It’s Never Too Late to Launch a Coup
Hoo boy, I’m late on this one. Sorry about that. Thanks to some buried childhood trauma, now and then I’ll intentionally not engage with something I know I’ll like — a highly-anticipated movie or book or slice of pie — just to save the thrill of the experience for later. I know it’s dumb, and I also know that every single board game reviewer has already talked about why this is such a great game.
Still, Coup is like good chunky peanut butter. So smooth. Yet so nutty. And so simple, yet so compelling. Multitextured. Rich. Rewarding. Sexy.
Okay, that comparison doesn’t hold up very well, because Coup certainly isn’t oily — scratch that, it totally is! But okay, I’ll try to explain why I’m crushing so hard on Coup, and I swear I’ll stop talking about the world’s number one food paste.
Since You Probably Already Know How to Play, Feel Free to Skip This Part
For those of my readers who don’t know how Coup works (hi mom!), here’s the skinny.
There’s this city state in Italy, see. The only one of its kind. And of course you want to seize control through a well-timed coup d’etat — “It’s pronounced kü dā-ˈtä,” interrupts Geoff in perfect French, which is neither Italian nor American. “Not coop. There are no chickens.”
Ah, right. I knew that. So you want to launch a coo day tah to take control of this city state. Each player has two cards face-down in front of them, each representing some member of this city state’s ruling class. Nobody knows the identity of your cards but you, and that’s the crucial bit, because you can use any card’s action. Even the ones you don’t control.
Which is to say, you might be holding an Assassin, useful for attacking other players’ cards, and a Contessa, useful for blocking other people’s Assassins. But since neither of those help you make money, and since you need money to pay for your Assassin’s services, maybe you’ll claim you’re holding the Duke, since he can levy taxes. Or the Captain, since he can extort money from other players. That is, unless they block your extortion with an Ambassador or a Captain of their own. Or unless they call your bluff and demand you prove you’re holding that Duke you just lied about, in which case you’ve just lost one of your two cards and come halfway to losing the game.
See, that’s the crux of Coup. It’s all about the telling of truths so they look like lies, and the telling of lies so they look like truths.
Illustrerò (I’ll Illustrate)
I was playing a game of Coup the other day. We had the full complement of six players. Myself, of course, the humble “journalist” (codespeak for “unemployed”). Somerset, my Frau (or my moglie, since we’re speaking Italian). Another married couple, though they hadn’t been together long enough to have taken each other’s measure as completely as my moglie and I had, so they spent a lot of time pitching fumbled cues at each other. Blinking Morse code with their big dopey eyes and all that — though the joke was on them since everyone in my group of friends is well-versed in Morse thanks to our shared love of ham radio. And lastly, two friends, one of whom was in an oafish mood and therefore unlikely to succeed, and the other, a shark — and the rest of us were like blood in the water to his well-trained aquatic nose.
As I checked my two cards, I discovered I was holding an Assassin and an Ambassador. The first was good news flavored with a dash of rotten lemon owing to the fact that I didn’t have a Duke or a Captain to secure any real income, and the second was plain bad news since using an Ambassador to swap out my hand has always rankled as a sort of wasted turn.
On my first turn, I taxed. Of course, I had no right to. I had no Duke in hand, after all. But still, I taxed, and a little while later, when a certain someone announced they were accessing foreign aid for extra money, I used my “Duke” to block it. That someone, spurned by my aid-block, looked me in the eye and asked if I really had a Duke. I glared back and said yes, of course I did. And a useless Ambassador too, thanks very much. She looked away, apparently believing me. And true enough, it’s in my nature to whine about having Ambassadors in my hand.
Around and around we went. Plots within gears within wheels within flywheels within very large pocket watches. I claimed more taxes, blocked more foreign aid. And eventually, when someone attacked me, I proved true to my word as I revealed an Ambassador. And nobody questioned it because, hey, Ambassadors kind of suck.
Slowly, the conspirators were outed. Everyone but my one friend — the shark, the squalo — lost one of their cards, since we’re egalitarian-minded like that. A Captain here, a Contessa there. Someone made lots of money and had it extorted away by the two players who almost certainly had Captains. Eventually, a few players dropped out, eliminated by Assassins or Coups or called bluffs.
And eventually it was me, with my outed Ambassador and my “Duke,” and my friend, with both his cards still hidden neatly away. He’d outplayed the rest of us at every turn, his teeth glinting in the flickering fluorescent light, his eyes focused in spite of it.
“I assassinate you,” I said. I paid my three coins.
He laughed. “You have a Duke,” he said. “We all know that. I challenge you.”
I did it in slow-motion, or at least it was slow-motion until someone asked what the hell I was doing and I went back to flipping the card over in real-time. There it was, in brown grumpy glory: the Assassin. Like that, my friend was out of the game — one of his cards lost to the Assassin, the other to the failed bluff-call. From the top to the trash-heap in ten seconds.
There’s a word in Italian that has no direct translation in English, and it’s what I felt right then. La Vittoria.
You Probably Already Knew All That
Okay, so there isn’t much reason to talk about Coup these days. It’s already been heralded up and down as a fantastic filler game. Fifteen cards, some plastic coins, and a couple reference cards, and you’ve got perhaps the most devious ten minutes ever devised.
Even so, I can’t help myself. What an incredible little game. Mom, you should check it out.