Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Game 256: M.U.L.E.

Some of you are humming it.

Read the manual here:

M.U.L.E. should not work as well as it does. Just how do you make an economic simulation into a fast-paced four player party game, controlled with a one-button Atari controller and presented with low-res graphics? There's a reason we never saw SimCity on the Atari 2600 (well okay, a few reasons). Other 8-bit management sims like Hamurabi, Reach for the Stars, and M.U.L.E.'s predecessor Cartels & Cutthroats are heavy on text and numbers, often resembling spreadsheets more than games, and even modern ones involve a lot of charts and figures. Whereas an Atari game with direct player control and lumpy monocolor pixel art graphics conveys accessibility and arcade simplicity without a whole lot going under the hood. A layperson might not easily distinguish between M.U.L.E. and E.T.!

Somehow, it manages, and even though M.U.L.E. was only a moderate success, it's one of the most beloved and influential games of its era.

Cartels & Cutthroats, as I mentioned, is M.U.L.E.'s immediate predecessor. It simulated competition and collusion between consumer goods manufacturers, front-loaded with pages and pages of reports, charts, and figures to help their budding CEO's optimize their bottom lines quarter by quarter. Electronic Art's founder Trip Hawkins originally wanted to buy the rights from its original publisher SSI, but was refused, and instead hired the Buntens to develop something new in its vein.

This was for the best on so many levels. Just as C&C's impenetrable bookkeeping and selectively abstracted realism were characteristic of SSI's hardcore simulation approach, M.U.L.E.'s casual exterior and deceptively complex gameplay could not be more appropriate for EA's vision of the future of games. Simple, hot, and deep was their mantra. Equally appropriate was the change in target platform, from the business and education-oriented Apple II, to the computer line of then-fading arcade titan Atari.

You are one of four aliens - in Bunten's tradition robots take the role of any not controlled by a human player - sent to the planet Irata to build a successful mining operation. Performance is measured in how much money your company is worth at the end of twelve seasons, and the player with the biggest share will be honored as First Founder of Irata, but there's also the shared goal of combined performance. Fail to meet profit margins together and you'll all go home as complete losers. Ruthlessly sabotaging your rivals' plans or exploiting their misfortunes can be wonderful for personal gains, but you've got to balance it with the colony's needs or you risk ruining everyone.

This is not my first time playing M.U.L.E., but most of my playtime in past years was in solo against the AI, which has a limited set of tactics but nevertheless puts up a better fight than the box materials give it credit for. It's no secret that the intended gameplay experience is multiplayer, where your human opponents can act unpredictably, scheme, collude, form alliances, hold grudges, and act in benevolence or spite. I'd never played with more than two players before, but for the first time I played a game with three. A four player game seems like a wild fantasy in COVID times.

Big thanks to "B" and especially "D," who doesn't really love these kinds of games but nevertheless spent part of a beautiful Sunday afternoon in the spring playing it with me indoors.

B is pink, I'm red, computer is green, D is blue.

A side note - don't play the copy from Atarimania. We did and it crashed on turn 11 the first (and only) time I successfully caught the Mountain Wampus in an optional minigame. If the LAND store looks glitchy and the MULE shop fails to display its stock, then you've got a bad dump.


Every turn begins with a land grant phase. A cursor runs across the screen, left to right, top to bottom, and everyone claims a single plot of land by hitting their joystick button as it passes over the plot they want. Ties favor whoever ranks last.

There are three types of terrain and each is well suited to a particular resource - rivers to food, plains to solar energy, and mountains to Smithore, which is the most reliably profitable commodity, though shortages of food and energy have been known to skyrocket their prices. Bad things happen when you run out of any of these things:

  • Food - Your next turn will have a reduced time limit and you may effectively lose it completely.
  • Energy - Plots of land equipped to produce things other than energy will have reduced or empty yields.
  • Smithore - Nothing bad happens to you for lacking Smithore, but the MULE shop, which makes the titular MULEs that all of you need to produce anything on your land plots, requires a steady supply of it. If nobody supplies Smithore, then nobody can buy more MULEs.

Green and Pink went for ore, and I went for food. Blue intended to grab the northern river, but pressed the button too early and grabbed a plains instead.

You really don't want to miss a land grant, especially this early on. There are twelve rounds, and missing one now means missing out on twelve productive yields. Your operation is not only effectively delayed an entire turn, but the amount of land owned also counts toward your score in the end. It's much better to get the wrong plot of land than no plot of land; you might never catch up if you miss a land grant near the start of the game. This is actually, IMO, one of the game's bigger faults, but more on that a bit later.

Sometimes the land grand is followed up by a land auction.

Here we can see what's likely an evolved form of the lost debut Wheeler Dealers, where four players bid over the land. The interface here is rather genius - holding up on the joystick moves your character upward and increases your bid, creating a diegetic bidding interface where the characters' positions on the screen directly represent their bids relative to each other. When time runs out, the high bidder pays and gets the land.

We let the computer buy the river plot for $472, which in retrospect was a bad move. The land itself is worth $500, and the production on it possibly worth several times that. Still, spending every dollar on a plot of land might not be the best plan, as you've still got to spend more money before you can make any.

Next there's a development phase, where each player may outfit their plots of land. "B" as Pink went first.

Typically this is straightforward on your first turn. You buy a MULE from the shop, then equip it with the kind of tools it needs to harvest the resource type you want by leading it into the corresponding building. Then you take it to your plot of land to work. If you have more land and enough cash and time, you equip your other plot in the same manner. Finally, if enough time remains, you return to the pub in town to make a few bucks gambling. You'll always win something.

The eagle-eyed might notice a blinking pixel in the mountains. This is the elusive Mountain Wampus, who will give you a cash prize if you catch him. Unfortunately, none of us are really sure how you do this, and the collision detection involved seems dodgy. Both "D" and I were certain we touched him several times throughout the course of the game, but never got the award for it.

AI players don't have to physically move like humans do. Generally they can deploy up to two MULE's in a turn, or three if they forgo gambling. They will never catch the Wampus. A human player with extremely precise joystick skills can probably work a bit more efficiently, but not much.

Sometimes, during your development phase, random occurrences can happen, sort of like the Community Chest in Monopoly. Usually these are just cash handouts or losses, but sometimes big things can happen, like land claims being revoked. Only bad things will happen to whoever is in first place, and only good things will happen to whoever is in last.

Anyway, Pink mined Smithore, Red farmed food, Green, owning both a river and a mountain range did both, and Blue went for food even though she owned a plains. The turn was over, and pirates came and stole everyone's ore. Such is one of the risks of single-commodity dependence.

The next and final phase is commodity trading, which is sheer brilliance in its execution.

Normally there would be a Smithore auction, but as there isn't any to sell, this one is skipped and we do food.

Before the bidding starts, we can see that Green and Red, who farmed in rivers, have surpluses, while Pink, who did not farm at all, has a shortage. In fact, he's completely out. Blue has exactly as much as she needs. Green and Red are therefore designated sellers, and Pink will need to buy three units of food, but has plenty of options.

Here, the store sets baseline prices, based on internal rules of supply and demand. The store will pay $15 per unit, or sell at a marked up $50. Buyers move up to increase their bids, which start at $15, sellers move down to decrease, starting at $50, and when two players meet in the middle, they trade until one of them backs off. Following the same logic, a buyer who moves all the way to the top when there are no sellers buys from the store, and a seller who moves all the way to the bottom when there are no buyers sells to the store. Sellers automatically cut off trading once they exhaust their surplus.

When the store runs out, that's when things get really interesting, as without a baseline selling price, buyers can increase their bids way past the initial $50 and potentially offer up hundreds if no seller will meet them any lower.

This whole section is subliminally crafted and ingenious. I probably saw it for the first time around 2012 or so, and it blew me away and still does in ways that the most cutting-edge graphics of that time couldn't hope to in passing years.

The last commodity to trade is energy, but as nobody was harvesting that, we all had to buy from the store at $45 per unit, exhausting its supply and still not satisfying everyone's needs.


On the next turn, disaster struck me. Pink and I both claimed the same plot of land, and we both thought we won. Unfortunately for me, I was wrong. My colorblind eyes mistook the pink for my red, and I got nothing. Adding insult to injury, I wasted a MULE when I tried to bring one to the plot that wasn't mine.

And I can't help but consider this a significant flaw. Missing an early land claim is devastating. As we'll see, I never really recovered from this mistake. All of my opponents had three plots each, and I only had one. Incidentally, Blue once again pressed the button too early and grabbed a plains when she wanted a river, and was getting frustrated.

I think that this could have been remedied with a bit of mercy. Suppose that, if you miss a land claim, then during your own turn you'd be allowed to claim one plot manually by walking up to it and pressing the button. This would make missing a land claim less dire, but still punish you by costing you precious development time, and also give speedier players the first pick. Players who struggle with the timing could deliberately forfeit the claim phase and instead take what they want during their own turn manually, without the risk of getting the wrong claim thanks to a mistimed press.

As if things weren't going badly enough for me, space pests ate my crops.

Pink produced Smithore, Green Smithore and energy, Blue a tiny amount of food and Smithore, and I produced nothing. The Smithore all got sold to the store at $57/unit. Food was, once again inadequate for everyone but Blue and the rest of us had to buy from the store at an inflated price of $63/unit. Green, as the sole producer of energy, gouged us a bit at $47/unit, but could have done far worse. The colony as a whole was off to a rocky start.

On turn 3, I claimed the other part of the north river, Green claimed the other part of the south river, Pink got a plains, and Blue a mountain.

  • Green was producing a bit of everything.
  • Pink bought an energy-equipped MULE to his new plains to help power his mining operation in the two plots of mountains.
  • Blue farmed a plains, tried and failed to catch the Wampus, and went gambling.
  • I farmed my new river.

With all of this farming, food was no longer in shortage.

It's a buyer's market.

Pink, who lacked farms, had no trouble buying his needs, and the rest of us hoarded what we couldn't sell him, preferring to let extra food spoil before selling it to the store at a pittance.

Energy was less plentiful, with only Green producing a small surplus, not enough to satisfy (or fully exploit) the shortages Blue and I suffered.

On the next turn, all four of us claimed plains and equipped them for solar harvests, and Pink also expanded his ore mining to three mountain ranges. I likewise got into the Smithore action. Pink had the most lucrative turn, producing the most of it, while food was traded from farmers to non-farmers at fairly high prices and energy was traded at more reasonable prices.

Over the next few turns, Green expanded heavily into ore production, setting up several new mining camps in the mountains and even converting some solar farms. Pink started some food and energy farms in the plains. Blue went for ore and energy, and I set up more ore mines, but expansion was limited by my scarce land plots. During this time, Green pulled a fast one on Pink during a land bid, tricking him into paying too much for a plot of land by withdrawing at the last second from a bid war that neither one intended to win.

Green was the big ore producer from here on. On turn six, ore was worth $71, and Green produced 25 units to Pink's 15, my nine, and Blue's mere two. Its net worth lead was in thousands. The following two turns, ore's price declined somewhat, and Green hoarded. The food situation stabilized, with everyone producing enough, and though I had a surplus from my two river farms, nobody would buy but the store. The energy market was a bit volatile - Green never had enough of it, but on most turns could buy it from someone. Pink always had a surplus, but never really had a corner of the market - only by turn 7 did he produce it in large quantities, and the store had restocked by then. And by turn 8, Blue had a surplus as well.

By turn 9, all of the land was taken.

For the rest of the game, Green fidgeted during its development turn, idling swapping the food and energy production on its river plots on each turn. Pink expanded into ore, giving up three energy plots. Blue farmed energy on her empty plots, and I expanded my ore, giving up one energy plot.

On the end of turn 9, pirates stole all the Smithore, a particular misfortune for Green who had been hoarding it, knocking it down to second place. This didn't last as it still far outproduced everyone and by turn 10 was back in first place. That same turn, I, as the sole producer of surplus food, tried to squeeze Green for some cash by selling it at $50, but he wasn't buying. I guess this late in the game, when you've already developed your land, it doesn't matter if you have a time penalty. Green was also the only player who didn't produce an energy surplus, and during turn 10 the three of us agreed to price-fix instead of racing to the bottom, but once again Green did not bite.

Green refused to offer more than $14 despite our cartel.

On turn 11, "B" suggested we lower our energy prices until Green raised to meet, and then withdraw. To my surprise, this worked, Green raised, and Blue sold a few energy stocks at $91/unit.


This had some interesting effects on all of our net worths, as the value of your goods are determined by the final sale price of one. Pink was brought to first place, but only by four dollars, and Blue, who was the main energy farmer, was lifted out of last.

In the end, though, Green won, mostly from ore farming. During the final auction, nobody sold anything, as is typical, because the market value of your stocked goods contributes to your final score, they won't spoil, and they tend to be worth more than what the store will pay for them. The final colonial performance was rated mediocre.


In retrospect, we could have used this last auction to severely inflate the value of energy and raise the colony's rating, making Blue the winner. Ore wouldn't have worked - we'd have had to buy out the store first, and with over 150 units stockpiled, that just wouldn't have happened, and besides, that would have mainly benefited Green. Food wasn't produced in large enough numbers to make inflating its price worthwhile. But trading a single unit of energy at $200+ would have been enough to raise everyone's stocks, and Blue had 51 units of it.

"B" had fun trying to anticipate market needs and outsmart the computer, even if it won in the end. "D" didn't enjoy it that much, felt the game was too long, and was certain the AI cheats, but even so, admitted that it became more fun as she got a better idea of how it works. I've gushed about M.U.L.E. plenty already. We were all agreed on one thing, though. That damn song would be stuck in our heads for days.

I did some revenue analysis of the game.

M.U.L.E. breaks your net worth down into cash, goods, and land value, which is useful for planning your moves, but less useful for postgame analysis. I reviewed the videos and made some further charts of my own.

Green's breakdown:

"Land" includes the value of the land itself, the value of all owned MULE's, subtracted by the cash spent on land auctions. Green bought land pretty aggressively throughout the game, and it was a mistake for us to let this go unchecked. It bought land at a bargain in most cases, and the land itself made a significant contribution to Green's net worth, even before factoring in all the precious Smithore.

"Ore sales" are the cash assets from selling Smithore, minus all cash spent on buying ore (an uncommon thing for ore but more common with other assets).

"Ore" is the market value of stockpiled Smithore. The interplay between it and Ore sales show when Green held, sold, and got raided by pirates.

"Misc" is everything else not listed, which includes:

  • Food, energy, and purchases/sales of food and energy, which did not play a major role in Green's strategy.
  • Cash spent on buying and equipping MULEs
  • Gambling proceeds
  • Fortunes and misfortunes during the development phases
  • The $1000 that everyone starts with

Green's "Misc" category, unlike everyone else's, was ultimately a liability rather than an asset, as random occurrences are always bad to the player in first place.

Pink's breakdown:

  • The plateau in land value from turns 6 to 7 is due to "winning" a land bidding war with the AI.
  • Pink sold his ore to the store almost all of the time, so "ore" is an insignificant category except near the game's end.
  • The plateau in ore sales was due to pirates. All of the ore was stolen, therefore none was sold.
  • I added "energy" to the breakdown here, because Pink had a significant stock of it near the end of the game when we spiked its market value.
  • The good and bad of "misc" events mostly cancel each other out.

Blue's breakdown:

  • Blue was the least aggressive ore miner, pursuing energy over ore during the late stages.
  • Blue did not purchase any land, but received a free plot every single one of the first nine turns.
  • The energy price spike peaks in turn 11, but settles down a bit by turn 12.
  • Random events were generous to Blue, who spent several turns in last place.

Red's breakdown:

  • Missing the land grab on turn 2 really screwed me over.
  • Random events were generous to me, as I was in last place most of the time.
  • With two food-producing river plots early on, I was a significant food supplier, but low prices kept this from being very lucrative.
  • Ore sales were still a big portion of my revenue. I always sold, except on the last turn.
  • I benefited from the energy price spike, but not as much as Blue. Green was really the only loser of this particular event.

We're not quite done with M.U.L.E., as there's an entire unplayed mode, which some would say is the true game.


  1. Standard? Ah come on, you gotta play Tournament. And then the "fire in the store" event on turn 1. The only way to play.

    You didn't mention Collusion. When both players press their buttons at the same time, a special screen comes up and they can privately trade with one another at whatever price they agree.

    M.U.L.E. is a game that really rewards repeat plays with the same players. You can try different strategies and bear grudges. Complete brutal cutthroat play with friends is the best. We played the hell out of this with 4 players in college, and it was some of the best gaming I ever did.

    1. It's coming. Like I said, we're not quite done with M.U.L.E.

    2. You can also collude without the special screen. It has been a while since I last played M.U.L.E. for real – almost 33 years –, but two real human players can squeeze the computer players of energy and food starting from the beginning. It really does hinder them from getting ahead. This all in Tournament.

      It's been a while, but as the M.U.L.E. is such an astonishing game, you never forget.

  2. You may be interested to know that in 1996, Computer Gaming Word made MULE the third best game ever released (in a list of 150 games) - below Civilization and Ultima 7, but above Red Baron (!), and Doom.

    1. Oh yeah, I remember that. Forgot about Red Baron being at #4!

  3. I've read about MULE before, it sounds interesting... how did you play it? With an Atari 400/800 emulator?

    I just received the new Commodore 64 clone, I'll have to see if I can get a game ROM for it!

    1. I used MAMEUI. Be warned that the C64 port is a bit clunky if you play with 3-4 players - the original system only supported two joysticks, so players 3 & 4 will have to use keyboard controls.

  4. We got to Bunten’s crowning achievement just in time for Pride Month, didn’t we?

  5. I have heard MULE mentioned many times, but I have never played it. Thank you for covering this!

  6. Wheeler Dealers has been dumped! I have no idea if it's actually playable - the custom peripheral might not be emulated - but I will find out.

    1. It's playable in MAME. The original controller was simply a four-button input device - one button per player - and to emulate it, you need to set gameio to paddles, you need to map inputs to Paddle Analog Dec for each player, and you need Paddle Auto-centering Speed for each player to be pretty high (100 is good enough).

      Then you can play, and each player only needs the one button. Bidding, answering Yes/No prompts, etc., are controlled by how long you keep the button held, and locked in by releasing.

      Unfortunately I'm totally lost as to how you play. But if I ever figure it out, I might do a post on this. And if not, I might do a BRIEF anyway. Or not. We'll see.


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