“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.
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?