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Cartel Tycoon Review – ’80s Narco Simulator

Cartel Tycoon a story-driven business sim inspired by the ‘80s narco trade, developed by Moon Moose and published by tinyBuild. Our first experience with the game was a demo released back in 2020 and has been in early access since March 2021. Moon Moose has been hard at work the past year and has done almost everything they wanted, finishing their Early Access roadmap and will release v1.0 on July 26, 2022.

“There is no business like blow business.” — Pablo Escobar, Narcos

Cartel Tycoon is set in a fictional South American location and has a heavy 1980’s theme mixed into it. You take on the role of a “Capo”, the big cheese that starts off with minimal resources to build your empire. You start by producing Opium and work towards turning this into Heroin, which is a new form of end-game with v1.0. However you can also produce legal product to help keep the cash flowing, such as Avocado and Quinoa. As you progress through the game, you work against rival drug cartels and with corrupt city politicians in taking over areas to expand your drug business to keep the cash flowing into your pockets.

There are multiple game modes on offer depending on your playstyle, and the first is the story mode. It starts off with a tutorial to teach you the basics of the game and I highly recommend doing it as the game has some mechanics than can get a bit tricky as you start to build your empire. The next two story scenarios introduce you to more advanced ways of making and supplying drug products and also how to sell them through places like seaports or customs checkpoints.

Smuggling drugs through these areas require you to be really across your operations; especially with packaging your drugs to conceal them from prying eyes. Otherwise, the authorities will get wind of your operation and come to shut you down. The developers have included a sandbox mode so you can create your own cartel and just get straight into developing your empire with your own game parameters. I like sandbox mode as it can let your imagination run wild on you wanting to be the next kingpin.

Survival mode is for the hardcore of your wannabe drug lords. You create your cartel but are given minimal resources and higher chance for rival cartels to mess with your operation. I didn’t get the time to get into the survival mode but am keen to give it a go after I have mastered the basics and advanced mechanics of the game.

I’m a big fan of builder games and enjoyed the base mechanics of setting up farms to grow drug crops, then on to the logistics of storage and transportation side of your operation to get your product to a smuggling area to sell. Making a mistake and blindly transporting drug products without concealing them, through a seaport for example, will build terror and get the authorities putting the heat on you.

Cartel Tycoon is quite the micro-managing game. Even though you may be on top of your production and selling, you also must turn that dirty money that you get from the sales into legal money. This is accomplished by setting up laundering operations in cities such as taxi business or a casino etc. This is where you can send your money via your lieutenants so these types of businesses can “clean” your money by processing it through legitimate means.

Utilising your lieutenants is an important aspect of the game. As they gain experience, you can give them special perks and abilities that enhance their effectiveness in both solo tasks and your overall operation. Some require different things to keep them loyal to you or prevent them from going off and doing something dumb.

You also need to be funding your research team that support you in coming up with new and enhanced ways of growing your cartel. The game has many different research options to help streamline your operation to bring in a bigger slice of the drug market and make you more formidable towards your rivals. Overall, the base business mechanics of the game are fairly straight forward but things can get out of hand fast if you make errors with the way you set your manufacturing and logistics systems.

“I Am The One Who Knocks” – Walter White, Breaking Bad

There is no direct combat mechanics where you take control of a character and start firing an AK-47 at other cartel members. It’s a simple as moving your Capo and cartel lieutenants into a rivals controlling interests and the game takes care of the rest. If you have the bigger numbers you can leave your leaders to take out a city and you can go and manage your crops until they are done. I don’t mind this aspect of the game on how combat is managed, its a business simulator at the end of the day and combat is not a core component that requires you to personally lock and load.

Some of your lieutenants have abilities to assassinate your own people if they step out of line or burn down rival buildings etc. Fun things to keep your lieutenants busy during the game. But beware. Every action has a reaction. You may go and burn down a rivals farms but nothing is stopping them from doing the same to your operation. Having pressure from rivals and authorities can really cause you to have a bad day out.

“Things don’t always go according to plan. You can use every hope and prayer you have, take your shot, and everything still goes to shit.” — Javier Pena, Narcos

The game is always changing as you progress through and likes to throw in a few shit sandwiches (ie. problems for those that don’t know the lingo) for you to eat through at various points in the game. It keeps you on your toes as issues that present themselves could be that a lieutenant is getting impatient because there isn’t enough terror.

Even when things are going along swimmingly; drug crops are growing, money is pouring in from sales and the dirty money is being processed through one of your laundering facilities, there is always something that pops up to keep you on your toes and fix that problem while keeping your empires wheels turning to bring in the cash. Another aspect I do like in Cartel Tycoon are the loyalty and terror scales.

Basically the more drama you cause out in the world without keeping the locals in line and on your side can cause you massive issues. If the terror meter goes too high then the authorities, ranging from local police to DEA agents, throw more resources at you to stop your operation once and for all.

Let the local populations loyalty slide too low and they will revolt against you and kill the Capo. If the Capo is dead, its game over. You can use the local Mayor to “do favours” for you, like printing glowing articles about you in the local newspaper to keep the locals in support of you, or throw a fundraiser at the local church or casino. It costs a little bit of money but worth it to keep people inline.

“See, ya are what ya are in this world. That’s either one of two things: Either you’re somebody, or you ain’t nobody.” Frank Lucas, American Gangster (film)

Overall, I have thoroughly enjoyed playing through the story campaign of Cartel Tycoon. Is it perfect? No. Has it got potential? Absolutely. I look forward to seeing how the developers progress the game and we’ll be putting more time into successive playthroughs, as well as sandbox mode.

This review utilised a key provided by Stride PR. Cartel Tycoon will release v1.0 on Steam on July 26, 2022, with PlayStation and Xbox versions coming in 2023.


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