Cartel Tycoon Preview: Drugs and Money Make the World Go Round

Cartel Tycoon, as the name suggests, is a management game by tinyBuild that focuses on the life of a drug kingpin. Produce the best narcotics, launder your funds, dodge the authorities, and defend your territory from rival gangs. Being the leader of a drug cartel really is a cutthroat business, if you're not on top, you'll soon be 6 feet under.

Cartel Tycoon Preview - Drugs and Money Make the World Go Round

Cartel Tycoon puts you at the head of a brand new gang in the South-American drug scene; keep your wits about as any weakness will be your downfall. This is a management sim with some light city-building elements to it. Building your drug empire will require you to maintain not just the buildings and products, but also the workforce responsible for getting things done.

At first, Cartel Tycoon gives off a very Tropico-like vibe but this faded quickly as I realized the similarities were mostly just visual. Since I started this preview, Cartel Tycoon has been launched, but I received an early access copy a few days prior to the launch. Since this is an early access copy, you can expect a few things to change by launch or within the coming weeks.

If you’re interested in running your own drug empire, head over to Steam right now and get your copy of Cartel Tycoon.

Cartel Tycoon - Official Trailer | Summer of Gaming 2020

STORY – SUDDENLY YOU’RE A CRIMINAL

You start your criminal journey as Cesar Garcetti, a man who answers an innocent newspaper ad in the hope of being employed. You receive a response from an anonymous man who is in need of a partner in his “special flower” business. You quickly realize what “special flowers” are code for and despite the risks of criminal life, this stranger trusts you immediately and offers you the rank of Capo in his criminal empire. To start, you are offered a house with money-filled walls as your starting capital and the promise of great riches to come.

Your anonymous partner doesn’t remain in the shadows for long and soon plays a key role in the story you’re carving for yourself. Your other associates quickly become nervous because of his reputation and you are left with the option of trusting him above all others, or taking him out and claiming the throne.

What happens from here, is left in your hands.

Those are not corn fields I see

Those are not corn fields I see

GAMEPLAY – NOW YOU’RE A KINDERGARTEN TEACHER

In its early access state, the game only offers story and sandbox modes. Survival and multiplayer are coming soon but I was not able to test these just yet. You also only have one map currently available but I’m sure more will be added by launch.

The gameplay can be summed up like this. Set up production chains to produce various narcotics ranging from opium to cannabis, to cocaine, and eventually, methamphetamines. Export your goods to the wide world and make a good profit. The dirty money earned from your deals is difficult to distribute and needs to be laundered by legitimate businesses. Once you’ve tapped the potential from your region, move on to the next and take out any resistance that gets in your way. 

The production chains are fairly simple and generally require a farm, perhaps a chemical plant, and finally a workshop where products are disguised as something harmless like vegetables or spice before sending it to a port to be exported. The game only offers around 15 different buildings, most of which need to be researched before they become available. Some of these buildings can only be constructed inside big cities like casinos and amusement parks that help you clean your dirty cash, or churches and charitable foundations that give you some favor from the community and increases your loyalty.

The Hierarchy of Power

The Hierarchy of Power

Running an empire is not a job for one man and luckily you can hire an army of lieutenants to help you keep the business afloat. Each lieutenant is unique and can be useful in different ways. Some are physical forces that can help you capture enemy territories, others have special abilities like increasing a farm’s production rate, or unlocking buildings you haven’t researched yet. Still, others can perform actions like assassinations or kidnappings which will definitely be useful when you need some to persuade others to play ball. Your lieutenants form a hierarchy of power with higher-ranked officers having access to more skills but also costing more to remain loyal.

When the time comes to expand, you will send your strongest lieutenants into enemy territories. The combined strength of your forces is pitted against the enemy’s and depending on the difference in numbers, a takeover like this could take some time. During this time you will earn Terror, which draws the attention of the authorities.

At the first level, only the D.E.A will be sniffing around your warehouses but if you become a real threat then eventually, the military will get involved. Any police presence comes with complications, they can investigate an airport which reduces your profits for several days, they can also confiscate illegal substances they find, and even seize farms and warehouses which you then have to buy back at a hefty markup. Terror can be reduced with the help of some corrupt governors but as you may expect, this always comes at a cost.

Around the map, you’ll find a few scattered buildings like prisons, Indigenous territories, and Guerrillas, which are not available yet in the early access version of the game. As such, I can’t confirm what their uses will be but I can imagine a few scenarios where these could make things very interesting.

We won't stop until everything is ours

We won’t stop until everything is ours

Your ultimate goal is to take over all territories and get rid of all rival gangs. Keep in mind that a conflict could result in you losing lieutenants. If your top lieutenant, or Capo, is killed then someone will need to take their place, but if no one is available to run the show then it’s game over.

I was expecting a complex city-builder in Cartel Tycoon, but what I found was a management sim where you spend most of your time ordering your employees around. This would not be a problem if managing your lieutenants was a satisfying experience but unfortunately, the management mechanics felt like running a creche where every lieutenant needs to be taken by the hand and shown exactly what to do, when to do it, and how not to screw it up.

First, you can’t select a lieutenant and right-click where you want him to go, you have to select the move order first and then the destination. This might seem unimportant but you should never have to do 2 actions when 1 would do. You can also not select multiple lieutenants when ordering an attack on the enemy territory so you have to order each of them separately, and there’s no interface to easily select your lieutenants, you have to scroll around the map to find them.

Take the warehouse boys

Take the warehouse boys

Then we come to the order options, you can’t ask a lieutenant to deliver something just once, it’s automatically turned into a delivery route which you need to cancel once it’s done. The delivery routes are also limited as you can only order them to do one thing. For example, when delivering products to an airport, it would be great if they can pick up the cash and drop it off at a safe house on their way back to the warehouse, but no, you need 2 people for that.

You also can’t ask them to just deliver a certain amount of anything, they always take the maximum amount they can carry. Add to that the fact that you can’t cancel an order once it’s been issued. If you select a lieutenant and accidentally move them into enemy territory, you can’t stop them, they have to complete the first action before you can tell them to do something else. 

Finally, every city center, seaport, airport, and border post requires a lieutenant’s presence at all times or you will lose influence there and eventually control of the building. Most of the time your lieutenants will be babysitting properties or delivering goods so, even though they have really cool abilities available, it’s difficult to utilize them as they’re always busy with menial tasks.

Lovely Cutscenes

Lovely Cutscenes

This is what a typical play session went like –  I send a lieutenant to an overflowing warehouse to deliver the excess goods to an airport, then grabbing the cash at the airport and moving it to my casino to be laundered. Oh no, I’m losing my seaport, I better get someone back there, now my workshop isn’t producing goods because it only has opium but no vegetables, despite my farms running fine and being in range. After hours of play, it feels like you haven’t accomplished anything because you spent all your time maintaining instead of growing.

EARLY ACCESS WOES – THE ONLY BUG IS THE AI 

It’s clear that the game was close to launch because apart from a couple of roads that had to be rebuilt before the game realized they were there, I didn’t notice any bugs. However, there are a couple of things that could be improved.

Foscani will soon be mine

Foscani will soon be mine

First, we have building maintenance. When a building’s maintenance funds run out, it shuts down, but it doesn’t reactivate when the money returns, leaving you to toggle building activations manually. This is a minor annoyance though, the biggest issue I had was the sketchy AI who seem unable to manage even the simplest of production chains without intervention. This is one of the reasons why your lieutenants are always caught up delivering stuff because the automations simply don’t work.

DESIGN – COMIC STYLE DELIGHT

I love the comic book styling the game uses in its storytelling and the majority of its visuals. The semi-realistic terrain is a bit bland but it looks good among the colorful buildings. My main complaint here is that the water is completely lifeless. 

Casinos are great for laundering dirty money

Casinos are great for laundering dirty money

The music is good but nothing particularly special, and the sound effects are fine enough but could be a bit more pronounced. The game doesn’t include any voice acting so you have to read through the narration, luckily the writing isn’t bad, a lot of it just gets reused so you’ll find yourself reading the same conversation several times.

I liked the UI design, it was clean and easy to get to grips with. My only complaint here is that I’d like the notifications to be more in your face, especially the important ones, like when a warehouse stops working or a rival gang attacks one of your properties. I would often focus on getting something done only to notice a dozen missed notifications sitting idle when I’m done.

The game was reviewed on PC, with a review key provided by Stride PR.

Summary
I really like the concept that tinyBuild put together in Cartel Tycoon. I like having to produce various goods and taking them through the processes needed to make money, then having to launder that money through legitimate businesses and having to take on rival gangs and the authorities at the same time. I want to become the most feared drug lord and rule my empire with an iron fist. Unfortunately, the mechanics are a hot mess of micromanagement and frustrating AI. Also, other than managing the supply chains, the game really doesn't offer much of a challenge. In terms of design, I enjoyed the visuals and the UI was clean but the lackluster audio plays second fiddle. Despite my challenges, I eagerly kept coming back to the game, with a new idea on how I could improve my operation but after an hour I'd find myself exactly where I started, still just moving stuff around and staying afloat. I have hope that Cartel Tycoon could still turn into something great but in its current form, it falls badly short of my expectations.
Good
  • Comic style visuals
  • Good concept with loads of potential
Bad
  • Lackluster audio
  • Terrible AI
  • Frustrating micromanagement

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