Saturday, May 21, 2016

Wargame review — Cuba Libre

A Fistful of Pesos

(Originally published on October 29, 2013)

Designers: Jeff Grossman, Volko Ruhnke
Player count: 1 to 4 (fully soloable)
Publisher: GMT Games

From 1953 to 1959, the natives were restless on the island of Cuba. The revolution had brewed long enough and was finally boiling over. In real life, Fidel Castro and his 26th of July movement successfully kicked Fulgencio Batista away from the president’s chair, but GMT is offering a chance for budding revolutionaries to change history, one event at a time.

Cuba Libre is the second volume in the COIN (Counter Insurgencies) series of games, and sits up to four players, with represented factions being Batista’s government, the 26th of July, the Directorio and the Syndicate. A four-handed game is the ideal situation, although clever AI algorithms allow for as few as one player to rev the engine and enjoy the ride.

Said engine is the event deck, a genius idea that propels the game forward by allowing up to two factions to act on each turn. At the top of each card are the four faction colors, in a row whose order changes from card to card. On any given card, the first faction in the row gets the option to act first, performing either the card’s historical event or one of its own actions. If the faction decides to pass (or if it’s unavailable because it’s acted on the previous turn), then the next faction in the row gets a shot—and so on until up to two factions have acted.

Several remarks are vital here. First, some cards feature two different events, with effects that are usually opposite from one another. Only one faction may play an event, and then only one of the two. Second, for each card, the action of the first faction dictates the options left open for the second faction; generally, if a faction plays the event, then the following faction will have to perform one of its actions, and vice-versa. Third, some actions are different from faction to faction, while others are the same. Those include such evocative names as Kidnap, Assassinate, Bribe, Muscle, Infiltrate, and more.

A typical turn will have factions deploying guerrilas to the board and/or moving them around, building bases (or opening casinos in the case of the Syndicate!), attacking other players’ guerrilas or bases, sabotaging economic centers, stirring patriotic support of fomenting revolutionary opposition, terrorizing whole populations, ordering air strikes…

The deck sports 52 cards, four of which trigger a Propaganda Round which is essentially a housekeeping round. Some factions have to redeploy their forces, others can spend resources (the game’s abstracted currency) to turn one aspect of the game or another in their favor, and each faction receives a number of resources based on individual conditions. For instance, the 26th of July receives resources equal to the number of bases it has in play, while the Directorio gets resources equal to the number of spaces where it has pieces.
Then, if no faction has attained its own, individual set of winning conditions, the game keeps going. If nobody has yet claimed victory after the fourth and final propaganda card (shuffled somewhere in the fourth quarter of the deck), the one faction closest to its goal is declared winner.

WAR PRODUCTION

There’s a lot of material in Cuba Libre. The game ships in GMT’s now famous “reinforced double deep” box—the sort of stuff you could build a house with. Inside is a metric ton of wooden components (the bases and guerrilas for each faction), as well as a host of thick control markers of various kinds, plus the card deck printed on fine cardstock. On top of everything sit one rulebook (20 pages), one playbook (36 pages), and a bunch of full-size player aid cards, from turn sequence to detailed AI charts for the non-player factions.

And then there’s the board depicting the troubled island, fully mounted—but much smaller than that of the other games in the series! This gives everyone less room in which to maneuver, but makes the action tense from the get-go.
I’m not sure exactly why, but I find all the COIN game boards rather bland, and the one in Cuba Libre is no exception. There’s something about the general look that doesn’t push the right buttons for me. In any case, while that makes for a board that I don’t find exciting per se, it doesn’t mean the object is not functional. On the contrary: everything’s got a spot and a use, and the board is a big part of what makes the game flow the way it does. (Especially when it comes to the Sequence of Play track.)

RULES OF ENGAGEMENT

Cuba Libre (or any entry in the COIN series, for that matter) is not complicated, but reading the rules can be overwhelming. Get this: the standard four-player game requires new players to read a grand total of ten pages. TEN. Ah, but the heart of the document is a list of actions, many of them presenting only slight differences in implementation from one faction to another—and all of them at times complicated to visualize without the actual board and pieces in front of your eyes.
So I recommend that you read through the rules once without bothering to memorize anything, and then set up the game and start playing. Everything will soon make sense, and turn out to be much easier than at first sight. Or you could jump right into the 13-page tutorial that takes you through the first few turns of a game, including the first propaganda round.

The player aids are a tremendous help during the learning process. Not only because they contain pretty much everything you need to play the game, but also because they highlight the specifics of each faction’s action in the faction’s color. For instance, both the Directorio and the Syndicate can execute a Rally action, but not exactly in the same way. Thus, on the player aids, the subtle differences are highlighted in yellow for the Directorio and in green for the Syndicate, making it dead easy to compare the two.

The full complement of players is four, but the game also works with less. For each missing human, the system provides an algorithm to play the orphaned faction, all the way down to a totally solo game experience. (In a head-to-head match, players can also handle two factions apiece, making the game less reliant on automated mechanisms, but requiring more brain power from each player in order to maximize synergy between paired factions—ultimately making the game a bit longer, in my experience.)
Now the AI gears mesh really well and create a believable enough narrative, but they’re a lot of work to operate. Each algorithm is essentially a big flow chart, and things can get heavy pretty fast. I’m okay using them to simulate one or two factions, but the full solo game is not for me. Although it does work, it requires too much effort for me to truly enjoy the process.

FUN FACTOR

Cuba Libre operates on a tug-of-war or see-saw feeling reminiscent of GMT’s own Twilight Struggle and 1989, or Z-Man’s 1960: The Making of the President. You’re spending a lot of time and energy adding some of your own forces to the board and removing those of your opponents. But the key here is to find a way to make it more costly or time-consuming for your opponent to rebuild than it was for you to destroy.
And I find that fascinating. Especially with four belligerents, where the tug-of-war is much more muddy than it would be in a two-player situation. The asymmetrical resource systems and victory conditions add a layer of ownness that very few other games out there can generate: you want your faction to win, using your tools to meet your goals. Sometimes your tools and goals will align with those of an opponent, and temporary alliances will coalesce, only to dissolve a couple of turns later.
Strange bedfellows galore.

PARTING SHOTS

Cuba Libre is currently the most accessible game in the COIN series. The rules are admittedly just as simple as those of any other COIN title, but the reduced board space makes them easier to put into action. Plus, the smaller card deck (52 cards instead of 70+ in the other two titles) brings the play time down by about a third.
Because of all this, I’m tempted to say that Cuba Libre is the “learning game” for the COIN series, but don’t let that fool you into thinking it doesn’t make for a deep and engaging experience—because it does. It’s a thrill-a-minute, gnaw-off-your-whole-arm affair, full of theme and history.
If you’re into solid four-player confrontations that are playable in three hours, look no further. Cuba awaits.


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