There is this really old game called M.U.L.E. that was released for the Atari and Commodore 64. This game has a very long and interesting history that you can learn about on a myriad of websites. My roommate and I recently rediscovered this game because we got our NES emulating computer plugged into the television and working. I knew about M.U.L.E. for many years, but I never really got into it very much. It took me until just yesterday to realize that it is really just a very good German strategy board game.
As German games go, M.U.L.E. is fairly flawed. But the flaws really can’t be blamed on any people. Half of the problems in the game are simply due to technical limitations. Because it is a video game with very minimal controls there had to be some losses. For example, the mine outfitters are on the left side of town. So if you have plots of land on the left of the map you can mine them without spending too much time. Also, having a poor a.i. which can be taken advantage of in any game with less than four players really hurts the game quite a bit. Lastly, the method of selecting plots of land is fickle, and you really need lots of skill to get the land you want.
The other ways in which the game is flawed weren’t viewed as flaws because this is a video game. But when you design a strategy game the current thinking is that you want to remove as many random and arbitrary factors as possible. M.U.L.E. has way too many random factors. Pretty much every turn somebody gets a random bonus or detriment. There is an element of gampeplay where you hunt the wampus which appears randomly. And the selection of how many plots of land are auctioned off and when can be pretty random.
One last thing about the game that is not so good is the lack of knowledge. In game theory there are ways of describing games as being games of total information, partial information or no information. A game of no information is like 3 card monte. The dealer used sleight of hand to move the card so you don’t know which card to pick, and your chances of winning are one out of three, or worse. A game of partial information is like Texas Hold ’em, you know some of the cards out there, but you don’t know what your opponent is hiding. A game of total information is like checkers, chess or go where everything is in plain sight.
The problem with M.U.L.E. is that it is a game of total information, everything every player has is wide open. However, the rules of the game are closed. You receive points based on money, land and goods. Money points are obviously one point per dollar. Land points seem to simply be a number multiplied by how many plots of land you own. And goods points seem to be a multiplier of how many, and which, units of goods you possess. However, the multiplier for goods is unknown! How am I supposed to decide whether or not to sell a good? Let’s say I have an opportunity to sell one crystite for $50. Would it be worth more than 50 goods points if I held onto it? There’s no way to know because I can’t find this information anywhere on the Internet.
Despite multiple paragraphs about the flaws of M.U.L.E. it is still a great game. With a little bit of modification it would make an excellent board game that could be played time and time again. If I find the time I am going to work on making a new game very much like M.U.L.E without as much randomness. I know that I’ve said stuff like this before and never come through on it. But remember what I said about shit-talking? At the minimum I will design a new game like M.U.L.E. that is much more like a german strategy board game with less random crap. At the most, I will implement this game in software for online play.