An incredibly long writeup, I admit. Damn it, I didn't think it'd be this huge! My apologies.
EDIT 1/8/10: Many minor rule mistakes have been fixed.
This is the story of a twenty-year-old computer game to which, over the past few days, a number of consenting adults, having all missed it the first time it came around, have still become addicted.
M.U.L.E. was created for the Atari 800 home computer, though ports were available for the Commodore 64 and Apple II. Later ports were produced for the Japanese MSX computer and even the Nintendo Entertainment System, but none of these versions were as good as the original Atari and Commodore software. Mindscape's NES version, in particular, should only be played as a last resort.
What other option could there be for playing this game in the 21st century without a great deal of eBay diving? It depends on if you have access to a Sega Dreamcast. There is an acceptably accurate, full-speed with sound homebrew Atari 8-bit emulator for the Dreamcast that can be played without any more investment, in money at least, than a blank CD-R. Plus, the Dreamcast's four controller ports, conveniently matching those on an Atari machine, make it a natural fit for M.U.L.E. It plays almost absurdly well, and you don't need the Dreamcast keyboard controller to play. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that M.U.L.E., the Atari 800 game, all by itself, is enough reason to get a Dreamcast and four standard controllers. It's not as if they're particularly expensive on eBay. Yet. (If you do attempt to play M.U.L.E. on a Dreamcast, make sure to go into the emulator settings and select to emulate an "OS/B 56k Atari." This will enable all four controller ports.)
I'm going to go into almost painful detail on how to play this game, and a fair bit of strategy too, some of it advanced. It is not my intent to scare anyone away from playing. Really, it's not as bad as my multi-page, hopelessly complete writeup may make it seem. I suggest that you give it a shot, if you have the time to put a disk together that can play it and have a Dreamcast up in in your closet gathering dust. The ownership rights to M.U.L.E. are sufficiently uncertain at the moment that it looks like emulation may be the only way to experience it for a long while.
M.U.L.E. is a four-player game of resource management and economics set on an undeveloped alien world. The game always has four players; if there are fewer human participants than this the computer will fill the remaining slots. The players are "planeteers," colonists on the planet of Irata. Over the course of six or twelve turns, the players select parcels of land, bid on land auctions, develop them using the game's namesake M.U.L.E.s, robot animals that do the actual work for you, watch them produce, then buy and sell their goods at the monthly colony auctions. After all the turns have passed, the player with the most net worth in cash-on-hand, goods and land is declared "First Founder," but only if the colony comes in at over 60,000 "dollars" in total worth. If it doesn't, the colony fails and no one wins.
It is entirely possible for the colony to fail.
So the players are pulled by conflicting goals. The colony must achieve at least a minimum level of success overall, but everyone also wants to be the winner. We observe that it is worse, in M.U.L.E. at least, for there to be no winner than for there to be a winner that isn't you. But different people will draw that line differently. An interesting thing about M.U.L.E. is that, while there is a lot you can do on your own to ensure your own success, much of your wealth will come directly at the expense of the other players, and not just from charging them high prices.
|scrolling messages ... scrolling messages ... scrolling me|
| | |
| | |
| \ |
| _ | |
| / \ ----- |
| /\ |* || /\ |
| /\ | /| /\ mountains |
| plots ----- |
| of --------- ***** t|
| _ land | *| | *town /\ i|
| / \ | | *| ***** /\ |m|
| --------- ***** ----- /\ |e|
| | | | | | _ | |
| |* | \ | *| / \ |b|
| /\ ----- | ----- /\ |a|
| t / | * | |r|
| /\ h r / | | |
| e i | ----- |
| v| |
| e \ /\ |
| /\ r / /\ |
| | |
The main view of the game is a map of the colony, which fills the screen. Basically, the colony consists of a lot of plains land, with a river running down the middle of the map, a town halfway down the river, and mountains scattered all over the place. The map is divided into plots of land, which are initially invisible, but as land is claimed and bought by the players their borders are marked on the screen as colored boxes coded to match the color of the owning player. In the Beginner-level game, there isn't enough time for all the land to be claimed. In the Standard game, the board will typically be completely owned by the final turn. In the Tournament game, which has colony-run land auctions in addition to the monthly land grants, the board is usually full with a few turns left to go.
Playing the Game
Each turn is divided into a number of phases. For most phases, all the players play together, but for the longest and most important phase, Development, the players take turns.
1. The Land Grant
At the beginning of every turn, the players are granted one free plot of land apiece. A box will start moving from left to right along each row, and from the top row down, typewriter-style. On harder difficulty levels, and as more turns pass, the box gets faster. It's also faster because it skips over all land already owned. When the box gets to a plot of land that you want, press The Button to claim it. (The Atari 800's joystick had only one button! On the Dreamcast Atari 800 emulator, The Button is the red 'A' button.) While you're trying to get that perfect plot of land that fits in with your plans, the other players are claiming their own plots.
If two players try to get the same plot, the one with the quicker trigger finger usually gets it... unless one of them is significantly behind in the game, in which case the game will decide in his favor. There's no message or other cue that this has happened, the game will just invisibly intercede on behalf of the underdog. M.U.L.E. does this a lot, and oftentimes you'll never notice that it has played favorites. However, while it must be said these elements do have an effect on play, it's very finely balanced. The benefits to being behind in the overall standings are almost never enough to purposely get yourself in a bad situation. A listing of ways the game helps the last-place player is at the end of this writeup.
When choosing land, it's often good to try to get land that's adjacent to one of your already-owned plots, so as to take advantage of the adjacent-plot production bonus, listed below under "Production."
2. The Land Auctions
In Tournament-level games only, after the grant, the Store may randomly decide to sell off additional pieces of land at auction to the players. These affairs are handled in a way similar to the goods auctions that are held at the end of each turn, and the way they are run is described in full there.
In the leaderboard tally at the end of each round and the game, a plot of land is valued at $500 plus about $100 for a MULE on it along with its outfitting cost. So if you have the cash, then a chance to buy land at less than $500 is a no-brainer. Values at over $500 are often good as well. It's difficult to gauge how much you should pay for a piece of land, as you need to take into account how many turns of production you'll get out of it, the price of a (possibly expensive) MULE and its outfitting and energy supply, and even the decrease in the production of your opponents that comes from denying them the land. In general, land is most useful, and thus valuable, at the beginning of the game, and a difference in one plot from turn one, even if it gives you financial problems at the time, can make a huge difference by the time the ship returns.
3. The Development Phase
The Development Phase is the meat of the game. In it, each player gets some time to develop land and do anything else that needs doing. The players take turns during Development, and they do not act simultaneously. A bar at the right side of the screen shows how much time the player has to do things. As it shrinks, it'll start to make little warning noises that get faster and faster as the last few seconds run out. When the bar depletes the player's turn ends, regardless of what he was doing at the time. If he was leading a MULE somewhere it'll run away and be lost.
If the player didn't have enough food to meet the food consumption requirement on the previous turn, his time bar will be shorter than usual. Note that food consumption starts at three units per month, increasing to five as the game continues. If the player had absolutely no food at the end of the last turn, his timer will be in the warning period at the beginning of Development, and he'll have no time to do anything except run into the pub. Players generally get lots of time to do things in Beginner mode, and a bit less on Standard and Tournament. Also, players playing the beginner Flapper character get extra time, and players playing as an expert Humanoid get less time.
The Development phase is when MULEs are bought, outfitted and installed on plots. It is a major limiting factor that, if you're producing smithore on twelve plots and suddenly want to make something else because the price of smithore is in the commode, there is simply not enough time to get them all changed over. It takes time to switch MULEs from one product to another, so you can't react instantly to market conditions. If you learn how to foresee what the market will do in a turn or two, in order to give yourself enough turns to fully react to changes in the market, then you're on your way to becoming a M.U.L.E. expert.
In the Development phase, the following things can happen:
a. The Random Event
Before the player's turn starts, there's a chance that something unexpected will occur. This is usually a cash penalty or benefit, but you can also lose or gain small amounts of goods, a MULE, or even a plot of land. For the most part these events cannot be predicted, but the game seems to include a bit of a balance factor here behind the scenes. Bad events never happen to the player in last place, and good events never happen to the player in the lead. Additionally, it seems that the game may have a slight bias, when a good event happens to the last place player, toward giving him something that'll resolve a deficiency, like the bonus Food and Energy event when the player is low on those commodities. If the player gets a negative food event that puts him below the "critical level," then it'll affect the time he'll have to do things exactly as if he never had that food in the first place.
It's important to note that for the most part the Random Events don't usually change the game that much. The bonuses and penalities are scaled according to how late in the game it is. A typical bonus at the beginning of the game is from fifty to a hundred dollars, at the end, between $200 and $400. In both cases, this is not enough to catapult any player too far in the standings. Probably the worst bad event is the one that costs you ownership of one plot of land, and the best good event is the one that awards you a random plot, but both really only make a huge difference if they happen in the first three turns. (There is an event that awards money for every food plot you have, and another that penalizes for every mining plot, and those can add up to over a thousand in all, but usually this is not a significant factor if the player has that many plots producing.)
b. Visiting Town & Developing Land
Each player's turn begins in town. Town is where most of what you can do is located. It's home to the MULE corral, the various outfitting shops that you use to prepare MULEs for production, and the pub where you should try to end your turn as often as possible.
Usually, a player will have at least one new undeveloped plot of land from the grant and auctions. The usual thing to do at this point is to get it developed and contributing to his financial standings. This is done by buying a MULE, getting it outfitted, and installing it on-site. Buying one is as simple as walking into the corral. When you walk out, if you had enough money and if there was one there to buy, you'll come out leading a MULE behind you. You then walks into the appropriate outfitter to configure the MULE for whatever production you want, be it food, energy, smithore or, in the Tournament game, crystite. Those are the only choices, and one must be selected, for the game won't let you leave town with an un-outfitted MULE. If you change your mind, you can lead the MULE back into the corral to sell it back; if it had been outfitted, that money will be wasted.
After getting it set up for production, you walk out to the plot of land, position both your onscreen character and the MULE inside the borders of the plot, and press The Button to install it. It's important not to hurry this along too much. The ever-present timer encourages players to be quick about their tasks so as to squeeze more actions into each limited turn, but if the player or MULE isn't inside the plot when The Button is pressed the MULE will simply run away, which can be very depressing if there's a shortage of Smithore and MULEs cost $500 each.
A player will typically do this once for each undeveloped plot of land he owns. This takes time. It takes a little time to do things in town, outfitting a MULE takes several seconds, walking out to the plot takes even longer, especially if the plot being developed is in one of the far corners of the map, and walking through the river and through mountains takes much longer. Entering and leaving town both take about a second, too. If the player is short on cash yet really wants to develop a plot, even at the cost of the development on another plot, he can pick up a MULE already out producing and re-install it at the new location. It'll produce the same commodity it was in its old home unless you take it back into town and into another outfitter. If the player would rather have cash at a given moment than a MULE, it can even be put back into the corral, in exchange for its current selling price. There are even rare circumstances when selling MULEs back can be profitable.
About the outfitters, it always takes a couple of seconds to configure a MULE for production, but it also costs an outfitting fee. Food costs $25 to produce, energy $50, smithore $75, and crystite costs $100. It appears as if these outfitting costs are included in the MULE's value in the overall standings. But while MULEs can be sold back to the Store, the costs of any outfitting are forfeit in that event.
c. Hunting Wampuses
Another thing you can do on your turn is wampus hunting. Sometimes when you are out on the map and a MULE isn't following you, you'll hear a faint chirp-like noise, and a small light dot will appear on one of the mountains. If you manage to reach the dot before it vanishes (and it doesn't take long for it to disappear), you may earn a cash reward between $100 and $400. You earn more money the further you are into the game. It seems like your character must be directly over the wampus to catch it. The wampus starts out on one mountain, and it may, or may not, switch mountains before you catch it. Sometimes it'll play nice and stay at one mountain your whole turn, and sometimes it'll appear all over the map. Catching wampuses is by no means a sure thing, and it's impossible to get even somewhat good at it. It's hard enough to add uncertainty to the process, but it's easy enough that you still succeed once in a while. The wampus can only be caught once per player's turn, and there may be some other tactics to this of which I am not aware.
If you need to develop that turn but don't have the cash, catching wampuses is really your only hope besides selling back MULEs.
d. The Pub
In the middle of town, on the bottom row, is the pub. Entering will end your turn and award you cash depending on how much time you had left, from "gambling." The pub is worth a base amount of cash that increases as the game proceeds, plus some extra dollars for anything left on the development timer. The base amount is the big prize here. Anything extra from ending your turn early is gravy. The only penalty for not ending your turn in the pub, it must be said, is the lack of reward.
If you're severely strapped for cash, catching wampuses and the pub can give you a slim, but still useful, income that you can use to get back into the running.
e. Searching for Crystite (Tournament only)
One of the special things about Crystite is that it isn't obvious which plots will yield the most. At the beginning of the game, three plots are randomly chosen that grant "high" crystite, the plots around those produce "medium" crystite, and around them you get "low" crystite. All other plots conceal "no" crystite. The primary ways to find out the level of crystite production will be on a plot are to go ahead and try to develop crystite there and see what turns up, and to take a soil sample from the plot in to the assay office. By observing the production of adjacent plots, it can sometimes be possible to deduce the location of high crystite deposits.
To search for crystite, first you walk into the assay office. You'll be told to go out to the plot and collect soil. You do that by going to the center of the plot in question and pressing The Button. You can do this on any plot, including unowned plots and even those owned by other players, though you might not want to do that as time is tight and you'll only be helping them out by doing so. After being told you have the sample, return to the assay office and they'll inform you as to the crystite content of the plot you visited.
Searching for crystite costs no money, but because you'll have to walk out to a plot and back, it can be time consuming. It is easy to get so caught up in searching for crystite that your plots don't get developed.
It is possible for additional crystite deposits to get created during the game. Watch out for the Meteor Strike event when playing on Tournament level.
Oh, you should also know that, while there can be high crystite in the river valley, and the game will even let you search for it there, you can never actually mine it in the valley. The instructions say it's because the land is too soggy for mining, but I strongly suspect that the Irata Environmental Commision is protecting the fragile wetland ecosystem.... Oddly, however, producing smithore is okay in the river. It is also possible for a high crystite spot to be beneath the town!
f. Selling land (Tournament only)
We don't do it much ourselves, but it is possible to sell your excess plots of land to the other players. To do so, go into the land office, then go out to the plot you want to sell and mark it. It'll be up for sale to the other players in a special auction during the Auction Phase. When you're marking your plot for sale you cannot do anything else, but the game timer will temporarily halt.
4. The Production Phase
The Production portion of each turn is racked with tension, but not because of the player's actions during it. The players cannot interfere with production at all! The MULEs do all the work, and the players just sit back and watch. First, there's a chance for a colony-wide random event. When these occur, most often they influence production in some way, but a few special events can radically affect the outcome of the game. The "Fire In The Store" creates an instant shortage in all three important commodities. "Meteor Strike" produces a new supply of crystite on its plot of impact, but destroys any MULE that may have been stationed there. "Planetquake" not only halves all mining production, but it can also move a mountain from one plot to another, and destroy MULEs in the process. And the dreaded Pirates either steal all smithore or crystite in the whole colony, depending on the difficulty level. Two of the colony-wide events, "Pest Attack" and "Radiation," are actually plot-specific. Pest Attack destroys all the food production from one food plot, and Radiation makes one MULE out in the field go crazy and escape the colony. The Pest Attack event occurs after production, if it happens on a turn, so you can see how much food was lost.
None of these random events can occur more than three times in a game. The Pirates event usually occurs only once a game, and never occurs more than twice. No colony-wide event ever occurs on the last turn.
Once the event has happened (or not), it's time for production! The colony map will sprout little dots in each plot beside the symbol for that plot's production, that show how much of that commodity the plot is producing. Each plot has a "base production," determined by its location on the map. The river plots, always two above and two below town, have a high base production in food. Plains plots, which are empty except for the marks of ownership and production, are best for producing energy. Plots that contain mountains produce the most smithore, with more mountains resulting in a higher production. All of these plots have a minimum base production of one, but the terrain on the plot can push production as high as four. Crystite is a special case, and base production of it in a plot ranges between zero and four, based on the factors described above.
Once a plot has produced for one turn, tiny dots get placed beneath the production-type symbol of the plot. These dots indicate what the base production of the plot is for its current commodity. Now, you should be told that what I've been calling "base production" is actually only set in stone on the Beginner difficulty level. On Standard and Tournament levels, what actually gets produced is a random quantity of goods that averages out to the on-screen base production.
In addition to this minimal production for each plot, you also get production based on two other factors that add a lot of the strategy to plot selection. If you own three plots anywhere on the map that produce the same commodity, they will each receive an extra point of production in this phase. This production is cumulative for every three plots you have making that commodity. So, if you have six plots making the same thing, they each get a +2 to production, nine plots get a +3, and twelve plots get a +4. If you have a lot of plots making the same thing, you can turn even ill-placed plots into big producers, even crystite, but you have to have most of your MULEs making the same thing to do it. There is a big advantage in specialization, but in pursuing it you'll drive prices down, and open yourself up to shortages in the other commodities.
Second, every plot you have that's adjacent to another plot making the same commodity gets a +1 to production. This bonus is cumulative with the every-three-plots bonus, but not with itself. A plot will never get more than one +1 for this on a turn. So, clustering your like-typed plots on the map will give you a bit of extra production. It's not enough to make smithore pay off in the river valley, but it can add up if you cluster all your like-producing plots.
MULEs, when they are doing the producing in each plot, need energy to operate. During the production phase you lose one energy for every non-energy MULE in operation. (Energy MULEs automatically make enough energy to power themselves.) If you have a shortage of energy, left over from the previous turn, then some of your MULEs won't produce anything, regardless of the above factors. The "critical level" sale protection in the auctions applies to your current number of MULEs plus 1 (unless all plots are owned). If you expect to gain extra land the next turn, you should always make sure you have one or two extra for the new MULEs you'll be acquiring.
The rules that determine what gets made where are a little complicated, but all you see on-screen is a bunch of dots appearing in your plots. After the Production Phase comes the final portion of the turn, where fortunes are made.
5. The Auctions
So long as there is one unit of a commodity potentially for sale anywhere in the colony, then there will be an auction in that commodity. They occur in the order: smithore, crystite (not in Beginner games though), food, then energy. If one of the players chose to sell land during his turn, then the land auction will come first, but they're very infrequent in the games we've played.
Auctions are handled with a unique interface that takes a very little getting used to at first, but once you see what's going on is very intuitive. It abolishes all that mucking about with numbers and consecutive bids. The screen layout changes to a special auction screen. Across the screen at the bottom from left to right are the players, placed according to their joystick positions in the controller ports along the front of the Atari 800 (or Sega Dreamcast). A bar appears, showing their pre-existing quantity of that commodity, allowing the players to compare with each other at a glance. Below the graph, the precise number of units is displayed. Then, any of the commodity used that turn is subtracted from the amount, with aural accompaniment. (In the case of food, this is between three and seven units, slowly increasing throughout the game. For energy, this is the number of non-energy producing MULEs the player has out in the field.) After that, more commodity is lost due to spoilage. (For energy, this is a quarter of the player's remaining supply after consumption, rounded down. For food, it's half . Rats must be particularly bad on Irata!) Smithore and crystite are never used by the players. If the player has over 50 units of either, then the excess spoils at this point, so try not to have more than 50 units left over at the end of the auction! Production for that turn is added into the supply next. Finally, for the essential goods food and energy, the game will display its projection as to how much you'll need for the next turn as a black line along the bar. If the bar is even with the line they've got just enough to avoid negative effects, judging from the player's current state in the game. If the bar goes above the line, the game declares that you have a surplus, and if the bar doesn't reach the line, then you have a shortage.
Before the auction, players choose by pushing up or down on their joysticks whether they want to buy or sell in the commodity up for auction. Pressing down to buy puts them at the bottom of the screen with all the buyers, below the "minimum bid" line, which is marked with a number representing that bid. That number represents the price at which the Store will buy, and it can change throughout the game. Pressing up to sell puts them at the top of the screen above the "maximum bid" line, again with a number. The Store, if it has any stock in that commodity , sells at that price.
To help you picture this, a diagram is in order.
| --- maximum bid line ------ store sale price --- 50 |
| s e l l i n g p l a y e r s |
| go down through here |
| P2 |
| "line |
| of - - - -P1- - - - - - - - - - - - -P4- - - - - - |
| scrimmage" t|
| P3 i|
| b u y i n g p l a y e r s | |
| go up through here |b|
| 10 --- store buy price ------ minimum bid line ---- |r|
| H I G H B I D : 28 |
It looks kind of like a football field. When a player chooses to buy, they get put in the bottom "end zone," and selling players are up in the one at the top. The goal lines are the minimum and maximum bids, which are also where the Store sells and buys. Selling players start out above the high bid. If they don't move down onto the "playing field" during the auction, they'll be in no danger of actually selling. Likewise, players in the bottom end zone will never buy unless they move up.
If a buying person moving up encounters someone wanting to sell, the place on-screen where they meet represents the price at which they trade. (That price, the value set by the lowest seller, is displayed at the bottom of the screen, and is shown on the "playing field" by a dashed line.) If a selling player reaches the bottom of the screen without encountering a buyer (that is, no one wants to buy), he'll automatically sell to the Store for the minimum bid price. (The Store is always willing to buy, and essentially has infinite funds.) If a buying player encounters no sellers and reaches the top of the screen, the Store will sell off whatever stock it has for the maximum bid price.
Now, if the buyers reach the top of the playing field without finding a seller, and the Store is out of stock in that commodity, then instead of anything being traded, the "high bid" goes up, and all the other buyers will be moved down a little to represent the shift in the playfield. If buyers are willing to pay that much, sellers can wait comfortably in their end zone until the price gets as high as they want, auction time allowing.
(NOTE: The field can move up, but not down. If the Store gets scrolled off the bottom of the screen by a high bidder, it is gone for the rest of that auction! After the high bidder buys, any remaining sellers won't be able to sell that commodity to the store until the next month!)
If someone sells enough goods that, if they sell any more, they'll fall below the projection the game made at the start of the auction as to how much they'll need on the next turn, it'll declare "Seller has reached critical level!," then put that person back in the selling end zone. If the game is on Beginner level, then that's the end of the auction for that seller, as the game won't allow the seller to sell any more. But on Standard and Tournament levels the game won't hold the player's hands so tightly. After getting the critical level warning and getting moved into the end zone, the player may then choose to move back onto the auction field, and the game won't attempt to stop him again until the next auction. If the seller reaches zero in a commodity, or if a buyer doesn't have enough cash, then he won't be able to participate any more.
The time bar is present on this screen, showing how much time is left in the auction. When it runs out the auction is over. However, when people are moving on screen the bar slows down a little, and when a trade is actually underway it stops completely until it's done.
Something we've noticed: when buyers are desperate enough for a particular commodity that they push the sale price way up, it seems to start out higher on the next turn's auction. Also, the value of a type of commodity in the overall standings is determined by the sale price at the last auction. So, when food or energy gets really rare and people pay a lot for it, those people who had stocked up are rewarded proportionally. (EDIT: Since I wrote this some further information have come forth. It seems that the Store makes an estimate as to how many units will be needed on the next turn, and if stock plus player production doesn't meet this level prices rise, and if the level exceeds project demand prices fall.)
And now, a word on the prices of the four different commodities.
Food. Everyone needs food in order to get their full time bar. You're not likely to much miss the extra time if you're one food short, but if you're completely out you can't do anything but pub crawl your next turn. Food consumption slowly increases as the game continues.
Energy. All the players need energy to make anything besides energy. It doesn't spoil as quickly as food, but it's still perishable. If you have no food then your plots will at least continue to develop as they always have, but without energy you produce nothing. At the start of a game there is a higher market for food, but by the end the market for energy can be twice as large as that for food.
Smithore. Smithore's status changes greatly depending on the difficulty of the game. In Beginner it's pure luxury, good for nothing except for sale. In Standard and Tournament the shop needs to buy smithore or it can't make more MULEs. It takes two units of smithore to manufacture one MULE, and if the price of smithore is through the roof then MULEs will be similarly expensive. In the Standard game, the space pirate event (which occurs at least once in the majority of games) steals smithore from all stockpiles existing at that time in the game: MULE production, player inventory and the Store. The players cannot use smithore themselves, and it doesn't spoil.
Crystite. Only available for production in the Tournament game, Crystite is also special because its pricing doesn't follow the laws of supply and demand. The price the Store pays for Crystite fluctuates randomly. We've seen it go from about $40-50 to over $140. Crystite cannot be bought from the Store. All crystite bought by the Store is removed from the game. Nothing in the colony needs Crystite to function. In a Tournament game, the pirate event takes all the Crystite.
6. Leaderboard Review
After the last auction the turn is over. The players line up and are listed in the order of their standings in the game. The listing of player worth appears once again, displaying everyone's holdings in money, goods and land, and the total both per player and for the whole colony. If players are hurting for Food, Energy or both a scrolling message will warn of this. There will also be a warning if the Store needs Smithore for making MULEs.
If it's the last turn, then one of the players will be declared First Founder (if the colony survived and if the game isn't in Beginner mode), and a scrolling message will tell if the colony succeeded or failed, and if it succeeded, how well.
Appendix A: Difficulty Level Summary
There are subtle differences between the different "difficulty settings" of M.U.L.E. that, despite their subtlety, change the game so much that they force players to use entirely different strategies. My advice: play your first game on Beginner mode. Make your next two or three games on Standard level. Play Tournament as soon as everyone feels comfortable; it's really not that hard. The different settings, and their effects on the game, are:
Game lasts six turns. Colony cannot fail, but no winner is declared. The land grant cursor is slow, and players get plenty of time to auction goods and in their development phases. No land auctions. Players may not sell land. Smithore is a luxury (that is to say, if no one produces it, nothing in the colony suffers.) MULEs are in infinite supply, and always cost $100. MULEs in operation always produce base production for that plot, plus bonuses. Pirates steal Smithore. No crystite in the game, and thus no crystite Mules or land assaying. Mistakes in placing MULEs are not punished. Prices are not fixed, but do not fluctuate much. Players may not sell past "critical level" in the auctions. No collusion allowed in auctions. A limited selection of random events occur during the game. Players begin with generous supplies.
Game lasts twelve turns. Colony fails if value is not at least $60,000 at the end of the game. Land grant cursor is medium speed, and the auction and development timers are also at a moderate level. No land auctions. Players may not sell land. Smithore is used by the Store to make MULEs; its manufacture requires two units. The Store can run out of MULEs, and its price fluctuates with the contents of the corral and the Store's smithore supply. MULEs in operation produce a random production that averages on the base production, before bonuses. Pirates steal Smithore. No crystite in the game. Mistakes in placing MULEs result in its loss. Prices tend to fluctuate a bit more. Players may sell past critical level in auctions if they feel it is wise. No collusion in auctions. Most random events occur in play. Players begin with generous supplies.
Game lasts twelve turns. Colony fails if value isn't at least $60,000 at the end of the game. Land grant cursor is fast, and the auction and development timers deplete quickly. After each land grant phase, there may be anywhere from no to six land auctions on each turn, chosen randomly from the remaining plots. Players may choose to auction land to other players. The store needs smithore to make MULEs just like in Standard, and prices may fluctuate on both. MULEs in operation produce a random production that averages on the base production, before bonuses. Pirates steal crystite. Mistakes in placing MULEs waste them. Prices fluctuate as on Standard, but crystite is a special case. Players are allowed to sell past critical level. Collusion in auctions is allowed. All random events are in play. Players begin with minimal supplies.
Appendix B: How M.U.L.E. Favors the Losing Player
In order to keep the game competitive, without punishing the leading player unduly for his skill, M.U.L.E. engages in a subtle form of playfield-leveling. To be precise:
- If two or more players try to get the same plot of land in the auction, and one of the players is in last place, then that player will get the plot.
- If, in an auction, two or more players are buying or selling, and they both offer the same price at the same time, the game will give a last-place player the first opportunity to trade. Note that if a non-last-place player gets to the buy/sell mark first, then he'll get the chance to trade as much as he wants before anyone else gets the chance, whether last place or no.
- The order of the players in the development phase always goes from first place to last, so the trailing players will have the benefit of seeing what the leaders did, giving them the chance to foresee potential shortages and take advantage of them, among other things. There is one exception to this rule: if there are seven MULEs or fewer left in the Store, then the last place player will always go first, to ensure the other players cannot shut him out by emptying the corral, before the normal turn order resumes.
- Perhaps most importantly, player-specific bad random events never occur to the last-place player, and player-specific good random events never occur to the first-place player. Since a couple of bad events charge money according to development size, and a couple of good events pay money based on similar conditions, this could potentially have a significant effect on the outcome of the game. Think of what it's like, in Monopoly, when a player who's just emptied his pockets buying twelve hotels draws one of the dreaded "Street Repair" cards. It's not quite that bad, but it can sting a little.
Appendix C: Strategy
Smithore tends to be the best bet for beginning players, because it starts out earning you more money than the other goods (at least in a Beginner game), and there tends to be a M.U.L.E. shortage in the first few turns, which drives up smithore prices. However, you may want to get a plot of food on the river, and a couple of energy plots on the plains to keep yourself self-sufficent. Always try to match plots of land to production.
Don't be afraid to specialize. (Yes, I know I said the opposite in Basic Strategy. A lot of M.U.L.E. strategies are like this.) You can make more by picking one product and focusing on it than you can by diversifying. You will have to pay through the nose once in a while for food or energy, or both, but you'll make up for this on the huge production bonuses you'll get for concentrating mostly on one product. Smithore is the most valuable commodity in a fair number of games because of its close ties to M.U.L.E. production and it's relative rarity compared to energy, though look out for pirates in the standard game. Pirates don't always attack, but they attack at least once in a great majority of games.
Now the real fun begins. Once your opponents are at the point where they think smithore is the be-all and end-all of winning the game, start out by specializing in food or energy. Then, when it comes time to sell all surplus to the Store like the other players will be expecting at this time in their M.U.L.E. careers, don't. Pretend to have forgotten to switch to Buy at auction time, or make up some excuse, the lamer the better. They won't think anything of it at first, and will just buy from the Store. When they remind you that you're losing half your food to spoilage, affect a frustrated tone and say "I know, damn it!" They'll start to get suspicious when you do it two or three turns in a row, and the store's stock starts to run out. Then, when the Store is empty and they're sweating, sell directly to them for as much as you can possibly squeeze out of them. If they refuse to pay then let them starve, it won't take more than one or two turns of that to break them. Remember, an empty Store is your friend, and Store fires will only serve to keep the friendship strong and vital. When the other players wise up and start diversifying, it'll likely be very slow at first. Remember that you can buy food even if you have an obscene surplus! If anyone looks like they're going to sell to the store, then you should step in and buy from them instead. Try to keep your edge for as long as possible, but don't be afraid to abandon the strategy once the other players are diverse enough that it won't work. It's very easy to ride a food surplus spinning down the drain. Instead, use your huge resources to monopolize land auctions if there's a fair number of turns left. The good thing about this strategy is that, when it works, you'll know it going in, and you'll win decisively. The bad thing is, you probably won't win this way more than once.
A smithore shortage often makes the price of MULEs skyrocket in the mid game. You can handle this in two ways. You can try to make the shortage worse by purposely buying and releasing MULEs. Be sure to punctuate each so-called mistake with a loud and cloying "Oops!" If people try to sell smithore to the store, buy it first! It's better to do this before MULE prices get up to $500 apiece of course, because each MULE you so waste is money out of your pocket. A MULE shortage is the only real way to keep the colony almost permanently in the dark ages, since you need smithore to make MULEs and you need MULEs to mine smithore. But if you're playing a Tournament game you probably don't want to make smithore in the last few turns. Once all the plots have MULEs on them the price of smithore usually plummets. Unfortunately, by that time everyone is usually able to handle their own food and energy needs as well, leaving the volatile crystite market as the sole remaining money-maker.
Notice that your production cannot turn on a dime. You only have so much time to switch MULEs around, and reoutfitting costs can be higher than you'd think when you're talking about half your workforce.
The previously-mentioned chicken-and-egg smithore shortage situation can put you in danger of a failed colony. $60,000 in total colony value isn't difficult to reach if you're playing fair, but if you're not (and since we're in the Expert section, I'll assume you're considering not) you can sabotage the game if you get overzealous. And remember, although all those goods can be worth a vast fortune in the leaderboard at the end of the game, all that can evaporate instantly if prices drop. Knowing when to convert all those full warehouses into cash is key.
Food is good if the other players are neglecting it. Energy is always useful, and can be lucrative if there's a shortage. Smithore can be a big mid-game money-maker, so long as people don't glut the market with it. (Computer players often do.) But what if none of these things are true, and it looks like they'll be that way for the rest of the game? Ah, that, my friend, is when you mine crystite. Its always a bit of a risk, mind you. No one says that the price of crystite has to break $100 (our canonical Minimum Good Price for crystite) the entire game. And many plots will just not be worth it in crystite production unless you manage to field a huge number of them in order to forge production bonuses. The minimum price for all the other goods is less than that for crystite, and if they're all plentiful there's a good chance they'll be at that minimum value for a while. Crystite pricing can't be manipulated, and it's usually at least $60. Oh, and if you see someone else selling crystite for a low price in order to generate cash for operating expenses, buy it, especially if the pirate has already been seen once that game. You can sell it later when prices are higher, and the more turns left in the game, the more likely there will be a turn with a good price.
But, how will you know where to mine crystite? It's because you've been assaying all your plots the whole game, that's why! Unless you're hurting for cash, it's more important to check your plots for crystite than make it to the pub at the end of your turn, or hunt for wampuses.
The auction on the last turn of the game is a little awkward. Notice that computer players never sell on this turn. The value of your goods is worth the same in the final tally whether you convert them into cash or not, and there's no reason to worry about a food, energy or MULE shortage when there isn't another turn for them to make a difference in.
I take no responsibility for any damage to your enjoyment of the game, or your friendships, if you take advantage of these. I slipped into my Evil Megalomaniac role for these. They are ruthless.
Despite appearances of randomness, there is a lot in the game that is directly dependent on the actions of the players. Few random effects change the game in a meaningful way. The Pirate Ship and Fire In Store events are the biggest ones. You can be put into a world of hurt by an early-game property loss. Besides those, there aren't many biggies. And you never get a cash penalty event that you can't afford to pay. But the game is still fairly chaotic because people are unpredictable, and little easily-ignored aspects of your decisions get magnified through multiple turns to have a large effect upon the late game. So, if you can manipulate what your opponents will specialize in, you can gain control of the late stages of the game, then take advantage of them and achieve a win. It sounds a little iffy, but when you're up against sufficiently advanced players, this can become your only chance at a better-than-25% chance of winning.
Let's say an opponent has just finished making a killing off an energy shortage, and is now looking into moving into smithore. But he has neglected his food supply, and is facing lean times. In this case, what you should do, if you have the opportunity and are a really a cruel bastard, is starve him. He'll have barely enough time to run into the pub on his turn if he's out of food. No food, no switching around MULEs! No developing new plots! No hunting wampuses!
Try to get plots as close to town as possible. Since it takes less time to walk out there, you'll be able to switch them around faster. If you need to change production, consider changing close-up plots before distant ones. The quicker you get it done, the more time you'll have to do other things.
Let's say your opponent has one mountain plot and is trying to get a second adjacent to it, in order to gain that +1 production bonus on both. No one else has any plots anywhere around, so he'll expect an easy time getting it. Well, not if you claim it to spite him! Of course, since he already owns the other nearby mountain plot you won't be able to get as much use out of it yourself, but if you're already ahead, or expect to be ahead in the near future, then you might not mind.
It's kind of low-down, but it is possible to maliciously take advantage of trailing player bonuses. If you're in last place, even by one dollar, then you win all ties at auction. Meaning you get the first chance to sell to other players. Meaning that you have the chance to sell enough to fill the entire need, leaving the other players to sell to the Store or nothing. Combine the advantage in the land grant with the with the previously-covered strategy of trying to thwart your opponents' production advantages to produce another slight edge to your game. If you're all skilled players, you'll need every advantage you can get.
Try to take advantage of other player's ignorance of the finer points of M.U.L.E. For example, if you get extra plots of land late in the game, you might want to consider selling them to other players if they don't realize they won't get many turns of use out of them. Remember however: sell less than $500 plus the cost of the MULE on the land and you're losing money, even on the last turn.
If you're playing the Atari 800 version, you should know that it is possible to use the final auction to manipulate the standings. The value of goods on the leaderboard is based on the price paid at the last auction. If you have a huge amount of smithore, and find someone to sell one unit to at an exorbitant price, then all your smithore will be worth that much! This can be used to earn absurd colony values and probably falls into the category of cheating. This is a good reason to make a house rule of no auctioning on the final turn. But if no one else in your group knows about it.... (Hey, I told you these strategies were dangerous!)
Appendix D: More on the Game
One of the strange things about M.U.L.E. is that, although it utterly succeeds in everything it tries, it hasn't been cloned. There are a few current efforts to recreate its play (do a web search on "Space Horse" for one commercial version), but by most accounts the original game, played either on an Atari 800 or a Commodore 64 or an emulated version of either, is the best way to experience it.
M.U.L.E. was created by Dan Bunten, later Dani Bunten, now deceased. He (he was a he when he made games for Ozark Softscape, but had a sex change operation later in life) made a good number of forgotten classics. I regret to say that neither the designer or her other works is the topic of this node, but I encourage you to find out more on your own.
Economics simulations are not an exceedingly popular genre of computer game. The closest thing to a mega-hit economics game we've seen is the SimCity series. But M.U.L.E. makes it work.