Cuba Libre, designed by Jeff Grossman and Volko Ruhnke, puts 1-4 players in heart of the later stages of the Cuban revolution. Taking control of one of the four major factions, players will use real events and locations to recreate, or rewrite, history.
Each faction has its own advantages and disadvantages.
The Government, at least initially, is rich in resources with plentiful and very mobile units.
M26, led by Fidel Castro, has 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.
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.
Each turn the active factions can perform an Operation. Their own slightly asymmetric spin on recruit, move and attack. There is also a possible further action (Special Activity) per turn that supplements the Operation.
Another option for each faction is to take the ‘Event’. Acting as a possible action and as a game timer, Event cards are the central mechanic driving Cuba Libre. They offer a highly thematic and historically based action that either significantly benefits, or is detrimental to, a faction. They 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 turn. Only two factions play each turn. The choice of action the first player takes determines the available options for the second. Each action other than the Event costs resources and these are generally limited. Decisions relating to how many resources to spend and where on the board to take actions leaves the players with a variety of conundrums
Cuba Libre is the recommended (by publisher GMT) starting point for the COIN (Counter Insurgency) series of games that aims to recreate 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 and over the long term is challenging. Add in the need to anticipate the actions of your opponents and assess the probability of a Propaganda (scoring) round occurring in the next few turns 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 are a relative newcomer to historical games.
Cuba Libre is a stunning package of simple yet top quality components, difficult decisions and history. It certainly isn’t a game for everyone. However, for players who do enjoy heavier strategic games, Cuba Libre is a game to consider closely even if the revolutionary theme is not typical of their collection.
This Snapshot is derived from a full length review originally published on the Zatu Games blog.