Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Cuba Libre - a good starting point for GMT's COIN series

Cigar, anyone?
GMT's COIN series is a range of multi-player strategy games based off an original design by Volke Ruhnke, called Andean Abyss. Since that game emerged in 2012, there has been a steady stream of productions from GMT, looking at different timescales, but also introducing other mechanics and systems in an effort to simulate the prevailing conditions within each milieu.

Cuba Libre is the second in the series, and was designed by Jeff Grossman in conjunction with Ruhnke. It covers the Cuban revolution in the late 1950s. It shares some very similar characteristics to Andean Abyss, but there are differences as well, which could make it a very good starter point in the series.

The COIN games allow you to play with up to four factions. They can manage just one person playing solitaire, or up to four players around the table. Each player controls a different faction. In Cuba Libre these are the government, the 26 July communist guerrillas, the syndicate (organised crime) and the Directorio (Directorio Revolucionario Estudiantil), which seems to have been a different guerrilla faction, possibly not as hard left as the communists.

Each faction is actually quite different, with different victory objectives from the others. For example, the government is the only one controlling troops and police and able to benefit directly from US aid. The syndicate is the only faction with access to casinos (and seems to have more cash than the others), while the 26July have guerrillas, that can be active, or can go to ground.

Cuba Libre has a smaller map than many other COIN games. The next in the series, A Distant Plain, has a big map of Afghanistan, but is also more complex. This may make Cuba Libre a little more suited to newcomers. At least that's my theory.

The game is driven by a deck of cards which determine order of play but also introduce historical events in the game. Players can choose to pass on their turn, in which case they get to act in the next turn, or take their action, in which case they will be ineligible to do anything in the next turn.

Each faction has unique actions which only they can perform. Take the July26 movement: they can use kidnapping for ransom to take resources away from the government or syndicate player. The communists can only do this in areas where they have more guerrillas than police, and can only kidnap in cities, economic centres or, yes, casinos. The syndicate, on the other hand, has muscle actions, which lets them relocate the government's troops or police, usually to protect their casinos, whether the government player likes it or not! They also have a bribe action to neutralise other factions' units, or cause guerrillas to become exposed or hidden. However, it does require cash be paid to the units or guerrillas, so the other players do benefit.

Hidden in the events deck are propaganda cards. These seem to be a core part of the COIN series. Each time one comes up, the players move to a propaganda round. This is where you can check to see whether you have achieved your victory conditions. Unlike many Eurogames, you may have won on the victory track, but until that propaganda card comes up, you haven't, and you don't know exactly when it is coming. This is also the phase when you resolve resources issues. Again, each player deals with resources differently: I like, in particular, the Skim, which sees the syndicate player transfer two resources from any open casinos to the player who controls the region they are operating in. July26 guerrillas control Oriente, and you have a casino open there? You pay 'em.

On paper, Cuba Libre looks like an excellent little game. I have no idea how well it plays in practice, nor how long it takes. The rules are not long - the core rules stretch to 10 pages. There is also plenty of detail should you wish to play it solo. Each faction has its own programmed AI. You only really need to be familiar with the rules/actions that apply to the faction you are playing, plus some general ones like operations (e.g. moving troops).

I will give this a try solo just to get a better feel for the systems. It is also an interesting subject, about which I really know very little. Putting yourself in the shoes of the decision makers in 1958-59 would be an interesting experience. I can also see how this game could be a useful educational tool for anyone teaching the Cuban revolution. More on Cuba Libre once we have played it!


  1. I feel like I say this whenever you feature a game on your blog, but I'd quite like to give this one a go!

  2. Replies
    1. There is an event card for El Che. Also Wolfgang Larrazabal and Rolando Masferrer looks like an interesting character...