Board Gaming, Strategeries

I DON’T MATH: A Social Strategy Guide to Coup

Choose your weapons wisely.
Choose your weapons wisely.

“All warfare is based on deception” – Sun Tzu

So…you finally have Coup, and five minutes later, you’ve figured out how to play. If your experience was anything like mine, you were instantly in love, but didn’t see a whole lot of rhyme or reason to the depth of the game. It was a little bluffing, a little luck, and a lot of fun. Since then, I’ve paid a lot more attention to the game. Various game states, tendencies of players. I’ve thought a lot about it when I’m not playing. What I hope to do for you here is share with you a few of the things I’ve picked up and hopefully your secret game will get better. As alluded to in the title, I’m going to focus more on the social game than the numbers game, though I will say that both are pretty important to successful play.

A successful strategy for Coup is a gem of many facets. It’s part probability, part deduction, part deception, part people-reading, and part positioning.

The winner of Coup is the last person standing when the dust settles. The way you get to be that person is to be one of the last two people in the game, which is the actual goal at the beginning of the game.

In my first few games it seemed like everyone just came out swinging. Pushing for the magic 7 and taking out whomever seemed close enough to do the same to them. This lead to a lot of eye for an eye situations, a bloody free for all that while frenetic and fun, was utter chaos.

It didn’t take me long to figure out that this distills down to a race to 7 coins among different players that leads to eliminations with the predictability of a chain of dominoes with the occasional anomaly. The only way to not fall in such a chain is to not be in it. The only way you won’t be singled out as a loner is if you skirt close enough to the action that it’s not obvious that you’re avoiding it. Not getting sucked up into this brawl is a tricky balancing act.

Once someone has 7 coins, someone else is getting murdered to death. That’s going to happen. That is the way of the world. The murderee is likely to be the one in the most visibly powerful position. It’s not unheard of for someone to cross the 7 coin threshold and not live to see their next turn. Painting yourself as a non-threat typically means having fewer coins or less influence, both of which seem antithetical to strong direct play. After all, getting people to lose on bad calls is considerably more difficult and risky than the safe play of launching a coup, but as defined above, putting yourself in a position to launch a coup before it’s down to two players is a dangerous prospect.

Knowing how to keep yourself off the radar is a valuable skill and essential to a consistent Coup strategy. Some of the ways I like to do it include…

Collecting income. This paints you as not having better options and while it increases your strength, it does so in a non-threatening fashion. This also allows you to take an action without claiming a role, which makes it risk-free, aside from the slow gaining of power.

Dude, it's cool. No one ever notices me.
Dude, it’s cool. No one ever notices me.

Draw Court Cards. Claiming Ambassador is a pretty safe play. It’s fairly unlikely that it will attract a challenge as it is not actively hurting a would-be challenger and it’s not necessarily moving you closer to the ability to hurt anyone. It is giving you valuable intel and slowing your rise to the top of the food chain. With most people being reluctant to challenge this, I do it pretty frequently whether or not I actually have the Ambassador.

Stealing against someone you’re relatively sure will block the attempt. It’s more likely for them to claim Captain or Ambassador than it is for them to challenge your Captain, and when they do…let them. You profit from some limited intelligence, and you keep your current position static. It does cost you some tempo, but that’s kinda the point.

Considerably more risky is sending out an Assassin. If you’re going after someone with one Influence, it’s kind of win-win. They will either claim Contessa (almost guaranteed) and bleed you for 3 coins…or it will remove a contender. Either way, it should help reduce the heat on you. If you successfully assassinate against someone with two Influence though, expect retribution.

Why the lies?

Getting to the endgame requires a lot of planning and agility. Don’t fall into a predictable rut. Understand that bluffing is a crucial part of the game and it’s actually pretty important to establish some lies in the early to mid game. If you’ve gone bluff-free the entire game, it can hinder your options at the end when you suddenly start trying to do things you haven’t done the whole game. By claiming things you don’t have, you seed doubt about what you actually have, which is crucial.

Claiming three different roles in the first three turns is a solid move for a number of reasons. First, public information is at its weakest at that point. You are less likely to be called out at that point than any other point in the game. Second, once you claim that third role, it establishes you as a liar. Liars get challenged. It’s best to have at least one of the roles you’ve claimed that way when those challenges come, you’re ready to collect a free kill. This is made even better when your new draw casts more doubt on what you actually have, allowing you more flexibility for bluffing.

Another way to sow doubt and/or draw challenges is to not activate a reactive ability and then claim the role. Someone steals from you while you have Captain and/or Ambassador, and you let it happen. Then on your turn, you steal from someone claiming Captain or draw cards claiming Ambassador. The resulting confusion or loss of opponent Influence is well worth the 2 coins paid for it. This can also be used to help you establish some perceived weakness. As mentioned earlier, the coups have a way of finding themselves drawn to players with lots of money.

Theoretically, you could do this with the Contessa as well, allowing as Assassin to hit you, then when you’ve proven yourself as weak to Assassination and if a one Influence opponent tries to finish you off, claim Contessa and watch them off themselves. I’ve never done this one, but just as having lots of money paints a target on your back, so does having two Influence in the midgame. You’re somewhat unlikely to make it to the end with both Influence intact, so if you can control how you lose your first, it puts you at an advantage.

This is actually an important step that deserves special mention. You’re going to get your nose bloodied. That’s all but unavoidable. The best way for this to happen is at your own hands by challenging something you don’t want your opponent to have. For example, if you’re nearing the endgame, you certainly don’t want your opponent to have a power card like a Captain or Duke, so giving up the Influence to force that redraw can be a potent move. Once you’ve lost that Influence, your threat value should decrease as well, pending other influence totals at the table.

He who hesitates…can win?

This concept is tricky to pull off and requires a social finesse that not everyone possesses but can be practiced to perfection. A deliberate delay of whether or not to claim a counter-action that you legally have can have several benefits. In the best case scenario, it can make you look like you don’t have the blocking card, and draws a challenge for a free kill. At worst it can get a successful block.

The reverse is also true. The second someone claims their action shut it down with surety and confidence. A little bravado here goes a long way. People can be easily intimidated by your emphatic refusal and will let it fly. If you take this route, stick to it. Consistency is a big part of credibility.

If you’re lucky, you can bait out some free kills with these tricks, but even if this doesn’t happen, they still strengthen your endgame options. In the next chapter of Coup strategy, I will go over the cards, pairings/combos and some of the numbers game.

What are some of your favorite Coup tricks?

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37 thoughts on “I DON’T MATH: A Social Strategy Guide to Coup

  1. You know I’ve been looking forward to this, and I wasn’t disappointed. I particularly like the tips about claiming 3 different roles within the first 3 turns and not activating a reactive ability and then claiming the role.

    One strategy I tried recently is to threaten and persuade. For example, in one game I turned to an opponent and said, “I could assassinate you, but I’d prefer to assassinate another player. Is that cool with you? I actually tried that twice, once because I knew that player had the Contessa and I didn’t want her to play it while I was trying to take out someone else’s influence, and the other time when I simply wanted to build a repertoire with that player. The nice side effect was that even though I played the assassin, the player I “negotiated” with became just as complicit as me, and it actually put a target on their back instead of mine. I ended the game (a 6-player game) with both influence cards.

    1. Thanks, Jamey! I’m wondering how many of these tricks are going to come home to roost.
      An accomplice in this game is definitely going to draw heat. If you can remember, at what point was this alliance forged? How many players were eliminated at that point? Pending where I sit in the personality power structure, I don’t think I would try this in a 6 player unless at least 1 person was out, preferably 2. At 5, you probably have more out than in unless your group is 3 at which point you have the majority. The problem with alliances in a game like Coup is that it quickly devolves into a race to be the first to betray.

      Interestingly, this ties to how the expansion works. In the expansion, everyone is given a double sided allegiance card. While all players are the same faction, gameplay is exactly the same. While there are differences, you can only target other players if they belong to the opposing faction. On your turn, you can change allegiances as an action, or pay 3 (?) coins to force another player to change. This adds an interesting dynamic and adds a great deal of power to positioning. Someone cross 7 coins? Either jump on their team or push someone else out. Preferably someone who won’t get the chance to change back before the coup hammer drops. This can also create a lot of favor bargaining (“I’ll assassinate Bob if you change me before Susie’s turn!”) which of course leads to more betrayal.

      Indie Boards and Cards has not as of yet reprinted the expansion, and obviously it would be so simple to create that getting cool art and supporting your favored publishers would be the biggest reasons to buy it. That said, it’s a neat expansion though I am far from the point where the game needs to have new dimensions to remain interesting.

      Interestingly enough, what you pulled off here (great move, by the way) is

      1. I used negotiation tactics several times over the course of the game–once when there were 5 players at the table, and again when there were 4 players left.

        I really like the new element that expansion adds. I’d like to play with that sometime.

    2. I was under the impression that only the target of an assassination could play a Contessa. Although if anyone can claim a Contessa to stop any assassination that could open up some interesting strategies.

      1. Nope. Nothing in the rules suggests that you have to be the target. You can totally block Steals and Assassinations that have nothing to do with you. It can be a valuable negotiation tool, if that’s the approach you’re taking, but most people are content to let actions that don’t affect them fly. It is a potentially good way to reshuffle a Contessa while getting a free kill though. 🙂

      2. Huh. Well, so much for that being a bargaining chip. I guess what I meant to say is “Nothing in the rules suggests that you have to be the target until you carefully examine the rules.”

    1. Hi Oak,
      Glad you liked the first one. One of the things I like most about Coup is that it evolves with the players. Keep your playstyle in flux and you will do well. Coup By the Numbers is still in progress. Stay tuned for that. Thanks for reading!

      1. Your way of thinking helped me get out the race to 7 coins, I’m amazing on how I can sit back and chill while others claiming to have Duke, but I can still win in late game. I find that there are 3 important things to win coup. First is deceiving others when you getting into the late game and analyzing which card I need. Second trying to deduct what others has e.g. If you have been stealing from them and they never block they most likely won’t have cap/amb see if they call duke etc. But you have to be very careful. Third is the killing order trying to predict or convince what others think e.g. If you have been keeping your coin low like 3 and other 2 player are trying to race to 7, they will more likely to coup each other out leaving them with one card each with no coin but you will have 2 card with 3 coin which make you come out on top. Because of your article I focus less on collecting coin but more on analyzing. I hope that this rely won’t confuse you cuz it’s kinda long, thanks

      2. It takes a bit of play to get there. The inclination is to come out swinging, which a lot of people do. Let them. As I said, the *real* object of the game is to make it to the heads up phase, and to be in a good position when you do so. Coin is important as unless you’re a diabolical genius who can consistently get people to off themselves, you’re going to have to get your hands dirty, but once you’re in that place, you’ve done the hardest part. Remember to not get too predictable though, people will start catching on. Mix it up every now and again. Glad I could help!

  2. Omg! I was introduced to this game today and I loved it! Wasn’t sure how to play it so lost the first game.. made a critical error in the second one by trying to make a move too quickly. Everyone was over strategizing and i got carried away! Then I came to my senses.. that I gotta play under the radar game.. and appear as harmless as possible, i let foreign aid go when its blocked and simply used my inquisitor just to find out what everyone’s card is.. slowly and harmlessly. In other words, do what has been suggested here! And it worked! Managed to get to final 2 (of 6 players) with both influence intact and win it from there. I think an expansion of this game allowed you to form alliances. Played this, and a key thing to play is to make people switch to your alliance by pointing the benefits of going with you.. and how they can easily beat you in the end. Then of course, you have to be willing to switch at the right time, usually when there are odd number of remaining players left! Anyway, I won the final 3 last games by developing this passive-aggressive strategy and will continue to develop this! Enough of my rambling, goodluck playing!

    1. I’m glad I could help. Now be sure not to get in a rut, and watch for other player evolutions as well. Watching how their styles change can give you insight on how to exploit that knowledge. Thanks for reading!

  3. Hi,

    Really enjoyed your article and I would love to read the follow up one you have worked on. Tips on what to do with certain opening hands would be great. For example, I tend to struggle when dealt the assassin. Assassinate early and become a target. Don’t assassinate and I feel like I am wasting the ability.

    1. Hi Matthew,

      Glad you enjoyed it, and I promise I am working on the follow up. Lots of things on my writing plate, but I will come back to this. Tips on opening hands would be a great post, I may steal that from you! When I have an early Assassin, I like to use it to combo. You may not want to be the first Assassin…for reasons you’ve mentioned. Let someone else do it, then when someone is at 1 Influence, deliver the killing blow. Enemies you anger raise armies, enemies you destroy make graves. The beauty of a game like Coup is that in many ways, your opening hand doesn’t matter. I think it’s actually pretty important to lie in the opening turns when there is little information available. Use this opportunity to use some abilities you don’t actually have and create doubt as to what is actually in your hand. Thanks for reading!

  4. My group loves to lie about having a duke. In a five player game, I’ve seen for people collect tax on the first turn (i don’t have the expansion). Almost nobody challanges a duke. So when I get dealt a duke, I see foreign aid first turn expecting to be blocked. Next turn I collect tax. Somebody (usually the blocker) challenges my duke. Almost always works. I’d try blocking someone else’s foreign aid, but everyone claims the duke anyway.

    1. True Story: I was in a game where I was in 4th place from starting player. The first 3 players all claim Duke, I do as well without missing a beat, and someone calls me on it. When I asked why, he said “There aren’t 4 Dukes.” Really. That happened. And I lost a card for it. Thanks for reading!

  5. I absolutely love this article, I can’t wait for the next one. So to sum up, the tricks would be to lie differently for the first 3 turns then, to let someone steal in the starting phase and maybe in the ending phase also kill, always really quickly counter an action from another player, to make them hesitate next time, and lasty, to keep coins in the early game at 2/3/4. xD

    1. I’m glad you enjoyed it and I hope it helps to tighten your game. Those are all good points to take from the article, and also not to get too repetitive. A trick no longer works when it’s expected. I will still get around to writing the more mathy piece on this, but time is not too easy to come by. Not for quality anyway. Thanks for reading!

  6. Um, did the follow-up article ever arrive? I scrolled through the posts and didn’t see it. This is really interesting by itself though.

    1. Hi David,

      No, it never did. I got wrapped up in too many other things, and a post about math is not one you can just fudge. Nerds would have my hide if I got anything wrong! I’m glad you were able to use this though. I will still try to update it with the second half, but I can’t say just when. Thanks for reading!

    1. Hi Alexandra! I believe there are some two player special rules, but I can’t say I have ever played with them. However, consider my curiosity piqued. I will look into if such a thing exists, and if it does, I will do my best to wrap my brain around it. My initial reaction would be “but…why?” but there are probably special rules in place that mitigate that. Most of the game is getting to the heads up phase, starting there seems like it kills the game. But I could be wrong, it happens from time to time. Thanks for reading and stay tuned. 🙂

      1. Great! We’ve played a few times, and you can also play 1-on-1 with the Coup iPhone app. It goes very quickly which keeps the stakes low and makes it easy to rematch. One thing we’ve noticed is that it’s a little harder to manipulate the deck with the ambassador (or bluffing the ambassador) since there aren’t as many turns going on and it’s less likely that the deck gets reshuffled.
        Thanks!

      2. With fewer players, the intel gathered from the Ambassador is less valuable, as there are still so many unknowns. I will look into the 1 on 1 variants, color me curious 🙂

  7. Alexandra, I’m confused by your comment “it’s less likely that the deck gets reshuffled.” We have been playing that the Ambassador looks at the top two cards, but then the deck immediately gets shuffled. Do you mean to say that the two cards should just go to the bottom of the deck or a discard pile? That would make the Ambassador more powerful, since you could repeatedly use it to see all cards in the deck. The way we’ve been doing it, you can get unlucky and see the same two cards you saw previously.

    On two player strategy, oftentimes you can exactly calculate how it’s going to unfold, and define only one or two possible winning strategies.

    1. Hi David, based on my reading of the Ambassador’s role (“Draw two character cards from the Court [the deck], choose which [if any] to exchange with your face-down characters, then return two.”) — there is no reshuffling after. It can be used essentially as a scry. Does that seem like a correct interpretation?
      The deck seems only to get reshuffled if a challenger is in the wrong, and the challenged has to reveal his/her card but then must draw a new one. But since the game goes so much more quickly between just two people, this doesn’t happen that often, so once someone has used the Ambassador, like, you say, the top two cards are already known by (and perhaps discards of) at least one of the players.

  8. My friends think i’m really stupid, so when someone steals from me and I have a Captain or Ambassador, I say something like “wait guys, captain and ambassador blocks this right”, and when they say yeah, i say oh ok take my coins, next turn i use my cap or ambassador and they call it, works every time

    1. If that works every time, it’s not you that’s the stupid one. I love the Bumbling Noob Ruse, but it has a definitely limited shelf life…but it can evolve to the Distracted Guy Ruse, where on the turn after you are stolen from you try to say “Wait, shit! I meant to (etc. etc.). Make a convincing play, and people may stop stealing from you. Thanks for reading!

  9. One time, someone was at 10 coins and didn’t want to coup yet, so I offered to steal 2 from him to prevent it (I wasn’t even the captain). Because of the offer, he didn’t challenge me and I got myself closer to 7 coins with the move. I won the game in the end.

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