Monday, March 30, 2015

Game Stories: Coup Redux

A while back, I posted about the board game Coup, talking about how the different characters' powers each had a sort of story baked into them, reinforcing the theme with mechanical effects. I'd like to revisit this game a second time around. This time, I'm talking about how the entire game comes together, how it folds a bunch of different mechanisms into one big collection of game that creates a very specific atmosphere. Curious?

First off, let's have a quick recap of how the game works. Coup is a game about lying and knocking your opponents out of the game by doing so. Each player begins the game with influence over two figures in a sci-fi dystopian government. As you play the game, you accumulate coins that can be spent in bulk to eliminate the influence that the player has over one of their characters. Of course, the accumulation of these coins is pretty slow, and so the characters you influence have different abilities.

  • The Ambassador lets you swap the influence you have, changing the characters who you have access to.
  • The Duke lets you take more money than usual, getting you closer to knocking out players. It also lets you stifle the income of other players.
  • The Captain lets you steal from other players.
  • The Assassin lets you eliminate other players' influence at a cheaper price.
  • The Countess protects you from the Assassin.

Of course, the characters you have influence over are not publicly known! Which can lie about them. Sure, if you're challenged, there's a penalty for that. But if you're challenged and you were telling the truth, it's the challenger who pays the penalty. Coup is a game about misdirecting your opponents and playing with their deductive abilities, while also sculpting a path to victory.

Coup does a lot of things to build a very particular narrative: the theme of betrayal, intrigue, and deception. While the bluffing aspect is obvious, the game's storytelling is more involved than that.

The Cast of Coup
The previous post goes over this specific aspect of Coup in more detail, but it's worth revisiting as part of the larger context. A lot of the character powers map very easily to conceptions of the characters you're influencing. The Assassin kills cards if you pay money. The Duke levies taxes and meddles with foreign affairs. The Countess keeps assassins away. The Ambassador lets you exchange your influence in a friendly manner. The Captain sees fit to ensure that some of your opponent's supplies get "misplaced" thanks to a "mixup" at the warehouses.

The contrasts between the characters also get augmented by the relationships which exist between a few of them: the Countess blocks the Assassin, and the Ambassador and Captain both interfere with a stealing attempt. While you can read into these, the more important part to realize is that this starts to create a web of dynamism between different roles: some roles act as counters to other roles, which means that the roles you claim prompt particular responses from other players, whether you have them or not.

The Duke is countered by a Captain who can steal from them and an Assassin who can undercut their massive income by getting the same result for cheaper. You can defend against the Captain by having another Captain or an Ambassador, and you can defend against the Assassin by having a Countess, but you can't defend against both at once. Unless you were lying about having the Duke. Or about having one of the other cards. So, if you lie, you can cycle between three different cards, even though you can only conceivably have two of them. This happens because of the dynamic relationships between the different abilities.

The Economy Time Bomb
Do you remember the Countdowns of DOOM post I had up a while back? Coup has its own countdown built in, although it's not obvious. It comes from the interactions of the game mechanics, so let me explain it explicitly.

  • Income enters the game through normal means and through a character ability, but there's only two ways to drain it, and both involve knocking a player out of the game.
  • If nobody decides to start knocking players out, the money just keeps piling up.
  • Once someone hits 10 coins, they're forced to use the "coup" action against another player, eliminating one of their cards.
  • Typically, the more common "countdown" is the countdown to the cost of a coup: 7 coins.

What happens during the game is that players are very attentive to when another player will hit 7 coins, because that means they can coup without risk. (Sure, the Assassin is effectively a 3-coin coup, but it's also not a done deal.) Since coups are the only way to remove coins from the game, somebody's going to wind up with enough money sooner rather than later. This puts the pressure on the game dynamics, and encourages you to keep your options open.

The Deception Element
This leads to the ultimate goal, of course: a game filled with lying, intrigue, and deception. Games of intrigue are ones where you form your own plans, but also have to guess at the plans of your opponents. It's an atmosphere of mirrors and smoke, where your best asset is trying to keep your opponent more in the dark than you are. But it can't be purposeless deception, because spinning your wheels towards no goal in particular means that somebody else is going to win the game before you can position yourself.

Because of the dynamic between the different characters, you can't rely securely on any one character, so you have to adapt to the current situation. At the same time, because character abilities involve possible lying, you need to frame your choices in such a way that they make sense to other players, so that you don't start looking suspicious. If someone begins to think that you've claimed a role solely because it's convenient to your current situation, they might challenge you, because that convenience is a little too convenient.

On the other hand, you might actually have that card, and your best situation is to tempt opponents into challenging characters you actually have the cards for. You have to be consistently inconsistent, so that they begin to doubt everything you do, but be straightforward enough that they don't challenge the times that you actually bluff.

But be careful, because the pressure's on, and people's coins are building up.