Sailing the Blue Skies since 2001.
M.U.L.E. is a remarkable game as old as I am, and one that desperately needs a revival. This feature, originally a review for Neomega and Lvl., showcases all of the great gameplay elements that make M.U.L.E. such a classic game. Enjoy!
M.U.L.E. is a very interesting game, one that was way ahead of its time. Developed in 1983 by Ozark Software and published by Electronic Arts, the game had several strategy features and many ways to dominate the opposition...if the other players didn't do it to you first. This is designed more as a guide to how the game works, which is quite well, I must say.
After picking how you wanted to play (Beginner, Standard and Tournament), then picking from 8 various aliens to play as and how many players were playing, you will land on the planet and get a quick shot at your beginning stats. Then it's off to the Land Grant, where you get a free piece of property of your choice (if you click the joystick, it's yours...unless another player clicks the same land at the same time...in which case the one with the lesser wealth will win out). Those three difficulties above determine what happen next. If you're playing beginner (which I'll explain first), after everyone selects their land the players will begin their respective turns in the town. You'll control your alien now, and on Beginner, you are pretty much stuck with only a few options, which is mainly preparing a M.U.L.E. to operate on your land.
Now, back to the Land choices for a second. In the game, there are 3 forms of terrain to manage. There is River, Flat and Mountain land. Each is best for one of the three (in Tournament, four) things you can grow on this planet: Food, Energy and Smithore. Food grows best on River land, and is needed to feed the inhabitants. Energy grows best on Flat land, and is needed to operate the M.U.L.E's. Smithore is needed to create more M.U.L.E's, and is best grown on mountains.
The town space that lies perfectly in the middle of the game's world is where most of the game is spent at the beginning of your turn. From here you'll be able to get a M.U.L.E, set it to Food, Smithore or Energy (which costs money to do - Food is $25, Energy $50, and Smithore $75), and then lead it from town to your property. You must make sure that you click your Joystick on your house, or the M.U.L.E. will run away in Standard and Tournament modes (you see, they don't like to work), leaving you out of money spent on the M.U.L.E. and its outfitting, and one less M.U.L.E. in the stable (which is a cunning strategy for those in the field of Smithore...see below). Money is also important in this game; without it, you won't be able to survive for very long in this game. You won't die, but you won't be able to do much of anything in the auction, which I'll get to shortly.
Once you get your property running with its M.U.L.E, you can do a few more things. One is Wampus hunting. You will receive money for catching the Wampus...but it's not as easy as it sounds. A light will appear on one of the various mountains in the playfield, and you'll have to sneak up on the Wampus to catch it. You can't have a M.U.L.E. in tow, or it won't come out. The other way to make quick money is going into the Pub. It'll end your turn, but the earlier you go in the more money you'll win.
Once everyone's turns have passed, a random event will occur. This can be either good or bad, since you can get a lot of money from a deceased relative, have a Pirate ship raid the store of Smithore (or Crystite, in Tournament mode), have sun spots increase energy production or several other events. After the event, production will occur, and you will get units of whatever you decided to produce added to your total. Production is affected by three rules of the game: "Base production" (number of units produced without an effect), Energy (needed for the M.U.L.E. to run) and economic bonuses of varying degrees.
After production, it's time for the auction, which all of the players are involved. The green house on the top is the store, which is where you can buy food, energy or smithore for a high rate. However, if you or another player has a surplus of an item, you can be a seller and go cheaper than the store. This is where a lot of the game's strategy comes into play. You can screw the other players badly by buying out the store's surplus and become a tycoon of an item, or work with the other players to create a harmonious environment. The three units must be in constant flow to do anything - food is used for the amount of time you have during development, Energy is used to run the M.U.L.E's, and Smithore produces new M.U.L.E.s. Smithore is required for M.U.L.E. production. Without it, new M.U.L.E's will never appear in the Corral, so no one can produce anything. However, you can also sell your surplus to the store for a cheap rate if you want to as well. Careful strategy is required to succeed in this game.
Once the auction finishes, the game will show the player's stats in order of who is winning. Then the Land Grant begins anew and you'll pick your next property, and the cycle repeats for 5 more turns (12 in Standard and Tournament). You can also transfer your M.U.L.E's to another property, if you don't want to buy another M.U.L.E. If you really don't want it, you can return it to the Corral for money (but the money spent on outfitting it will be gone).
This game runs off of economic rules, such as supply and demand, economies of scale, the learning curve theory of production, diminishing returns and more. Prices are set by supply and demand. When there is a lot of food, for example, it will be cheap to buy. When there is a shortage, the demand goes up, as does the price. Economies of scale states that the bigger you are, the better you get. If you double your operation, you'll more than double the effectiveness. In the game, when you have two M.U.L.E's on land next to each other doing the same thing, you'll gain more units. The Learning Curve Theory of Production states that the more you produce something, you'll learn how to produce it more efficiently. Every time you double your total number of units you've built, you "learn" to produce it for 20% less. In the game, for every three units you have producing the same thing, you'll get an extra unit on each plot. Lastly, the diminishing returns rule in M.U.L.E. is explained well in the manual, which I'll quote:
"In M.U.L.E., you can see how this works if you try to develop a Smithore monopoly. At first you get high levels of production by locating mines in the mountains (where there are rich Smithore deposits), and getting the economic bonuses as well. Eventually you have to start mining for Smithore in the flat land to increase your economies of scale and learning curve effects. Sooner or later you reach a point where you get more value from giving up the economic bonuses and producing Food or Energy instead."
Also, if the colony doesn't survive (as in no one gets any energy other than one man, so no one can produce Smithore or Food), everyone loses.
Now I'll discuss the next level of play, Standard mode. The biggest change is the Land Auction. The town will auction off property for money after the land grant, and you can also sell your property as well (by visiting the Land office in town on your turn). M.U.L.E. prices vary from turn to turn as well, depending on the Smithore sold to the store. Also, you can now release M.U.L.E's by tapping the button off of your house on your property, which can spike Smithore prices way up. The game starts with 16 M.U.L.E's, and it takes two Smithore units to create a new one. So if you're sly, you can really jack up Smithore prices and screw the other players over badly. The seller in an auction can also choose to sell off what he requires to have, in case the buyer is able to produce extra crop to make up the loss (or not, up to the seller). Also, the selling price for a unit may go as high as buyers want to bid (once the store's surplus is gone).
Tournament mode adds two new features to the game, which change its mechanics even more. The first is a new unit, Crystite. It isn't used for much of anything other than to make a ton of money. To mine Crystite, you'll have to visit the Assay office to take a sample of a plot of land in. After leaving the office, clicking on a plot and then returning to the office, you'll get a reading on the plot. If it's High or Medium, you will probably want to take your M.U.L.E. into the outfitting office for Crystite (which costs $100), and then you can sell Crystite to the Store to make a lot of money (as long as Pirates don't steal it). The other new feature is in the auctioning phase, which is called Collusion. It varies from a Land Auction to a Normal one, so we'll start with the Land auction. A buyer can choose his buyer by clicking the joystick and choosing who he wants to buy the land. If they aren't reaching your price, you can click on someone else. In the normal auction, both buyer and seller must click their joystick at the same time to activate Collusion, and it works about the same way as it does in a land auction. Collusion is timed separately from the normal Auction timer.
So that's M.U.L.E. in a nutshell. It was definitely ahead of its time with the amount of strategy it contains, and I see how it influences several games that came after it. It's one I really wish would come to the DS or something, but for now, it's stuck in ancient PC land.
I purchased the NES version in hopes that the port wasn't as bad as I've heard, but it does pale from the great PC original for two reasons - the town has been completely changed into a sidescrolling format, which isn't as effective, and you no longer control moving into the buildings on your own; the game does it for you. That ruins quite a bit of the strategy that the PC original holds. The music isn't as nice, either. The graphics are improved, but I prefer the simpler originals...especially in the M.U.L.E. models. At any rate, the C64 version holds a special place in my heart as one of my favorite games ever. Now, I can only hope either EA releases a retro package or someone else buys the rights and produces a new one faithful to the original...