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Cuba prior to the revolution: Under turbulent circumstances, the villages of the island strive for independent wealth and influence. Who can buy and sell his products and goods on the domestic market profitably or take in the most on the trading ships? Who can send the right delegate to parliament in order to influence the government legislative process, or erect distilleries, hotels and banks at the right moment to the benefit of his village?
Whoever has accumulated the most victory points at the end of the game, wins. Players earn victory points by shipping merchandise from the harbor, but also by erecting and using buildings, and by abiding by the law.
The first game I had the opportunity to play during my Essen excursion was Cuba, the new Eggertspiele release designed by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler, the team that brought us Pillars of the Earth. Being a fan of Pillars, I was anxious to see what the design team had created this time.
Cuba is set in the pre-revolution days, when making money was paramount and rum and cigars were the commodities of choice. Players gather resources and products, convert them to goods, and sell or ship them to earn handsome profits and gain influence. All of this must be accomplished in spite of a frequently aggressive yet indecisive government, which continues to change the tax and duty requirements, and enact often troublesome policies.
Each player receives a plantation mat with twelve fields, each depicting a particular resource or product. One field is occupied by a warehouse, in which players can store goods and products. Each turn, players will have the opportunity to activate their laborer, who will generate resources and products in the row and column where he is located.
The unnecessarily large, yet attractive central board depicts Havana, and includes spaces for the commodities and goods market, ships, alternative powers, score track, and statutes. The artwork is attractive, but quite congested and busy – just like Havana! The twenty-five buildings are supposed to be placed beside the board, but there are five building images printed directly onto the board. There appears to be no reason these are here, as there is no requirement that buildings be purchased in a specific order. This is quite puzzling.
Each of the game’s six turns follows a rigid sequence of play:
Bills. Four proposed bills are revealed, allowing players to adapt their plans to the potential laws the legislature may enact. Only two of the laws will ultimately be enacted, and only the player controlling the most votes in parliament will decide the exact two. Two of the bills deal with taxes and duties players will be called upon to pay, while the other two are involve subsidies and other statutes.
Action Phase. Each player has an identical set of five character cards bearing values of 1 - 5. Players will alternate playing cards one-at-a-time until each player has played four cards. The remaining fifth card will determine the player’s base vote value in parliament.
Specific characters allow players to move their worker in their field and collect the appropriate resources and products, activate buildings in the row and column where their worker is located, sell and purchase products and goods at the marketplace, ship products and goods, and construct buildings. There are specific alternative uses for several characters, including earning commodities, resources, money or victory points. This phase is where the bulk of the game occurs, and choosing the order and type of character to play is a vital key to one’s success.
When constructing a building, a player may select any of the twenty-five possible buildings. Each costs a specific type and quantity of resources, and grants the owner a special ability when activated by the foreman card. There are a wide variety of special abilities, include the granting of extra money or victory points, and the ability to convert resources or commodities into money or victory points, or transform resources into commodities or commodities into goods. Others allow the unscheduled loading of goods onto ships, swapping the ship at sea with a new one, exchanging resources or commodities, or even additional votes in parliament. The buildings work in a nearly identical fashion as those in the authors’ Pillars of the Earth.
Buildings are constructed on the player’s plantation mat, with each building covering a resource or commodity space, effectively reducing a player’s production options. Buildings do not convey their power unless activated by the foreman card, which takes an action to enact.
The idea is to assemble a powerful combination of buildings whose abilities mesh well together. Building an efficient economic engine is a main goal, as it will allow a player to convert merchandise into goods and/or victory points. With two exceptions, there is only one of each type of building, so players must act quickly to assemble the buildings they desire. Astute players will attempt to deny buildings to their opponents that allow the formation of strong combinations.
Shipping commodities and goods can bring a windfall of victory points. Each of the three ships in the docks lists five commodities and/or goods it can hold. Playing the mayor card allows a player to select a ship and load as many of the requested goods as possible. Victory points ranging from 1 – 3 for each good loaded are earned based on the dock occupied by the ship. Being the first to load goods onto a ship usually denies opponents the ability to occupy those slots with their goods, thereby denying or reducing their victory points for shipping.
Parliament Phase. Each player has a base number of votes in parliament equal to the value of their un-played character card. To this, players may simultaneously offer a bribe, the amount being added to their base votes. The player with the highest total chooses which two bills to enact.
Sometimes a player may be ambivalent about the proposed bills, so will not endeavor to be the player choosing which ones to enact. Other times, however, a player will be keenly interested in seeing a particular bill passed or squashed, so should plan his turn – and offer sufficient bribes – accordingly.
Statute Phase. The effects of each of the current four laws are implemented. Each player will have the opportunity to pay the taxes and duties assessed. Paying just one of the two earns two victory points, while paying both yields five victory points. Since the possible taxes and duties are known from the beginning of the turn, a wise player will attempt to gather the required pesos and resources or commodities during the turn. Five victory points are significant, and if a player is able to earn them each turn, it results in an impressive thirty victory points over the course of the game.
At the end of each round, players must surrender all commodities in their possession, unless their worker was positioned in a row or column containing a warehouse. Fully loaded ships depart for foreign ports, with all other ships moving down one dock. The ship at sea arrives at the top dock, and a new ship is revealed. At the conclusion of six turns, players earn two points per constructed building, and the player with the most cumulative victory points rules the island. Well, at least until the Fidel arrives on the scene!
Cuba is a “gamer’s game”, filled with lots of choices, strategic options, and tactical decisions. It will likely take numerous sessions before all of the viable building combinations can be explored. Like Puerto Rico, the game is ripe for building expansions that can help keep the game fresh and give players even more options to investigate. At this point, however, whether such expansions are forthcoming is purely speculative.
The influences of several games – most notably Pillars of the Earth, Caylus and Puerto Rico – are clearly evident in Cuba. Indeed, it is difficult to find anything significantly new in the design. It is a hybrid, combining elements of the designers’ previous collaboration with mechanisms from other titles. The finished product is a solid design, albeit one that will likely not “wow” its audience. Due to its similarities to the aforementioned titles, some will undoubtedly argue that they would rather be playing those games. Fair enough. However, the game is different enough to provide another alternative with a similar level of strategy and complexity. Whether one needs another game of that ilk in their collection is a matter of choice that some will answer in the affirmative, while others will decline. For now, I fall on the “affirmative” side of this question.