Review: Santiago de Cuba03 Feb 2015 0
Santiago de Cuba is what the kids call a “cube-pusher”. It’s an exercise in resource management in which you turn cubes of different colors into victory points. The theme of shipping goods and wheeling and dealing in Cuba is pasted on and thin as hell. That's right, Santiago de Cuba is a pure-blooded eurogame.
If you’re new to euros, Santiago is a pretty great introduction. It distills everything great about euros into a very pretty package, and is easy to learn. If you’re already familiar with other cube-pushing euros on iOS--Stone Age and Lords of Waterdeep come to mind--then Santiago de Cuba will feel like an old friend.
Santiago de Cuba uses an old eurogame mechanism called the rondel. This is a circular mechanism that limits what actions you can take based on your position on the wheel. Usually, the rondel is secondary to the main game board (see Imperial for an example of a classic rondel mechanism), but in Santiago de Cuba the entire board is the rondel. The board is split into ten spaces and the players all share one piece that will travel around the board clockwise. You can move one space for free, but moving additional spaces will cost you one peso for every extra space moved.
The first nine spaces of the rondel are randomized every game, so the order of them will always be different. The final space is the port where goods are shipped and victory points are gained. Each of the randomized spaces depicts a Cuban you can visit to perform some action. These can be as simple as taking certain colors of cubes--goods such as oranges, tobacco, cigars, etc.--to stealing goods from other players, to collecting raw victory points without having to go through the cube shuffle. Each Cuban is also tied to a group of buildings in the city which you can activate. These buildings let you turn goods into other goods, convert goods to money, or really screw over your opponents. These buildings turn what would be a straightforward and dull euro into one that’s a joy to play.
The game is played over 7 rounds. At the beginning of each round, five dice are rolled to determine the demand of the five types of goods. Of these, four of the dice are placed onto a ship with the fifth die removed from the round. The round will continue until all the demand on the ship is met. This is done by selling goods whenever the player token is moved to the port space. Here, players will sell their cubes for victory points. What I didn’t mention is that each die has numbers from 0-3, so demand for each good is incredibly low forcing some cutthroat gameplay to ensure you get to sell your goods first before demand hits 0 and the ship sails away.
For a euro, Santiago de Cuba is surprisingly confrontational. There are a lot of ways to punish your opponents, and you’ll need to in order to succeed. Unlike many euros, Santiago is definitely not multiplayer solitaire. Of course, screwing over your opponents is most fun when those opponents are also your friends. Luckily, Santiago de Cuba has an online mode, but I’ll be damned if I can figure it out. The lobby is always empty, so there are no games to join and when you create a game, it doesn’t appear you can invite friends. You can’t even create a game and walk away, waiting for others to join in. It appears that the game is real time only without asynchronous play, however I can't actually get an online game started, so I never did find out. There is a pass-and-play option and, currently, that seems like the only viable way to play a game against other humans.
That leaves playing against the AI, which is where Santiago de Cuba really falls flat. This AI is bad. Really bad. I’ve yet to lose a game, and I’m including my first game when I had no real idea what I was doing. Even in games where I feel like I’m not doing very well, I’ll end up pulling out a victory. The AI is good enough to learn how the game works, but not good enough to play with more than a couple times.
Other than that, the digital implementation is very good. The game has a tutorial to show you how things work before it lets you loose on your own. There is also an in-game rulebook and every token has a help symbol that tells you exactly what it does if you need help while playing.
Santiago de Cuba is a good port of an extremely good board game. If the audience can grow so that online matches become workable, or the AI gets a much needed overhaul, I could see Santiago de Cuba being one of those games that earns a permanent home on a lot of iPads. In its current state it’s a better-than-average digital that's fun to play until you pull off the AI's fake Fidel beard and realise that it was Woody Allen all along.