Relaxing into Cardboard: Rikki Tahta and the Magic of Coup

Games are serious business. The best of them demand careful analytical attention, acute psycho-social skills, and an ability to strategize on the fly; the worst turn what should be 20 minutes of fun into hours of monotony. In other words, games are not just for kids. Rikki Tahta, venture capitalist and designer, is an enthusiast who wants to bring excellent, deep play to the broader world. If the runaway success of his bluffing puzzler Coup is any indication, he’s well on his way.

Flickr. Eurogames are loved for their superior playability and deep challenges.

Flickr. Eurogames like Settler of Catan offer superior playability and deep challenges.

“If chess came out today,” says Rikki Tahta, “no-one would play it.” He argues that it suffers from many and varied flaws — overly complicated mechanics, long play times, a rudimentary theme. In his telling, the true source of its enduring popularity is twofold: the lack of competition in its infancy and then centuries of inertia. Speaking of another classic he dislikes, he puts it neatly: “The reason everyone has Monopoly is that everyone has Monopoly.”

Harsh words. But their wiry and eloquent speaker is no mere provocateur. He’s a true lover of the medium, an expert on its history, and an impassioned and successful designer himself. This is an occupation that grows increasingly viable as the gaming world gets bigger and better-organized. That world has as its focal point the week-long fair held every autumn in Essen, Germany, where more than 100,000 exhibitors, buyers, players, and curious onlookers gather to check out the year’s new offerings. Tahta got his start as a pro designer there: having attended the fair for years, he decided that for the same expense he could become an exhibitor and try to sell Coup. The widening interest in serious tabletop games Tahta attributes both to their superior quality and to the fact that they offer experiences digital play cannot: intense tactility and the opportunity to socialize indirectly, to interact with a large and vibrant group of human beings without having to talk to them about their personal lives or even look them in the eye (unless, of course, you’re trying to gauge whether they’re faking you out). This phenomenon is well-recognized within the gaming community, where it’s called “relaxing into cardboard.”

Tahta’s attachment to non-digital games stands in some tension to the way he earns his living. His day job, so to speak, is as a venture capitalist with an impressive record — Amazon UK being among the digital projects he’s helped seed — but his deep and erudite passion for gaming brings out an animation distinctly lacking in him when he discusses startups. He designs games that appeal to both serious players and neophytes: rules-based entertainments that reward analytical ability via their ingenious mechanics and almost bottomless depth of play. Coup seems to have addressed both those communities with singular ease. It has sold over 100,000 copies in the U.S. market alone. It’s a bluffing game simple enough for a total newbie to pick up in a few minutes and complex enough to offer near-infinite replay value. Winning requires as much socio-personal acuity as it does quickfire statistical analysis, and the game has inspired a real fandom of its own, with amateurs producing lengthy online treatises laying out theories of opening.

“If chess came out today, no-one would play it.”

—Rikki Tahta

He cites one of his main inspirations for it as poker, a game he is not fond of as a whole. Its intricate bluffing strategy he enjoys, but he finds its stakes — metaphysically speaking — low. “I don’t actually like the trappings that it comes with,” as he puts it, “which is: I’m going to win money or I’m going to lose money.” He dislikes also the large amount of what he calls “rote play” that intervenes between intense bluffing sessions.

The process of making Coup was, he says, typical: when he first sat down to build out the rules, he got “about 70 percent” of the way there in a single weekend. Getting it polished to his own satisfaction took almost a full decade. The finished game, which is set in a Renaissance city-state, does indeed bear the hallmarks of obsession. There are no extraneous elements, nothing obstructing or hindering the pure experience Tahta was going for. You draw two cards from a deck containing five roles — the Duke, the Assassin, the Contessa, the Captain, and the Ambassador — all with well-balanced abilities. Each turn offers a number of possibilities for action: all those listed on your cards, the receipt of funds from a treasury, or the deployment of the game’s signature move, the coup, against one of the other players. The main wrinkle being, of course, that only you know what cards you hold, so you have ample opportunity to deploy your skill at credible lying. You can be called out at anytime for bluffing; two correct calls and you’re done. The average game lasts 10 to 15 minutes — blessedly short, compared to the endless slog of Monopoly.

Coup is, in other words, a far more challenging game than the fare usually on offer on rainy afternoons. Its success — and in some sense its existence — are due, as Tahta tells it, to a sociocultural revolution in postwar Germany. Despite the country’s reputation as a fun-deprived zone of hyper-efficiency and sublimated politico-historical traumas, it turned out to be the cradle of serious tabletop gaming. Germany had a long-standing tradition of family board-gaming; games permeated their culture to the point that a true constituency of keen-eyed connoisseurs grew there. This, in turn, created a heady atmosphere for those interested in designing their own games with an eye towards creating products that challenge as much as they entertain — and a market to go along with that interest. The games that came out of this culture struck a happy balance between dice-rolling stupidity and incomprehensible complexity.

The end result was the so-called Eurogame (also known as the German-style board game). The Eurogame possesses certain defining features: a smaller role for luck and a bigger role for player strategy, the inclusion of multiple paths to victory, no player elimination (Coup is a counterexample), moderate play lengths, and a preference for wood and cardboard over plastic game elements. The Eurogame really achieved its first major U.S. success with Klaus Teuber’s deservedly legendary 1995 production Settlers of Catan, a hex-based resource management game. Carcassonne comes a close second: this 2000 title, designed by Klaus-Juergen Wrede, has players vying for the dominance of a vaguely medieval landscape via tile placement. Chances are the truly “technical” people in your life — this is Tahta’s term for the quality Americans generally describe as “geeky” — are familiar with and expert at Catan and Carcassonne.

Despite their superior playability and truly passionate audiences, Eurogames are still underdogs when it comes to the U.S. market. Part of that is undoubtedly due to cultural difference, but part is also due to the fact that the gaming world, in Tahta’s apt analogy, resembles the literary subculture around poetry. There is at the moment an almost total overlap between creators and their audience; just as most poetry readers are themselves poets, most serious gamers are themselves designers, commercially published or no. Another apt comparison might be to the world of film, where a sharp divide can often, but not always, be seen between lovers of difficult but rewarding independent movies and theatergoers interested in big-budget fare. Should you decide to take the game you’ve been refining in private for years to perfect its mechanics to market, be prepared for modest results. Selling in the low four figures is considered a success. It’s a high-volume industry: an estimated 1,000 new games are produced every year. It has a central forum for criticism and community-building, the website BoardGameGeek. And it has its industry leaders, too. Japan and the Czech Republic, in Tahta’s opinion, currently dominate the field in terms of innovation and beautiful design.

One of his personal favorites is the Czech game Tzolk’in, which combines a unique cog-based timing system with a resource-management mechanic clothed in the evocative myth of the Mayan celestial cycle. Other personal favorites include Puerto Rico, a 2002 title from Andreas Seyfarth where players manage the economy of a Caribbean island; A Brief History of the World, where you get to play as an entire civilization; Navegador, a game of discovery and wealth acquisition set in the late 15th and early 16th centuries; and a version of his own game called Coup: Guatemala, which transplants the action to the aforementioned banana republic.

Tahta also recommends “gateway games,” through which the uninitiated can discovers the joys of high-level gaming. He likes Pandemic, another breakout hit where a group of two to four players, each slotted into a skill class, struggle cooperatively to defeat the outbreak of a disease; Ticket to Ride, a railway game from legendary British designer Alan R. Moon that swept the international awards scene in 2004; his own Coup; One-Night Werewolf, a slimmed-down version of the social-game classic; Ghost Blitz, a lightning-fast (as the name suggests) reflex-and-visual-skill test whose appeal spans almost every age demographic; Love Letter, where you play as suitors for the hand of the imprisoned princess of Tempest, trying to deliver a romantic missive to her; and Dominion, in which you try to acquire as sizable a piece of real estate as you can.

The centerpiece of the philosophy animating the design of all these seems to be that serious games are serious fun. So ignore the old Biblical saw about putting away childish things and pick up Coup — or one of its intellectual relatives — today. Given the gloomy state of global politics and the queasy world market, you’re going to need some stress relief.