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Subject: Revolution for One – CL solo review rss

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Jesse Edelstein
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Merced
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This review focuses on the one-player Cuba Libre experience. At this point I have yet to play a 4-player round of CL but I have a number of solo games under my belt, so it'd be useful to focus on those. To put it succinctly, the box rates this game a 9 out of 9 for solo playability, and Cuba Libre delivers on that promise.

You're probably aware that CL is a COIN (for "counter-insurgency") series game, set in Cuba during the late '50s. Today, we mainly remember the conflict between the Cuban government under the authoritarian Fulgencio Batista and the revolutionary 26July movement led by Fidel Castro. History is written by the winners, but one of the coolest things about the theme of Cuba Libre is that it draws attention to historical losers (no judgment intended!) as the other two factions: the Syndicate, who run the Cuban casino racket, and the Directorio Revolucionario, a more liberal-oriented rebel organization who were effectively sidelined and absorbed by 26July in real life. The four factions all have different win conditions and operational abilities, for a charmingly asymmetrical standoff.

In the solo context, Oerjan Ariander has provided us with bots for all four factions. But there is a caveat here: the bots are designed with the assumption that a human is playing either Government or 26July. If there is a second player, he or she should be one of those two as well. This means only two factions are officially playable for solo players. You can of course ignore this rule but I think a solo game as Syndicate or DR would not be much fun, because the bots would make no real effort to stop you from running away with the game. Later COIN games such as Fire in the Lake have included the ability to play as any of four factions, by making each bot sensitive to whoever the human is playing.

The core gameplay of CL involves flipping event cards, an echo of card-driven games like Twilight Struggle, though there is no hand management in this game. Events have a turn order printed on them, allowing factions a chance to play the event or perform operations on the map. There's been a lot said about the quasi-card-driven engine in all the COIN games; I would just say that from my perspective, it works out very well in mixing specific historical occurrences (or divergences) with generic military ops. There are four Propaganda cards, staggered in with the events, which represent time passing – factions earn fresh resources, guerrillas go underground, Government troops redeploy, and so on. This was my first COIN game, and it seems like a particularly good choice for that. Even though the play rules are basically the same as those in heavier COINs, the map is pretty easy to wrap your head around, with only 13 spaces in a simple arrangement. The playbook with the game shows a few sample turns in detail, and I found that sufficient to understand the game.

On the other hand, a 4-player game is not quite the same as a solo game. The rules for the bots will take some effort to understand fully, though I think they are ultimately pretty well thought-out. Actually running the bots is straightforward enough: usually they try to play the event, and if someone else has already taken the event, op instructions come from a flowchart. This chart concisely shows what operation to pick, the details needed to execute it, and what special activity to use afterwards. The bot reference also has special instructions for many events, so bot factions will generally not execute events favoring the player, etc. For instance, the 26July flowchart first prioritizes doing Terror if that would advance its score or earn some money; if that's not possible it Rallies more guerrillas and bases if enough aren't on the map already; then if 26July is poised for an Attack on government forces they will, or else they will end up Marching.

I'm simplifying a little but overall I found the bots fairly easy to operate, though you will have to often roll a die to pick between equal-priority op or event spaces. After a game or two I had memorized the basic outlines for each faction's decisions, meaning I didn't have to refer to the chart constantly. The extended example of solo play also helped a lot for "getting" the bots. My only real quibble with the bot setup is that some Government moves can be a little unclear, requiring some delving into the details of non-player rules.

Their internals notwithstanding, the bots are competent at countering a player Government or 26July. They don't try too hard to win the game themselves, but all the same I have found myself losing by a significant margin several times. Usually the bots play in a conservative way, slowly building strength and not making many ambitious, dramatic moves other than those precipitated by events. It's true that you can often predict just what the bots are going to do, but for me that makes it more of a strategic puzzle, planning around the bot reactions. Plus you can only see one card ahead; something nasty can always sneak up on you and it may be impossible to prevent an enemy from executing it. Solo gameplay, therefore, is challenging and stimulating, though not always surprising. I should also mention that the distribution of cards adds a significant luck component. A streak of bad events can take out your infrastructure quickly, and you can't plan for every contingency.

Now a few notes on Government play. As the COIN faction you have only conventional firepower, your cubes facing down underground guerrillas. It is a notorious fact that you can't typically Sweep and Assault in the same turn, giving guerrillas a chance to go back underground or flee. But actually there are several ways to Sweep+Assault for lots of enemy dead, through events and through briefcases full of Cash. The Syndicate has a high priority on putting Cash with their guerrillas at open casinos, and to win you'll need to prioritize Sweeping and Assaulting guys with Cash, using it to fuel other operations or opening provincial bases. This closes casinos too, important because the other insurgents do nothing to hinder the Syndicate.

DR and 26July also must be checked, with more traditional COIN tactics. Insurgent bots do not Attack troops or police much, but they can still gain control of a region through sheer numbers, or mass Terror to shift a lot of support. The Government's fourth problem is the USA, which is supportive initially but usually downright hostile by the end, meaning operations cost twice as much and there's no aid to pay for them! To avoid the late-game death spiral, look for good diplomatic events and steal Cash whenever you can. Overall the Government is moderately challenging to play; the Syndicate bot could use to be a little more hostile to a Government player but this is a minor issue.

As 26July, island geography can be daunting. It's a long, long March from your citadel in the Sierra Maestra to the juicy targets in and around Havana, plus I've found that the single guerrilla in La Habana is often eliminated before you can help. Several events can help you break into the west much more quickly than rallying in Matanzas. Just like Government, your success depends on plundering the Syndicate's wealth through Kidnapping and Ambushes to get resources and Cash. Besides the casinos and Havana, the 2-pop provinces are also an obvious place to control for Agitation. DR is dangerous only because their habit of Assassinating your bases, while Government's main threat comes from Air Strikes and events. I have found 26July somewhat harder to win with than Government – the latter is easily in position to close lots of casinos, while 26July faces stiff opposition from two factions in moving westward to hit Syndicate pieces.

So, $45 for a game you might not break out with other players too often? A darn good solo play system makes this a quite reasonable proposition, as you can entertain yourself for a good 3-4 hours on a playthrough. Replayability seems good due to the event deck, though you will see almost all cards in every game. Cuba Libre is a great solo game, and the only real drawback seems to be that the DR and Syndicate are not really playable with one or two players. (In fact, the rule book suggests you can play 2-player with two factions per player – I do not recommend this, though maybe it's better for more experienced players.) It's very fun, and I've found it's a dangerous stepping stone to heavier COIN titles. Now to find a few victims to play Fire in the Lake...
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Jared Wilson
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An excellent overview Jesse. Just what I was looking for actually, as I'm trying to decide if I should buy this. I have several other COIN games, so I'm on the fence about whether I actually need this one too. It's the period I think; Cuba in the 50's doesn't really excite me. Your article is pushing me one step closer though.

The bots you refer to, are they in the game itself, or did you download them from somewhere? If they were a fan designed solitaire add-on, that would be a big plus in my eyes.



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Jesse Edelstein
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The bots are part of the game, but an optional part. All the COIN games come with bots for solo play -- see section 8 of any COIN rulebook for non-player faction rules. I don't know of any fan additions, would be interesting though.
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Jared Wilson
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Ok cool, appreciate you letting me know. I thought maybe Oerjan had designed something that wasn't initially part of the game.

 
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Eddy del Rio
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tacman88 wrote:
An excellent overview Jesse. Just what I was looking for actually, as I'm trying to decide if I should buy this. I have several other COIN games, so I'm on the fence about whether I actually need this one too. It's the period I think; Cuba in the 50's doesn't really excite me. Your article is pushing me one step closer though.

The bots you refer to, are they in the game itself, or did you download them from somewhere? If they were a fan designed solitaire add-on, that would be a big plus in my eyes.




But you'll have to have it if you want "Invierno Cubano," the 59-65 expansion!
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