When it comes to a bluff, nothing beats a human.


COUP game screen

I recently picked up an IOS game of COUP from the App store, with high hopes.  Though I actually (wince) haven’t  ever played the game COUP until now,  I own a copy.  I know people rave about the design simplicity and fun factor of this tiny, cheap and well realized card game from the folks that brought you RESISTANCE.   Me, I bought it because I love the idea of compressing lots of fun in a small, affordable package.  See my fanboy page on ancient Microgames from the glorious early 1980s era (a tab up top).  But I digress.   Now, event though I’ve never actually played this 9 days’ wonder of a micro game, I’ve played games like it– games requiring bluffing, guile, and performance.   COUP works well because the players assume hidden roles.  The roles have certain tasks that interact with the game mechanics in a roughly deterministic manner.  You could have a card like the Duke, for instance, which taxes players 2 money.  OR .. you could just say you have the Duke, and STILL collect  the 2 money.. BUT! the other players can jump in and say “Nu-UH! NO WAY are you the Duke.  I challenge!”  A result that often penalizes the accuser more than the accused, because if you challenge him and he really IS the Duke, well, one of your cards goes face up, see?

Sure, I’ve played games like this.. many times.  BANG! comes to mind.  And DIPLOMACY.  And even COSMIC ENCOUNTER.  The challenge is figuring out the other player’s intentions from incomplete information.  `There’s nothing revelatory about stating this– you played games like that all your life, from Poker to Go Fish.  The kind of games that involve heavy amounts of bluffing.  Bluffing games come in many flavors.. role based, like BATTLESTAR GALACTICA or BANG! or rule-based, like 7 Card Stud.  The one thing they have in common is sanctioned lying-– e.g. deliberately misstating your position to gain an advantage or hide a disadvantage in the course of game play.   Card games, in particular, tend to rely on sanctioned lying as a key mechanic– our whole culture of game bluffing derives from the notion of bluffing in a gambling context.  Bluffing has been present in games from the very earliest recorded games.

If bluffing is like lying, it also prone to the weaknesses that are associated with lying.  A human being can give off detectable signs that he or she isn’t telling the truth.  In card games, these are called “tells”.  A friend of mine, a retired CIA Officer who has had to interrogate hundreds of individuals during the course of his career– is also someone I would never take on in a game of poker.  He just knows people too well.  I asked him about it.. how does he KNOW when people are lying?  He was forthcoming and very helpful.  First of all, he said, look for pauses, when a question is asked and the responder blanks for a second.  This is the moment when they are constructing a narrative in their minds.  Secondly, look for contradictory physical responses, like nodding when they are saying no.  That’s a sort of involuntary ‘disconnect’ that is totally human-centric.  Third, they will shade their eyes and mouth .. if you watch Poker Stars on TV (I mean, more than five minutes, which is my threshold for boredom about Poker technical discussions), you’ll see that most of the heavy hitters play with mirror shades on or a hat down over their eyes.  That’s intentional.. the eyes give them away during a bluff (lie).  A bluffing human might have several “eye tells”– blinking, looking away, closing eyes repeatedly, or a nervous tic.  There are other indicators, depending on how severe a person is bluffing/lying– nervousness, throat clearing, stammering, stuttering etc.  The take away is that if you know what to look for, you can catch it fairly easily and fairly reliably.

All of this is what makes playing games with humans that involve bluffing (lying) more challenging and more interesting to me, personally.  Especially card games.  I’m not a gambler, in fact, I can’t stand playing about 80% of traditional card games.  However, the ones I do like I like because of either a fun mechanic like bidding or bluffing.  Hobby Card Games, like BANG! or COUP, are also enjoyable because there is a psychological element above and beyond simple game mechanics.  I’m not saying this is the only element of card games I enjoy, or the only thing I look for in a game, but it is a lot of fun for me.

This is all a long journey around the tree for me to get back to the COUP IoS app I mentioned in the opening sentences.   That app struck me as having a lot of potential as a nifty hidden roles/bluffing game that can be finished at lightning speed.   Consequently, I was eager to get the it.  I was less enchanted with the electronic version when I started to play it.  I’m not going to comment on the elements a lot of people (in many forums) are complaining about, like the games greedhead mentality about monetizing expansions– I’m no fan of that either, but it IS playable for free, so it strikes me as being a little hypocritical to whine about extras you aren’t being forced into buying.  I’m just talking about the actual mechanic of using an app to engage in the transaction of bluffing in a card game with other humans.  At most, my response is “ehhh… it’s kind of, sort of, fun”    You see, the thing is you’re not REALLY engaged in a bluff when you play COUP as an app, you’re engaged in a guessing game.  There’s no “poker tell” in this game, just a generalized guess (with some deductive logic) that if your opponent did X, you should do Y.   I’m gradually learning the nuances of COUP– I enjoy playing, but the decision points for reacting players boil down to: Will you block this person’s attempt to do something to you– legitimately, with a card that CAN block that action, or by bluffing, and CLAIMING you have a card that can block that action?   There are other actions to take proactively against other players, such as taxing, stealing, assassinating, etc., but when I react, I almost always choose the wrong course of action.   Why?  Hard to say, but I think it might have something to do with not seeing the other person’s face.  Instead, I’m just looking at the cards and I get a text response about how something I did either succeeded or failed.  I feel like I’m missing some essential element of the real life game experience.  I think the best approach is to take a more deductive/logical approach to the game– for instance, figuring out how many of each card are in the deck, how many have been observed on the board, and make decisions based upon that knowledge as well.  That’s an entirely different discipline (akin to playing a game of Knizia’s EN GARDE, where you have to get a feel for what cards are left in the deck to make decisions).  Equally enjoyable, but different.

So, is this a condemnation of porting games to tablets, or just card games?  Far from it– I really like board and card game conversions for tablets (as you can probably figure out if you’ve read this blog for a while).  Many card games work just fine in their IoS tablet ports.  SAN JUAN, for instance, and MU, and GALAXY TRUCKER.  I think a game where the key mechanic is pulling the wool over someone’s eyes, e.g., bluffing, might suffer a little bit in the translation, and so far, that’s how I’ve reacted to COUP.  Still, you can’t beat the price, if you stay away from all that IAP, right?

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