CUBA (Eggertspiele/Rio Grande Games, 2-5 players, ages 12 and up, 75-120 minutes; $59.95)
Suppose Puerto Rico (Spring 2002 GA REPORT) and San Juan (Spring 2004 GA REPORT) had a child. What do you suppose it would look like? Well, if the child was delivered by the design team of Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler, the same team who gave us Pillars of the Earth (Summer 2007 GA REPORT), it would look just like Cuba, the new release from Eggertspiele and Rio Grande Games.
Set in pre-Castro Cuba, Cuba comes with five plantation boards (one for each player) and a large board depicting the environs of Cuba, docks situated on the west, spaces for laws in the north, a host of tiles due east and a marketplace almost in the center along with a scoring track meandering around the perimeter. There are five sets of "character cards", worker pieces, scoring markers and a flood of other pieces: wooden products, goods and resources, 25 building tiles, 15 ship cards, 24 statute cards, a start player card, black marking pieces, coin chits and rules.
The building tiles are laid out, face up, on the eastern portion of the game board. Three each of the products (cylinders in white, orange and green representing sugar, citrus and tobacco) as well as two goods (red bottles representing rum and brown squares representing cigar boxes) are placed in the marketplace. Two ship cards are drawn and placed on the first two docks with another ship card placed on the board's edge to show the next ship coming into harbor. The 24 statute cards are divided into four types (labeled I through IV) and placed on the northern edge of the board. All players receive a plantation card and then select two products of their choice as well as any two resources (symbolized by cubes of a natural color [wood], red-brown [stone] and blue [water]) and place them in the open area on their plantation board. Players receive their own set of "character cards" along with a worker piece and scoring marker in their chosen color along with starting cash in the amount of 10 pesos.
All character cards are identical and consist of five cards, each depicting a certain role: the worker, the tradeswoman, the architect, the foreman and the mayor. In turn, each player chooses ONE of these roles to execute. Players may choose roles already chosen by another player. Using these roles wisely is one of the key aspects of the game.
By playing the worker, a player may place his worker piece on any space on his plantation board. The board is a four by three grid. The space in the upper left hand corner is occupied by a warehouse; the other spaces depicts either one resource (cube) or one product (cylinder). The placed worker activates those spaces (called "fields" in game terminology) that are in the same row or column as the worker. This means the player collects ALL the resources (cubes) and a maximum of TWO products in said row/column. (Players have the option to spend a blue water cube to collect a third product if so desired.) These cubes and cylinders go into the space on top of the plantation board, in front of the warehouse.
The tradeswoman allows a player to buy or sell any number of products or resources at the current market price, the price based upon how many products or resources are available in the market. Alternatively, a player may use the tradeswoman to collect one cube OR one cylinder for free. (First come, first served here. If someone has already claimed a cube, for instance, then only a cylinder may be collected the next player using the alternative action. Alternate actions are charted by placing one of those black marking pieces in the appropriate position.)
The architect allows you to construct a building from the stock by spending the required number of cubes (as noted on the building tile) and then placing the building tile on ANY space on your plantation board not already occupied by a building. The architect also has an alternative function. You may simply cash it in for Victory Points; 2 VP if you're the first player doing this, 1 VP if you're the second.
The foreman ACTIVATES your buildings. All buildings do something special. They may convert sugar into rum or tobacco into cigar boxes, they might simply generate Victory Points or pesos and more. The catch here is that the activation power is restricted. You may either activate ALL of your buildings in the same row and column as your worker OR activate only ONE building anywhere on your plantation board.
Finally, there is the mayor who also has a dual ability. The mayor allows a player to move products and goods onto waiting ships in the harbor. Each ship has room for specific cargo, cargo worth either 1, 2 or 3 VPs each depending on which harbor the ship is in. The mayor allows a player to load any number of allowable cargo onto ONE ship to earn VPs. However, a player may opt to use the mayor to raise funds, getting 4 pesos (if that player is first in using the mayor for that purpose) or 2 pesos (if he is the second). In addition. to these functions, all character cards also have a number on them, which signifies votes.
After all players play their FOURTH card, player order for the NEXT turn is decided. The player who has the highest number on his card becomes the start player for the next round. (If a tie, the player who played the same high card LAST become the next start player.) But before the next round begins, players need to vote on which laws will take effect next turn.
At the beginning of the game, two laws are in effect. Players may spend two pesos to get 2 VP and may pay a "tax" of 1 citrus product to get 2 VPs. Doing both will earn you 5 VPs. (Laws are purely voluntary. There is no penalty for not spending the specified resources to earn VPs but these are key methods to increase your VPs by a substantial margin if you can afford them.) At the start of the first round, FOUR bills are turned over. TWO of these will become law for the next round but which is decided by the player who has cast the most votes and voting is done in a most interesting way.
The base number of votes for each player is the number on the card he did NOT play this round. So players start with a base total of anywhere from 1 to 5 votes. To this total, each player secretly bids pesos, one peso equaling one additional vote. The secret bids are revealed simultaneously. The player with the highest combined total of votes and pesos will decide which laws will go into effect next turn. All money bid, whether you win the vote or not, is lost.
Laws can be extremely important. The four sets of laws (I through IV) are grouped by type with one set being Tax Acts (varying the amount of pesos needed to be spent to earn 2 VPs), Duty Acts (requiring the sacrifice of one or more products or resources to earn VPs), Subsidy Acts (where players earn VPs for open fields or buildings or money on hand etc.) and "Other" (which can increase or decrease the amount of products in the marketplace thereby impacting on their values, allowing ships to sail IMMEDIATELY upon being fully loaded and more, including forbidding buying votes with pesos!) Laws not replaced by newer laws remain in effect.
Once the laws are chosen, the round is over. Products NOT placed in the a player's warehouse or spent are lost and returned to the general stock. Fully loaded ships leave the harbor and other ships slide down the coast (increasing their VP worth). After the sixth round, players add 2 VPs for each building on their plantation board. The player with the highest total of VPs wins!
As in San Juan, the key in Cuba is to construct a Victory Point engine out of buildings to generate VPs each turn. For this reason, the game requires a play or two to become familiar with the array of buildings available to better understand how buildings work with each other. (Not a complicated task but, with 25 building tiles, it can be a bit difficult to digest at first. The rules appendix is helpful in this regard as is the detailed function of the building printed on the back of each tile.) Character cards give players roles to choose as in Puerto Rico but here, all players may choose the same role on the same turn and there are no bonuses for picking a role. A key difference is the voting aspect of the character cards as this shapes decision making since you need to consider the relative value of going first on a turn or the boost certain laws can give you provided they go into effect. This adds a layer of strategy not found in PR. And, as in Pillars of the Earth, there are large supplies of resources and a marketplace for buying and selling. In Cuba, the marketplace is, generally, the most underutilized area of play since, at first glance, money is the weakest resource as it is the only one that doesn't convert directly to Victory Points and money only serves as a tie-breaker. But money CAN convert to VPs if the right law is in play and money can be used as votes to make sure laws favorable to a player's holdings come into effect. (One of the possible laws PREVENTS money from being used as votes, a law you might wish to see come into play if you're finances are suffering!) Having the right laws in play at the right time can generate a fistful of VPs and make the difference between winning and losing, creating another level of consideration for the player seeking victory, giving the game its own unique flavor.
While similarities are there (the name coming from a Caribbean island, multiple, reusable roles, constructing "victory point engines", a marketplace for buying and selling goods), Cuba uses these tried and true devices to good advantage with enough original touches (voting for laws, alternative powers of some of the character cards etc.) to add a few degrees of separation from its sources of inspiration to make it a solid and satisfying gaming experience of its own. - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - - Herb Levy
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