The Spanish American war (1898) has experienced it’s fair share of myth-making. Remember the Maine. Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. The Battles of El Caney and Santiago Bay. America showing those dastardly Spaniards who was boss, eh? Stirring stuff. Except, well… yeah. It didn’t’ really have to be that way. In fact, the Americans might not have been involved at all. You see, the United States was only involved for three months (roughly) in an unequal struggle with a worn out and largely rudderless Spanish Military that STILL dealt an astonishing amount of casualties before being overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of the American onslaught. The Spaniards (by that, I mean, the occupying colonial power) had been fighting an on-again, off-again struggle with the Cuban Nationalists (by that, I mean the Spaniards who had settled down and created plantations on Cuba and wanted to rule themselves) for 30 years. The roots of the conflict were the Ten Years War (1868–1878), an independence movement by local planters that was stomped down by the Spanish Government, then the “Little War” (1879–1880), which was something of a continuation of the former struggle. Finally, The Cuban War of Independence (1895–1898), ultimately successful, had been fought for FOUR YEARS before the Americans poked their snoots into the conflict. One cannot hazard a guess how successful the latter might have been WITHOUT American military muscle around to devastate the Spanish position, but the main point of all this is the Cuban resistance to Spanish rule was not a new development, nor were the men who fought it necessarily poor fighters who needed American help to win. That is a major theme of the game CUBA: A SPLENDID LITTLE WAR, by Victory Point Games. The game is a very simple card-driven game representing the asymmetric struggle between the Cuban forces and Spanish occupying forces during the third Cuban War of Independence.
The Cuban War of Independence is a historical conflict that really hasn’t been modeled much in game design– I would argue that it really wasn’t much touched upon in the only two wargames set in the era that I know of, REMEMBER THE MAINE! and GWAS: THE SPANISH AMERICAN WAR. The former was an SPI/TSR era magazine game that mostly focused on the naval aspect of the war between the US and Spain that gave the land operations little thought. The latter was a pure naval game that focused on the fleet and small ship engagements between the Americans and Spanish Colonialists. So there was definitely room for a game that could tell the story of the Cuban versus Spanish struggle, which CUBA: A SPLENDID LITTLE WAR does in elegant style.
For starters, the designer, Javier Garcia de Gabiola, understood that the conflict between the native Cubans and their Spanish overlords was the focus of the game, and the later conflict that included the Americans (and garnered all the historical attention) was, while interesting in its own right, not necessarily the preferred option for the Cubans. Therefore, if a player can the Cuban side can manage a win WITHOUT the American intervention (and beefed up firepower), he or she has a win to boast about. I know I have yet to manage it!
I digress. Let’s discuss the game itself. You can think of A Splendid Little War as a sort of a gateway drug into more complex card driven games, if that makes it easier to categorize. Counter density is very low. There are 18 Spanish units, most of whom enter the board as a result of spending resource points or playing action cards. There a maximum of 6 Cuban “Corps” in the game– don’t ask me the scale of either unit, it’s not really important in terms of mechanics. The map is area movement– with six areas marked for resource levels, with two cities (Havana and Santiago) that become one of the victory focuses of the game. There’s a large deck of Action Cards that represent historical events that directly effect the units of either or sometimes both sides– a leader can be killed, for instance, or the yellow fever can decimate (flip over) a unit in a map section or . The cards are either regular actions (underlined) that are used once, then discarded, or actions that can be used again after being discarded and reshuffled back into the draw deck. Cards with a red border around the title can be used as a reaction card to a card just played. Cards with a blue title box show up when the U.S. enters the war (more on this later).
Perhaps you are used to the CDG design style popular with a lot of GMT games (and other publishers) that stipulates that a card can be used once for it’s event (and discarded) or used repeatedly for some operational or command point number on the card. The cards in a Splendid Little War are not like that– they are simple event cards that manipulate the board situation. The designer fills the same design space as “operational points” by giving each side a very long laundry list of specific actions that can be conducted in rounds until both sides pass. These are:
- Play an Event card
- Burn Fields (Cuban Only) Burning fields will eliminate resources in a map area for the turn, but more importantly, it will also decrease Spanish prestige, more on this later.
- Recruit (Cuban only), roll to get more troops. It has proven very difficult to do!
- Lobby The Americans to intervene (Cubans) or stay home (Spaniards)
- Move from map area to map area, but beware, it adds a spotter marker on the moving unit.
- Attack the opposing unit in the map area.
- Ask for Reinforcements (Spanish only),
- Repatriate Units (Spanish only)
- Protect Fields (Spanish Only) — Prevent the Cubans from
- Form Search & destroy Column (Spanish only) — this means perform an action to find the Cubans hiding out in the bush
- Captain General Actions Some actions require a general to perform. A Captain General Action is ordering a unit to perform an action from the Spanish Governor General’s office in Havana– it’s possible to lead from the rear but it costs you two resources to do it.
Generally speaking the turns work out to be a mutual action phase where players alternate rounds (Cubans first), they perform action and action until both sides pass in a row. The players than conduct an Administrative Step where there’s some card hand and resource management, remove markers, and they check the US and Spanish Stance.
This latter feature is pretty important. There are four tracks on the game board that gauge progress. One is a turn track, the other is a resource track. The other two are all-important. The U.S. War Entry Track starts at zero. Various historical events (played with cards) OR lobbying will move this closer to 10, where the counter flips to the WAR side– at that point the American Units come on the board (including naval ones) and act in concert with the Cubans. The Spanish Public Support Track starts at ten. If the public support for the regime hits 1 or 0, that’s the game for the Spaniards. The Spanish player is constantly trying to nudge this up through various actions– including fighting and eliminating Cuban units, protecting crops, and historical event cards.
The game plays pretty fast (only 7 turns), and the actions are simple to grasp and easy to resolve. I’ve played both sides and I confess to preferring the Cubans– it’s pretty challenging to try to pull of a win as the Cubans without American intervention. I’ve yet to do it. The Cubans have to concentrate on moving across the map and capturing at least one city, or preferably two. The Spaniards start with relatively few units on board but can summon more reinforcements– at the coast of political support on Spanish Public Support Track. Spanish units are usually stronger than Cuban ones but on par with American ones– however, they can’t make use of that strength easily– they have to find the Cubans before attacking. Cubans can stay still in a map space and not be seen, but many of their actions will cause a spotting marker to be placed on them, which gives the searching Spaniard a bonus to find them.
There are a lot of small, simple elements to this game that add up to a fast-playing, simple game of insurgency and counter-insurgency. Oddly enough the one game I was thinking of when playing Splendid Little War was GMT’s Cuba Libre. Sure, the mechanics are very different, the setting a different time but in the same place– and fighting a very similar kind of war. I really like this design– it’s a challenge to play either side and I’d say it’s relatively balanced. It plays fast, has several elegant elements that play off against each other well and most importantly there’s more than one way to win. Hard core wargamers might find it a little simple for their tastes– I wouldn’t. Cuba: A Splendid Little War is more of a history game that involves war than a wargame, but I’m glad it was published– it’s a real pleasure to discover a game on a somewhat obscure historical subject with so much historical flavor. I strongly recommend Cuba: A Splendid Little War.