I'm Morgan McGuire (@CasualEffects). I've been working on computer graphics and games for 20 years at great places including NVIDIA, University of Waterloo, Williams College, Brown University, Roblox, Unity, and Activision.

See my home page for a full index of my blog posts, books, research, and projects.

Saturday, June 25, 2016

McGuire House Rules for Coup

Coup is a new indie card game for 2-6 players. It enjoyed a successful Kickstarter and was the darling of PAX 2016.

I describe it to hardcore board gamers as "Citadels meets Love Letter and played in five minutes", to casual gamers as "this is what poker would be, if it was fun," and to poker players as "a bluffing board game you'll love."

Coup plays in rounds of about ten minutes, fits in a large pocket, and costs only $10. The artwork is beautiful and depicts diverse characters. There's a throwaway dystopian cyberpunk theme.

You can learn to play the game five minutes. After about half an hour will have the basic strategies down. It takes a few weeks to exhaust most play situations, and it plays a little differently with different numbers of players (six is best).

I usually ease players into Coup by first playing Love Letter, often with our house rules.

Our house rules make the game work well with as few as three players and introduce some new strategies without adding to the learning curve.
The Inquisitor from Reformation. I wish
this art had been paired with better rules!

There are also two official expansions--Reformation, and the standalone Rebellion (which includes Reformation and the base game as well as new cards). We prefer our modification to the official expansions. We think the official changes add too much complexity while undoing some of the core mechanics that made the original so much fun.

Reformation also is plagued by card back printing that doesn't match the original game. So, if you think you'll want an expansion, then you should probably just buy Rebellion outright to avoid this mismatch problem.

Coup is the second game by "Indie Boards and Cards," and is also set in their same "Dystopian" universe from their original game, The Resistance. The universe is irrelevant and The Resistance is interesting, but not as good as Coup.

Card Sleeves

As with Love Letter, there is a small deck in Coup and the cards are handled a lot. You run the risk of your deck quickly becoming marked by fingerprints and dinged edges. For a game in which you hold the same two cards the entire time and there are only five types of cards, marking breaks gameplay badly. 

Unfortunately, the 65mm x 100mm Coup cards are the wrong size for high-quality card sleeves made for Magic: The Gathering. They are the same size as 7 Wonders cards, however. This means that you can use the Mayday sleeves, which are inexpensive. They don't feel great and don't have opaque backs (exacerbating the Reformation printing problems), but are better than risking marked cards. 

We're working on a custom version of Coup laser-etched into thin plastic. If this comes out well then I'll post laser-cutter/engraver templates for them.

Base Rules

In the base rules, each player begins the game with a hand of two cards and two ISK (money). Each player takes one action on their turn:
"Play: Starting with the player to the left of the dealer and going clockwise, players take turns performing one of the available actions:
  1. Income: Take one coin from the bank. This cannot be Challenged or Blocked. 
  2. Foreign Aid: Take two coins from the bank. This cannot be Challenged but it can be Blocked by the Duke. 
  3. Coup: Costs seven coins. Cause a player to give up an Influence card. Cannot be Challenged or Blocked. If you start your turn with 10+ coins, you must take this action.
  4. Taxes (the Duke): Take three coins from the bank. Can be Challenged. 
  5. Assassinate (the Assassin): Costs three coins. Force one player to give up an Influence card of their choice. Can be Challenged. Can be Blocked by the Contessa.
  6. Steal (the Captain): Take two coins from another player. Can be Challenged. Can be Blocked by another Captain or an Ambassador. 
  7. Swap Influence (the Ambassador): Draw two Influence cards from the deck, look at them and mix them with your current Influence card(s). Place two cards back in the deck and shuffle the deck. Can be Challenged. Cannot be Blocked. 
Blocking: If another player takes an action that can be Blocked, any other player may Block it by claiming to have the proper character on one of their Influence cards. The acting player cannot perform the action and takes no other action this turn. 
The acting player MAY choose to Challenge the Blocking player. If they win the Challenge, the action goes through as normal.
Challenge: When the acting player declares their action, any other player may Challenge their right to take the action. They are saying “I don't believe you have the proper character to do that.” The acting player now must prove they have the power to take the action or lose the Challenge. If they have the right character, they reveal it and place the revealed card back in the deck. They then shuffle the deck and draw a new card. The Challenging player has lost the Challenge. If they do NOT have the proper character, they lose the Challenge.  
Losing a Challenge: Any player who loses a Challenge must turn one of their Influence cards face up for all to see. If that is their last Influence card, they are out of the game.  
Losing Influence: Any time a player loses an Influence card, THEY choose which of their cards to reveal."
Official clarifications to the printed rules:

  • If you claim to have an Assassin, are challenged, and lose the challenge (because you don't reveal an Assassin), then you do not have to pay 3 ISK.
  • If a challenge against you fails, then you complete the action after replacing your card (even though you likely will not have the card anymore).
  • If an Assassination is Challenged and there really was an Assassin, then the target may still claim to have a Contessa after the Challenge is resolved.

Strategic Advice

As in most bluffing games, don't bluff too often, and only bluff at critical plays if you are desperate. I almost always claim to have a Duke on the first round...and almost never bluff on my final attacks.

Time and information are the key commodities in Coup. It is often worth suffering an early setback or intentionally playing poorly to avoid revealing information about your hand. For example, you might start with a Captain but claim that it is an Ambassador to fool others into challenging you later.

Plan two attacks forward. You are extremely vulnerable after performing a Coup because you will have no ISK for your next attack (unless you loaded up to 10 and plan to follow with an Assassination...)

It often feels like you have a hand at the end game from which you cannot possibly win. For example, the other player has more ISK than you and you are holding only a Contessa. In these cases, it is true that you cannot win by playing your hand directly. However, the key is to recognize early in the game when this situation is going to arise, and start bluffing that you have the cards you would like to have in the end game. It is almost always your own fault if you are stuck in the end game, especially using our house rules.

The Ambassador doesn't just let you switch cards. It also allows you to look at the deck. After playing it a few times, you have a very good idea what cards are in the deck, and thus a large advantage for challenging and for bluffing. Remember: information is a commodity.

House Rules


The Brazil Edition. There are a lot of different artwork
versions of Coup due to its Kickstarter launch. I prefer
the sci-fi theme from the version linked above.
Coup is best with five or six players, played in several rounds. It is often hard to find six people, so our house rules are designed to help the bluffing and feints scale down to as few as three players.

In a pinch, you can play with two players using our modifications, or the base game's special rules for two players.

Our modifications are designed to prevent players from ganging up to take out one player early in the game. Ganging up is a fine strategy, but not very fun if it happens to you every round because the others think that you are the strongest and should be taken out first.

These modifications also provide the extra information that is available in a game with more players. The changes accomplish this by delaying the first attacks, providing extra information in the early game, and reducing the deck size.

Base Coup has a few degenerate situations. For example, if you don't defend against a Captain on his first Steal attack, you're going to be the victim of stealing on every subsequent round. Likewise, if you don't challenge a Contessa, that player will end up being Assasination-proof for most of the game. We encourage challenging as a strategy for eliminating a card that is creating a degenerate strategy by reducing the penalty for losing a challenge and adding a small reward for instigating a challenge. This is similar to the role of the Inquisitor in the expansion pack, however we feel that our version better maintains balance.

The modifications also compensate for some hands that are hard to recover from in a small game when down to one card by granting extra powers to the cards that are weak in that situation. Even if you might not have the right power in a bad situation...but the point of Coup is that the other players won't know that you don't have the power, and often a threat is as good as the right hand in this game.


1. An Ambassador can reduce the Captain's stealing to 1 ISK, but not block it entirely.

2. The first player starts with 0 ISK. The others start with 1 ISK.

3. On challenging, the challenger immediately receives 1 ISK before the challenge is resolved (regardless of whether the challenge succeeds.)

4. Whomever loses the challenge may pay 5 ISK to the bank instead of losing a card. This player must have at least 5 ISK at the time to exercise this option. The payment occurs before the action, so a Captain may end up not being able to steal if the target loses a challenge and thus their money in the process.

5. Modify the cards as follows to add powers. We slip a note into the face side of the card sleeve. You can also permanently mark the face of the card, since that doesn't affect your ability to still play with the base rules if you later change your mind about using these rules.
  • One Ambassador: Inheritance. Gain 4 ISK when this card is Killed.
  • One Assassin: Vengeance. Automatically execute a free Assassination (against anyone) when killed by a Coup (which can cause a tie if it ends the game). That assassination can itself be blocked by a Contessa.
  • One Contessa: Treaty. Can override a Duke's block of Foreign Aid (against anyone). This can be challenged, as with any card. Note that you don't have declare that you're using the Treaty until a Duke tries to block you.
The other two copies of each of those cards are unmodified. In all of these rules, "kill" means in a coup or assassination. A card lost in a challenge is a "death" but not a "kill."

6. A special mat is marked with five events. The first player is responsible for executing these rules:
  1. Flip before 1st turn. A card is dealt face down on this at the start. The first player flips it before their first turn.
  2. Collect before 2nd turn. 1 ISK is placed on this at the start. The first player collects it before their second turn.
  3. Flip before 3rd turn (For four or fewer players). A card is dealt face down on this at the start. The first player flips it before their third turn.
  4. Flip after first death (For four or fewer players). A card is dealt face down on this at the start. The first player flips it after the first Death of any player's card.
  5. Flip after second death (For three or fewer players). A card is dealt face down on this at the start. The first player flips it after the second Death of any player's card. 
7. No self-challenges, self-assassinations, or self-coups are allowed.

An updated rules summary sheet for our modifications is:

Print that sheet at 45% of full-size in portrait orientation to exactly fit in the original Coup box.

The player who won the previous game becomes the new first player. Reverse the order of play (or change seats) around the table between games.

Morgan McGuire (@morgan3d) is a professor at Williams College, a researcher at NVIDIA, and a professional game developer. His most recent games are Project Rocket Golfing for iOS and the Skylanders series for consoles. He is the author of the Graphics Codex, an essential reference for computer graphics now available in iOS and Web Editions.