The iconic Che Guevara is one of the main characters in the Cuban revolution.
Cuba Libre is a game design from Volko Ruhnke (Wilderness War, Labyrinth: The War on Terror, Andean Abyss), and the second game in the COIN (Counter Insurgency) series. It is about the Cuban Revolution (1953-1959) in which the government was toppled, and Fidel Castro came to power, establising a communist government. It also marked the start of a US embargo that is still in effect today - more than 50 years after the end of the revolution.
There are four factions in the game, and regardless of the number of players, every faction will be in play. The government faction controls the army and the police force. Its victory condition is to have all cities strongly supporting it, and to have a total of 18 points of support in the whole country. The 26 July Movement (M26) led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara aims to incite the people to oppose the government (opposing the government means supporting them). To win, the total opposition points across the country plus their bases must exceed 15. The Directorio Revolucionario (DR), an anti-communist group mostly made of students, aims to control the people, and wants the people to support neither the government nor the M26. Its winning condition is the total population under their control plus their bases must exceed 9. The syndicate is Cuba's organised crime lords. Their objectives are to have more than 7 open casinos and more than $30.
This is the starting setup. The four big boxes around the edges are the component storage areas for the four factions. Blue = government, green = syndicate, yellow = DR, red = M26. Components are limited. You can't have more soldiers on the map than pieces you have. The big circles are cities, the small ones economic centres. The other regular spaces are the provinces, coloured differently based on terrain.
There are two key concepts in this game. Having control over a city or province and its inhabitants means you have more units (soldiers / guerrillas / bases / etc) than everyone else combined. For some actions, having control is a prerequisite. The other concept is the support level of the people, which is independent of control. There are five different levels of support: actively supporting (the government), passively supporting, neutral, passively opposing (which also means passively supporting the M26 revolutionaries), and actively opposing.
Each city and province has two square boxes next to it. The first box to denote control (i.e. one of the factions has more pieces than all other factions combined), the second box to denote the support level of the people. Camaguey is now controlled by DR (yellow), but the citizens are still slightly supporting the government.
The factions have different actions and special actions. Most revolve around bringing new units onto the board, moving units around, and fighting. They work differently for different factions. The presence of units affect the control (or lack of) at each city and province. There are also actions related to making money, and modifying the support level. When the insurgents bring in new guerrillas, they enter the game face-down with the star or coin icon hidden. This means they are underground, and the government is not yet able to directly attack them. The government needs to perform a Sweep action to flush them out, before it is able to conduct an assault. However once guerrillas are exposed, the government can kill them quite efficiently. The guerillas on the other hand are not as effective in killing each other or killing government units. They need to roll a die and even if successfully only get to kill two units. Each faction has some unique special actions. The government can conduct air bombardment against exposed guerrillas. M26 can kidnap to make money and force casinos to shut down (casinos are the bases of the syndicate). The syndicate can bribe. DR can assassinate.
The player reference sheet shows all possible actions and victory conditions of each faction. This is indispensable for new players.
The octagonal pillar pieces are the guerrillas. Notice that the yellow guerrilla in the middle has a star on it. This means it is now exposed and is thus vulnerable to government forces. Also, notice that the Syndicate (green) guerrillas have now entered the economic centres (small circles). During the Propaganda round, if an economic centre has not been sabotaged by other insurgents, and there is not enough police to man these locations, the syndicate will be able to earn money from these locations.
The event cards and the round structure is quite different from other card-driven games. You don't hold cards in your hand. Instead two event cards are always open on the table, for the current round and the next. The card specifies the turn order for the round. Eligible players get to decide whether to execute the event card, to conduct operations, or to pass (and earn a little money). Every round at most two players may execute an event or conduct operations, and if you do one of these, you become Ineligible next round. Also after the first player selects a type of action, whoever comes next has only one action type to pick. It's take it or leave it (pass). If you are the first player you need to be careful in picking your action because it affects what the next player can do. You also want to look ahead at the next card, because if it's a very good event for you, you may want to pass this round so that you get to execute that event next round.
The row of icons at the top of the event card shows the player order for the round. In some cases, e.g. the card on the right, there are two different events on the same card, and they usually have opposite effects. The second event is written in a darker green box. If a player decides to execute an event, he can only pick one of them.
This is the core mechanism. The yellow and red faction markers being on the right means these factions have executed events or actions in the previous round, and are thus Ineligible in the current round. The six small boxes in the centre represent the various types of actions the Eligible factions may select. The first faction to execute picks one of the three boxes in the left column. After that the next faction to execute may only pick the small box next to the one already chosen by the first player. It's either that or pass. If you pass, you do early some spare change and you will remain Eligible next round.
There are four Propaganda cards in the deck, shuffled into each quarter of the deck. When you come to a Propaganda round, you do a victory check and then a reset. If a faction achieves its victory condition, the game ends. Else there is a bunch of things to do. Each faction gets to earn some money, based on different criteria. The US support for the Cuban government may drop, resulting in less aid money and more costly actions by the government. Both the government and M26 has the opportunity to influence support levels. The Syndicate's casinos can be reopened. Government soldiers must return to bases or to cities. These Propaganda rounds are like wintering rounds in some wargames. Players must prepare for it to help themselves as well as to hinder their opponents. Just watching out for the victory conditions is not sufficient. You need to pave the way as best you can for the next cycle.
The box at the top left is the US Alliance box, indicating how friendly US is towards the Cuban government. US begins the game friendly, but as the game progresses, the relationship will tend to sour, and the Cuban government will find it more and more expensive to perform actions. US foreign aid will dry up too.
If no one wins an instant victory from the Propaganda rounds, the game ends after the fourth Propaganda round, and victory is determined by scoring. This scoring is measured by how far a faction is from its objective.
Allen and I mostly blundered through our first game. As a 2-player game, we each played two factions - he was the government and the syndicate, while I played M26 and DR. The alternative of using AI rules to run non-player factions would have made things more complex. Still, it was quite a lot to digest, because each faction is different, and you need to know not only your own faction but also your opponents'. We fiddled with the various moving parts and forged ahead in trial-and-error mode. We were quite clueless on strategy, making it up as we went. Despite all that, it was a lot of fun. I felt very immersed in the setting. I agonised over how to recruit more guerrillas, how to flee from the government forces, how to instigate opposition and also how to find the money to do all these. I made plenty of mistakes, which was part of the fun. Now that I have completed one game, I have a better idea what not to do, but I think I will need more plays to know for sure what I should do.
One of the earliest mistakes I made was not harassing the government right from the get-go. At each Propaganda round, the US support will decrease if the government doesn't maintain 18 points of support. It's not too hard to snipe at the government to bring the support level down, but I neglected it, and the government continued to enjoy US support - i.e. cheap actions and also foreign aid. Initially I thought the government being rich was a given, but later on when US support eventually dwindled, I realised that it could be brought to its knees financially. I should have tried to force it into this corner much earlier.
One other mistake I made was not realising the importance of bases. You need to remove two guerillas to place a base, which significantly weakens your power. However once you have a base, you are able to recruit much more efficiently. I only realised this around mid game. Another area where I did poorly was money. For certain stretches during the game, both M26 and DR experienced droughts. Running out of money is bad. Many actions can be done in multiple locations, just that you need to pay for each location. Being able to afford that means you are playing much more efficiently, achieving multiple objectives within the same round. There are not many ways to make money. Few actions make money. There are at most four Propaganda rounds where factions can earn some money. Keeping an eye out on financials is important. In my case I wonder whether I had been spending too recklessly.
Allen and I gradually experimented with the various action types. We started with the basics, like recruitment, movement and fighting. As we explored, we found that the special actions could be very powerful. It was through such fiddling that we learned to make better use of our factions' unique abilities.
My two insurgent factions clumsily stumbled over each other. Strictly speaking their goals do not conflict, but some of their actions can cause harm to each other. DR can cause the people in a location to become neutral. If the people are previously actively supporting the government, then it's a big help to M26 shifting them to neutral. However if the people are previously actively opposing the government, then it's a big step back for M26, negating their hard work. I fumbled over what to do with my two factions for quite a while. Then I came up with an idea. I should let them focus on different provinces, and after they had done what they needed, they could just march to each other's provinces. They could just swap! DR needed to control the population, while M26 wanted the people to be actively opposing the government. These two goals could coexist. The people in a location could be controlled by DR and at the same time oppose the government. This all sounded perfect, but when I tried to execute my plan, I found that it was easier said than done. I had to contend with Allen's actions. His government troops were hunting me down, and his syndicate gangsters were bribing my fighters.
In the last quarter of the game (between the 3rd and 4th Propaganda cards), Allen managed to execute two event cards which made the government very powerful. One event gave him one free Assault with any Sweep action. Normally the government needs to execute a Sweep action to expose guerrillas and then execute an Assault action to kill them. Being able to launch one free Assault meant his units were suddenly much more deadlier. The other event allowed his police force to act like soldiers. They could enter the countryside to hunt for guerrillas. Normally the police can only attack in cities and economic centres. Allen had a deadly combo, and I could not come up with any countermove.
Look at that show of power in Havana! Dark blue cubes are soldiers, and light blue ones are policemen.
Allen's government (blue) and syndicate (green) factions have secured the north western part of Cuba. He has built a base (round disc) in the province next to Havana, which will help him launch further attacks to other provinces.
Las Villas is getting very crowded, and these guys are not here to peacefully watch the World Cup together. I have two M26 bases here (red discs), and I am desperate not to lose them. They took much effort to build. If anyone attacks me, they must kill all my guerrillas before they can start destroying my bases. So effectively guerrillas protect bases. Also having guerillas which are not yet exposed will further protect bases from the government, because the government needs to expose the guerillas first before it can target them.
There was one time I had this event which gave me a free M26 base and a free M26 guerilla in Havana, the capital city. At first I thought this was rather pointless, since Havana was crawling with soldiers and policemen. These free units wouldn't last. However when I thought a bit more about it, I realised it was a golden opportunity. Because of the dense population, when I did a recruitment drive, having the base allowed me to recruit a massive army of volunteers. Havana suddenly teemed with revolutionists. I took the opportunity to sway the people's support, greatly reducing the support for the government. Eventually Allen still managed to kill off my guerrillas, but at least I had fun and I had done some damage. Totally worth it! Maybe.
My DR (yellow) guerrillas rushed into Santiago de Cuba, which Allen had not been defending strongly. I have attacked, thus exposing all my fighters. Santiago de Cuba is now under DR control, since there are more DR pieces than all other pieces combined.
We reached the fourth Propaganda card without anyone achieving instant victory. In a 2-player game where we each played two factions, we needed both our factions to achieve their victory conditions in order to win instantly. We couldn't even get one of our factions to achieve its victory condition. So we had to execute the relevant steps of the final Propaganda card, and then determine victory by scoring. The faction with the highest score was the syndicate belonging to Allen. The government did moderately well. Both my insurgent factions fared rather poorly. The revolution failed miserably. History was rewritten.
Those green discs with the 3-coin icons are open casinos, open because the 3-coin icons are showing. This was the late game. Notice that the US relationship at the top left had dropped to rock bottom.
This was near game end. Allen's government (blue) and syndicate (green) factions have secured the north western part of Cuba. Government forces have also successfully mounted a number of excursions to other parts of Cuba to hunt down the insurgents. DR (yellow) only controls two locations. M26 (red) has managed to rouse the people to oppose the government somewhat, but the momentum is not strong enough. The syndicate has an amazing eight open casinos, mainly because one of the late event cards allowed Allen to reopen all casinos. Such perfect timing.
My DR guerrillas which have previously invaded Santiago de Cuba have now retreated back to Sierra Maestra. Since they are now exposed, I want to get them away before the government forces counterattack.
Allen has all three games in the COIN series so far. We decided to try Cuba Libre first because it looks like the simplest. The estimated play time is 3 hours. We played for about 6 hours! Digesting the rules took some time, and having to control two different factions made it even more challenging. Strategy-wise we were really going by trial-and-error, experimenting different approaches to see which worked and which didn't. Despite the long play time, the incessant referring to the rules and the frequent rules discussions, I had a blast! This is a very immersive game. The arena is small and you have to fight for every space. There are not many pieces on the board, and every piece counts, every piece is valuable. There is a lot of pushing backwards and forwards, measures and counter-measures. It's constantly dancing on a knife edge. Beat down an enemy here, and he may come back somewhere else. Neglect one location, and your enemy will soon exploit it. It is a tight map, and with four factions vying for power, you are constantly reminded that it's a small small world.
The interrelationship between the factions is very interesting. 2-player games with each player controlling 2 factions is an interesting twist, but I think the game is best played with four players, each controlling one faction. Well, maybe I was just overwhelmed by the split personality disorder thing that controlling two factions gave me. Factions sometimes can work together, sometimes joining forces to fight a common enemy, sometimes politely going around each other so that both can achieve their own goals without hindering each other. This is a very different feeling from other multiplayer games where factions are generally the same and have similar goals. In Cuba Libre the nature of each faction is unique. This is what makes the game feel so thematic.
This should so so so be classified as an Ameritrash game, but the mechanisms feel very Euro. It's open information. There is little dice-rolling. Component count is low. The game feels very succinct. It even uses wooden cubes and discs! Yet it is also definitely not the type of Eurogame that has a strong mechanism but an interchangeable theme. Everything ties back to the story. I guess you can say it's a special breed of wargame. Or perhaps there's no need to try to pigeonhole it.
I'm a little sorry I didn't do Che justice in my play. He is probably turning in his grave now.