Cuba: The Splendid Little War is a splendid little game

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For several years, I’ve been doing about four hours of podcasting a week. I’m not going to do the math, because if there’s one thing I’m worse at than history, it’s math. But that adds up to a lot of hours of me saying things as they pop into my head. In those many hours, I’ve said a lot of stupid things. One of the stupidest things I’ve said is that nothing interesting happened in American history between The Civil War and World War I. I actually said that. But that was before I got a history lesson from a handful of superlative games, such as Phil Eklund’s Pax Porfiriana (I’m baffled more people aren’t talking about this whip-smart marriage of gameplay, economics, theming, and historical insight), Joel Toppen’s Navajo Wars (which led to me reading Hampton Sides’ expansive and intimate Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson and the Conquest of the American West), and most recently Javier Garcia de Gabiola’s Cuba: The Splendid Little War. It turns out America did some of her best and worst growing up in that gap between The Civil War and World War I.

After the jump, if Canada is America’s hat, Cuba is America’s untied left shoe.

Let’s leave aside for a moment this game’s relevance to an American who once said nothing interesting happened in American history between The Civil War and World War I. The historical set-up for this two-player boardgame is that Cuba belonged to Spain, but in 1895, some people in Cuba decided to have a revolution to insist that, no, Cuba belonged to Cuba. Self-determination was all the rage, yet Spain was determined to hang onto the last shreds of its empire in Latin America. So Spain poured Spanish troops onto the tiny Caribbean island to enforce their opinion that Cuba belonged to Spain. A guerilla war ensued. One of my favorite things about Cuba: The Splendid Little War is its historical specificity about this war. This isn’t a system adapted to a historical moment. This is a system built around a historical moment and the specific things that happened, the way they happened, and even the people who made them happen.

The most basic fact about this game is that the Spanish and Cuban forces want to fight each other, but on very different terms. The Spanish simply want to kill the Cuban insurgents. Easy enough, except that they often can’t find them. The Spanish player has to spend precious resources to declare an attack action, and then roll a six-side die. On a six, he can actually attack the Cuban unit. Any other roll means the Cubans ran away and hid. The Spanish action has been wasted. It’s frustrating. All that Spanish firepower and nothing to shoot at. Welcome to asymmetrical warfare.

The Cubans want to sap Spanish commitment to the war by burning sugar plantations, which forces Spain to commit armies to defend Cuba’s infrastructure. The armies can then be beat up because they’ve spread out across the countryside. One of the fundamental choices in this game is how the Spanish player sets up his armies. They either march around uselessly like conventional armies trying to roll that elusive six, they spread out and become more vulnerable while defending the fields of sugar cane, or they form dedicated “search and destroy” units attached to a specific area, in which case the Cubans will likely just go elsewhere. Again, it’s frustrating. The Spanish player is going to have a hard time rooting out the Cuban insurgents. De Gabiola has designed a slick game of deploy and counterdeploy, hit and fade, you do this and I do that. The measure of success is a track for Spain’s commitment to the war. If the Cuban player can drive it down far enough, he’ll win. But if Spain can hold out long enough, she’ll win. Time is on her side.

Or is it?

As the Spanish and Cubans fight, America looms on the horizon in the form of a stack of ridiculously powerful units ready to descend from Key West. An American intervention track moves up and down — mostly up — buffeted by events on played cards. When the track tops out, America arrives with her unlimited supplies, mighty armies, and even mightier navy. One of the amusing touches is that the Spanish navy exists for no other reason than to demoralize Spain when it’s sunk. The Spanish player will want to hide his ships in the nearest port. The US player can force a naval battle with the right cards. Meanwhile, American troops stack up against whichever city they intend to seize. Has the term “game changer” ever been so literal?

It’s possible to play without triggering a US intervention, but I haven’t seen it happen. The more relevant issue is whether the US will arrive too late. Spain is trying to run out the clock, hoping to hold on and not get bucked off the island. Spain usually spends the last few turns hunkered down in Havana on one end and Santiago City on the other, like grasping a tiger by the tail and a bull by the horns. Just…two more turns…now just…one…more!

The “splendid little war” moniker comes from a comment by the US Secretary of State. Due to a number of factors that include geography, the USS Maine blowing up, and William Randolph Hearst’s yellow journalism, the US intervened on behalf of Cuba and drove the Spanish army out of Cuba, much like you might shoo a neighbor’s dog out of your backyard. Go on! Git! The Spanish-American War was our first overseas adventure and it wasn’t much of a war. In fact, we also decided to cross the world and grab Spain’s last bit of overseas territory, the Philippines. Much to the chagrin of the Filipinos, Spain handed us the Philippines on a platter. The Spanish-American War was more of a foreign policy announcement than an actual war. Splendid and little, indeed.

Cuba: The Splendid Little War focuses on the question of what happens when the Americans arrive, and what happens if they don’t arrive. Can the Cuban insurgents kick Spain out on their own? If not, what happens when the Americans arrive? At which point, the game goes from asymmetrical warfare to a siege. New cards get shuffled into the deck. New units arrive. A tiny naval subgame appears. Cuban supply constraints are lifted entirely. But the conditions for victory are now higher. The question that runs through this game and that can only be answered in the last few turns is whether the American intervention was worth it.

The card-based gameplay will be familiar to anyone who’s played a game like Twilight Struggle. But there are a few important differences. The kernel of this design is the wargamey cat-and-mouse on the board, driven by how many action points either side has, which is largely determined by how much of the board either side controls. The cards feed into that rather than upstage it. The ground game is still the main game. No scoring card is going to save or surprise you. There is no meaningful deck management. You win or lose based on what’s on the table rather than what’s in your hand.

At the end of a turn, you discard all your cards. But before dealing new hands, you shuffle the discard pile back into the deck. This is significant for a couple of reasons. It means powerful cards can come back. Not historical events, of course. The Maine will explode only once and McKinley will be elected only once. But you’re never entirely safe from the malaria card, the typhoon card, or the card where Cuban general Maximo Gomez can lead an attack without revealing himself. The distinction between cards that are removed from the game and cards that cycle back into the deck every turn allows some intriguing balancing acts. For instance, the Cubans have to remove their artillery card from the game after they use it. But the Spanish artillery can be used as often as it’ll burble up from the shuffling process.

It also means there’s less inevitability than the usual system where the draw deck is depleted each turn, meaning that any given card is more likely to show up over the course of several turns. Just as malaria, typhoons, General Gomez, and Spanish artillery might occur over and over again, it’s also possible certain key people and events will never show up. This is particularly an issue for the Spanish player, who has important tools buried in the deck of cards. Here is a slick gameplay implementation of how an imperial power can be slow to react, inflexible, and bogged down by political considerations.

One of the key changes for the Spanish player is the arrival of a character named General Valeriano Weyler. Weyler was ruthlessly efficient at counterinsurgency, and one of his contributions to history is the concentration camp. He implemented these to keep the insurgents from getting support and recruits from the civilian population. The people shut up in the camps suffered greatly, although it wasn’t the atrocity we associate with the Nazis. But it certainly contributed to the demonization of the Spanish that eventually got the US into the war (here was an early instance of the free press as a deciding factor in US foreign policy). In game terms, the concentration camps make it harder for the Cubans to recruit units, but it makes the US more likely to arrive sooner. Similarly, the Spanish player can shut down the production of sugar and tobacco, but only after Weyler has arrived. This limits the Cuban player’s resources every turn, but also moves the US intervention track up faster. And, of course, remember the Maine. As they say.

The card-driven gameplay is beyond reproach. It’s full of theme, gameplay, and just the right amount of flavor text and artwork. But de Gabiola doesn’t quite live up to his card-based accomplishments when it comes to the board. It’s a simple layout, but he’s awfully invested in traditional wargaming. Whereas the cards and action points lend Splendid Little War a stately Euro-elegance, all the pernickety interactions of chits and differentials and stacks is a throwback to the wargames that wouldn’t dream of letting cards compromise their CRTs. The result is a really smart strategic level hovering over a merely passable tactical level, bogged down with a few messy modifiers on a clunky player aid. It’s an awful lot of fiddling around for something that comes down to a single roll of a six-sided die. Nothing you’ve done in games like Twilight Struggle, Labyrinth, or A Few Acres of Snow is going to help you manage these chits. The ground game needed another pass before it was worthy of the rest of The Splendid Little War.

But assuming you and another player can wrap your head around the traditional wargaming foundation for the excellent card-driven gameplay, Cuba: The Splendid Little War is a fascinating look at a very specific moment in history. Games could use more clever designers like de Gabriola helping us peer into the crannies between the usual wars.

  • Cuba: The Splendid Little War

  • Rating:

  • Boardgame
  • Based on a design by VPG first-timer Javier Garcia de Gabiola, Cuba: The Splendid Little War puts you in the shoes of either the Spanish Empire, fighting to retain your dominion over Cuba, or the rebellious Cubans, looking to throw off the shackles of Spanish dominion. Lurking in the background is a rough-and-ready United States, pondering whether or not to intervene. If Hearst and his newspapers have their way, they will!
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