United We Fruit

Makin’ up a mess of fun,
makin’ up a mess of fun
Lots of fun for everyone
Tra la la, la la la la
Tra la la, la la la la

On March 15th, 1951, Colonel Jacobo Árbenz Guzmán was inaugurated as President of Guatemala. Alas, he found his new socialist policies earned him the ire of the United Fruit Company.

While the CIA had participated in regime change before, and while the U.S. had previously meddled in the Caribbean, this was the first exercise of the Cold War performed in America’s own near abroad. It was the start of decades of Cold War confrontation barely a stone’s throw from American soil. It would continue through, and perhaps culminate in, the early 1980s with the region embroiled in a long term conflict and with ramifications, like the Iran-Contra affair, that seriously shook up the U.S. government.

Fortunately for the world, much of this is quickly becoming ancient history. A 1987 peace agreement began to move the region back towards normalcy and what problems still exist are no where near the level of 3-4 decades ago. If we nonetheless want to relive those wild and crazy times, we might do so through a game called “Latin Intervention.”

Fun for Everyone

Latin Intervention is a one-page, print-and-play game freely available from Board Game Geek (and elsewhere.) As you might expect given that introduction, it is very simple. Players assume the role of the two superpowers and take turns placing pieces on the board. The combination of placed markers and a die roll determines the political alignment for the nations of Central America. A player wins by controlling five out of the seven Central American countries. One catch is that unit placement drives up a “Threat Meter,” representing world tensions. This restricts each players actions, as driving the threat meter over the top will result in losing the game.

Despite the simplicity of the mechanics, the game has real appeal due to its “color.” Pieces are labeled to represent the various means that the superpowers used to meddle in the affairs of third world countries: secret agents, monetary aid, revolutionaries, and the military. All of this was done through proxies, so as to not push the world over the edge into a direct conflict between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. Another Board Game Geek user has redone the game art, making the print and play product look, actually, quite fetching.

Sadly, though, in playing through, the game is not quite right.

Critiques and Criticisms

There isn’t a whole lot out there on the internet written about this game. It’s simple, it’s free, and it’s probably not for everyone. For those that have expressed an opinion, there are positive comments, but also a few consistent criticisms. Please take a look at the game and the rules if you want to follow along with my narrative.

First off, there is a lot of confusion on the Threat Meter track. In the original game design, the threat track has both green and red steps and it isn’t entirely clear in the rules how they are to interact. The consensus is that they are together a single set of steps and each red step is merely two green steps. The new board has eliminated the “red” altogether, and simply has eight green steps, with counters being worth either one or two steps. One does wonder, given some of the other issues, whether we are missing something here, but I don’t see any other way to interpret this. For example, if the tracks were actually in parallel (that is, the red and green steps were separate), the “red” markers would be effectively free as there are only four of them in the game. That wouldn’t make sense at all.

One realization that I made quickly is that, with the eight step threat track, players must try to put the maximum threats onto the board as quickly as possible. In fact, the order seems pretty much proscribed. The Soviets play 1. Missile Base 2. Revolutionaries and 3. KGB agent. U.S must play 1. Carrier Group 2. CIA agent. At that point, the threat level is at maximum, and no more units can be placed. From this point on, no player would can reduce the threat level because the other side would immediate use that to place another piece. So the game must played out with six pieces on the board (the U.S. has Panama Canal to start). This seems like a poor use of the game, as it ignores the bulk of the available pieces.

The other area of agreement is that the Missile Base and Carrier Group, the two +5 units in the game, are overpowered. Because control is gained on a roll of “6 or higher,” these two units are essentially instant wins. I haven’t analyzed too carefully, but I’d think the game would probably see the Russians keeping their Agent and Revolutionaries together (for a +5) while moving the Missile Agreement to capture territory. The U.S. could challenge neither (as both sides would have automatic sixes), and would always have to move to protect his other two pieces if the Russians went after them. Like the Soviets, he probably has to group the two in Panama to prevent being taken out. Maybe I am missing something, but the win would have to come from taking a risk that you could neutralize your opponents +5 piece with a lesser piece by a couple of lucky rolls in a row, allowing you to pick up territory.

Strangely, with all of that, there are several players who talk about what a great game it is to play.

If you’re looking at the Board Game Geek site, there is a video review of the game by YouTuber marcowargamer. He also identified those two major areas of problems within the rules. He explains one workaround that seems to be used, and that is to have separate threat tracks for both players. Thus, you can attempt to, judiciously, lower the threat meter, giving up initiative in the current turn for more power during a subsequent turn. He also proposes a rule for making the +5 makers single-use, to prevent them from completely overpower the game.

He doesn’t mention it specifically, but he has also made a change where challenged countries are re-rolled every turn, not just after the placement of a new marker.

From the video review, he is not indicating whether his modified rules are play-tested and found to be balanced. He is more interested in the game as a launch point for discussions about history. The changes, and particularly the separate Threat Meters, open up a number of different strategies. However, it seems to me that the common threat track is key to the historical perspective of the game. Like the similar mechanic in Twilight Struggle, it captures the feel of the Cold War arms race. You may not want to escalate yourself, but you can’t let those Russkies develop a missile gap.

I’ve come up with my own variant that addresses the balance issues while preserving the single threat track. Thinking about it, it may just be complicating the rules while achieving the same results. On the other hand, I think these rules fit better with the historical “color,” which may justify the complexity.  I’ve posted my rules, so you can see for yourself.

The Rules

They are summarized on this page. I will note, that I will make changes at the link if I discover problems, so at some point the rules are likely to get out of sync with my commentary.

There are two major changes. I address the Threat Meter issue by making deployments to already-controlled countries “free” in terms of threat. Sending aid to an anti-government faction may be seen as threatening on the international level, but sending aid to a friendly government probably wouldn’t be. This essentially accomplishes the same thing as the separate tracks – a player can either play an existing piece now, or gain a new piece for play in the future.

For the +5 units, I assign a threat penalty for leaving them on the board. A Cuban Missile Base or a Carrier Group hovering off of Nicaragua would be seen as a continuing threat. Thus, you can deploy your (for example) carrier for “free”, but only have so many turns to use it before you have to pull it off map. Furthermore, in doing so you probably lower the threat level, opening up opportunities for your opponent. It it likely that this not only makes these units the equivalent of “one time” plays, but also demands that they be used at the beginning of the scenario, when the threat level can accommodate it.

I made the choice to allocate the threat points from the +5 units at the end, rather than during placement. This means if you are going first in the turn, use of a +5 counter might be an instant loss if your opponent can drive the threat meter up to the last position. It further weakens the play of the most powerful pieces.

The second major change I made was to restrict on-board movement. Movement for some pieces is restricted to adjacent countries. The “Aid” markers, otherwise the weakest of units, can be moved without restriction. This further shakes up the balance, as well as creates some strategic value for the map. The map is no longer just seven bins, into which you can place pieces. The layout of the countries matters, and it creates strategic value to hold some countries over others. It also makes some “real life” sense. It’s easy enough to send suitcases full of money anywhere in the world. But to actually move a couple of brigades of revolutionary armies, that might take controlling the ground that you are required to pass through.

One other change I made was to vary the player order. This helps create some back and forth in that, once you start winning the game, you are now disadvantaged by having to take the first turn. It may also throw the game into imbalance. The Soviets have better pieces, and this might make it so they can’t lose. To balance this out, I’ve tweaked the restrictions on the Aircraft Carrier allowing it to be placed directly into a contested country in response to the Soviet’s use of missiles. In terms of that color, projecting military power must be a lot easier for the Americans, who are a) so close to begin with and b) have the naval assets available. But in terms of game play, it gives the U.S. player a counter-strategy to the Soviet’s ability to grab an early lead. With the finite number of threat steps, it may be that this move remains merely a possibility. It all could use some play-testing to see if things are balanced.

So there it is. I’ve not done much checking for balance, and anyone who has a chance to do so before I do will have their comments welcomed.