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Subject: Cuba Libre: Walter's Review rss

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Walter Gordon
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1. Introduction and Overview of the Game

Cuba Libre is the 2nd game in GMT's COIN Series, covering the 1956-1959 Cuban Revolution against the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

For those of you who have played a game in the COIN series, the basic game mechanics are much the same as in the other titles, and for those of you who haven't I'd advise glancing at the relatively short rules so you can get a handle on the basic structure of the game.

As in most other COIN games, there are 4 factions in play. The Government has the usual options for operations as in most coin games: sweep, train, garrison, and assault. The special operations however are somewhat unusual, in many cases reflecting the reduced capabilities of the Cuban army. Transport moves only 3 troops. Airstrike only removes a single guerrilla. And reprisal not only shifts the space towards neutral but displaces a single guerrilla to an adjacent space. As in other COIN titles, the government wins based on popular support plus all cities needing to be at active support. Unlike in other COIN games, government income is not based on LOCs but on Economic Centers, which function in the same way as LOCs in terms of resources and patrolling but have no effect on transportation. As well, the government gains Aid from the USA, usually higher then the government gains from the ECs. Finally the cost of each action is set by the level of the US alliance, from 2 resources at Firm, 3 at Reluctant, and 4 at Embargoed, which also disallows the us of the Airstrikes ability. Every turn the government is not at 19 support (in which case they would win unless they do not have active support in each city), the alliance degrades 1 level, also reducing Aid by 10 points in the process. The effect of this is that unless the government is about to win, they will quickly begin running out of resources.

The Syndicate is a criminal type faction like the Cartels or Warlords in other COIN games. As they are limited to only 6 guerrillas, they are limited in their military power. Unlike the other factions, they build Casinos rather then bases, which have an open or closed state effecting if they are considered to be in play at the time. Their special abilities enable them to move government cubes to protect them, bribe away other factions piece, or stack cash to give them resources or free actions. This cash may be captured or traded to other factions as well. They gain resources by outnumbering police at ECs or Cities, plus 2x the number of open Casinos - although if they do not control the space, they have to transfer those resources to the controlling faction.

The Directorio is a right-wing insurgent faction roughly the same as the insurgent factions in other COIN games. Unusually however they win by control + bases rather then support, and in fact focus on wanting spaces to be neutral, being unable to recruit in spaces which are at any active level. They also have a powerful assassinate special ability enabling the removal of any enemy piece in a space. They gain resources based on the number of space they have pieces in, rather then based on the number of bases.

The 26th of July Movement is also a fairly typical insurgent faction. Unlike the Directorio however, they have the ability to recruit at twice the population + bases at a space with a base. They win by opposition + bases, and gain resources solely based on the number of bases they have. It is important to note that unlike in other COIN games, all factions are in open conflict with each other and therefore alliances are based solely on the discretion of the players.

This has been called a half-size COIN, and in many ways it is. The map is roughly half the size of previous titles and there are only 48 cards in play with 4 rounds. This makes Cuba Libre the shortest and most accessible of all the COIN games.

2. What I like

As with other COIN games, this is basically a good game by virtue of it being a COIN game. The system is a proven one which is simply the best out there for simulating guerrilla and other types of irregular warfare. Especially important is that COIN is virtually the only series enabling urban guerrilla warfare, something which virtually every attempt at portraying guerrilla warfare neglects - I have suspect just because having enemy pieces in the same hex is usually frowned upon. And of course, the support/opposition mechanic is masterfully done, and also something not often portrayed in other attempts at portraying guerrilla war.

The events themselves are flavorful and well-researched. Some people have complained about the inclusion of the Directorio and accused the designer of making the faction up or embellishing it to fit a 4 player game structure. I disagree. The confusion I think arises because in reality the Directorio was subsumed into the 26th of July coalition fairly quickly, whereas in the game new players often bring the two into open conflict since there are no in-game restraints for it until the Pact of Caracas card is played. This is however bad strategy for the insurgents, since they will lose if they waste their time fighting each other. The intended strategy is for the two to cooperate at least most of the game. So I don't really have any problems with this; the Directorio was a real organization which could have ended up in conflict with the M26 due to their differing political orientations. Forging that coalition is kind of the point of the game.

3. What I dislike

While I like that COIN allows urban guerrilla warfare, I've always found it kinda disturbing how easy it is for the government to wall off the cities from insurgents just by constantly funneling resources into building support. This is less of a concern in this game because of the government's resource problem, but it is still a problem. While it is more difficult for insurgents to control cities because they are defacto government base areas, it is also basically impossible for the government to completely shut down cities due to the inherent problems of surveilling so many people effectively. I can much more easily buy the ability to shut down areas of the countryside since such areas are much less populated and therefore can be more easily physically controlled and propagandized. Cities however can almost always be a recruitment area, if not necessarily efficiently. This is why urban guerrillas, even if not necessarily effective, are often very long lived. The Red Army Faction in Germany and the Red Brigades in Italy managed to keep insurgencies going for three decades despite majority support for the government, because as long as they had the resources to keep recruiting there was always someone to recruit and somewhere to hide in a large urban area. So I usually house rule COIN games now that 1 insurgent faction per turn can recruit 1 guerrilla in any city they would otherwise not be able to rally in, provided they pay double the resources to do so. As previously noted however this is less of an issue with this game in particular because of the declining ability of the government to police the cities.

I feel that the effects of the declining US alliance are too harsh on the government, since as previously noted the alliance will be degrading almost always unless the government is about to win. The subtraction of aid is not the main problem, so much as the rising costs. The effect of this is that if the government is doing well but the game drags on too long, Cuba just collapses into anarchy without any faction winning. I understand what the designer was going for, but it feels odd that if the government is doing well Cuba collapses into Somalia with the government not having the resources to defend outside of Havana and the rest of Cuba a three way turf war. The Batista regime did collapse quickly but that was primarily because of their military defeat by the insurgents rather then because the government imploded. I kinda wish GMT would fix this since it basically means that the government will have nothing to do after the first two turns since they have almost no shot at winning after that. As it is I house rule it so that dropping to Embargoed has no additional effect on action costs and does nothing but disable airstrikes.

The special abilities of the government are for the most part pretty terrible. They have nothing like the French Neutralize in Colonial Twilight or Airstrikes in Fire in the Lake, meaning that they have no special abilities which could seriously threaten an insurgent base, short of getting cash from the Syndicate and using that to assault on the same turn.

The Syndicate is just kind of boring to play most of the time. They don't have much to do other then build casinos, stack cash, and try to cut deals with the other faction. Until the Mafia Offensive card they don't even have an ability to hit back at other factions other then by terror or bribery. I'm not sure they should really have been included in the game. A patronage mechanic like Fire in the Lake for the Government might have been a more interesting way to simulate the corruption of the Cuban government. As Syndicate guerrillas can rally anywhere, they also have a disproportionate ability to influence support since they only need to rally and then terror to knock it towards neutral. As such they have a weird amount of power to be able to kingmake, considering that most of their power revolve around doing stuff to other factions rather then building their own power. Most of the times I've seen the Syndicate win is when everyone else is stalemated, so if they win its usually just because everyone else loses. In theory they should be allies of the government, but usually what I've seen happen is that they get along for 50-75% of the game and then the two get into a war with each other as the government falls apart, resulting in a wave of Syndicate terrorism and military assaults on the Casinos. The fact that they only have 6 guerrillas makes it difficult for them to do much of anything other then kingmake since they are so vulnerable to the other factions which makes it trivially easy for their casinos to be closed if they're an actual threat to anyone.

The ability of a weak Government to kingmake is also a problem. Once they run low on resources they have little to do but kingmake since they're usually too weak to actually have a shot at winning. Which is also naturally quite boring when that happens.

If the Directorio-M26 fail to cooperate, then it's basically impossible for the insurgents to win outright. This is something of a problem because as with many other COIN games, the "historic" strategy is often not-intuitive without playing a few games.

Since there are only 3 ECs, I often find them to not matter very much since it's fairly easy for the government to police all of them. Unlike with other COIN games, the government can fairly easily just stack 3 police in any of the 2 ECs which are usually threatened.

This game does deserve praise for its accessibility. But at the same time I wish it were a bit more Cuba specific. This is the closest thing to a sandbox COIN game and as such the abilities are a bit generic. As well this is probably the worst COIN game to play solitaire since the diplomatic interactions between players here are more complicated and fundamental then in any of the other titles. The Syndicate faction for example is pretty much built around player negotiations.

4. Rating

I give this game an 8/10, or a B in letter grades. Since it requires a bit of house ruling I have to deduct a point, and because of the fact it requires more involved player diplomacy I have to subtract another point. But if you like COIN this is still overall a good game.

Originally published at:
https://waltergordonart.wordpress.com/cuba-libre-a-review/
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Paul Schroeder

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I'm wondering if these are important clarifications:

"Airstrike only removes a single guerrilla" - this should be: Remove Active Guerrilla or, if the targeted Faction has no Guerrillas in the space, remove or close 1 of its Bases.

"And reprisal not only shifts the space towards neutral but displaces a single guerrilla to an adjacent space" - It only shift towards neutral in a space with opposition.

"they have to transfer those resources to the controlling faction." - Only 2 resources.

My commentary on other things:

"So I usually house rule COIN games now that 1 insurgent faction per turn can recruit 1 guerrilla in any city they would otherwise not be able to rally in" - This would break the game in our group (and I would think in any experienced COIN players game). Government is, by far, the most nuanced to win with experienced players on the insurgent side. Does your group not know to move insurgent guerrillas into cities right before a propaganda card? This allows them to go underground before the start of the next campaign (and should happen if Government is too far ahead because all insurgents can do it). This is a very strong move, and would be incredibly game breaking combined with your house rule.

"I feel that the effects of the declining US alliance are too harsh on the government" - I actually agree with your paragraph on this. I always assumed there is some play in the game I don't understand well to move support up, but for the life of me, can't really figure it out.

Your paragraph about the Syndicate. I'm wondering if your Government players aren't using Reprisal (Reprisal does not remove support) to remove the Syndicate Guerrilla guarding Casinos, and then assaulting same turn to close them? The government should easily be able to handle the Syndicate after the Syndicate gets too many Casinos to guard effectively (only having a possible 6 guerrillas).

I haven't seen the Government king make in this game before. Do your players not trade resources? Late in the game where it's clear the Government can't win, other players will generally trade them resources for poking other factions. I've definitely seen a government sneak in a win by doing this to get a bunch of resources at the last minute.

Stacking 3 cubes on an EC means they are leaving elsewhere undefended. I never felt like there was enough cubes in Cuba Libre to make this easy while also trying to garner support in non-city spaces which are required to win (syndicate would, I hope have 3 pieces in at least two of the cities most of the time, which means you need 8 pieces just to hold control).

How many times have you played this entry?
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Walter Gordon
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I've played several times. You are correct about the clarifications but they were just errors in me typing it up rather then in gameplay.

As for Urban Guerrillas, this is the game I would recommend this rule the least for since it is not that difficult for DR players to get into cities. However IMO it is hardly gamebreaking. One Guerrilla per turn for twice the cost is simply not very efficient unless you're pursuing an exclusive urban strategy. Plus its trivially easy for the government to sweep or reprisal that single guerrilla out of the cities. AS for moving in guerrillas before the propaganda card, I use the rule that once the propaganda card is flipped over the propaganda round is automatically played. So marching guerrillas in is not a very easy strategy. In any case I find that to be kinda gamey since its relying on basically a turn mechanism to hid guerrillas, which doesn't feel right.

As for the Syndicate, I don't think reprisal matters much since I wasn't saying it was very militarily strong. Indeed I think this is one of the problems since with only 6 guerrillas the Syndicate is usually at the mercy of the other players.

Players trade resources, but at the point the government is screwed usually the're reduced to trying to defend Havana or smack down the leader. Either way its not very satisfying.

In my experience they only usually need to strongly garrison 2 ECs which is very doable since the one between Pinar and La Habana is usually protected by the Syndicate control of those provinces, and since the Syndicate and Government are in an alliance thats not an issue until the 2 get into a crime war with each other.

Having playtested the US alliance house rule I can say I feel that this is balanced since any faction can still win but the government is in the game until the end. So I do recommend this house rule or at least some variant of it.
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