Pages Menu

Categories Menu

Posted on Mar 4, 2014 in Boardgames, Front Page Features

Cuba Libre – Boardgame Review

Cuba Libre – Boardgame Review

By Robert Delwood

X2-cuba-libre-box-coverCuba Libre: Castro’s Insurgency, 1957-1958. Boardgame review. GMT Games, LLC. Designed by Volko Ruhnke and Jeff Grossman. $69.00

Passed Inspection: Strong integration of disparate elements to simulate irregular warfare. Varied strategies and multiple playing options.

Failed Basic: Unusual or nonstandard tactics may frustrate some players. May take at least one playing to understand game mechanics.

Cuba Libre (CL) is GMT’s strategic game covering Fidel Castro’s insurgency in Cuba during 1957 and 1958.  This is the second in their COIN (COunter INsurgency) series, designed for late 20th century or contemporary irregular combat. Each game in the series uses the same COIN rules with only minor modifications, accommodating special circumstances. Players of the first COIN game Andean Abyss may not even have to read the rules before starting CL. (For a complete overview of the game system, see Armchair General’s Andean Abyss review.)


Briefly noted, this is card driven, and can be played with up to four players or as a solitaire game. All four factions are always present, with non-players controlled by an artificial intelligence (AI) flow chart. Interestingly, players can even drop out during play and the AI then controls that faction. The AI is adequate but games are always more fun with actual players. For those new to the COIN series, CL is a good starting point, and should have been the first game released. The map, scope, and forces are smaller, allowing for faster play and easier learning curve with the unconventional game system.

The Contending Factions in Cuba Libre
There are four factions: The Cuban Federal government (referred to simply as the “Government”) is the strongest faction but is challenged quickly by everyone and, in fact, really has to win in the first part of the game if it is going to win at all. Frustratingly, they start only two victory points away from winning. After the first few turns, the cost of operations goes up. The Government has the military troops and police units and a considerable amount of movement freedom but finds itself pressed everywhere—especially wherever it is not. (“Strike where the enemy is not.”)

The 26July Movement faction, Castro’s organization, is the main antagonist. They enjoy popular support and their ranks swell quickly but moving against Government forces is, quite literally, restricted. For example, Castro’s revolutionaries can get up to six new guerrillas per Rally action, whereas the other factions can place only place one to three typically; considering the 26July is limited to 15 guerrillas, they can quickly reach their limit. However, moving from one area to another is risky, especially in areas with Government forces, since it exposes the insurgents to easy attacks. As a result, they tend to rely on card events for placing guerillas in areas—a slower, less predictable process—rather than actually moving into the areas.

The third faction, the Directorio (or Directorio Revolucionario Estudantil) is a student-led faction—led at one point by Che Guevara—that historically had ties to the American CIA. Lastly, the Syndicate faction, or organized crime, has self-interest in maintaining the status quo, to keep their casinos and protection money flowing.

Each of the four factions is capable of winning. The COIN system uses mismatching victory conditions, i.e., every faction has its individual conditions that aren’t zero sum or mutually exclusive. For example, the Government wins by keeping each Cuban state politically on its side, while the Directorio wins by controlling population; both situations can, and often do, occur at the same time. That means all factions have to keep track of each other’s status.

Pairs of factions form natural alliances. The Syndicate produces a lot of money but without a large military arm, it generally relies on (that is, pays) the Government for protection; they can even take some actions that force the government to protect them. Likewise, the 26July Movement and Directorio often ally to keep constant pressure on the Government. The question is when to time the inevitable double cross. For example, if the Syndicate is allowed to keep all the money it produces, it will win quickly. If the money-starved populist movements (the 26July and the Directorio factions) get the money, they can overwhelm the Government with guerrillas combatants.

GMT always has outstanding game components and CL is no exception. The 17″x22″ mounted map is an area movement representation of Cuba divided into rural provinces, cities, and Economic centers (producing Government income from such activities as factory, cigar, and sugar production). The map has a matte finish, which reduces glare, and the colors are pleasant light pastels, making the map overall very playable.

What is becoming a hallmark of the series is the wooden tokens. Square cubes represent Government troops and police units. Oblong pieces are guerrillas and can be face down (considered concealed or Inactive and although their location and number are known, they generally can’t be attacked), or face up (Active, marked with gold star, and vulnerable to attack but also capable of making attacks themselves). The disks represent bases, or for the Syndicate only, casinos. Bases are assembly areas for troops and guerrillas. For instance, prior to each presidential election, government forces have to return to a city or a base; the number of new guerrilla units is determined by the number of bases in a province or city. Casinos generate cash.

The concise rules are among the best written ones in the industry and clearly enumerate procedures. The rules are 20 pages, but the core rules are more like ten; the solitaire accommodations alone are five pages, for example. In general, the rules are deceptively simple: Simple in that the procedure for each activity is about four lines long; Deceptive in that the timing and combination of the activities can be powerful but not always obvious. The playbook, equally well written, is mostly tutorials for multiplayer and solitaire games. The examples are clear, well chosen, and provide copious explanations. Other components include a sequence of play and planning map sheet, faction player aid foldouts, and non-player AI. Each player has a copy of all the factions’ capabilities.

There is only one scenario although the game system allows for enough variations. For example, the event deck contains 48 cards, and the sequence of the cards determines the strategies.

The COIN series has a novel gameplay system. Although called a card-driven game, players do not have hands but instead flip cards to reveal the turn’s events. In addition, the card also has the faction’s turn order sequence. In general, factions play every other turn. The next turn’s card is also shown, so players can better plan, perhaps opting to pass on the current turn in order to take advantage of the following one’s event.

The other notable game mechanism is the Sequence of Play track. There are three option tracks, each having two related options. The first active faction selects the track and its option, so that the second faction is restricted to the second option. For example, if the first faction does not want to take the event but also wants to prevent the other faction from taking the event, the first track must be selected, allowing activities but not the event. Conversely, taking the event prohibits that faction from taking any activities.

At the core of the game is each faction’s set of possible activities. There is a general set applying to all, such as moving or attacking. Each faction also has a series of activities specific to it. For example, the Government has Air Strikes, eliminating an active guerrilla, and Transport (moving three additional forces to a new location). The insurgents have activities special to each of them. The 26July, for example has Kidnap (attempting to extract money from the Government or the Syndicate). The Directorio can Assassinate, killing a force from any faction. The Syndicate can use Muscle to force Government units to a casino.

These standard and special actions form the core of each turn. Since the victory conditions are mismatching, each faction really has to understand other faction’s options. Even understanding the mechanics of the rules does not prepare you for the flow of the game. This is likely going to be the most confusing part of the game for new players. There are a lot of options, and the implications of the event cards may not always be clear at first. We started playing cooperatively, at least for the first few turns, in order to understand the mechanics. The strategy was much clearer after that. Players have to truly understand, for example, how quickly (or not) the government units move and the true advantages of the guerrillas.

The AI is not outstanding. The flowcharts are easy to follow and make sense. Clever players can game the AI because of its predictability. Some players admit to changing the AI some to make for more interesting game; in solitaire games the opponent rarely complains. The rules encourage solitaire players to be either the Government or the 26July faction. The playbook example uses the 26July case, and is probably the more interesting faction anyhow.

The COIN system is very good. It’s simple, robust, and represents non-standard (guerrilla) warfare well. CL is small and fast moving, a great introduction to the series. Unlike many card-driven games, luck doesn’t play a large part of the game. Players can have an overall strategy, but they just have to deal with little opportunities and problems that come up.

Armchair General Rating: 92%

Solitaire Suitability (1 is low, 5 is high): 5

About the Author
Robert Delwood has been playing war games since the PanzerBlitz days. He writes for several game magazines including ASL Journal, Fire and Movement, and Armchair General. As a programmer, he has contributed to Microsoft Windows, NASA and the International Space Station, and has an ASL player’s aid software package called SALSA.