Hi! Welcome to another one of my sporadic board game posts. Normally in this, well, I call it a series but perhaps “infrequently updates set of things” might be a slightly more apposite moniker… anyway, normally in this series I talk about quite big, chunky, time intensive games that need a whole evening to finish. Okay, actually normally in this series, I talk about Eldritch Horror and I have just got the new expansion for that so I might blog about it at some point. But today I thought I’d talk about games you can buy for less than twenty quid and play in less than twenty hours.
Partly because short games are, well, shorter than long games and partly because I like themes more than is perhaps rational I thought I’d review multiple games in this post and, specifically, that I’d review a set of games, each of which revolves around some kind of hidden identity.
Game 1: Love Letter
Because I’m an awkward bugger, I thought I’d start my post about hidden role games with a game that isn’t really a hidden role game, but which shares a lot of similarities with the genre. I actually mentioned Love Letter briefly in my first post in this non-series, in which I outlined its main selling point as being its simplicity, its surprising depth, and the fact it comes in a little velvet bag.
The game is played with a deck of exactly sixteen cards. They are, in descending order of value: one princess, one countess, one king, two princes, two handmaids, two barons, two priests, and five guards. Every player gets one card (the leftovers remain in the deck) and, on your turn, you draw one card from the deck, then play one of the two cards you now hold. The game continues until there are no cards left in the deck and the winner is the one with the most valuable card at the end of the game. That is literally the whole of the game play.
This seems both very simple and a little bit random (essentially whoever winds up with the princess wins). But it’s made more complicated because some cards allow you to manipulate other people’s cards or even eliminate them from the game entirely. When you play the Baron, for example, you compare the other card in your hand with another player and whoever’s card has the lowest value is knocked out immediately. When you play a guard, you guess what someone else’s card is and, if you’re right, they’re knocked out immediately. Some cards can make people discard their hand and, if you discard the princess, you’re knocked out immediately.
The crucial thing about this gameplay loop is that pretty much every card becomes more powerful as you gain more information. And because every played and discarded card remains face up on the table at all times it becomes more and more possible to make accurate deductions about what cards people are holding. More than that, it’s possible to make higher level deductions based on what choices people make and what effects cards have on other cards.
For example, if someone plays a Baron then you know that one of the two Barons has been played. But you also know that their other card is either good enough that they expect to win the Baron challenge or unplayable enough that they have to risk knocking themselves out. Once the challenge is completed, you know who won, which means you know the other person’s card is higher. (Remember, that when someone is knocked out, their card gets put face up on the table). A relatively common and deeply terrifying situation in a game of Love Letter is to find yourself holding the Baron and the Princess. Now, on the one hand this is great because you know you can definitely eliminate any player of your choice (you play the Baron, you compare hands, your hand will definitely be harder because the Princess is the highest card in the game) but you also know that if the person you eliminate is holding another high card, then every other player in the game will know that you card was higher than theirs. The absolute nightmare scenario (and, bear in mind, that I’m saying nightmare scenario within the context of a light-hearted card game about sending love notes to a pretty lady) is they’re holding the Countess (the second highest value card) in which case everybody immediately knows that you have the Princess and can therefore remove you from the game almost at will with a Guard or a Prince.
It all comes together to form an adorable but beautifully rigorous deduction puzzle. Once about half the cards have been played, you can narrow everybody else’s hand down to a very small number of possibilities and can often predict who must win given what combinations of cards in a way that makes you feel a very small amount like a chess grandmaster.
Because the game itself is a little bit random (in that you can potentially get eliminated before you’ve even had a turn, if you get unlucky) it is played over several hands. The winner of a given hand gets a ‘token’ (a little red cube, representing some sign of the Princess’s favour) and the winner is the first person to get to a particular number of these. And I think this might be one of those situations where my friends and I have been playing a game a wrong for years and I’ve only worked it out because I wanted to check something for a blog post. We’ve normally played as the first to two or three tokens, irrespective of the number of players. This has the drawback of making the game get longer with more people, but it’s always felt about right to us, and we have a relatively consistent number of friends. Double-checking the rules, it turns out the number of tokens needed to win is actually 7 for a two-player game, 5 for a thee-player game, and 4 for a four-player game. Honestly, I’m not sure how I feel about that. On the one hand, it’s nice that they’ve chosen to scale things with number of players. On the other hand, and maybe this is just me, as much as I enjoy Love Letter I tend to get a little bit tired of it after four or five hands. So requiring a minimum of four hands and a maximum of thirteen hands to finish a game feels a little bit excessive to me. Having said all that, this rule is clearly easily ignorable, as evidenced by the fact that my friends and I have clearly ignored it.
In short: Love Letter is a light-hearted, relatively fast-faced (if you ignore the play a million hands rule), easy to understand game of bluffing and deduction. Also its theme is just genuinely nice. It’s not often you get games about interacting socially rather than, well, killing shit. Although, to be fair, that might be a reflection of the games I choose to play rather than the games that actually exist.
Game 2: Coup
So Coup actually is a hidden role game. And I should probably explain what those are. Annoyingly, the best way to do that might be to explain what role games are because the best to understand hidden role games is that they’re role games but the roles are hidden.
Basically, a role game or role choosing game is one where, on any given turn, every player gets to pick a particular role which gives them a particular ability. These roles are normally limited in some ways, often there will only be one or two copies of each, and it is frequently the case that some roles are legitimately stronger than others. Success in a role game depends strongly on choosing the right role at the right time to properly execute your strategy. Examples include, Citadels, Puerto Ricco, and so on.
A hidden role game is like a role game except you’re allowed to lie about what your role is. In Citadels, every turn one person gets to be the King and whoever gets to pick first, can pick the King and then no-one else is King. In a hidden role, one person gets to be the King (which usually means, one person has the card which says they’re King) but, even if you don’t have the King card, you can lie and say you’re the King and get away with it as long as no-one challenges you. I understand that is broadly how most European monarchies functioned between the 12th and 18th centuries.
In Coup each take player takes the role of a shadowy puppet master in a Dystopian future with a slightly Capitol from Hunger Games aesthetic. Each player controls two, well, the game calls them influence, but it’s basically cards with roles on them. The aim of the game is to eliminate the other shadowy puppet master by destroying their influence – that is to say, by making them discard their cards. You generally do this by building up money until you have enough to pay for a coup or an assassination.
There are five roles in the game: the duke, the assassin, the captain, the ambassador and the comtessa and each one either enables you to take a special action or block an action. On your turn, you may do one of four things: take a small amount of money (which no-one can stop), take a larger amount of money (which the duke can stop), pay seven monies to stage a coup (no-one can stop that either), or use a character ability. You don’t have to use the ability of a character you’ve actually got. But whenever you use a character’s ability, everybody else in the game has the option to challenge you. If you claim to be the Duke (and, therefore, entitled to use the Duke’s super money gaining powers) but you aren’t the Duke and somebody says you aren’t the Duke you discard one of your characters (remember you only have two cards, and if you lose them both you’re out the game). If you are the Duke, however, you can reveal your Duke card, meaning the person who accused you loses one of their cards, putting them one step closer to being forcibly run out of the shadowy manipulation business and you (and everybody else) one stop closer to winning. Once you’ve revealed your Duke, you then shuffle it back into the deck and draw a replacement. You can also be challenged if you attempt to use one of your cards to block somebody else’s action.
All of this leads to a surprisingly tense game of bluff, counterbluff, vindictive aggression and naked fuckery. In a game we played fairly recently, one of my friends pretended to have forgotten what one of her cards did, which led her own husband to assume that she was bluffing about having it in the first place. She wasn’t. Because it’s a game where you directly eliminate other players, there is (or can be) quite a lot of picking on people and I’ve not played it enough yet to work out the optimal amount of picking on to do (and, obviously, this varies a lot depending on the social dynamic of my group). Get ahead too early and the other players are quite likely to gang up on you. On the other hand, depending on what friends are like, there might be that one person who it’s fun to gang up on pretty much regardless of the strategic situation. In my friendship group, that’s usually me.
There are a number of things I find elegant about Coup. Because of the simple but varied interactions between enabling cards and blocking cards and between honesty and bluffing it makes even quite simple action-reaction events feel quite layered. For example, two of the cards in the game are the Assassin and the Comtessa. The assassin allows you to force somebody else to discard a card (much like the Coup action) but it only costs three money, less than half the price of a coup. I sort of have this image of your shadowy manipulator sitting in their office, saying Soon, soon all the pieces will be in place. I will have my pawns in the highest tiers of my enemy’s power structure. I will have my spies watching his every moment and, with but a word, I shall be able to destroy him only to have the assassin come up and say yeah, we could do that, or we could just shoot him in the head.
Anyway, calling an assassination against someone is probably the single most choice-inducing action you can take in the game. If someone coups you, that’s it, you lose a card, you might be out. If somebody assassins you, suddenly there’s a whole lot of shit to weigh up. First of all, as they point out in the rules, if you let the assassin through you lose a card but if you challenge it and you’re wrong you lose a card for the assassin and a card for the incorrect challenge (which puts you out immediately). So there’s already quite high stakes here. And if you do decide to try and challenge an assassin, there’s actually two ways to do it. You could either try to call your opponent’s bluff, say they don’t have an assassin and risk losing if they do. Or you can claim to have the Comtessa. The Comtessa blocks assassinations and that is all she does. Of course, if you claim to have the Comtessa and you don’t, you’re in essentially the same situation because if you’re opponent calls you on your Comtessa-less status, you lose a card for making a false statement and the assassination still goes through. So you’re out the game again. But what bluffing the Comtessa does do is put the ball back in your opponent’s court. Because now they’re the one who has to decide whether it’s worth risking the loss of a card in order to see whether or not you’re bluffing. So if someone tries to assassination and you haven’t got a Comtessa, the decision then becomes “is it more likely that my opponent has really got an assassin or that they will decide to gamble on my not having a Comtessa” and you’ve got to make that decision fast enough that your opponent doesn’t read into your hesitation the fact that you’re weighing up challenging assassin versus bluffing Comtessa, given that you can reasonably assume that if you really had a Comtessa you’d just declare it immediately. Of course that leads to yet another level of potential bluffing (and this is essentially what happened during the minor incident of marital strife the last time we played this game) in that if you know you have a Comtessa you can pretend to have forgotten that the Comtessa is an option (which people often do if they aren’t holding one) in order to bait your opponent into challenging your Comtessa play, when you know you really have one.
Like I said: fuckery.
Like Love Letter the game replies partly in the players’ abilities to make deduction based on the fact that the number of role cards is limited. There are exactly three of each role in the game and all discarded cards (not recently shuffled cards) remain face up in front of the player permanently. This means that sometimes you’re deciding whether to call somebody’s bluff on the basis of additional information about what cards they could possibly have. If I’m holding an assassin and there are two assassins face up on the table and somebody calls an assassin against me I can be pretty confident in challenging it.
The final thing I’ve noticed about Coup is that it often builds towards a strange sort of inevitability. It might just be the way we play it, but the game tends to end up with everybody one card and then eliminations start to happen quite quickly. Once you’re down to two players with one card, the dynamic becomes very interesting because essentially whoever gets to seven monies (the coup threshold) first definitely wins. Bluffing an assassin isn’t an option because your opponent is guaranteed to call you (since they have nothing to lose) so the head-to-head tends to fall into a stable pattern where both players have a best role to call and both players calling those roles will lead to one player hitting seven first, meaning the other person’s only hope of winning is to call the other player’s bluff. Which essentially means that the head to head is decided by whether the person whose optimal role choice leads to them winning actually has the card that corresponds to that role.
Alternatively, it comes down to whoever has the assassin.
Because the final conflict has this sense of inevitably about it the dynamic between three or four players gets very strange indeed. If three players are all sitting on five to six coins, then whoever calls coup first will almost certainly get immediately counter-couped by the person they didn’t eliminate. Which makes it feel that sometimes the best option would be to pass, but you’re not allowed to pass. And if you bluff something that would let you set up for endgame you might get called and lose, but then again you might not because everyone else is risking elimination as well. So wah!
Basically, it’s scary, thinky and bluffy. Which is a really good game for the sort of person who likes that sort of thing (and I personally do).
Game Three: Mascarade
Mascarade is a hidden role game except you don’t know your role any more than anybody else does. It has the same basic set up as Coup or Citadels: a bunch of different characters, each character has a special ability. Like with Coup, you can claim any ability in the game, but you get penalised if you claim falsely. There are three of four significant differences between Coup and Mascarade, which, taken together, make it a lot weirder.
Unlike Coup, Mascarade (by default) gives each player one identity rather than two, and does not involve player elimination. Like Coup, it involves racking up monies and winning once you’ve reached a certain monies threshold. But in Mascarade it’s just “get 13 gold and win”, rather than “get enough gold to get knock somebody else out the game, only to find this has left you vulnerable to somebody knocking you out the game wargle wargle wargle.”
Like Coup, on your turn you have the option of taking a character action or one of the game’s default actions. Unlike Coup, money is gained only through character actions and the default actions are, well, a bit more confusing. Not because there are a lot of them but because they are as follows:
- As your action, you may look at the card in front of you. This might be really important for reasons we’ll see later.
- As your action, you may take a card from another player, swap them under the table (you are allowed to keep track, but other people are not supposed to be able to see it) and then return one card to the other player, and keep the other for yourself.
So basically, you can start out a game of Mascarade with one of you as a judge, one a king, one as fool, one as a witch, and two as peasants (if the peasants are in the game, there are always two of them, every other role is unique) and, after a couple of rounds have gone by, the king will have become a peasant, one of the peasants will have become a witch, the fool will think he’s still the fool but will actually be the judge, and the judge won’t have a clue what’s going on.
Like in Coup, you declare an action you like but other people can challenge you. unlike in Coup, the only way a person can challenge is by declaring that they are the person you are claiming to be. I am the King, you say, I will take three gold from the treasury (this is a good ability). No you are not, says another player, I am the King. Then you both turn your cards over. At this point, it is extremely likely that neither of you are king. It is entirely possible that the person who originally claimed to be king was deliberately bluffing, it is equally possible that they sincerely thought they were the king, but had lost track in all the confusion. It is possible that the person who challenged sincerely though that they were the king. It is also possible that they knew full well they were not the king, but also strongly believed that the first player was not the king either and felt they would rather take the incorrect challenge penalty, than let player 1 get three gold for nothing.
This brings us to the other important difference between Mascarade and Coup—and it’s also why I think I slightly prefer Mascarade, even though Coup works better with the number of players I have access to. A lot of the time, in Coup, I found that people were hesitant to challenge and I think hesitant to bluff because the penalties for being caught out were so severe. In Mascarade, a called bluff or an incorrect challenge have the same penalty, which is that you pay 1 gold into the court house. This is enough of a deterrent that you’d rather it didn’t happen but mild enough that it doesn’t really discourage people from bluffing (either deliberately or accidentally) and calling. Also, unlike Coup, you keep you card even after it’s been revealed (it gets put back face down in front of you) so challenges give useful information and I’ve known several people deliberately challenge another player just because they had no idea who they were and were willing to pay one gold to look at their card without wasting a turn.
I appreciate that I use the word elegant a lot but one of things I find elegant about Mascarade is the way the penalty system works. One of the problems with first past the post games is that they lead inevitably to knobble the leader. If somebody’s on twelve gold, you have to take gold off them or else they win. It really is that simple. This effect becomes incredibly frustrating in some games, like SJG’s Munchkin, where the aim is to get to level ten but because you can play cards that make people lose levels the game just drags on and on and on as people reach level 9, get blasted down to level 8, climb back up to level 9, get blasted down to level 8 and so on until you’ve played every card in the game, or quit in sheer frustration.
In Mascarade, however, money never leaves the economy. Some characters , like the witch or the thief, can steal from other players. And some, like the king or the queen, can take money from the bank. But money never goes from play back to the bank. All fines, paid for incorrect challenges or incorrect claims, go the court house, and all the money on the court house can be taken by the judge (or someone claiming to be the judge). The game contains more roles than you use in a given session but one of the key rules is that the judge must always be in play. This means that the further the games goes the closer everybody gets to winning and it becomes inevitable that someone will cross the threshold before it gets too dull.
I think the other reason I favour Mascarade over Coup is that often in Coup I felt forced onto the defensive or like there wasn’t I could do that was interesting or exciting. And, to be fair, this is just a feature of the game. Coup involves a small number of roles that have a limited and specific set of actions. And the gameplay games from using that knowledge and those actions efficiently and effectively. In Mascarade, by contrast, it’s quite hard to have strategy because it very quickly reaches the point where nobody has a clue what’s happening. As a result, the game is a lot more about taking risks, doing things that seem like a good idea at the time, and generally embracing the chaos. There are also a lot more comeback mechanics built in. The witch can swap her entire fortune with another player. The widow can immediately claim enough coins to bring her total to ten. Depending on how other people have played, the judge can produce massive swings. It means never quite get that situation where it’s just Player A on six coins and Player B on four coins, and all B can do is bluff the captain and hope his opponent doesn’t have the duke.
I think what I find most interesting about Coup and Mascarade as a pair is how different they wind up being with such similar mechanics. Coup, based on player elimination, high stakes bluffing and a steady increase in available information leads to a tense, all or nothing game with a lot a strategy. Mascarade with a first-past-the-post system, low stakes bluffing and systems designed to obscure information at every step leads to a chaotic whacky game where you can think you’re a bishop but really be a queen. And haven’t we all been there.
In summary, I’d say two things about Mascarade. The first is that it really works with more than four people, which can be quite a high bar for a gaming group, depending on, well, how popular you are and the relative nerdiness of your friends. The second thing I’d say, is that it does do your head in. Shut Up And Sit Down suggested that one of the things about Mascarade that catches out new players it feels more accessible that it perhaps is. For the first couple of rounds, you can just about keep track of who everyone else is, but as that becomes more and most impossible it can, for new players, be more and more frustrating.
The final thing I’d say about Mascarade is that I have friend who is very, very good at it. And I sometimes wonder if I haven’t made the same mistake with it that I always make with Takenoko. That is, for all I’ve said about Mascarade being a hilarious chaotic game about nobody knowing who they are or what’s going on, you could also argue that it’s a ruthlessly efficacious bluffing game about managing a resource income. I’m not sure, but I think my friend plays Mascarade with a much closer eye on who has how much gold, who can afford to call what bluffs, and how many turns it takes to win. This means they tend to do a lot better than those of us who just like to shout “I’m the judge!” at the top of our voices while having no idea if we actually are.
I’ve basically said all of this above but just to reiterate: I recommend all three games. Of the three, Mascarade is probably the least accessible to children because the whole hidden role keeping tracking thing is a bit confusing and can be hard to explain. I know people who have played Coup with a real ten-year-old and it went surprisingly well. The rules are simple, it’s clear what your options are and we only think kids are bad at lying because they’re bad at keeping track of evidence. When your child tells you they didn’t eat the chocolate cake that nobody else could have eaten, that’s obviously not true. When a child tells you they’re the Duke and therefore needs to given three monies from the bank, you’ve got a lot less to go on. Love Letter has an appealing theme (if your kids are more into princesses than dystopias) and because hands are quite fast I think it’s probably quite accessible. I do wonder if the surprisingly high amount of deduction you have to do to play successfully and the potential for early, unfair eliminations might make the game less child-friendly than it seems at first. But, unlike Coup, I don’t know anyone who has road-tested it.
Obviously, I own all three of these games and even though I’ve reviewed them as a bunch this isn’t one of those situation where I feel there’s only room for one in your collection. It’s completely viable to have all three. They’re all short and low commitment. Mascarade works best for bigger groups, almost like a party game, while Coup and Love Letter are more suited as part of a more traditional games evening. If you come from the kind of social circle where traditional games evening are a thing.