Cartel Tycoon is currently available in Steam early access.
You can find a video version of this review here: Cartel Tycoon Early Access Review (Simulation/Management Game) – YouTube
Cartel Tycoon is a management sim about ruling your very own kingdom of illegal substances. Reviewing the game is going to require me to use a lot of words that are likely to land me on an FBI watch list. All I have to say is, I hope whatever agent gets assigned to me really enjoys seeing tons of dirty
Redacted. Hey, We all have our kinks.
Managing an empire of sin isn’t an easy task. Transportation is something that’s largely glossed over in many city builders or simulation games. As it turns out, it’s pretty important. Everything needs to be moved, from the devil’s lettuce, grown-up sugar, or the vegetables you stuff it in. Heck, even money needs to be moved around until it’s laundered.
Cartel Tycoon is all about managing the logistical side of the operation. While you also contend with rival gangs, various law enforcement agencies, and the loyalty of your own crew. Yet, your biggest enemy is undoubtedly basic math. A miscalculation can send your whole Cartel down a spiral of Breaking Bad.
The media always portrays brute force as a key aspect of any Drug Lord, and that their downfalls were either arrogance or getting stabbed in the back. Nah, what they really needed was an accountant.
The core gameplay of Cartel Tycoon is purely about logistics. You have to figure out how to produce, transport, and sell a variety of substances. Then you have to launder the money and contend with ever-increasing costs and heat from the law.
It’s interesting because Cartel Tycoon really flips your expectations. In most similar games, you turn a few dials, plop down a few buildings and go make a cheeseburger while the game runs. Try that in Cartel Tycoon, and you will come back to a deficit, full warehouses, and buildings seized by the police.
Sure you turn some dials and plop down buildings, but you also have to manually keep tabs and manage them. Every building has a limited amount of storage, and you only have so many trucks per residence and warehouse. Every material in the game needs to be transported, including money.
You can spend both clean and dirty money, legal money is just deducted from your account. Dirty money needs to be physically transported to where it is to be spent, be it on new construction, upkeep, or literally anything else.
You can launder dirty money into clean money by creating businesses within a city for that purpose, but it still needs to be transported there. The drugs themselves need to be transported to various smuggling points, such as airfields, docks, or checkpoints, and the money then needs to be transported back.
You have to set up these complex networks of farms, workshops, warehouses, laundering businesses, and the ability to bring money to them. On top of that, the situation is always changing. If your setup is profiting now, that doesn’t mean it will be in five minutes.
If the DEA starts investigating a key smuggling point and you have to shut it down for a few days, it affects your bottom line. You have to be prepared to switch your plans and routes at the drop of a hat. Unless you want buildings to shut down from lack of upkeep or members of your cartel to become disloyal.
Processes that are normally automated in other simulation games require manual control in Cartel Tycoon. The reality is, logistics is the game. But is it fun? Actually yes.
Funny enough, I’ve always considered it a flaw if I can leave a simulation game running. If the game is playing itself, how is that valuable to me as a player? Yet, the concept has been so ingrained into my mind I bounced off of Cartel Tycoon hard at first.
There would be moments where a building wasn’t receiving money, and I’d be angry about it.
“Why won’t my trucks automatically take money there? Oh, I don’t have enough open routes or trucks. What the shit, can’t I just build another residence? Oh, that’s going to cost too much just to transport to one building. This is stupid.”
But then I figured out I could use members of the cartel that I hired, or even my Capo to transport the money temporarily or fill holes in the logistics line here and there. I could reroute from one residence or warehouse to another and I could keep stock in storage until I was ready to send it out.
I had total control over the situation, you know, like a…Tycoon, of a…Cartel. Then the game clicked. In some games, automation of a tedious activity makes sense. But if too much is automated, it can take away the point of actually playing. Being designed around the concept of granular control made Cartel Tycoon really enjoyable once I got over my own preconceived notions of the genre.
In a way, Cartel Tycoon feels like a puzzle that’s always changing in real-time. The way the game consistently throws curve balls at you keeping you on your toes is brilliant. Even something simple, like managing your crew.
You choose who to hire, and they all have special abilities, transport sizes, and speeds. You can have crew members fight, transport goods, supply additional trucks via abilities or just sit in a spot to retain control. As they level up, they gain new abilities but then they want promotions or a raise, lest they turn on you.
You only have a limited number of promotion slots in your Cartel. If the next rank is full, your crew member will still want higher pay. If you attempt to just sit and collect money, your crew will begin needing more and more in wages until you can’t afford it.
You can’t just fire them, a Cartel isn’t an employer. If you wanna get rid of a crew member, you have to kill them. Which raises terror, attracting the law.
Any other hostile action also raises terror, robbing banks, trespassing, or fighting other gangs, even in defense. The higher your terror grows, the more intense the law enforcement becomes. Initially, it’s just the DEA who will occasionally investigate areas.
Shutting down an operation while they poke about hurts your bottom line. Push too far, and you have to deal with police seizing buildings, military blockades, the CIA blowing your stuff up, and the US army hunting down your crew.
You can lower terror with the help of city mayors. But that requires you earn loyalty to spend by creating buildings and executing favorable actions for the general population.
Striking the right balance of terror and loyalty is a challenge. You can control when and where to become hostile but not when you need to defend yourself. Each terror level threshold you hit is permanent. Trigger the DEA, and you have to deal with them all game, that is, unless your Capo dies.
Death is permanent, but that doesn’t mean the game is over. Chunks of your operation are seized or destroyed, but you promote another member to take your place, and then terror resets to zero. If you screw up bad enough, assassinating your own Capo is a viable option. Sadly the game doesn’t do much to teach you about terror, which can be problematic early on.
All these aspects combine to form a type of simulation game I haven’t played in a long time. The feeling of being in control is a satisfying one, and it makes those failures hit hard because it’s you who screwed up.
It can be a ton of fun to react and change your plans on the fly. For example, the combat system is very simple, whoever has the highest power wins. You just need to send enough crew members to the fight to have the higher number.
But that alone throws a wrench into your plans. You have your crew keeping regions under control, transporting goods, and supplying bonuses. If you have to move them to defend an area being raided, you then have to manage how to keep your operation running while they are gone. The core concept of Cartel Tycoon is really well-executed, and honestly, the music is awesome to listen to while you manage it all.
The game’s abstracted nature is a bit of a turn-off though. Watching a video of Cartel Tycoon would be really boring, there is not much that happens visually. The map, while huge is always the same. As an avid board gamer, I have no problem with the abstract. But I’d be lying if I said the battles didn’t feel less impactful since they are basically just a progress bar.
The concept of early access is such a wide-sweeping reality that the words alone can’t give you an accurate picture of a game. Some early access titles feel finished, while others are so early they have no business being sold to customers. Cartel Tycoon is somewhere in the middle.
The foundation and even the bones are there. But you will always be aware that the game is unfinished. Entire menus of buildings say coming soon, and the map is filled with concepts such as prisons, guerrillas, and other interesting items that say coming soon and aren’t implemented yet.
The game features a campaign and sandbox mode, but the sandbox mode only features two Capos to choose from. While the campaign is interesting with various branching paths, it takes place on a map filled with “coming soon”. It makes it clear you’re giving yourself a lesser experience by playing now.
The thing about early access games is there are a lot of games that are fun to watch grow and take part in while they do. If I’m being completely honest about Cartel Tycoon, I’m not sure I feel that way.
Cartel Tycoon is a logistics game, which means your toolset is incredibly important. The more tools you have, the better the games going to feel. A significant portion of the toolbox simply not existing yet feels worse in Cartel Tycoon than it might in other games.
Now, I don’t hold any of this against Cartel Tycoon. The game isn’t finished, that’s the point of early access. But I’m also reviewing a product being sold for money. I have complete faith that the developers will finish this game. I’m wary of early access, on principle. But Cartel Tycoon is both published by TinyBuild, and the developers have put real effort into it. They are exceptionally responsive to feedback. I have no doubts that it’s a safe buy in that regard.
The question is, is it worth buying now? That’s less straightforward.
Cartel Tycoon is a tight logistic management game that is incredibly well designed and fun. If you like the idea of manually managing a Cartel empire, you will absolutely have a blast here. The mechanics work together like a well-oiled machine to keep you engaged and constantly working to keep your empire from falling to ruins. Plus the soundtrack is awesome.
My recommendation of Cartel Tycoon as it stands is a tentative yes, entirely based on the type of player you are. If you’re the type of player that replays games like me, it’s worth it. You can always come back and enjoy the new features later.
At the same time, as replayable as Cartel Tycoon is, it’s not a rogue-lite or something designed from the ground up to stay fresh. It’s entirely possible that if you play it now, you may not feel like picking it up again once it reaches its 1.0, and that would be a shame. It’s likely to be a much greater experience by then.
You may also enjoy my review of Evil Genius 2!
A copy of the game was provided for Gideon’s Gaming by TinyBuild for the purpose of Review.
- An incredibly fun and well-designed game about logistic management
- Carefully balancing transportation, money, loyalty, and terror is satisfying
- Soundtrack is mega catchy
- Campaign has branching paths and the Sandbox mode offers replay value
- Permadeath system allowing you to promote a new Capo to take over is clever
- Guided tutorial doesn’t teach you about loyalty and terror
- Abstract visual nature can be a downer, particularly with loading bar-style combat
- Logistical nature of the gameplay can really make you feel the missing features