Something Wicked This Way Comes

Richard III is apparently the Emperor Palpatine of the Captain's Gambit Expanded Universe.

Coup was great, wasn’t it? Hard to believe it’s been over a decade since Rikki Tahta’s original splashed onto the scene. With only fifteen cards and an absolutely intuitive merging of hidden roles and action selection, it was very nearly the perfect social deduction game. Its follow-up, Coup: Rebellion G54, deepened that card pool but also traded away a significant portion of its ease for an oppressive need to check which actions were available this session. I eventually traded it away. Rebellion G54, that is. I still have my original printing stashed somewhere.

Right in time for the pandemic, four designers expanded on that framework. The question seemingly asked by AC Atienza, Alvin Lee, Ethan Li, and Mitchell Loewen bordered on the heretical: What if Coup, but with an extra layer of hidden roles built atop the hidden roles it already had? Also: What if Coup, but with Shakespeare?

The answer to both questions is Captain’s Gambit: Kings of Infinite Space.


So I heard you like Coup.

Really quickly, we need to talk about Coup.

The idea behind Coup has always boasted a certain elegance. Because you have been born an Italian noble, everybody at the table wants to kill everybody else. As one does. To enact this most supreme and noble ambition, you have access to eight actions. Three of these are basic enough that anybody can accomplish them. Taking income, for example, lets you grab a coin. Launching a coup costs seven coins and hurts somebody. The other actions are more limited. So limited, in fact, that they’re connected to cards, of which everybody begins with two, drawn and dealt in secret and at random during the game’s outset. Holding a card gives you access to its action. If you’re in possession of the Duke, you can tax for three coins. That’s pretty good, right? Well, the Assassin hurts another noble for only three coins instead of seven. Rude. Also economical. The Captain lets you steal coins from somebody else, which is even meaner, because if there’s anything a noble loves more than their life it’s their coin.

Here’s the rub. You can take any action you want. Because your cards are face-down, nobody will know you’re cheating the system. Oh, they can guess. They might even call you on it. When that happens, revealing the proper card will injure your accuser. If, on the other hand, you aren’t holding that card, well, you’ll be injured instead. It’s all very Shakespearean, injuries and insults and accusations traded almost flippantly, except the stakes are sky-high because these are olden times and sustaining two injuries is enough to kill you. The result is a rapid exchange of barbs. Everyone hems and haws at every little thing, trading meaningful looks and threatening to call out their fellow players without quite going through with it. Again, it’s all very Shakespearean. “No, sir, I do not bite my thumb at you, sir, but I bite my thumb, sir!” That sort of thing.

Captain’s Gambit: Kings of Infinite Space is so closely derived from Coup that its underlying system might constitute an expansion pack. There’s no way around it. This is a hobby that thrives on imitation, in some cases on outright theft, and has been ever thus since Parker Brothers cribbed Elizabeth Magie’s Georgist critique of capitalism The Landlord’s Game to publish Monopoly. To be clear, however, in most cases all this borrowing is a good thing. Because specific arrangements of mechanisms are almost never patented, designers are free to iterate to their hearts’ content, modifying and tinkering on older designs without fear. Without that gradual iterative process, board games would be relegated to jealously guarded silos, not the wide-open playground we enjoy today.

As far as I can tell, Captain’s Gambit falls into safe territory even though its skeleton exhibits many of the same bones as its predecessor. Its core system is effectively Coup with more flexibility. Everybody holds two secret cards that enable actions. Every action is playable, but the only “legal” ones are those you’re currently holding. The biggest departure from Tahta’s game is that these actions push the boundaries a little further, possibly because there’s an actual hit-point system rather than having your pair of cards stand double for your life. For one thing, you can now heal, which upends the expectation of attrition entirely. There’s also bloodletting, which increases the effectiveness of your attacks but decreases your capacity to heal as you spill spurts of blood. Commensurately, the stakes are a bit lower. Failed bluffs threaten to ding a few HP rather than wiping out half your life altogether.

Still, it elicits many of the same thrills and feints that Coup prompted way back in 2012. It’s a good system, solid, and returning to it is like a reunion with an old friend. Except your old friend has shown up to the restaurant wearing calve-slimming hose and one of those puffed-out skirts favored by Victorian men, the ones that lend the appearance of roast turkey legs clicking down the sidewalk, and as he doffs his flamboyant beret with its meter-long peacock feather, you think to yourself, “Dang, this is really working for me.”

Existential question: When Lady Macbeth bemoans her damned red spot, is she experiencing a ghost limb? Or is the spot her eyeball?

Hey, I know these people.

The big alteration of Captain’s Gambit is that everybody at the table now inhabits a specific role, one that goes above and beyond the action cards in your hand. These roles are also direct references to Shakespeare, albeit illustrated as anthropomorphic sci-fi starship captains, because why not. I mentioned that Captain’s Gambit doesn’t expect attrition. That isn’t entirely true. It’s still wholly likely that some people at the table will be bumped off before the game ends. But rather than winning through attrition, your objective is now connected to your role.

For example, maybe you’re playing Hamlet (from Shakespeare’s Hamlet). During the pre-game script, Hamlet is required to mark somebody at the table with a blood token. That person must die. They know someone is after them — they were handed an anonymous blood token, it’s kind of hard to miss the message — which lends the proceedings an additional strain of expectation. While everybody else goes about their business, there’s a game of cat and mouse afoot.

That’s just one of over a dozen roles. You might also be King Lear (King Lear), doling out special crown tokens and helping the player with the most of them win. Or Richard III (Richard III), trying to be the last person alive — normally an almost impossible task, but here aided by an ability on your role card that severely damages everyone at the table if you happen to gather enough coins. Othello (Othello) wants to kill the player with the fewest crowns, an awkward counterpart to Lear’s patronage. Lady Macbeth (Macbeth) needs to stain her hands with blood, reveal her identity, and then survive until her next turn. And then there’s star-crossed Romeo (Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet). Romeo designates a lover, stares longingly into her eyes, and then they struggle to survive twelve rounds together. It’s very sweet. Also doomed.

The entire thing is madcap and silly, as Coenesque as it is Shakespearean, trapped in a playful limbo just short of frustrating mishmash and well above the bar of gut-trembling comedy. It’s funny, is what I’m saying. There’s a particular delight to pruning through the table’s thicket of allegiances and intentions. When two players are going at it, are they Mercutio and Tybalt racing to kill one another, or is this an ordinary table grudge? If the former, you really ought to intervene lest one of them consummate their feud and win outright. Otherwise, maybe an early death will help you in the long run. When somebody is hoarding blood, are they Iago, who can win even in death, or Titus, who unstops his stores of blood in a final orgy of violence, or perhaps Portia, who hopes to hunt those whose hands are stained scarlet? As with many social deduction games, Captain’s Gambit functions best when everybody knows the roles involved. That’s both its weakness and its appeal. This is a game that rewards familiarity and casts the ignorant into stupor. Fortunately, it’s also a game that earns repeat plays. And while those plays tend to last longer than Coup’s, they’re still short enough to allow for two or three rounds on a short night.

Aha, saved my boring picture for last. BOARD GAME CRITIC PRO TECHNIQUE UNLOCKED.

Hidden information.

I’ve come to enjoy teaching Captain’s Gambit. A not-insignificant portion of that is its proximity to Coup. Much like teaching a trick-taking game, a deck-building game, a polyomino game, there’s a precious shorthand to saying, “Okay, so this is basically Coup.” It lets us get down to the serious business of introducing roles. That, by the way, is where this game shines brightest. At first brush, its proposition — hidden roles on top of hidden roles! — comes across as lopsided, a turtles-all-the-way-down solution to a problem nobody posed in the first place. But somehow, it preserves the core experience of Coup better than that game’s later editions did. More even than that, it elevates the entire experience. This is Italian city-state politicking at its finest. It makes me want more of it.


(If what I’m doing at Space-Biff! is valuable to you in some way, please consider dropping by my Patreon campaign or Ko-fi.)

A complimentary copy was provided.

Posted on February 8, 2023, in Board Game and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Do you have any thoughts about player counts? I love Coup and would love a “Coup but with more nonsense”, but I often play Coup with 3 players. How many players do you need before Captain’s Gambit works?

  2. Speaking of retreads, Coup is just a reimplementation of Hoax/ Die Erben von Hoax which we used to play in the 90s.

  3. Well, after Sail last week, you’re making me buy yet another game this week!

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