Critical Play — Coup

This week, I dove into Coup, a cult classic social deception card game originally created by the group La Mame Games. The original Coup game created by La Mame Games was rebranded and published for the mass market in collaboration with Indie Boards and Cards (IBC) into Coup: The Resistance in 2012, which is the incarnation known by most people today. Coup is played by 2–6 players and is officially recommended for ages 13+ (there are references to fictional violence, and the game requires some logical maturity).

Coup’s types of game balance

Coup is balanced wonderfully. It spans three of the four types of game balance outlined in this week’s assigned reading:

  1. It’s an asymmetrical multiplayer game, meaning players start with different resources (which take the form of the two influence cards, which are randomized).
  2. Moreover, from any given starting position, there are multiple paths to victory (you can, for example, either play aggressively and lie or play passively and build your economy). On any given turn, for example, a player has 3 or 4 different actions they can take based on the influence cards they are dealt.
  3. Still, further, the game has five different roles (“similar game objects”) and each role is intended to be just as powerful as the others (e.g. have the same cost/benefit ratio).

The only type of balance from the article that is not relevant to Coup is balance regarding matching player skill to challenge level in single-player games. As for the other types of balance, Coup is ambitious in tackling all three, yet it accomplishes balancing them deftly. Throughout my time playing Coup, no hand felt excessively weak or strong, and no one player (or role card) dominated the game across multiple playthroughs.

Coup is the perfect intransitively balanced game

While the game spans so many different types of balance, its strategy for balancing is ironically simple. It’s an intransitively balanced game in the purest sense; each player has two roles, and each role keeps other roles in check. For example, the Duke is an economy-based role, which allows players to take more coins while preventing others from taking coins as well. This economy is useful for taking control of the game via Coup actions. However, this economy is kept in check by the Captain, who can steal coins from another player (and therefore can target any player whose economy is too threatening). The Captain’s steal can be blocked by other Captains and by Ambassadors. The Assassin can surpass the economy game entirely by being able to assassinate other players for cheap, but this is kept in check by the Contessa, who cannot be assassinated. The Contessa, in turn for such a strong power, forgoes any other benefits.

Each role has special actions designed to keep other roles in check.

Despite the simple framework of an intransitive balance system, the designers of Coup have to be given some credit for coming up with the numbers that maintain a healthy balance between the roles. For example, a coup costs exactly 7 coins, the Duke can earn 3 coins per turn, the Captain can steal 2 coins from another player, and the Assassin can pay 3 coins to assassinate a target. It’s a feat that Coup achieves balance with relatively low numbers (and, actually, a necessity to the gameplay, given the difficulty of tracking large numbers of coins).

Intransitive or Fruity?

While it’s possible that Coup can be reduced to a mathematical equation yielding these coin values, the sense I get from Coup is that these numbers have been devised from careful playtesting. In fact, even if such a mathematical formula were devisable, there would be so much noise from the random and social deception elements of the game that it’s likely the formula wouldn’t be much superior to just intuitive playtesting (i.e. I suspect Coup’s designers used a strategy closer to “fruity” than “intransitive”).

Coup’s role cards feel more like apples and oranges than Hearthstone cards.

The social deception elements of Coup introduce yet another layer of complexity to the mathematics of Coup that makes it even harder to devise a first-order optimal strategy. At any given point, players can take the actions of any role, regardless if they truly possess that role or not. By default, these actions are all considered valid unless another player challenges, which is risky (if you’re wrong you lose an influence card, instead of the defender). Perhaps Coup is also a good example of how designers can create a sufficient perception of balance by introducing random elements in a perhaps-slightly-unbalanced game (in Coup, random elements are both literal, e.g. shuffling and dealing cards, and human, e.g. the social deception mechanics in the game).

It’s actually this layer that makes Coup come alive for me; the reading suggests that intransitively balanced games sometimes feel unsatisfying because they devolve into guessing games where the winning or losing is decided by luck. Coup might feel this way if you were completely beholden to the luck of the draw, but the ability to lie about your roles gives agency back to players, which makes the game feel fair (i.e. balanced!).

Well done, Coup.

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