Review: Coup04 May 2015 0
Very briefly, Coup is free-to-play Diplomacy in a bottle. Banana & Co have adapted the highly successful tabletop card game into a beautiful app with some fetching (and all-new) art, and have responded to user feedback very quickly, but "free-to-play" is to "game" as "venomous" is to "puppy" around here. A dash of "pay-to-win" before the dreaded "free-to-play" makes that venom lethal. Contrariwise, when you're indulging in paranoia, scheming, and (simulated) assassination, you're basically role-playing a fictional villain anyway, and lethally venomous puppies mix adorable and badass in an endearingly batty way.
Coup, like Love Letter or Werewolf, involves players using a relatively limited set of options in a pretty streamlined ruleset to make deductions about one another while successfully hiding their own information. Alliances can form and break quickly, and there's an art to managing coalitions which relies on subtle cues. Much of that can't translate to a digital game where you can't see your opponents, and the Coup app has had to make some sacrifices to keep games of a manageable duration, notably limiting the number of players and removing the Foreign Aid action. These compromises make Coup very different in person vs. on the multiplayer-only app. Though there are fewer options for negotiation, and only limited communicative options (more available for a reasonable fee!), where Coup succeeds is in evoking the same desperate hope Diplomacy does when you've put in your orders and you're waiting to find out whether your erstwhile ally guessed you'd turn on him. Uh, I mean, whether you, a loyal ally to the bitter end, have been stabbed in the back by a treacherous "friend".
You start Coup with two role cards from a deck with three copies each of five roles which give certain options. Each turn, you choose one action from a menu of six which includes choices like steal two gold, collect three gold, or pay three gold to make someone else discard a card. Most of these actions can be blocked. However, both most of the actions and all of the blocks can be challenged--if you are challenged and have the relevant card, your opponent discards one and you shuffle your card back into the deck and draw a replacement; otherwise, you discard. There's a fine balance between taking the most useful actions (hoping no one will challenge them) and obeying the limits of your cards, with levels of bluff and counter-bluff. Communication is limited Hearthstone-style to a small pre-set menu of mots juste.
While this structure offers lots of opportunities for really enjoyable plays, like luring someone into challenging you when you have the card you claimed, it also has a comical variety of monetization schemes which put one in mind of kitchen sinks. First, there are ads you can pay to remove. Second, there's a currency called "Rep" which you must pay to play, and gain for winning games. Though more is deposited weekly and the payouts are fairly generous, should you run out you can either watch additional ads for free Rep, or pay real money for it. Third, you can buy cosmetic alternative card faces, including several which have been associated with various editions of the physical game. Fourth, you can buy packs of additional pre-set phrases to use in manipulating your opponents. Fifth, you can buy a one-time "Spy" upgrade, which lets you look at the statistics on another player or hide your statistics from other spies. The last of these strongly smacks of pay-to-win, though a generous mind might consider it no worse than the advantage some players have over others in the real world of remembering others' past behavior unusually well. The communication options might also matter, but in practice, I've seen relatively little use of the in-game communication, and it's difficult to learn much of anything from it. Oh, and it bugs you for a five-star rating often enough to make teenaged significant others look secure.
From the perspective of a licensor, Coup is just about the perfect iOS adaptation: it's polished, with some genuinely interesting value added (including probably my favorite game art in memory and a satisfying achievement system), and introduces the game very well without making a physical copy seem superfluous. Unless your tolerance for free-to-play nonsense is very high, Coup won't become a mainstay of your gaming life, but it's an eye-pleasing way of trying out the game only to discover that it would be so much more well-rounded in person. With limited communication and low player counts, the negotiation element falls in importance somewhat below the luck of the draw, and it's a simple, relatively random five- or ten-minute diversion. In person, though, the mind games available to talented players would be so fascinating I'd be happy to be losing just to get a good seat from which to watch.
Played on an iPad Air.