Got to playing a game of Cuba last week, and it started me thinking about games that use role selection, and the fact that I seem to like most of them. Or as many as them as I've played and either remembered or forgotten. The grand-daddy of this mechanic in a board game is Puerto Rico. Sons, daughters, nieces, and nephews include San Juan (same designer, Andreas Seyfarth), Citadels, A Castle for All Seasons, and, of course, Cuba, designed by Michael Rieneck and Stefan Stadler, probably best known for Pillars of the Earth, and its follow-up, World Without End (Cuba was published in between). Even the more recent Eclipse has role selection, although technically, it's action selection. You could stretch that to the idea that players are choosing actions that define them as characters; the explorer, the builder, the researcher. There are others, not to include that special class of games, known as RPGs (role playing games) in which players choose and play out the strengths and weaknesses of a single role (character) throughout a game that can last forever. The five games noted above (we'll leave Eclipse out of it, so we don't get too confused) employ role selection in three different ways.
Puerto Rico and San Juan use role selection to determine what everyone playing does on their turn. Citadels and Castle for All Seasons use it to determine turn order, while Cuba employs it to determine what each person, individually, does on their turn. Each role, in all five games, bears a certain 'power' related to the ability it brings to the table when selected, usually a specific type of action, like Settler in Puerto Rico or San Juan, the Assassin in Citadels, the Master Builder in Castle, or The Architect in Cuba. Role selection throws a variable into what is, with most games, an action common to all players; what you do on your turn. I think that what's one of the main things I like about them, in general.
Funny thing about Cuba, though. It was first released about five years ago, and I probably didn't get to it until two years after that. And only once. When it hit the table last week, I had to be taught again, but while I failed to identify a successful path to victory on my first trip back, everything seemed to fall back into place quickly. I was able to sense the breadth of the thing almost immediately, see it whole, in a way that allowed me to pursue a path without getting bogged down in what I was supposed to be doing on my turn. Not that this helped me much, I'm just saying. . .
Cuba, pronounced either cue-ba, or koo-ba, depending on your native language, is another island community, like Puerto Rico. On a personal board, you grow things, you ship, you trade, you build. All in the search of those ubiquitous victory points we Euro crowd are so fond of. Thematically, the largest number of these VPs at the end of the game identifies the island's most prosperous village (with you, as key man or woman).
You don't need to choose specific types of things to grow at the start. Your land (the personal playing board) already comes with certain resources (plantations producing goods) and it is your job, to determine which of these resources you wish to produce on your turn. Or you could choose to do something else on your turn.
In Cuba's port, where you'll be doing all your shipping, the ships are looking for specific products, unlike Puerto Rico, where they sit empty in the harbor, waiting for players to decide which goods they want to ship. The market in Cuba allows you to sell and buy merchandise (in Puerto Rico, you can only sell).
The whole game adds twists and turns that deftly alter the Puerto Rico experience into something both familiar and uniquely different. One of the more intriguing twists and turns involves the action of a Parliament; pesky politicians either assisting or interfering in the business of your community. At the start of the game, four numbered decks of 'bills' (I, II, III, IV) are placed in appropriate slots for them on the game's central board. The Is are Tax Acts, the IIs are Duty Acts, the IIIs are Subsidy Acts, and the IVs are a compilation of six other types of 'Acts' - Two Market Acts, a Drought Act, a Building Act, a Harbor Act, and a Corruption Act (you knew that had to be in there somewhere). Without launching into a detailed account of what each of these are about, suffice it to say that they have an impact on your game play. While the varied Subsidy Acts can earn you victory points (based on certain fulfilled criteria on your personal board), the Tax Acts can cost you money to earn VPs. If you opt to enact the provisions of the Duty and Tax Acts together, you can earn an extra VP; so, five total victory points are available - two for the Duty Act, two for the Tax Act, and the one extra for doing them both.
One card in each of the four decks is turned face up. At the end of the opening round of play, players will bid to determine which of the four is going to be enacted. Your bid will be the number of the role card you did not select as one of the four you select on your four turns in a round (they're numbered 1-5), combined with any pesos you choose to add to the bid. Whoever wins the bid, selects the two Acts, and they become the law of the land until future acts are proposed to replace them. These Acts can be beneficial or supremely annoying, depending on who you are. One player in our game enacted a water subsidy and used it to collect a lot of victory points for the water he was hoarding to make it work (in fact, we failed to note that the maximum number of VPs he could collect with this subsidy was seven; he had eight water cubes, and kept scoring eight victory points).
The game has three types of merchandise (unlike Puerto Rico's single type of merchandise; wooden cylinders, representing either corn, indigo, sugar, tobacco or coffee). Cuba has products (cylinders), representing citrus fruit (orange), sugar cane (white) and tobacco (green). It also has resources (wooden cubes) representing stone (grey), wood (reddish-brown) and water (blue). Finally, we have two types of goods - tiny red rum bottles and flat, little cigar boxes. The ships in the harbor will only take products (citrus, sugar cane, tobacco) and goods (rum and cigars). The resources (stone, wood, and water) are used in varied combinations to purchase (erect) the buildings that come into play.
If I had a bone to pick about the game, it would be about these buildings. While I haven't conducted an exhaustive analysis of their relative values, it struck me as I played, that you don't get a lot of bang for your building buck. Not only that, but each time you build something, it goes onto your personal playing board (at a site of your choosing), and covers up a resource or product that you would collect if the building wasn't there. The cost is generally between one or two each of the three resources, in varied combinations; example - two stone, two wood to build a Cigar Factory, which, if and when you choose to activate this building, will allow you to turn any amount of tobacco in your possession into cigars. Or, one each of wood, stone and water to build an Inn, which, if and when you activate it, will give you one Victory Point. Building a Hotel (2 stone, 1 water, 2 wood) could earn you two Victory Points. Granted, if you activate these buildings every turn, the VPs will add up, but not, at least from my perspective, all that much. There are only six rounds of play, and it'll take some time to get these buildings activated. To be fair, I would imagine that further experience with the game would increase awareness and decisions about the value of these buildings, which, by the way, earn two VPs each at the end of the game.
It seemed a little odd to me that while there are 25 types of buildings (a few with two of a type available), but the central board only accommodates five of them. The other 20 are displayed in a loose, 5 X 4 grid next to the board; as though the board just ran out of room.
Another similarity to Puerto Rico is the nature of the game's learning curve. It takes a while to learn the buildings, role powers, and the ebb and flow of merchandise, money and shipping points. Like Puerto Rico, a game of Cuba with a group of people who know the game well is very different than a game where players are struggling to understand what's going on.
It's drawn just over 5,000 ratings on BoardGameGeek, with an average rating of 7.29. It sits at # 174 on the site's Board Game Rank, and at # 121 in the Strategy Game rankings. In a Geek List titled "Games that FIRED other games," Cuba is proposed as a game that "fired" both Puerto Rico and Pillars of the Earth. The board game community being what it is, some debate ensued about this, of course. Cuba's average rating makes it the lowest of the three among the better known Rieneck/Stadler designs; World without End being the highest (7.37) and Pillars of the Earth in the middle at 7.32. By the same token, Pillars is ranked highest in both the Board Game and Strategy game rankings; at # 146 (board game) and # 104 (strategy), ahead of Cuba (174 & 121) and World (231 & 142). Go figure . . .
To my mind, it's not quite as clean a design as Puerto Rico. Cuba may have moved into a cubicle next to Puerto Rico, but I don't see that it fired the game altogether. Different animals, so to speak. Your mind set is different in both, while the activities in which you participate bear obviously striking similarities. If you're a fan of Puerto Rico, you should enjoy Cuba. Maybe more, maybe less, depending on your taste. It's too early in the game (so to speak) for me to determine whether I prefer one over the other, though I suspect even once I've completed my learning process with Cuba, I'll still like Puerto Rico more. This, however, will not stop me from eagerly joining in when Cuba hits the gaming table next time around.
Cuba, designed by Rieneck and Stadler, with typically awesome artwork from Michael Menzel, is published by (among others) Rio Grande Games. It is playable by 2-5 players, and comes with a 12+ age recommendation. It retails for under $40, and at last look on BoardGameGeek, can be had for as little as $24 (in 'like new' condition).