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Review: M.U.L.E.

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To colonize a planet is a tough undertaking. What better way to motivate your workers but to make it a competition? After all, resources are scarce, and whoever can make the most of a dry, harsh, unpopulated world ought to be rewarded!

Plus, you’ve got a planet full of untapped resources. Resources can be sold for money, and money, once you have enough of it, turns into riches. What more could an eager colonist aspire to?

So grab some food, power up your M.U.L.E.s, and get ready to hunt the Wampus in M.U.L.E.: the Board Game.

How It Plays

M.U.L.E. is all about harvesting valuable resources from an alien world and then selling them for profit in a player-driven market.

Welcome to the planet Irata
Welcome to the planet Irata!

Over the course of 7 rounds, you’ll work your way through land grabbing, producing, and finally buying and selling to earn the title of First Founder of the Colony. Each round has eight phases:

  1. Expansion: Players may each claim 1 land tile for free. “Land for Sale” cards may be played to initiate auctions for more tiles.
  2. Development: Players alternate taking actions by spending food, each with the opportunity to take 3 turns
  3. Usage and Spoilage: Players spend the energy to power their M.U.L.E.s and food that powered their actions, then spoil any excess goods
  4. Production: A production card from the [something]deck that may have a global effect. Then, players produce the goods from all their lands with active M.U.L.E.s
  5. Pricing: Market prices for each good are adjusted. Energy and Food prices are determined by how much of each the players have (and how much is available in the store). Smithore is determined by how much is available in the store regardless of what players have, and Crystite is determined by off-world demand (aka randomly based on the Production card revealed in step 4).
  6. Buying and Selling: Players can buy and sell goods. For each good, an individual player can only BUY or SELL, but not both. Players can buy from the market if any goods are available, or sell to the market. Or, players can negotiate directly with each other to buy and sell goods.
  7. Ranking: Based on how much money each player has, a new ranking (aka player order) is determined
  8. Personal Events: The First-ranking player draws a “lucky event” card and hands it to the player of their choice, which usually awards some kind of bonus. Then, the receiving player draws an “unlucky event,” which usually carries some kind of penalty, and gives it to any player of their choice.

The game ends at the Ranking phase in the 7th round. (Variants and a simplified “beginners game” change up the number of rounds).

These colonist cards can be quite useful
These colonist cards can be quite useful

A lot happens in the Development phase worth mentioning. The Development phase has three rounds to it. Each round, in ranking order, Players can spend up to two food to take one or two actions. (Some actions cost 1 food, some cost 2). These actions allow players to purchase MULEs and add them to their land tiles, to Refit those mules to dig for a different resources, or to move MULEs around. Players can also Assay lands, which means to look at the bottom of the tile to see how much Crystite will be produced if mined there. Players can also hunt the Wampus, which awards $10 if caught, or Gamble, which awards $5 automatically but immediately ends your own Development phase.

It takes cash to win, and whoever has the most cash is the winningest. But, you also total up the cash between all players to see how well you did as a colony overall, which probably isn’t all that great.

Look at these tasty, tasty galactic dollars
Look at these tasty, tasty galactic dollars

The Bull or the Bear?

The hook of M.U.L.E. is the player-driven market. Except for Crystite, the prices are determined almost purely by what the players do – if they produce a lot of something, the price goes down. If they don’t produce very much, the price goes up. Armed with this knowledge, players aren’t just trying to pull together a resource-producing engine, but manipulate the market to cash in their goods for maximum profit.

There’s a huge amount of potential in this concept. It takes the usually bland (in my opinion) genre of economics games and makes it highly interactive and unpredictable. There’s not much of a silo engine here; you can’t just do your own thing, because what the other players produce can make your fat stack of goods essentially worthless.

But you’re probably producing Crystite, aren’t you? That’s where all the money is, and that’s the one that’s not affected by other players.

I’m getting ahead of myself.

Let's do things in order
Let’s do things in order

M.U.L.E. is neither a bad game, nor a broken one. It’s got all the pieces it needs to function, and it provides enough uncertainty in enough parts of the game to require strategy and risk. You will encounter fun and exciting moments, as I did, as you try to outmaneuver your opponents. Few things are more pleasing than, say, dumping a shipload of Smithore into the store just as it hits peak value and receiving a fistful of galactic dollars in return, and then watching the price drop like a stone down to the basement floor so no one else can repeat your success.

The game does a decent job of boiling down the supply-and-demand system into quite a distilled form; despite the egregious number of phases to roll through each round, it essentially follows a straightforward pattern of produce stuff, see how much stuff there is, determine its worth, sell stuff. Rinse, repeat. The simplicity of the market means you actually have a chance to understand it, predict what might happen, and make decisions accordingly.

The harder they come, the harder they fall
The harder they come, the harder they fall

And you can try to accumulate your vast intergalactic riches in a few different ways. Maybe you’ll try to stay on your toes, produce enough food to take your full set of actions every round so you can adjust your production towards what’s more valuable this round. Or maybe you’d rather get things set up and leave them there, so you don’t have to produce as much food. Are you going to go for a big Smithite score, or just rack up Crystite as much as possible?

The land grab and production elements of the game are well done. It’s pretty straightforward – you get one land for free each round. Your choice of land limits where you can place it on the board, and the terrain type indicates which resources it will produce. Everything is consistent across the same terrain – so hills always produce one each of Smithore, Food, and Energy for example – except for Crystite, which is random between 0 and 3. There are only a few terrain types, which means you can usually get what you want. It’s up to you if you want to spend food to find the good Crystite, or just hope you get lucky and use the actions or production on something else.

Production cards can mess with the environment
Production cards can mess with the environment

The production bonus is what makes the land grab really interesting, though. You really max out your economy if you can get a block of lands together producing the same thing. Trickier than it sounds, given the limitation on where you can place stuff, but that’s up to you to figure out. It’s neat that even lands with an “X” (meaning it produces 0 of that type) can still end up helping you out with that production bonus.  To that point, getting land is extremely important – and those Land for Sale cards are invaluable for nabbing extra ones. You just have to be willing to pay up, big time.

And it’s nice that land can be adjusted. You don’t have to commit to producing a particular resource when you grab a land tile. It’s just going to cost food to adjust, so you have to think about it. That adds to the strategy – sure, those tasty Smithore-producing mountains are nice, but what happens when Smithore hits the low end of the market?

The random events are intended to balance out the game by giving small boosts to the player in last place and penalizing the player in first place. ‘Course, this is taken care of somewhat naturally by the turn order mechanism, but the events add a little extra ‘oomph.’ They’re also the most frustrating aspect of the game. Yeah, it adds a little uncertainty, but it feels weird and not particularly fun to have to pay up because you’re doing well. It’s fairly arbitrary what actually happens, and the effects range from simple “pay $10” which is, you know what, not very interesting but at least it’s not game-killing, to “lose half your food” or “one of your M.U.L.E.s is destroyed.” Those are painful, horribly painful, and can swing a game. Food is necessary for actions, and there’s no chance to get more food before the next development phase. So if you lose half of it… well, there’s not much room to pivot, and since you can only take so many actions each round, every action you lose is detrimental. The same is true for losing a M.U.L.E – sure, you can replace it, but it’s going to cost you precious actions.

My precious!
My precious!

Look, it’s not that bad. The worst case scenario happens pretty rarely, and it doesn’t necessarily kill your game. On the other hand, I’ve had some close games – and some games I definitely lost because someone slammed me with an Unlucky event right at a bad time. Does it really feel great to win by $10 because the other player got hit with an essentially random penalty?

 

 

Included in the game are alien powers – two sets of them, in fact. You can play without powers, with relatively weak powers, or rather mighty powers that make the game very asymmetrical. This adds some replay value, as you can play to your strengths to get bonuses in different ways. Unfortunately, some of the alien powers are clearly weaker than others. The most blatant case is the race that lets you get extra Land for Sale cards. Sure, it’s nice to call an auction when you’re ready… but there’s no guarantee you’ll get anything out of it. Every other race at the table had a clear, distinct advantage. Producing extra food, more ways to get that producion bonus, free Assaying? All super useful and definitely either save resources or produce extra. Not so for extra Land for Sale cards… so it didn’t feel like much of a bonus to the controlling player. Oh well, at least there are two sets of 8 powers. Your mileage may vary, and you can always leave them out. Overall I do think they add more fun.

There's a whole planet to exploit!
There’s a whole planet to exploit!

Normally, this is where I’d round everything up with a quick overview of the components – they’re fine, by the way. Nothing fancy, but certainly adequate, clear iconography, and lots of player aids embedded on the various boards – but there’s more to say about this game.

While the game certainly has a full collection of working parts, as I played more and more I realized there was something missing. The market, you see, just isn’t as fully fleshed out as it could be. The problem primarily lies in how prices are set.

Food and Energy need to be a lot more dynamic than they are. It’s just not easy to get the price to go up, because every unit of each that remains in the store counteracts any shortage the players have. The only way for these goods to rise is if people don’t produce enough for themselves AND the stores supplies are empty. But these goods are entirely necessary for your game to function. You need food for actions and Energy to power your M.U.L.E.s to produce more resources – so if the store is empty, you have to produce enough to meet your needs. The only time I’ve really since the price of either go up is at the very end of the game, when no one cares about producing the stuff for the next round, because there is no next round.

Event cards can help. And they can hurt.
Event cards can help. And they can hurt.

Even then, these goods have a hard cap on price. Energy, which is the most likely to rise in price, caps out at 5. Crystite is at minimum selling for 4. Energy and Food also happen to spoil a lot more easily than Crystite, so even if the purple stuff isn’t worth anything this round, you can store it for the next round. The odds are good that the price will be way better. Smithore, at least, can rise in price since it’s determined by the store only, and not what players possess. If you can time it right, you can make a big score on Smithore – but only once, because in the round that someone sells their big supply, the price inherently drops to rock bottom prices and will stay there for the rest of the game.

What I’m saying is, the game falls into a very predictable rhythm. It’s not inherently broken, but we’re looking at this board that has a dynamic market pricing system based on supply and demand. We’re looking at the rules that say you can sell your stuff directly to another player. And as a result, we’re expecting, or hoping, some kind of market system that can actually shift and roll and do surprising things. Wouldn’t it be cool if you could drive Energy prices way up, and then produce tons of energy so you can undercut the store prices and sell directly to players?  That seems like it should be an option. But no; people are rarely going to be willing to buy goods from you, because they’re producing what they need for themselves. Crystite and Smithore are worthless for players to buy, so it’s pretty rare you’ll have a player to player transaction there.

Keepin' it on board
Keepin’ it on board

 

So it’s not broken. It’s not even perfectly predictable – you don’t know when exactly Smithore will hit its peak, although if you pay attention you’ll see it coming a round ahead of time. You don’t know which rounds Crystite will hit its maximum. You do know, however, that Crystite will be more valuable than food and energy 90% of the time, and you do know it’s an insanely huge risk not to produce your own food and energy.

It doesn’t help that this is a 90-120 minute game. If it were 45 minutes, I’d say it was pretty much perfect. But with the 2hrs, I was hoping for something more substantial within the market, and I just didn’t get it.

I haven’t really mentioned yet that M.U.L.E. is a tabletop version of an old Atari game. This is a fine adaptation that captures the spirit of the game, and it’ll certainly tickle the old nostalgia bone. I played with one player who had played the original, and he definitely got a kick out of it. Given that a computer can handle more complex calculations, I have to wonder if the market system had to be dumbed down a little too much to work with cardboard mechanisms. It probably could’ve used a little more tweaking to achieve a more interesting balance. Anyway, you can definitely see the influence of the video game world in a few places, such as those event cards trying to simulate the computer’s random events.

Take a trip to the general store
Take a trip to the general store

I never played the original game myself, but I did enjoy the unique sci-fi theme. Settling a distant planet is far more interesting to me than, say, building a temple in ancient Rome.

In the end, I can rule that M.U.L.E. is a decent game, but it misses out on its potential. It could have been something truly unique among economic games, with a dynamic and player-driven market economy. Instead it falls short on that promise, settling into a comfortable but predictable rhythm, and it’s hard to get over that disappointment.

iSlaytheDragon would like to thank Asmodee North America for providing a review copy of M.U.L.E. The Board Game.

  • Rating 7.0
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Summary

Pros

Interesting concept
Cool theme
Faithful adaptation of the PC game
Plenty of strategy

Cons

Falls into a predictable pattern
Player-driven market lacks real flexibility
Lasts a little long

7.0 Good

Futurewolfie loves epic games, space, and epic games set in space. You'll find him rolling fistfuls of dice, reveling in thematic goodness, and giving Farmerlenny a hard time for liking boring stuff.

Discussion2 Comments

  1. Pingback: Review Roundup | Tabletop Gaming News

  2. I was mildly interested in this one, but some of the problems mentioned are enough to put me off from pursuing it. Shame since it looks like there was some real potential.

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