Cartel Tycoon Early Access Review: This is Bat Country
Sure, we've all been there. The DEA won't stop raiding your meth labs. The gang a city over keeps disrupting your supply lines. Your most trusted lieutenant threatens to rat you out unless you give them another raise. And all you want to do is throw another event at the salsa club.
That's the world of Cartel Tycoon, a business management game from Moon Moose where the business isn't exactly legal. Set in the 1990s, Cartel Tycoon puts you in charge of a burgeoning drug empire. Your task is to outmaneuver rival cartels, law enforcement, and your own scheming underlings to take over the narcotics market.
Releasing in Early Access on March 18, Cartel Tycoon shows a lot of potential, though it's still very early in development.
Cartel Tycoon Early Access Impressions: This is Bat Country
Like any good tycoon management game, Cartel Tycoon starts you out small. At first, it's just you and your opium farm. As a set of narrative quests teach you the basics, you build a few new farms, take control of a few shipping points, and get a few lines of production going. You ship your product to a private airfield. The money starts flowing in.
One of the more interesting mechanics surfaces not long after you start cooking. Cartel Tycoon gives you two pools of money.
One is a pool of "dirty money," which goes to support many of the illegal activities you're engaging in. As you sell drugs and bribe politicians, your dirty money stores fluctuate rapidly. However, there are a lot of things you do on the level, too — or at least need to appear like they are. You could be sitting on a huge sum of money but be unable to spend any of it, as a lot of the purchases you make won't accept suspicious cash.
To fix this, you also have to invest in some other businesses so you can launder your cash into another pool. That might come in the form of a casino, a taxi company, or some other front.
You must edge out rival gangs using violence to get those businesses going, which eventually attracts the attention of law enforcement. Soon, you have too much product for your tiny private planes to handle. You need to grow legal products and build production centers that hide your drugs inside crates of veggies or coffee to get through bigger shipping centers. Naturally, this requires more violence. The cycle continues.
While Cartel Tycoon starts you out "small," that's a relative term here. The game does a great job of making things feel "big" and substantial right away. You deal with what seems like a lot of money right from the beginning, and things escalate in a hurry. It's nice that you don't have to start selling baggies of weed out of your dorm and build a criminal empire from there. The stakes feel high right from the start.
That feeling is compounded because Cartel Tycoon is not much of an idle tycoon game. There aren't a lot of opportunities to build the perfect machine, then sit back and watch it hum. You are constantly putting out fires and juggling more and more plates. You gradually lose control of cities and shipping points if you don't have underlings stationed there. You have to use those same characters to move dirty money from building to building, capture buildings from rivals, and fight off enemies. Losing one cog in the machine can cause the entire thing to grind to a halt.
In one scenario, I was paying off a debt and loaded a bunch of money in the trunk of a lieutenant's car before heading to the drop-off point. Not long after I started driving, the DEA began raiding a shipping point, so I had to close operations there for a few days. At the same time, a faction attacked another shipping point, forcing me to divert a substantial crew to fend them off.
Shutting down these shipping points alongside taking out such a huge payment caused my laundering businesses to stop operating. Without any of that money coming in, my workshops and farms stopped operating.
I had to keep moving my gang members around to keep control of various access points, and I reached out to a mayor for a loan to keep me afloat. The only issue with that? I'd have to pay it back, with interest in a relatively quick turnaround. Thus, it all began anew.
This cyclical nature is the big issue I see right now with Cartel Tycoon. Even though it isn't an idle game, it doesn't exactly have events either. You're just kind of doing things, but those things aren't big enough or substantial enough to offer a sense of steady accomplishment. Battling a rival gang is just a matter of moving enough "power" to be higher than the enemy "power," then waiting for a meter to fill up. When the police come to investigate, you just turn off the building they're looking at until they're done.
A lot of this polish will probably come with time, as the game is still in very early stages. Though the developer is a newcomer, publisher tinyBuild has a pretty solid portfolio and a long history of listening to community feedback to provide support for their releases. It would be nice to see a bit more "oomph" in Cartel Tycoon, and I'm really hoping to see a greater variety in how things start and play out as it moves forward.
The only other issue with Cartel Tycoon in its current state is the game's tone. It's really hard to tell if it's completely serious, tongue-in-cheek, or shooting for total satire. Its cartoonish aesthetic and somewhat goofy trailers give the sense that things here are campy, but I saw almost nothing that suggested this is a silly or lighthearted game while playing.
It may look to be in the same vein as Tropico (or something similar), but I didn't get that sense at all in this early build.
Cartel Tycoon Early Access Review — The Bottom Line So Far
It's always hard giving a recommendation for games that are still so young in the Early Access phase. Cartel Tycoon has a really strong foundation, and could definitely bloom into a really impressive management game. It could also not address the holes that currently exist and never gain any traction.
As of right now, it's still a bit too early to go all in and fully recommend it. Keep watching this one, though: it could grow into something excellent.
[Note: tinyBuild provided the copy of Cartel Tycoon used for this Early Access review.]