(image courtesy MikeBwithoutadot @ BGG)
Every now and then a game surprises me. At a glance, Cuba doesn’t look like anything special. Sure the board is gorgeous but the theme and mechanics all look derivative. Once I played it, though, I realized that Cuba has plenty to offer.
Cuba has players gathering resources, producing goods and shipping or trading them for points. By itself that doesn’t sound very exciting, not to mention all that unique in the Eurogame realm. The game does borrow a lot from others that came before it. There is role selection, making and shipping of goods, collection of victory points and laws that get passed. It all sounds pretty mundane but Cuba adds its own unique twist to nearly everything.
Each player has a set of five role cards, a player mat showing a 3×4 grid of fields and a worker token. The game takes place over six rounds and whoever has the most victory points at the end wins. On a turn, players go around in order activating one of their roles and performing that action. Each role has a number (one through five) and the fourth card you play activates but also counts as your “bid” for turn order. Your remaining role card is not played but its number counts as your base votes for parliament. The clever part about this is that the higher numbered roles are the more powerful ones, meaning you’ll have to sacrifice a good role to get a good base vote in parliament.
One of your roles is the farmer who allows you to place your worker somewhere on your 3×4 grid and then harvest the resources and goods in the row and column he’s placed in. There’s also the foreman who activates all of the buildings in the row and column your worker is currently in. Player mats have two sides, one that is identical for all players and one that is unique so you could play on completely equal footing or have different starting setups, which is a nice touch.
To leverage all of the stuff your workers collect, though, you’ll most likely need buildings. The architect role allows you to pick one building of your choice from the pool of available buildings and place it on a square on your player mat. This is one of the most important parts of the game because not only do the buildings you pick determine your overall strategy for the game but you also must cover up an existing resource when you build it. Figuring out what you need and what you can do without can be painful at times but thankfully your player mat is small enough that your choices are fairly limited and once that first building is placed you’ve pretty much locked yourself in to a pattern for the rest of the game.
Three of the roles have alternate uses. The mayor, tradeswoman and architect all have primary uses that work with the resources you have gathered so far. Their alternate uses allow you to collect a bonus which is then unavailable to all other players for the rest of the round. For example, the mayor normally lets you ship goods to a single ship at the docks. If you didn’t feel like shipping anything, though, the first person to use the mayor’s secondary ability collects four pesos and the second person collects two pesos. These spots can be in serious contention each round and you need to plan your actions accordingly.
Finally, the best part of the game is parliament. Each round there are four categories of laws that will be invoked. The first two involve discarding money or goods for victory points and if you do both you get a bonus point. The third law gives more victory points for specific conditions and the fourth is always some form of rule breaker. At the start of the game the four laws being voted on are shown at the top of the board. As I mentioned earlier, the value of your fifth card determines your base votes and then there’s a blind bid to add additional votes, one per peso. Whoever has the most votes gets to pass two of the four laws and their choices replace any previous laws of that type. Then the laws are invoked in order and players earn points for the laws they are in compliance with.
(image courtesy richardsgamepack @ BGG)
This really makes the game and I think the it can be won or lost here. Most of Cuba is about picking a strategy from turn one, building your victory point engine and working it throughout the game. There are many different ways to earn victory points and it seems like they are all roughly equal in their ability to win. The variables are the laws, if/when they get passed and how long they are in effect. For example, if you are generating a lot of income and the other players are poor you’ll probably want to pass the law that makes players spend five pesos to earn two victory points as there’s a good chance you’ll be the only person who can afford to do that each turn. Or if you have more buildings than everyone else you’ll want to pass the law that earns you points for each building.
Making sure you have the money to win votes, picking your roles so you have the proper base number of votes going in and knowing when to aggressive protect or remove laws is not only very important but a lot of fun. It adds a level of player interaction and awareness you don’t often see. When the new laws come up you’ll be very aware of what impact the passing of those laws will have on each player. If you ignore your opponents they’ll capitalize on the laws and most likely pull out the win.
This isn’t to say that Cuba is perfect. My main complaint is that there are only six rounds so there’s no time to waste. From round one you had better pick a strategy and stick with it. If you end up in too much competition with another player or waste too much time getting your production machine up and running you’ll fall behind and have a very difficult time catching up. Your turns will feel scripted at times as well as there’ll really only be one logical way to play it out. Other times you’ll be scratching your head trying to maximize your turn as you generally can’t afford to make many mistakes. Also, there will be times when you discover you can earn more points on a turn by completely ignoring your original strategy and going a completely different route. Not a big deal but it can be a little demoralizing to have built up this whole system just to ignore it on the final round.
Overall, though, I think Cuba has a lot to offer. There are a lot of different ways to achieve victory in the game but I think they all rely on paying attention to the parliament and making the moves you see necessary to give you a boost or prevent others from getting one. It’s also a relatively fast game, easily playable in a couple of hours. Out of the new board games I’ve played over the last year Cuba is easily one of my favorites.