COIN Volume II: Clash of Cubans

My favorite is that smiley revolutionary who appears on both sides. Smile on, you crazy starchild.

As you may remember, I’ve been working my way through Volko Ruhnke’s COIN Series (COIN for “counterinsurgency,” though my little group goes by the “Coin Collector Club” to sound barely less nerdy), beginning with the first volume, Andean Abyss. I liked it quite a lot, but felt it was a tricky entry point to a series that’s known for its complex asymmetrical conflicts.

As though on cue, the second volume of the series bursts through the door, dressed in an army jumpsuit, drab olive field cap, and underwear over the top of the pants. It’s Cuba Libre, here to save the day!

Andean Abyss: Pocket Edition. Fits in a mere thirty pockets!

Cuba Libre seems so big, right until you compare it to Andean Abyss.

Before we get into specifics, let’s talk about what makes the COIN Series so brilliant.

Picture this: You’re playing as the Syndicate, which is the American Mob relocated down to Cuba. You picked them mostly because you watch a lot of Boardwalk Empire and The Godfather Part II is one of your ten favorite movies of all time, so of course you picked the side that casts you as a Meyer Lansky surrogate. Your friends tried to make you the leader of the Directorio, but who on earth knows what that is? Nope, it’s Syndicate or nothing. That’s what you told them.

Having watched The Godfather II fourteen times, you’re well aware that things aren’t likely to turn out well for the Mob’s interests down south, but it already looks like you’re outperforming your real-world counterparts. You need eight open casinos in order to solidify your position, and you’re well on the way. You’ve got a couple in Havana, naturally. Pinar del Rio, La Habana, a pair in Las Villas. You even have one down in Santiago de Cuba, protection purchased from Fidel Castro for some favor long ago, and you’ll be damned if you ever let him go a turn without you mentioning it.

You’ve bribed Batista’s corrupt Government with so many crates of dirty cash that they’re practically begging for more errands to run, and even if they weren’t, you’d just hire some of their troops to moonlight as protection for your assets. Now and then someone will shut down one of your casinos, but that’s a temporary setback — they generate so much money for Cuba, nobody’s willing to actually destroy them. They’re a far cry from a jungle guerrilla base, after all. They cost a few times as much too.

Now you’re looking to diversify by opening your last two casinos in the south. There’s no more room in the cities, not unless someone’s base gets destroyed; and the Government has promised that if you set up another in the west, they’ll invent some sort of health code violation to shut you down across the board. So you’re looking at a pair of jungle territories, either Camagüey or Oriente.

Only problem is, those zones are hotly contested between the Government, Castro’s 26 July Movement, and the Directorio. People die every day down there, and the regions change hands faster than quarters in one of your casinos. In fact, the only faction not currently mired in the fighting there is your pretty self, and you’d sort of like it to stay that way.

Thus the question: How to proceed? Will you bribe Government troops into protecting the construction, or defy their wishes and set up a casino in much-safer Matanzas instead? Send dirty cash to the Directorio to support their takeover in the region in exchange for some beachside real estate? Or just keep reminding Castro of that favor?

They harass the government mostly by spray-painting "DO YOU SMELL BACON?" everywhere.

Terrorism in Santiago de Cuba!

If the COIN Series at large excels at any one thing — and it excels at a whole lot of things — it’s at crafting, then deteriorating, and eventually collapsing the diplomatic relations between its four players. If it were a sitcom, it would be about four friends who sort of hate each other and undermine each other’s dating lives at every possible chance. If it were some other random metaphor, it’d be a lobster bucket.

Since each entry of the COIN Series is roughly similar, by learning one you can play them all, albeit with a few rules changes. In addition to the fresh scenery between Andean Abyss and Cuba Libre, Cuba Libre is the streamlined younger brother. He might not be as smart or as complicated as his older sibling, but he sure is easier to get along with. For instance, gone are the lines of communication — the highways and pipelines that are so crucial to Colombia and therefore Andean Abyss — and in their place, there are the smaller and more easily tracked economic centers, representing Cuba’s wealth of sugar, mining, and cigars. The former game’s sprawl, the neighboring countries and the uninhabited expanse of the Amazon, are all gone. All in all, there’s less to keep track of and the map is less than half as big; where Andean Abyss has eleven cities to manage or terrorize, Cuba Libre only has three.

It’s sort of like Volko Ruhnke (with assistance from co-designer Jeff Grossman) decided to make a minigame version of COIN and it turned out huge anyway — though not quite as huge as the other games in the series.

However, for anyone interested in the COIN Series, this is largely the same thing. It still uses the series’ hallmark two-card system, with one representing the current turn and the other standing in for the next, and only two players able to act each turn. Careful planning isn’t required, unless you want a shot at winning.

Sinatra can be convinced to play Havana. YASSSSSS.

Some of the cards. You’ll see only two of these at a time as you play.

Cuba Libre also continues the COIN Series’ tendency to divide the belligerents of a conflict into four factions. Once again, it’s a case of the Government being pitted against three much smaller threats, each incapable of doing any significant damage on their own and as likely to squabble as to mount an effective resistance; but with resources and attention divided among all three, suddenly there’s a real threat to national stability at hand. Basically, there are four factions, and all alternately hate or help each other, and there can only be one winner at the end.

As such, much like in Andean Abyss, there are effectively four different games going on at once.

The Government’s game is one of calculated decay. They start out on top of the world. All three guerrilla factions are weak, barely able to muster the strength to peek out of their hidey-holes. The good old US-of-A loves its neighbor to the south and is happily shipping funding and military training across the Florida Strait. And although they have to hunt down enemy guerrillas before they can actually shoot them, the Government has plenty of troops on hand to counter whatever challenges crop up.

Then, slowly, decay. The US stops sending training and funding, and eventually embargoes your little island, making all your actions cost more and more. Enemy guerrillas not only gain in number, they also grow in proficiency, learning new tricks and tactics. Not to mention the evolving politics. Always politics.

The flipside of the Government’s quandary is the game played by Castro’s 26 July Movement. Where the Government begins strong, Castro starts on the ropes — other than a couple minor cells, his support and military is limited to the Sierra Maestra, a fine stronghold, though stuck at the tail-end of Cuba. To succeed, the Movement will have to slowly creep back up along the country’s spine, infiltrating the police, kidnapping officials or Syndicate bosses for cash, and slowly but surely terrorizing those who support the corrupt Bastista regime. Fortunately, their cause attracts adherents like no other.

Mostly to steal cash from the Directorio. Seems desperate, but okay.

The military pushes out of Havana.

There’s this question on everybody’s mind — what exactly is a Directorio? Well, it’s a student revolutionary group, more interested in carving out a section of Cuba for itself than in all the subtle shenanigans of the 26 July Movement. Where Castro’s troops will creep, the Directorio is much happier taking direct control of entire regions, setting up bases, and maintaining large hidden armies. They thrive on denying control and support to other conflicting factions, and so long as they have enough of a presence in a region, they can immediately subvert all the arduous work that other factions have set up.

And last, of course, is the Syndicate. They want to make money. More specifically, they’re playing a mental game, bribing everyone with dirty cash, threatening with their thugs who can appear anywhere (since they have no regional or ideological loyalties other than stonking stacks of money), and trying like hell to look helpful to everyone.

Beware that tidal wave of Red coming out of the Sierra Maestra.

The eastern half of Cuba is a mess.

As I wrote above, this is a lobster bucket. One faction will pull ahead only to be pulled back down by everyone else, and it’ll get one of its pincers yanked off for the trouble. Even the Government and 26 July Movement are happy to put aside their differences to shank an upstart Syndicate. After all, Cuba’s for Cubans, not expatriate mobsters.

Cuba Libre might lack some of the complexity of the other volumes of the COIN Series, but, well, that’s the upside too. It’s streamlined, plays in three hours rather than six, and is far easier to control than the other entries. Its compact map even means that factions are forced to cooperate and counter-operate more often than in other entries. If you’re curious about COIN but you aren’t sure where to start, Cuba Libre will likely be your beverage of choice.

Posted on June 5, 2014, in Board Game and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 14 Comments.

  1. Called it!

    More seriously, I concur with Dan: this is definitely the best entry point into COIN. Andean Abyss is the baseline and both A Distant Plain and (from the looks of it) Fire in the Lake build off the concept in new and interesting ways, but Cuba Libre is the pared-down somewhat simpler version. It’s absolutely tiny compared to the other maps, and I mean that in a good way.

    My favorite Cuba Libre moment was winning as the wimpy Directorio. Even though there isn’t any hidden information on the board, I somehow managed to stay quiet enough that while the 26 July and the Government were hashing it out in the east and west, me and the Syndicate slowly built up in the middle. The Syndicate came close to winning and I took it upon myself to wipe them out. The Gov’t and 26July were so grateful that they didn’t even notice that my attacks were handing me the win!

  2. Oooooooooooohhhhhh, this looks so excellent! I held off on COIN waiting for this review, and I was thinking this series had gone the way of your Risk Legacy spoilers. Glad to see I was wrong! I’ll definitely be picking up a copy soon!

  3. Once again, this sounds absurdly good. This is the sort of thing that makes me look in at the world of boardgames with my nose pressed to the glass and a red jealous face. Only solo games for me, unfortunately.

  4. Getting a chance to play this now, and about half way through. Having a blast playing as the 26th of July Movement. The way our scenario is working out the game just feels like its getting progressively better.

  5. Although I am far more smitten with the settings of Fire in the Lake, and Falling Sky, I ordered this COIN game today, as my first in the series. Apparently it’s the better to start with.

    • I prefer both of the titles you mentioned, but Cuba Libre really is easy to learn by comparison. Especially when placed alongside Fire in the Lake.

      • First off, your content is amazing, Dan. I have been working my way through your site the past couple of months as I enter this new hobby. Second, curiosity question: your last comment above mentions you prefer both Falling Sky and Fire in the Lake to Cuba Libre, but in your wrap up of the Fire in the Lake review you mention:

        “It isn’t my favorite game in the COIN Series — that distinction still belongs to Cuba Libre, mostly because it lets me play as mobster Meyer Lansky — but at this point it’s my second-favorite[…]”

        Is this just a matter of Fire in the Lake aging better than Cuba Libre? Does Cuba Libre have a limited shelf-life?

        I am exploring adding my first COIN game to my library, and I keep tilting back and forth between Cuba Libre and Falling Sky, as both topics pique my interest, so I am curious what your long term view on Cuba Libre is at this point.

      • Thank you for your kind words, Sam! You’ve basically nailed it on the head. Fire in the Lake has significant replayability — and therefore ages better — but that’s largely because it’s a broader, more complex simulation. Cuba Libre and Falling Sky present somewhat more limited scopes (especially Cuba Libre), but thanks to their simplicity of play, they’re the ones I introduce most often to newcomers.

        If you’re curious about where to dip into the COIN Series, there are a few options. If you want to try the system in “safe mode,” Cuba Libre and Falling Sky are the shallow end of the pool. Gandhi, A Distant Plain, and Andean Abyss are probably the middle options, and don’t feature the complex battles of Liberty or Death, the treasure system of Pendragon, the two-player mode of Colonial Twilight, or the enormous scope of Fire in the Lake. If you don’t mind complexity, just pick whatever interests you!

        The other option would be to join a VASSAL game. Most (all?) COIN titles have modules, and it’s easy to play an asynchronous PBEM game that lasts a couple months and will give you a good idea of how the series works.

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