On My Table – Cuba Libre

By Henri Whitehead

Sometimes when I get home from work, the last thing I want to do is stare at a screen. On those evenings, I will crank up some atmospheric tunes, brew some decaf, and grab a stroopwafel. Then, I will sit alone at my table and lose myself in a solitaire board game. My non-hobby friends and coworkers will often see my social media posts where I talk glowingly about a solo-game session, and then, they will inevitably ask me some variation of, “How is that fun?”

(Quick Aside: When I play Fields of Fire, I listen to the Band of Brothers soundtrack. When I play Mage Knight, I stick to an Elder Scrolls soundtrack. If you have any good soundtrack suggestions for atmospheric music, leave them in the comments. I’m always looking for suggestions.)

To be fair, from the outside, it is just me at a table with a game, a pile of rules, some flowcharts, and most importantly a stroopwafel. My spouse will often observe me sitting quietly for hours, and then suddenly, l might get up and announce that I lost (or on rare occasions, that I won). She never sees any bursts of strong emotions. There are no yells of excitement or groans of disappointment. It’s mostly the sights and sounds of someone in very deep thought — contemplative silence. I could be doing taxes for all anyone would know based on what little there is to actual observe from this activity. My behavior on the outside will never do justice to this part of the hobby, nor will any amount of social media posts. I love solo-gaming because it is inward. It’s peaceful. It’s private. It’s a world devoid of email and push notifications. It’s a world full of imagination and complex thought. It’s a place I can find small moments of refuge from an attention-demanding world.

Cuba Libre features a beautiful board with terrific wood components.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t also enjoy the other side of the hobby. I love bustling game nights and a raucous good time with friends. You can call me a contradiction, but I am an introvert who values the above-the-board social experience of board games just as much as I value puzzles or mechanics. When I step away from my stroopwafel and my flowcharts in order to play games with actual people, I still want to get lost in my imagination, but in that setting, I don’t want a private experience. I don’t want to create my own world or a self-reliant engine, but rather I want to exist in a shared world. I want the interaction. I want the negotiating. I want the playful conversation. I want to feel like not only do my choices in the game matter, but so do the choices of everyone sitting at the table.

For me, playing a game solo or with a group feels like two different worlds. These are two worlds that I love, but I love them for completely different reasons. When a game markets itself as both a solo and multiplayer experience in one box, it should not be hard to understand why I’ve always been incredibly skeptical. How can a game bridge two experiences where my enjoyment is almost a contradiction? I’ll circle back to this thought a little later.

If you are interested in the COIN series, Cuba Libre is a solid place to start.

In the early months of when I first discovered my passion for solo-gaming, I was recommended Volko Ruhnke’s COIN series. I started with the eighth game in the series, Pendragon: The Fall of Roman Britain, and I absolutely fell in love with it as a solitaire experience. I’ll go into detail about that particular game in a separate post (coming later), but that was my entry point into the COIN series, which eventually brought me to Cuba Libre, the second game in the series.

Cuba Libre (designed by Jeff Grossman and Volko Ruhnke) is a terrific game to play solo. My best experiences in area-majority games are usually driven by player interactions and not mechanics, which is why it is traditionally not a genre that I enjoy soloing, but in Cuba Libre, the strategy of the game isn’t fully dependent on the meta of the players. The game’s bot system is smart enough that you never feel like you are “gaming” the limitations of the bots instead of playing the game, but the bot system is also simple enough that extra cognitive load from running through the flowcharts never grinds the game to a halt. The Cuba Libre flowcharts can seem intimidating at first, but with a little patience, they will end up being a rewarding investment in a game that at its core has an incredibly satisfying puzzle.

One event can change the entire momentum of the game.

The heart of the game’s puzzle is the deck of event cards. Those cards not only act as a random timer for the end of rounds, but they also determine the players’ turn order and provide historical events that can range from wildly powerful to inconsequential depending on the current board state. The event deck is randomly shuffled, but it also has an even distribution of turn orders and favorable events for each faction. This leads to a game flow that is best described as waves. There will be consecutive turns where it feels like your faction stands on the sidelines, but for every stretch where you are in the trough of a wave, your faction will eventually have its moment at the crest.

These waves of momentum are a critical piece to why this game works so well. First, it’s hard to have a runaway leader. These waves of momentum help facilitate a natural rubber-banding that occurs when a faction starts dominating the game. Your faction might be in last place at the moment, but all it takes is a timely event to thrust you back into the lead. Now before you see the idea of rubber-banding as a negative toward the game (like someone getting blue-shelled in Mario Kart), these waves of momentum never feel jarring or unfair, and they also help prevent another common problem that I’ve experienced with area-majority games — “Let’s just gang up on the leader.”

Timing is everything.

When just attacking the leader is the main strategy of a game, it can be a frustrating experience for all because player autonomy will take a back seat to the idea that everyone just needs to pull down who’s next in line with little thought to any alternative moves. Cuba Libre avoids this problem because the victory point trackers rarely tell the entire story. There are many times where the best possible move is to go after the player in last place because they could actually be in the better position to win. This means that the “sit back and wait” strategy doesn’t always work. Everyone is a target on every turn.

Timing in this game is everything. If Cuba Libre was meant to be played with just the focus on the current turn, then having several turns of inaction would be frustrating, but in reality, this game is all about setting up big dramatic plays. There are times when you don’t want a favorable card or to go first in turn order. You want the small, inconspicuous moves, so that you can set up the big, board-shattering move. When those plays happen, you will feel like you hit a walk-off homerun. Most of the time, you will be foiled by another player or a badly timed event, but it’s that possibility of greatness that will keep you engaged and swinging for the fences till the end of the game no matter the board state.

I would strongly recommend Cuba Libre as a solo experience, but I would also recommend this game at any player count. To finally circle back to that earlier skepticism, this game has absolutely proven that it can exist and flourish in both the solo and multiplayer world. One of my favorite gaming experiences of this year has been playing Cuba Libre with three other players remotely. The mechanics and the puzzle remained solid, but the other players added this terrific roleplaying and negotiation element that really captured the best parts of player to player interactions.

In that particular game session, I played as the Syndicate, and I immediately lost myself into roleplaying like I was a character straight from Godfather Part II. I did not negotiate as myself, but I fully embraced the idea that I was this underground crime boss. I exhausted just about every mob movie reference and meme that I could think of in every message that I sent. Did I win? Nope. Did I have an incredibly fun time? The best.

One of the many memes that I used in my negotiations.

All the games in the COIN series have differences between them, but for the most part, I have always enjoyed all the games quite the same way and for mostly the same reasons. I’m not going dive into any comparisons between the other games in this series because it’s hard to see the individual beauty of a painting by van Gogh if you only ever compare it other paintings by van Gogh. Thus, I’m only going to provide this one tidbit of wisdom. If you are interested in the COIN series, Cuba Libre is a solid place to start.

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