Cuba. A island nation in the Caribbean Sea, known for its beaches, music, rum, cigars and a mend and make do approach to classic cars.
It’s also the site of an infamous naval base, gives its name to a Cold War crisis that brought the world to the brink of nuclear annihilation and its long lasting Communist regime was a thorn in the side of the United States administration for decades. Intrinsically linked to these events is one of the world’s most famous revolutionary wars: the Cuban Revolution.
Cuba Libre, a game designed by Jeff Grossman and Volko Ruhnke, published by GMT Games, puts 1-4 players in heart of the later stages of that revolution. Taking control of one of the four major factions, players will use real events and locations to recreate, or rewrite, history.
Choose a Side
THE GOVERNMENT, led by Batista, is a corrupt dictatorship. The economic benefits of a blossoming tourist trade, plus a significant proportion of US Government aid, has lined the pockets of a privileged few. The local population meanwhile are largely uneducated and live in poverty. This, and Batista’s cosy relationship with organised crime, is causing concern amongst US officials and resentment among the Cuban people.
Led by brothers Fidel and Raul Castro, alongside revolutionary icon Che Guevara, M26 are the key opposition to Batista. They aim to achieve equality for, and improve living standards of, the Cuban people. The movement follows a Marxist approach to social change including nationalisation of public services and redistribution of land. We join their campaign as M26 gain a foothold in the Sierra Maestra mountains and begins to step up its guerrilla war against Batista.
Comprised primarily of students, the DIRECTORIO, also wants social reform. A strongly anti-government, and sometimes violent, faction, the Directorio nevertheless gains support as a more moderate alternative to M26.
Closely tied with US organised crime are THE SYNDICATE. So long as the money flows in the right direction – towards their pockets – who is in political office in Cuba is of little interest. For now, the status quo suits them. However, opportunity to make a profit can rise in the most unexpected places…
Reflecting the revolution itself, each faction has its own advantages and disadvantages. The Government, at least initially, is rich in resources with plentiful and very mobile units. M26 has far more limited resources offset by the ability to recruit forces quickly. The Directorio is a small faction that can take advantage of subtle shifts in the political climate. The Syndicate moves in the background. Changing allegiance when the time suits and buying the support of other factions with the profits of its growing gambling empire.
Each faction has a its own set of actions or ‘Insurgency/Counter Insurgency Operations’. Its own spin on the basic recruit, move and attack Operations plus a possible further action (Special Activity) per turn that supplements the Operation. There is also the option to take that turn’s ‘Event’.
The Event is the central mechanic driving Cuba Libre. A deck of multi-purpose cards that offer a highly thematic and historically based action that either significantly benefits or is detrimental to a faction. Acting as an additional possible action and as a game timer, the Event cards also indicate turn order and offer a glimpse into the future.
Two event cards are visible, the one in play and the one in play next. Only two factions can play each turn with the action the first player takes determining the available options for the second. Each action other than the Event costs resources and these are generally limited. Deciding how many resources to spend and where on the board to take actions leaves the players with a variety of conundrums:
- Do I play this turn and become ineligible or do I pass aiming to benefit from next turn’s Event? If I pass, there is an Event that will benefit me coming, however, by doing this I open an opportunity for another faction.
- Do I take the Event as a blocking move even though it doesn’t necessarily benefit me?
- Do I take both the Operation and the Special Activity leaving the event for the second player?
- Or do I only perform an Operation, leaving the next player with limited options?
If I hit hard it will weaken an opponent, yet it will leave my forces open to retaliation. Perhaps, we can negotiate, both sides promising to leave an area alone for mutual benefit. Of course, there is nothing to say I should honour that agreement…
Such is ebb and flow of Cuba Libre. Gaining ground through a combination of negotiation and subtle manoeuvring, open attacks and concealed betrayals, the key is in the timing of each. A faction with a clear advantage will become a target for others. The faction that can disguise its position and anticipate the actions of others can strike without warning at key moments.
Four cards in the Event Deck are scoring or ‘Propaganda’ rounds. These are a victory check and an opportunity to reap the rewards of your manoeuvring. If there is no outright winner at the start of the Propaganda round, positions are consolidated and resources replenished. Those resources are either made plentiful or scarce as plans made earlier in the game come to fruition, crippling an opponent’s ability to act as you count the rewards of deals made. Be careful though, that position now needs defending until the next propaganda round…
Attention to Detail
Cuba Libre is clearly a labour of love for its designers with many of the game mechanics and actions based on the actual events of the Cuban Revolution and the aims of the factions involved. This attention to detail is remarkable and history oozes from every card, every goal and every victory condition.
Thankfully, GMT Games have provided the production values this deserves with fantastic components; all embossed wooden pieces and thick tokens, high quality cards and two excellent, clearly written reference books. The box is so sturdy you could reinforce fortifications with it and the game board comes with its own protective baggie.
Thematically the game falls squarely in the ‘war game’ camp. However, mechanically it feels more like a highly thematic Euro game than a traditional war game.
Yes, players are in direct conflict fighting for control of areas on a map and there are components representing bases, military units and guerrillas. However, there are no supply chains to maintain and no unit strengths or numbers to track. Very little bookkeeping of any kind is required. There is a degree of luck in the ordering of the Event cards and in the placement of Propaganda rounds and there are even dice rolls to resolve certain actions. This is not the stereotypical war game picture of chits and reference tables.
A Curve to Climb
Cuba Libre is the recommended (by publisher GMT) starting point for the COIN (Counter-Insurgency) series of games that aims to recreate asymmetric non-traditional conflicts like Vietnam, Afghanistan and the French Algerian war. However, this ‘starting point’ status should not be taken to mean simple.
There is deep strategy here. Determining the consequences of actions taken or not taken, in the immediate aftermath of those actions and long term is challenging. Add in the need to anticipate the actions of your opponents and assess the probability of a Propaganda round occurring in the next few rounds and the perceived complexity skyrockets.
There are two reference books: one containing the rules themselves; numbered single-spaced paragraphs designed for ease of reference with a glossary of key terms. The other is a Playbook that guides you through these rules, recreating a real game where you follow along, taking the actions of the players before providing you with the option to finish the example game solo. These books do a fantastic job of introducing the key concepts.
Nevertheless, the learning curve is steep, especially if, like me, you a relative newcomer to war games. Cuba Libre constantly provides a rich seam of satisfying decisions, however, the flip of this, is that the shadow of analysis paralysis can descend remarkably quickly.
Games can also fall foul of ‘Bash the leader’ syndrome as players each gain a clear advantage only to see this reduced by successive attacks from the other players. A game with four skilled, experienced players is less likely to see this happen, however, it’s going to take an inexperienced war gamer plenty of plays to reach that point.
Getting those plays in may also be an issue. For a war game, Cuba Libre is of an average length. However, at over three hours this is a long game by many people’s standards. The ever present demands of extra board gaming commitments may mean game length is a barrier to entry for some.
Overcome those barriers though and there is superb multiplayer experience waiting. The game is excellent at all player counts. Particularly shining as a four-player game where player interaction comes to the fore as temporary alliances are formed then broken.
Also worthy of special mention is the solo game. The learning curve is steeper still and the loss of the negotiation element is keenly felt. Nevertheless, solo Cuba Libre is very good indeed. Using flowcharts as guide, the in-game AI condenses the complexities of the multi-player experience into a largely faithful and challenging game.
Final Thoughts on Cuba Libre
Cuba Libre is a great game and one I do not hesitate to recommend. A stunning package of simple yet top quality components, difficult decisions and history.
Although the theme and complexity may not be for everyone, for players who do enjoy heavier strategic games this is certainly a game to consider closely even if the revolutionary theme is not typical of your collection.