WHEN you stop and think about it, a significant proportion of video games involving doing extremely illegal things.
Cartel Tycoon, developed by Moon Moose and published by TinyBuild for PC, is no exception – it puts you in charge of a 1980s South American drug cartel.
If, like me, you’re a fan of shows like Narcos, Breaking Bad or The Queen Of The South, then the thought of wearing an open-necked tropical shirt, gold neck chain, and having people address you as “Jefe” while surrounded by an opulent mansion, beautiful people, and stacks of money has a definite appeal, and the game is clearly leaning into that side of the narcotraficante business.
In many respects, Cartel Tycoon is a standard business management game – but instead of building and selling widgets or electronics or whatever, you’re growing, processing and smuggling drugs such as opium, cannabis, cocaine and methylamphetamine.
As with any business, there’s managers (Lieutenants) to manage, there’s resources and products to source, transport to be managed, and money to be handled. In this case, it’s all 1980s/1990s drug themed.
Money comes in two forms: “Dirty” money (literal cash from selling illegal stuff) and “Legal” money (in bank accounts, from legitmate or laundered sources).
Managing these two resources is a surprisingly significant part of the game – legal money can be used to pay for anything, anywhere, while dirty money has to be physically transported to the location where it’s needed before it can be used (or laundered into legal money). This gets surprisingly complicated, and my attempts at automating the process were never successful so I ended up having to assign Lieutenants to drive around to move money from one place to another so I could pay everyone when I didn’t have enough legal money available (which was frequently).
The map is divided into different regions with different resources (some are better for growing certain things, another has an international airport, another has a prison in it, etc) and each region has a city in it with a mayor you need to win over via mini quests (delivering a certain amount of product/money to a particular place, building or destroying something, things like that) before you can build your own buildings in that region.
Actually managing the transport network required to get everything where it needs to go is quite complicated and I’m not convinced the AI pathfinding is really up to the task; it was not uncommon to have a farm overflowing with resources while being near a warehouse that just can’t seem to get around to picking them up.
There really need to be some options to say “Wait until there are X units before shipping to next location” to avoid issues of places sitting idle due to lack of input (or full capacity), or only a trickle of product making is way to smuggling points because the trucks are taking it out as soon as there’s a unit available.
Smuggling is handled via ports such as river piers and aerodromes (can take unpackaged goods), or established seaports, airports and border checkpoints where drugs need to be concealed inside a legitimate good to avoid increasing heat and attracting attention.
As well as drugs, you’ve also got the ability to grow and trade in legitimate products including vegetables, coffee, spices, TVs and gaming consoles. These items have two purposes: Bringing in legal money, and also being useful ways to smuggle illegal products out (and earn more money from the sale).
There is a “Terror” meter representing the general fear the population feel towards your activities – as it rises, you’ll find the police raiding warehouses, the Federales blocking off roads, the DEA shutting down your supply chains, and even the army killing your Capo directly.
The problem is this meter rises no matter what you’re doing, and also goes up if other gangs/cartels attack you. The authorities never go after them, though – you’re always target number one, which means that other cartels picking fights with you is a triple threat – you’ve got their gang members attacking you, the terror meter rising, and then the authorities coming after you (and only you).
There is also a “loyalty” meter which gauges how loyal the general population are to you; if it hits zero you get turned over to the authorities, while if it’s maxed out you get bonuses of various types.
There are two campaigns and a tutorial included with the game, and while the stories in them are good, I found the actual gameplay experience was best via sandbox mode, where you can adjust pretty much every aspect of the game – from how much things cost to how slowly your loyalty degrades to how quickly you attract heat from law enforcement – because the campaigns were both simply too difficult for me to be rewarding.
Dealing with other cartels is too simplistic and I was unable to find a “truce” option to get them to stop attacking you, even when their Capo really liked you. War and violence is bad for business, but that doesn’t seem to stop the AI in the game.
The actual writing in the game is extremely good – descriptive and evocative, with distinctive characters. I was really impressed how well it worked, especially in complement with the art style.
Another really well done mechanic is the transition of power if your Capo dies or gets arrested – you can promote one of the Lieutenants and they take over, but the resulting instability results in changes such as buildings being seized, territories lost or things burning down.
While Cartel Tycoon does some things very well, there are also some pretty noticeable issues from a gameplay perspective, however.
The “Terror” mechanic, for example, is incredibly difficult to reduce without taking a massive loyalty hit, so in pretty much every game I played it came down an matter of whether the military would get my Capo or the local populace would turn them in.
What really bothered me was how quickly the “Loyalty” bar would decrease unless I consistently spent a fortune running charity events and the like, which simply wasn’t tenable because I couldn’t earn enough to keep the lights on as it was.
There are also issues like the fee to buy back a seized asset from the government is more than just building a new one, and the research costs are extremely high, making the campaigns very difficult as getting enough money (particularly legal money) to get ahead is extremely challenging anyway.
One of the significant challenges the abstraction in the game distances you from the less savoury nature of the narcotics trade. You’re dealing with everything from a broad overview, traditional management sim perspective, where it’s Resource Producing Location A moves to Resource Processing Location B and then onto Resource Transformation Centre C before shipping it.
In reality, though, the place which turns dried coca leaves into cocaine isn’t going to be some hipster tech startup-like place, with flexible working hours and fridges full of soft drinks and snacks for the staff. A lot of the people working there are going to be exploited or worse, doing so involuntarily – yet the game doesn’t address this at all, even in the abstract.
It would have been fairly easy to implement, too – the Tropico games, for example, let you switch between a relaxed work schedule and a sweatshop, and some variation on this would let the people who want to pretend they’re running an ethically-sourced, field-to-nightclub-restroom business do that, while also allowing players who want to lean into the more ruthless side of things to do so.
Similarly, turf wars are represented by a moving bar, depending on which side as the most strength (determined by your Lieutenant’s combat skills; you can’t hire footsoldiers).
A lot of the things you’d expect to be able to do in a “being an international drug lord” game are also missing – for example, you can’t develop new strains of cannabis or “cut” cocaine with other products to increase your profit margins (with an increased risk of consequences from unpleasant people who do not like being ripped off).
There’s also a decided lack of polish in the release – some options (like asking for favours from the prison warden) still have “Coming Soon” on them, and the AI pathfanding and deciding how to allocate cash for laundering and operation needs more work generally.
The standout is still the sandbox mode, which is extremely customisable, but ultimately still feels like it’s missing an endgame – as you take over regions and your empire grows, the whole thing begins to run out of steam because you don’t really seem to have an overarching goal to work towards beyond “get rich”.
Setting a goal like “Get elected El Presidente” or “Retire to the tropics with enough wealth to make a Conquistador embarrassed” and having a win condition based around this would help things considerably.
While this all sounds like I haven’t liked the game, that’s far from the truth – it’s been one of the more engaging tycoon games I’ve played in a while. It’s just that the general lack of polish and assorted issues drag the experience down. Not enough to make this a bad or unplayable game, but one I didn’t think was living up to its potential.
As much as I’ve enjoyed Cartel Tycoon, I still can’t shake the feeling it isn’t quite ready to come out of early access. It’s almost there and there’s a lot of potential for future content, but for now I think this is one that needs a few more features and some additional polishing before being ready to hit the streets.