Cuba Libre Review
If you found your way here as the result of looking for a review of Cuba Libre, there’s a good chance the question fuelling your Googling was: “Is this the best COIN game for a newbie to the series?”. The short answer is yes. The smaller map, the ease of reading the game state from a glance, and the parity of actions between most of the factions, all go toward making Cuba Libre feel friendly and approachable, while still staying true to its COIN heritage.
If you want to look under the hood of the game to see what makes it thrum, instead of just kicking the tyres and nodding with faux understanding, then read on.
Cuba Libre then – what’s it all about? It’s the second, and arguably most famous instalment in GMT Games’ COIN series. If you’ve visited here before, you might have read my reviews of some of the other COIN games – Gandhi and All Bridges Burning. I’m a huge fan of the counter-insurgency games, and I was really excited to take a stab at Cuba Libre, so to hark back to my original question – what’s it all about?
It’s 1957. You’re Fidel Castro, and your 26July movement has designs on a revolution, aiming to overthrow the dictatorship currently ruling Cuba.
Actually, no, you’re playing the role of the government, looking to retain control of your island nation.
Then again, maybe you’re a part of the Directorio, the anti-communist movement. This is all getting confusing, isn’t it?
Perhaps we’ll just form a crime syndicate, open casinos across the country, and make some easy money when celebrities like Frank Sinatra visit.
The game is set during the Cuban Revolution, which happened around 1957-1959. You may not know the background and the history of what happened, but there’s a good chance you’ve heard of, or seen Pop Art of, some of the major players. Names like Fidel Castro, Ché Guevara, and Camilo Cienfuegos. If you want a bit more background, there’s a fantastic brief history here.
Playing as one of the four factions, you’ve each got to reach your very asymmetric goals before the other factions do the same, to claim victory. There’s a standard set of operations (actions) that many of the factions share, along with some special activities, which tend to be unique to each. All of the actions take place in the shadow of the deck of event cards, which churns its way inexorably towards the end of the game.
Most actions see you placing more units onto the board, spreading terror, attacking other factions, and trying to wrest control of the various spaces on the map. Most, if not all, factions in COIN games are looking to gain some kind of geographic dominance. That’s what you’re trying to do. That’s how you win.
A turn of events
The event cards are a common feature of COIN games, and they do a great job of putting el gato among las palomas. Each card not only determines the turn order for the current round but also has two contrasting views of an event, based on the real history of the situation.
Let’s look at an example.
The card Radio Rebelde lets the 26July player act first if they’re eligible for that turn. They choose to play the event text that says “Clandestine radio reaches masses: Shift 2 Provinces each 1 level toward Active Opposition.”. Powerful stuff – building opposition is a part of their win condition. But what happens if a rival gets to that event before them? They choose the other option on the card – “Transmitter pinpointed: Remove a 26July Base from a Province.”. That’s a double-blow for the 26July player, as bases not only count towards their win condition but also help them spawn more units onto the map.
The really clever thing that Cuba Libre does is to always show you the upcoming event, as well as the current one. There’s never an excuse for not knowing what was coming next and blaming bad luck. If you take a turn in a round, you’re ineligible for the following round. It means if there’s a powerful event coming up, you can pass to ensure you’re eligible, but then you’re not only skipping a turn but also gifting an opponent the opportunity to take the turn you were going to. It’s the cause of a lot of teeth-sucking, and it’s fabulous.
One of my favourite thing about COIN games, and war games in general, is how educational they are. If you take the time to read the material that comes with them and put the events on the cards into context, you end up with a combination of fun and learning that beats any ‘Edutainment’ CD-ROM you might have played in the ’90s.
Easy does it
If you’ve been looking into the COIN games, trying to decide which one to start with, there’s a good chance you’ve seen Cuba Libre suggested. It’s touted as “the easiest one”, or “the lightest one”, and there’s a grain of truth in there. The map and board are smaller than in some of the other games in the series, and when you see the island and its few brightly coloured provinces, it looks much more approachable than something like Gandhi, with its table-filling map of India.
There’s less intricacy and nuance in the various actions on your bi-fold menus of carnage – otherwise known as the player aids. Three of the factions are essentially trying to put lots of units on the map in order to take control and throw weight behind government support or opposition, wherever their loyalties might lie. It’s only the Syndicate which feels like an outlier, and to put that into context for those of you who have played Root (review here), they’re akin to the Vagabond in the base game. Never looking for outright dominance, instead, just looking to make the most of a bad situation.
What all of this means to you and me, is that Cuba Libre is a much easier game to explain, and it feels more intuitive. You can plan your machinations from turn one, and always have a clear view of what’s unfolding. There are four Propaganda cards shuffled into the event deck, each of which acts as a momentary pause in proceedings, and resets some of the various goings-on on the board – things like abject terror among the Cuban population – which is nice. There’s none of the “posturing and waiting for the Second Act” of All Bridges Burning, and the game state is much more easily intuited than trying to make sense of the Fire in the Lake map, for example.
I stated that Cuba Libre is friendly in my opening paragraph. Friendly is a relative term when it comes to COIN games. I jumped in at the deep end when I took on Gandhi as my entry point into the series, and to call it daunting would be an outrageous understatement. COIN games do a great job of bridging the gap between heavy Euro and outright wargame, but the referential style of the rulebook, and the fact that there’s a rulebook and a playbook, will seem very alien to many boardgamers. If you’re prepared to invest in the GMT mindset, however, then hoo boy – there’s a heck of a game waiting on the other side.
The designers, Jeff and Volko, have baked an incredible level of balance into Cuba Libre. There are times when you’ll see someone’s victory marker creeping uncomfortably close to their victory position on the score track. Because the game state is so easy to read, they’ll often find themselves hauled back down into the dust-up by the other players, who are acting with an unspoken, collective understanding. Even when you’re the person being knocked back down a peg or two, you’ll still crack a wry smile at how well the game is working.
The non-player (NP) factions are still there, if you’re a solo player, or find yourself down a person or two at your games night, but the NP (AI) actions aren’t as quick and easy as All Bridges Burning, for example. That’s to be expected. We’re talking about a game that was released all the way back in 2013, which is an age in board game terms. It’s still perfectly playable, just be prepared to invest a little more time and mental energy in running the NP turns.
Choosing a favourite COIN game for me is a bit like choosing a favourite child for some people. I want to say I love them all equally, but I secretly love Cuba Libre the most. So much so I even sorted it all into the wonderful counter trays and card holders from Cube4Me. Just don’t tell the other COIN games in my collection, they’ll get jealous.
Review copy kindly provided by GMT Games. Thoughts and opinions are my own.
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Cuba Libre (2013)
Designers: Jeff Grossman, Volko Ruhnke
Publisher: GMT Games
Art: Xavier Carrascosa, Rodger B. MacGowan, Chechu Nieto
Playing time: 180 mins