Coup and Reformation Review


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Posted by Drew on Apr 28, 2015

Coup is a social deduction card game in which each player is vying for political power and to that end, has secured two benefactors. But no one knows precisely what characters are backing which player. The game is all about bluffing, deception, strategy, and reading your opponents.

At the beginning, each player is given two coins and two cards. Cards come in five flavors: Ambassador, Assassin, Captain, Contessa, and Duke. Each also provides one or more special abilities that they will contribute in support of your cause. The cards are kept secret from the other players.

On a player’s turn, they can perform one of a variety of actions. There are two “safe” actions that anyone can take. Taking one coin is safe; as is the titular coup action. To coup someone, you spend seven coins and they immediately lose one of their two cards. That card is turned face up and is effectively out of the game. Then, there are the other, non-safe actions.

For example, a player might attempt to steal two coins from a rival. But stealing requires the backing of the Captain- which you may or may not actually have. If a player steals, claiming that the Captain is one of his cards, then any player can call his bluff. “I don’t believe you have a Captain!” comes the cry across the table. At that point, the player must reveal the Captain card. If he does, then the player who accused him of lying loses one of their two cards, turning it face up. The revealed Captain is shuffled back into the deck and a new card drawn and given to the player. If the player was lying about having a Captain, not only does his steal action fail, but he loses one of his cards as a penalty for lying.

If a player loses both of their cards, they are out. While Coup features player elimination, it isn’t as punitive as it is in some games. First, a typical game doesn’t last more than twenty minutes or so, even with six players. And second, without the threat of elimination, the game simply wouldn’t work. Players would take calculated risks based on points or whatever other metric of success was utilized. With elimination at stake, there is significant and unmatched tension in every action.

Coup is best played with a group that enjoys bluffing. Technically, you have access to all abilities. Instead of taking just one coin, maybe you can take three by using the tax action. Of course, taxing is tied to the Duke, so if someone calls your bluff, you better have a Duke. But if no one calls it, you can get three coins even without a Duke.

But it’s about more than just having a good poker face. It’s also about strategy. The race to seven coins – allowing you to coup someone – is key. Getting behind in the coin count can be dangerous.

Plus, your response can have repercussions. A Captain’s theft can be blocked by another Captain or an Ambassador. So let’s say someone attempts to steal and the target doesn’t block it. Everyone at the table now knows that they can steal from that player with impunity. Suddenly, that player is going to be poor the rest of the game as everyone else takes his money. So claiming to have a character that can block the theft is critical – whether you actually have it or not.

Coup promotes bluffing, deduction, and keeps everyone guessing. It was fully complete and I enjoyed playing it dozens of times. Then it expanded with Reformation. I was apprehensive. Wouldn’t that bloat the game? How much can you add to the relatively simple design? However, all fears were allayed after a single play.

Reformation adds loyalties to the game. Alternating players are dealt faction cards (Loyalist or Resistance) which determine the faction they belong to. As long as both factions exist, a player may only coup, steal, assassinate and block foreign aid from the rival faction. Those abilities may not be used on players of the same faction – at least until the opposition is gone. Then, abilities can be used as normal.

Reformation also introduces new actions. For a cost of one coin, a player can swap to the other loyalty. Or for two coins, they can switch the loyalty of another player. All coins paid in this way go to the Treasury, kept separate from the normal bank. The other new action is to take all the coins in the Treasury. But this action can only be completed if the player doesn’t have a Duke – or at least, claims not to.

This is an exceptional yet fairly restrained expansion. By adding only two actions, it doesn’t bloat the game. So you don’t lose the quick play of Coup or increase the between games wait time for eliminated players. But the expansion also increases the tactical space. In one play, there were three of us left, all of the same faction. The player to my left had enough coins that he was going to coup someone. So I simply changed the third player’s faction. Now the player to my left had to coup our mutual opponent.

It’s the little tricky plays that make the expansion shine. Manipulating the loyalties is a great way to protect yourself or to encourage or force opponents to go after third parties. Manipulating the loyalty becomes especially important when you think that someone really does have a Captain or obviously enough coins to coup.

It also does a great job of helping players without a Duke. Because of the huge money advantage, Duke can become an important play or bluff. But now, players without it also have access to the treasury. And, because of that, players with a Duke may even want to bluff and take the Treasury away.

Reformation adds strategic layers without unnecessary complication. A new role or a new power might have felt tacked on or integrated poorly. But the loyalties do an excellent job of adding to the experience without adding to the time.