Writing at the conclusion of the 10-week long Spanish-American War, soon-to-be Secretary of State John Hay declared the conflict a “splendid little war.” Of course, that sentiment was from the perspective of a US diplomat. Not from Spain’s. Nor from the common soldiers who suffered through the heat, malaria, and black vomit. And certainly not from the Cuban people who just traded one imperial power for another in their war of “independence.” Such is history. However, one fun aspect of board gaming is that you always have a chance to change history! Will events play out the same here? Or will you make Mr. Hay eat his words?
How it Plays
Cuba: The Splendid Little War is a simulation of the island’s third and final war for independence. Beyond that, it’s hard to categorize this unique design with a little bit of war, a dash of politics, and smidgen of economy. It covers the nearly 4-year struggle’s major military, political, and economic aspects from a “bird’s-eye” view. While these elements are highly abstracted in game play, it is still very thematic with lots of detailed and specialized rules. As either the Cuban or Spanish side, you will need to manage the many strings of this marionette like a master manipulator.
The map is divided into 6 provinces and 2 cities, so that military operations are based on area control and area movement. However, since the island is thinly linear, movement is in reality point-to-point. Units from both sides are allowed joint presence in the provinces – though not in the cities – representing the affair’s guerilla nature. Each side earns resource points depending on their presence in or control of territory, as well as generals in the field and other special circumstances.
Game play is divided into two phases: Action and Administrative. The first phase is driven by action-point selection. The number of actions you may take depends on your resource points. Most actions cost 1 point. There are several actions available, although some are specific to one side or the other. The Cuban and Spanish player alternate actions until both run out of resource points or pass on consecutive turns. In either case, the action phase ends and proceeds to the administrative. The game ends after seven rounds, unless someone meets an immediate victory condition before that.
In the action phase, either combatant can play a card, move units, or attack the enemy for the cost of 1 resource point. These three actions are fairly standard to war games, of course. Cards actually come as actions, reactions, or events. Action cards operate exactly as they sound, counting as a player action and expending 1 resource point. Event cards are free and there is no limit to playing them during a turn, since they’re not technically an action. Reaction cards are played in response to an opponent’s action or during combat as modifiers. There is a large variety of card types and their effects on the game – all based on historic events and people. When playing one at the appropriate time, simply carry out its instructions.
Movement and combat require a general in the province where the activated unit is located. The officer does not have to move or attack with the activated unit – it must just be present. Movement is simply from one province to an adjacent one or you may stack units together within the same region. Attacks are more complicated and include a lot of details with possibly multiple modifiers. Essentially, the attacker designates one of his units or stacks to assault another unit or stack within the same province. If the Spanish player is attacking, he must first locate the Cubans with a Search roll. Combat ensues only after a success of 5+ on a modified die roll. A similar success is required to reduce an enemy unit in actual combat. If at full strength, the unit is flipped to its reduced side. If a reduced unit is successfully hit, then it is eliminated. Various modifiers can affect the roll’s result or even allow the attacker to roll an extra die. However, if the attacker misses completely, the defender counterattacks. After the first assault and potential counterattack, the battle is over, lasting only the one round. There can be further repercussions for either side depending on the nature and outcome of fighting.
Besides card play and normal military duties, each faction also has unique options which are tied to the conflict’s historical realities. As a grassroots, guerilla-based insurgency, the Cuban player can burn a province’s fields. This erodes public support back home in Spain for the war, but also deprives both players of that area’s resources for a turn. Also for a resource point, the Cuban player can attempt to recruit new rebels. This requires a general and a successful die roll (again at 5+), but is the only way to conscript new units or strengthen reduced ones.
The Spanish player also has several unique actions. He can order a division to form a search and destroy column, making it easier to locate Cuban units in that province. He can assign a force to protect the fields so that insurgents can’t burn them. And if a general occupies the Captaincy General box, he may expend 2 resource points to activate any unit or stack on the island if another officer is not readily available in its province. Finally, Spain may ask for reinforcements or repatriate units. When requesting new troops, he simply takes two divisions from the replacement queue and deploys them to any area under Spanish control, but public support for the war decreases. When repatriating, two units enjoy a return to hearth and home and support for the war increases, but this may be done only once per round.
When both sides have conducted all of the actions they can or wish to do, the administrative phase begins. This is essentially a bit of logistical work. First you check to see if either side achieved victory (more on that below). Then US support for intervention advances one space, which could trigger their entry. Players then discard their hands, although they may spend one resource point per card to keep any that they’d like. Resource points are calculated and tracked. Field fires go out, if burning, and other markers are refreshed. Finally, the discard pile is reshuffled into the draw deck and players are dealt a number of cards as determined by their location on the RP track.
The US intercedes the moment their marker reaches ‘10’ on the US War Entry track, whether that occurs during the action or administrative phase. The Cuban player immediately receives the three American divisions and two fleets in the Key West box, plus generals and admirals. These units must ship out to see action. Cuba also gains 5 resource points and both sides draw additional cards based on their current resources. Also, the Spanish player’s two fleets steam into their respective sea zones in hopes of meeting the Yankee expeditionary force.
The Spanish win by surviving to the end of seven rounds. Or, they may win instantly the moment all Cuban units and/or generals are eliminated before the US enters. After US intervention, they must then eliminate all allied forces and leaders for an instant victory.
While US entry certainly boosts the chances of booting the Spaniards off the island, there is a catch. The US and Cuban factions, though controlled by the same player, have different win conditions and both must be satisfied for Cuba to win the game, else the conflict ends in a draw – or defeat. Without US involvement, the Cubans must erode Spanish public support to ‘0’ for an instant victory. Otherwise, the insurgents win during the administrative phase if that support is at ‘1,’ or if they have captured one city with public support at 5 or less, or if they take both cities regardless of war sentiment. Spanish public support decreases when troop numbers are increased, fields are burned, divisions are reduced, cities are captured, and via some card play. Of course, the Spanish player has various means of bolstering public opinion.
If the US intervenes, they must capture one city to achieve a minor victory and both cities for a major victory – unless the Cubans cannot attain one of their own win conditions, as well, which results in a draw. Likewise, if the US cannot capture a city before Spanish public support erodes enough for a Cuban victory, then the game ends in a draw again. Such was the complicated political morass caused by American meddling.
Cuba Libre! or Rough Rider?
The game’s subtitle is an ironic choice. Cuba: The Splendid Little War covers the entirety of Cuba’s final, 4-year struggle to throw off their Spanish yoke. The design simulates the conflict primarily from the colony’s perspective – so much so that US intervention is never guaranteed. But “the splendid little war” label pertains to the Spanish-American War as a whole, which also included campaigns in the Philippines and Puerto Rico, and was just the capstone to Cuban “independence.” So in a game with tons of theme centered on Cuba Libre, the title is a curious one.
I bring you that little historical tidbit free of charge – that’s just how we are here at iSlaytheDragon!
Otherwise, theme is off the charts in this design and one of the strongest aspects to Cuba: The Splendid Little War. While it primarily addresses the struggle’s military operations, players also recreate and contend with various other characteristics of the period from political to economic. The guerilla-style nature of the insurgency is represented by burning fields, Spanish searches, and Cuban recruiting. Public discontent back home is ably modeled with the public support track. And game play mirrors the historical campaigns in which the vastly outnumbered Cubans melted into the countryside only to gather and strike when favorable against a colonial power stretched thin between duties and malaria. For the Spanish, it was like nailing jelly to a wall. For the Cubans, that decisive victory always proved elusively out of reach. Until a coal bunker on the U.S.S. Maine exploded, taking the ship and 260 of her crew with it, soon to change the directions of three nations and peoples.
The Cuban player, beginning with just three corps, must keep his forces divided and spread out quickly. They have an “early momentum” bonus in recruiting during the first two rounds and must take advantage of this to get more insurgents throughout the island. Then they may set to burning fields to reduce public support, lobbying for US entry, and staging hit-and-run attacks when appropriate. Taking advantage of action and event cards that produce similar results is important, because when Cuban units are active, they’re more vulnerable to Spanish searches. For the most part, Cuba has to continue this guerilla war because, true to history, they cannot attack cities. Until, that is, General García enters play. However, that requires one of two event cards ending up in the Cuban player’s hand, so there is no guarantee he will ever see action.
Meanwhile, the Spanish player will attempt a similar strategy overall to his historical counterpart. Forming search and destroy columns, constructing and garrisoning defensive lines (called trochas), and protecting fields. This strings out their forces and risks some susceptibility, but affords the best chance to keep the insurrectionaries at bay, while maintaining control of the island’s resources – or keeping them out of rebel hands. This requires a troop surge, but the dip in public opinion is a necessary evil – if balanced correctly.
The game changes significantly if the US enters the war. Interestingly, the nature of that change depends on when they intervene. With heavier firepower capable of besieging cities, Havana and Santiago are ripe plums for the Cuban player to pluck. However, if US units capture a city, it is not considered under Cuban control. Therefore, the Cuban player needs to coordinate his offensives so that American troops march into at least one city at the same time reducing Spanish public support to 0 or 1. Yankee success can happen quickly, but at the same time, Cuba doesn’t want to wait too long only to see public support collapse before the Americans can capture a city. It provides for some tricky strategic planning, as it does for the now hard-pressed Spanish player, too. He must decide how to spread his forces adequately between addressing the provincial insurgency and protecting the cities form the Americans at the same time.
Besides the game play’s overall development, the cards also exude theme in spades – from major events like the sinking of the Maine to more obscure references like problems with America’s black powder guns. There are general cards, like Ambush and Low Ammunition, which modify combat rolls for one side or the other. However, the real gems are the ones which use historical events to impact the game. Yellow Press advances the US war stance track. Pope’s Mediation can lower the US stance if it’s already at a certain fever, but then forces Spain to cease combat operations. Prohibit the Zafra enacts the Spanish policy which prohibited the sugar and tobacco harvests in order to deprive the rebels of resources. Several cards also use actual battles, campaigns, events, and people to affect players in the gain/loss of resources, reduction of units, and the manipulation of US and Spanish public sentiment. And they inject some of the war’s brutal realities such as malaria, black vomit, Cuban desertions, and typhoons. The only disappointing omission is the lack of recognizing the contribution of African-American “Buffalo” soldiers. And there should probably be more attrition to disease, as malaria and yellow fever claimed thousands more lives than bullets.
The cards give Cuba heart and gravitas. First, they’re well-designed with a clean graphic layout. The title denotes at a glance how it is to be used. A period photograph or illustration sits below that. Next, it clearly identifies whether or not it costs a resource point to put into effect, followed by exactly what that effect is. Best of all, the bottom box provides a brief synopsis regarding the card’s person, event, or subject. The Spanish-American War is often relegated to footnotes in history books, so these “mini-lessons” are a cool addition.
Aside from learning something new and immersing players in theme, the cards give the design unpredictability, replayability, variety, strategy, and tough choices. They don’t drive the game in the same manner as a card-driven war game in which cards provide events and/or operational points (resource points handle the action allowance). However, there is no doubt that they have a significant impact. They’re also the main source of a design that has some swaying randomness.
Several influential elements are left almost solely to the whim of the cards, particularly the entry of generals, construction of trochas, and additional advancement on the US war stance. Some cards benefit the Cubans, while others help the Spaniards. There are some extremely powerful cards that you may never draw, and so never benefit from. The balance is that you will always have something to work with. And if you have a hand of cards you cannot play because they only help your opponent, you may discard 3 of them for an extra resource point.
Since the timing of when certain cards enter play and in the right hands, no two games are bound to play the same. The Maine may never explode, the generals Maceo may yet survive, and Prime Minister Canovas may never be assassinated. Then again, it’s even possible that the US will stay on the sidelines!
There are a few other significant, random elements. Whenever cards or actions require success rolls, players need a result of 5 or 6. This can be modified positively or negatively. But that’s little consolation for repeated bad luck. At least it affects both sides equally in combat. It can be particularly frustrating to the Spaniards who essentially need consecutive successes to find and then reduce Cuban units in battle. Likewise, the Cuban player will quickly learn that recruitment can prove problematic as that, too, requires a successful test.
Cuba is predominantly a war game, so there is definitely some fiddliness with a number of specific rules and exceptions to rules. However, the beauty is that you never get lost in petty details, but there are some still present to give the design life. Battles last only one round, involve small unit counts, and allow for fewer modifiers than normally found in the genre. As a result, combat is actually pretty abstract. It allows players to enjoy the non-military aspects, while not surrendering its quintessential war game nature. With its political and economic undertones, the design’s vibe and feel is more attuned with something like Twilight Struggle, rather than a hex-and-counter tilt. It won’t appeal to new and casual gamers, unless they’re particularly enthralled with the period or subject matter. But for experienced gamers not afraid to spread their wings, this could prove surprisingly refreshing.
Still, players are bound to stumble over the rules and details. In that case, they can consult one of the best player aids that I’ve seen in the hobby. It is concise, compact, and clearly outlines the sequence of play, how to calculate resources, identifies which nations can take which actions, and lists the modifiers for searching and combat. Plus wherever it mentions a rule or concept, it references which section and subsection you may find its explanation in the rule book. To top it all off, the aid includes a photograph of Theodore Roosevelt!
Cuba: The Splendid Little War is more than a splendid little title. A war game not just for hardcore armchair generals, players get to dabble in the conflict’s political, economic, and even cultural milieus. It’s appropriately detailed to immerse you in its theme, but doesn’t bog you down in a quagmire of minutiae. It’s historically meticulous, without constraining you to follow a strict chronological formula. With great variety, immense replayability, and an interesting mix of luck and strategy, Cuba is superbly engrossing, yet still playable within a couple of hours or less – that all adds up to a splendid little session of gaming.
iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Victory Point Games, for providing a review copy of Cuba: The Splendid Little War .