins, you must take this action. As mentioned above, this is a flagrant show of power that severely compromises an opponent’s ability to survive, or eliminates it completely. In my opinion, launching a coup is better for delivering the coup de grace than for the crippling of an opponent. As excellently stated in the fictitious treatise Tangen’s Lies, “A living enemy is dangerous. A dead enemy is dead. Better to have a graveyard of dead enemies than a single angry one.”

Collect Taxes: By claiming that you have access to Ducal authority, you can collect three coins. A powerful move for sure, generating almost half of the funds necessary to launch a coup or paying the entire cost of a hired killer. This same assumed authority allows you to block the Foreign Aid requests of your opponents.

Assassinate: You may be dealing with opponents who dance delicately in your spiderwebs careful not to fall into your traps. In these cases, a more direct approach is required. Spend 3 Coins and announce your target, and if all goes according to plan, one of their loyal servants will suffer an untimely accident and hamstring that opponent’s political aspirations.

Steal: It’s never a bad idea to have some muscle to flex. By claiming your connections to an unscrupulous Captain, you can take two coins from another player. A fair amount of the game can be decided by wealth, so a move that both fills your coffers and empties your opponent’s is a strong move indeed. While the Captain may be acting outside of the law when extorting funds from your enemies, he is also a zealous guardian of your own financial interests and will block attempts to steal from you.

Draw Court Cards: Claiming ties with the Ambassador will allow you to draw two cards, then return two cards to the deck. This is an unassuming but very powerful ability for a number of reasons. First, it provides some intelligence on the agents that are not in anyone’s employ. Knowing what you have in your hand, what has already been exposed and what remains in the deck provides a strong advantage in successfully catching one of your rivals in a lie. Secondly, the cards you put back are of your choice. This allows you to potentially increase the strength of your hand based on the state of the board. Suspect your opponent is getting ready to hire an Assassin? Grab a Contessa to stymie their efforts. Are they getting close to the funding of a coup? Acquire the services of a Captain to start chipping away at their funds. The exchanging of cards also refreshes your bluffing abilities, as when you claim new abilities after the Ambassador’s advice, people are more likely to be reluctant to think you’re lying. Or at least unwilling to call you on it. The Ambassador also provides a limited degree of political immunity and can block Stealing attempts.

So yeah, when you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. There is no middle ground. You can go ahead and make your A Song of Ice and Fire reskin of Coup now, you’re welcome. That one’s free.

Materials
The art in Coup (especially if you got the Kickstarter version which includes alternate art, three pictures for each role) is outstanding and really captures the feel of what was happening topside while you were in the sewers planning your overthrow of the government. The cards are pretty high quality, and while they won’t see a whole lot of handling, I would strongly recommend sleeving the cards. Like Love Letter and The Resistance, any visible show of wear will ruin the game. The cards are in that annoying 7 Wonders size, so if you sleeved that game and have a few left over, awesome, but otherwise, it’s worth springing for a pack to make sure your Coup lasts a long time. And while you’re at it, you might as well sleeve up your 7 Wonders.

Things What I Like About Coup
Oh Coup, how do I love thee? Let me count the ways.

1. Low entry price. You can generally find Coup for about $15, and the dollar to fun ratio on this game is astronomically solid. Return on investment is huge.

2. Simple components. 15 cards, a pile of community coins and some reference cards, which people don’t even need after a game. Doesn’t take up much table room, not a lot of fiddly bits. This also leads to a very cabinet friendly box that will even fit in a large pocket. As someone who is actively trying to downsize, I appreciate this a lot.

3. It’s like greased lightning! The game plays tense, exciting…and fast. You can get knocked out pretty quickly, but it’s never a long wait til the next game, and there will always be a next game. Like The Resistance, it’s really difficult to put down after just one round.

4. Good for non-gamer geeks. The simplicity and intensity of the game mesh wonderfully and it’s a super easy game to introduce non-gamers to, and unlike some other gateway games, this one will remain a favorite well after you get into deeper games.

5. Good for gamer geeks. It’s easy enough to get non-gamers in, and meaty enough to satisfy the hardcore gamer (provided they enjoy social and/or hidden role games)

6. One of these things is not like the other. While Coup shares much in common with The Resistance, it is an entirely different experience.

7. It’s crazy fun. I can’t say enough good things about Coup, and I’m always excited to play it.

Thoughts as a Designer:
What would I change about Coup? This is a really difficult question to answer. My knee-jerk reaction is “not a damn thing” which is something I can rarely say. The game includes an alternate role for the Ambassador (Inquisitor) but I haven’t played with it yet. It could be interesting to try to come up with alternates for the other roles, but the idea of trying to create interesting non-broken ones hurts my brain. There already exists an expansion that adds a lot more interesting choices to the game. It has not yet been re-published by Indie Boards & Cards, but the material components are so simple that anyone should be able to make their own.

Final Thoughts:
Provided that you don’t have a strong distaste for bluffing, deduction, social or hidden role games, Coup deserves a spot in your collection. Period. From start to finish, components to replay factor, Coup is tens across the board.

From the very first game, Coup put hearts in my eyes. I’ve played a lot of it and thought a lot about it. It’s a delightfully simple game to get into…but how to excel at Coup is a different story altogether. I’ve hinted at some of the strategies I enjoy above, and in my following article I’ll talk in greater depth about understanding the fundamentals of the game and how to tighten your game.

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2 thoughts on “Coup: Sex, Lies and Vicissitude

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