Tuesday, May 18, 2021

M.U.L.E.: Tournament mode

I did it! I caught the mountain wampus. I don't understand how - all I did was touch his pixel with my sprite, which I'm sure I did plenty of times before, but it finally registered for once, and now I can say for sure that this is possible.

M.U.L.E. features three modes of incrementally challenging play - Beginner, Standard, and Tournament. All are based around harvesting and trading commodities - Smithore to build the robotic MULEs that your space colony depends on, solar energy to keep them fueled, and food to keep you fueled, and all can become brutal mind games of market speculation and exploitation. During the last post, I played a Standard round with "B," "D," and a robot taking the fourth player's control (and winning), but only Tournament mode has the full features and complexities that M.U.L.E. has to offer.

Tournament mode adds a fourth commodity, crystite, which replaces Smithore as the most reliably profitable export. Crystite has no practical use whatsoever, but its average selling price is $100/unit, compared to Smithore's $50. Furthermore, being an intergalactic commodity, its price fluctuates wildly turn-by-turn and is not affected by local surpluses and shortages, and can reach rates up to $150/unit. Smithore's price rarely gets much higher than $50 without deliberate artificial shortages, as selling every turn ensures a steady supply and keeps the price under control. Food and energy can certainly go for rates far higher than $150/unit by pressing desperate players, but players will only buy as much as they need, while the space market will happily buy all the crystite you've got. Hoarding until you can sell it high can make you quite rich, but carries risk, as pirates love to come down and steal it all.

Producing crystite is also a different beast from everything else. Smithore is best mined in the mountains, but can also be found in plains. Food is best produced in the river, and energy in the plains, but crystite deposits are invisible. To locate them, you've got to bring soil samples to the assay office - an action that short turn durations leave little time for once you've installed a MULE or two - which will tell you if the land has any, and if so, how concentrated they are. But this will also inform other players if they're paying attention, and if you sample land that nobody owns with the hopes of claiming it, another player might just be able to claim it first. Once you own land that you know (or hope) has crystite, simply equip a MULE with crystite mining gear and bring it to the plot to start harvesting.

I played a round with "B" on Tournament mode. "D" sat this one out.


For this game, I picked a blue spheroid, "B" picked a green gollumer, and the AI opponents were purple and red.

No fair, the mechtrons get extra starting cash!

Turn 1:

  • I bought an extra plot of land, bidding $628.
  • Purple and red both built farms in the river and assayed some land.
  • Green went for smithore, and discovered a high-yielding crystite deposit near his property.
  • I went for food and energy.

Before the auction phase, pirates came and stole all the crystite. Of which, of course, there was none.

  • Green sold his smithore for $50/unit.
  • Green had a food shortage but bought the difference cheaply from Red.
  • As the sole energy producer, I could sell at the store price of $45/unit. When I ran out, the other players who all had shortages bought from the store.

Turn 2: 

  • I tried to grab the high-yield crystite deposit that Green revealed, but Red got it first, so I got the adjacent plains instead, which would be medium-yield. It seems like you can never beat the AI at the land grab. "D" was right - the computer rigs the game in its own favor.
  • Green and Purple both bought extra land plots as they came up for auction. I lacked the cash funds to participate.
  • Purple put Smithore and energy MULES to work in its new land plots.
  • Red went for energy, putting a new energy MULE to work in the plains and converting the food MULE to energy as well.
  • I mined crystite on my new plot and failed at assaying my plains plot.
  • Green farmed the river and made hash out of an attempt to assay the mountainous plot.
  • An earthquake cut mining production in half. Purple and Green sold their meager Smithore yields. My crystite plot produced nothing.
  • Red alone had a food shortage, having given up the farm, but bought the difference from me and Green after some petty haggling.
  • Green likewise had an energy shortage, but bought the difference from Red who had an abundance. I cleaned Red out while the price was cheap.

Turn 3: 

  • I grabbed an adjacent plot for further crystite mining, as this creates a production bonus. But lacking adequate funds, I couldn't begin mining just yet, so instead I just assayed to confirm presence of crystite.
  • Red bought an extra plot of land, converted the river back to food, and mined smithore in the mountains.
  • Green mined more Smithore.
  • Purple mined smithore in the mountains and converted its solar farm into another smithore mine, leaving the river farm as the only non-ore producer, and discovered a high-yield crystite deposit in its southern plains plot.

This turn, a fire in town destroyed the whole store's stock! 

  • Smithore sold for a slightly inflated $57/unit, mainly benefiting Purple.
  • Crystite went for $76/unit. I held.
  • Purple and Green both had small food shortages. Red and I waited for them to raise their bids, but I sold once they hit $50/unit. Too soon in retrospect.
  • Purple and Green completely lacked energy, and I alone had a surplus, having bought Red out last turn. They bid up to $69/unit, and I sold my entire surplus to Purple, leaving Green in the dark.
  • This pushed Red up to first place, though only by a little, as his energy reserves became worth much more.

Turn 4: 

  • Red and I both bought extra land plots, but this cleaned me out of most of my cash.
  • Red equipped two of his new plains with solar farms and discovered another high-yield crystite deposit in the southeast of the map.
  • I found crystite in my new plot near the river. But lacking the cash to do much about it, I spent the rest of my turn trying to catch the wampus and failing.
  • Purple put an energy field in its unused plains, and converted its ore mine, where the high-yielding crystite deposit was found, to crystite mining.
  • Green installed an energy field and successfully assayed one of his mountain plots, finding no crystite there.


Pirates came again this turn, stealing all the crystite. Oh no.

  • Smithore still sold for $57/unit, but Green couldn't produce any without energy.
  • Red and Green had food shortages, nobody had a surplus, and the store was still empty. Green decided to sell his sole food unit to Red for $79, which frankly was much too little.
  • Purple and Green had energy shortages, and Red had a big surplus, selling to them at $56/unit, and the rest to the store at $39.

Turn 5: 

  • Purple and Red bought extra plots cheaply and virtually unopposed. Green and I were too cash-strapped to participate in the auctions.
  • Red converted two of its energy plots to crystite mines.
  • Purple swapped the smithore and energy MULEs in the northeast of the map and I don't know why.
  • I put an energy MULE on my new plot to get the adjacency bonus. This was about all I could do on my budget.
  • Green's starvation meant he had barely enough time in his turn to duck into the pub and win a few bucks. MULE purchasing and installment was out of the question.

Acid rain this turn boosted food production but hurt energy production. Counter-intuitively, this was to my benefit as an energy producer.

  • Purple and Red, and Green sold Smithore for $50/unit.
  • Crystite went for $104/unit which I sold for some much-needed cash, but Red was the bigger producer of it still.
  • Everyone produced enough food.
  • I alone produced an energy surplus, but just barely. The store quickly sold out at $76/unit, and I waited for the other players' bids to skyrocket before selling at $130/unit.
  • Red was still in first place.


Turn 6:

  • Computer land-grab advantages struck once again as purple took the plot I wanted.
  • Red built two crystite mines and an energy field in its empty plains plots.
  • I finally built my second crystite mine adjacent to my first. I also built a third energy field, at which point they all produce more efficiently.
  • Purple built two more crystite mines.
  • Green built two new smithore mines. "I don't need your newfangled crystite," he snorted. "Y'all need my smithore."


One of Red's crystite mining MULEs malfunctioned and ran away. But he still had three left.

  • Smithore sold for $57/unit, and only Green was producing much of it.
  • Purple produced 13 crystite units, far outpacing my five. This was starting to feel really skewed - having three plots shouldn't produce that big an advantage over two. It sold for $64/unit, and I held.
  • Red had a food shortage, Green and I had a surplus. Green sat out this auction, but I allowed Red to buy out the store and then increase its bid to $142/unit before selling.
  • Everyone but me had an energy shortage, I had a surplus, and the store was out. I got some sweet $178/unit trades out of that leverage, and although I didn't sell out, it made my remaining energy stocks worth that much, boosting me into first place.
An ideal seller's market.

Halftime standings. Green's Smithore operation isn't doing too hot.

Turn 7:

  • Purple once again took the land I wanted, which to be fair I would have lost anyway since I was in first place. But I bought two more plots with the cash I squeezed out of my energy-strapped rivals in the last turn. Unfortunately, my land plot was getting pretty scattered, which isn't ideal for efficient production.
  • A random event penalized me for $150, and I only had enough cash left to build a second farm adjacent to my river farm. Assaying revealed crystite on my southern mountain plot.
  • Purple built a new crystite mine and a new energy field.
  • Red built a new crystite mine.
  • Green built an energy field and smithore mine.

Sunspot activity increased everyone's energy output this turn.
  • Green produced 14 smithore units and sold some for $50, but held onto the rest.
  • Purple and Red both outproduced me on crystite. Purple's was bafflingly high considering the energy shortage from last turn. At $96/unit, I held.
  • Purple produced no food at all, and the rest of us had a surplus, me most of all. I fleeced it at $120/unit.
  • Everyone had an energy surplus. I had 18 to spare, and sold it to the store for $78/unit.

 Turn 8:

  • I put a new crystite mine on my southern mountains plot, and confirmed through assaying that the adjacent plains had some more.
  • Red built two more crystite mines, converting one of its energy fields.
  • Purple also build two more crystite mines, converting one of its smithore mines.
  • Green missed his land claim. Out of any room to expand, he bought several MULEs and set them free, hoping to drive up the cost of smithore.


Pests ate my main crop plot.

  • Smithore's price did not increase despite Green's waste, and he continued to hold most of his stock.
  • Purple and Red produced 26 and 22 crystite to my 12. Even with their larger plots, this didn't seem fair. Red, for instance, was producing six crystite on a single low-yield deposit. The production bonuses from adjacency and learning curve can't account for that! At $84/unit, I held.
  • Nobody had a food shortage. Even with the turn's end blight, I had just enough to sustain myself. Purple sold its surplus at $93/unit.
  • I had an energy surplus, Purple and Red had shortages, but the store had plenty, selling for $67/unit. I held and let them buy from the store.
  • I was still in the lead, with $12,076, but Purple and Red were catching up. Green was behind by thousands, worth $7,680 compared to Red's $10,229.


Turn 9:

  • Purple and Red grabbed the last two land plots. As ties always favor the computer, Green didn't get a fair chance at grabbing them despite being in last place.
  • I was robbed of one of my plots of land in a random event. One that I was counting on using for crystite mining to get an adjacency bonus too.
  • I built a third farm in the northwest corner and assayed my other two lots, finding low crystite deposits in both.
  • Purple converted its smithore mine to crystite.
  • Red built an energy field and a crystite mine.


Pests ate my crops again.

  • Smithore dropped in price to $43. Green unloaded his stock of 45.
  • Purple produced triple the crystite that I did, 36 to my 12, and Red produced 33. At $140/unit, we all unloaded our stocks.
  • Purple and Red had slight food shortages, but I wasn't able to exploit this. This late in the game they accepted it rather than pay my premium prices.
  • Purple and Red also had moderate energy shortages, which I sold to them at the store's price of $60/unit.
  • I lost my lead to Purple, who now had an astounding $18,866.

Turn 10:

  • Red claim-jumped the land I lost last turn, because of course it did.
  • Purple got two more crystite mines, converting one energy field. Its food shortage didn't seem to stop it from doing this much.
  • I built two more crystite mines on the properties that I assayed on the last turn.
  • Red also got two more crystite mines in spite of a food shortage.
  • Green wasted a few more MULEs.

Acid rain fell once again.

  • Smithore stayed at $43/unit. Seems that despite Green wasting MULEs, the store didn't anticipate much demand for them this late when every plot was taken and most of them worked. Nevertheless, Green held.
  • Purple produced 46 crystite units, Red 36, and I 11. At $136/unit, we all sold.
  • I had a pretty big food surplus, and Purple a small shortage, but it did not buy.
  • Everyone but me had a sizeable energy shortage, and I had only a small surplus. Purple, Red, and Green bought the store out at $80/unit, and I foolishly sold at the same rate.
  • I slid down to third place and it was clear that the rankings weren't going to change. Purple led with $24k, Red followed with $20k, I with $17k, and Green trailed with $9k.

Turn 11:

  • Purple converted its river farmland to energy and its energy field to crystite.
  • Red put an energy field in the southeast corner and converted its last smithore mine to crystite.
  • I converted one plains farm to a crystite mine and went wampus hunting, but failed.

Then something cool happened. Too little and too late to make a difference, but cool nonetheless.

A meteorite landed right in my farmland, destroying the MULE there but leaving a big crystite deposit.

  • Smithore prices plummeted down to a pathetic $29/unit. Green begrudgingly sold, but curiously, Purple and Red bought.
  • I produced 20 crystite, still hardly enough to match what Purple and Red were outputting. Prices were at $72/unit, and I held, while Purple and Red made a half-hearted attempt to buy.
  • Purple and Red bought my food surplus at the store's price of $52/unit.
  • Purple had an energy shortage, but everyone else had a surplus. Purple bought Red's out at $78/unit, but needed more, and kept upbidding until it bought a few more from Green and me at prices in the $130's.

Turn 12:

  • Purple converted its energy field back to farmland, and its northwest crystite mine back to energy. I can't imagine why this seemed like a good idea.
  • Red earned $600 in a community chest event, and then converted one of its energy fields into crystite, and its river farm into an energy field.
  • I installed a crystite MULE onto the fresh deposit and then went wampus hunting. And won.
  • Green converted one energy field to smithore, being stubborn to the very end.

The ship returned, and the final harvest of the game was reaped.

  • Smithore went back up to $43/unit. Red and Purple therefore had benefited from buying low.
  • I produced 32 crystite, but Purple and Red produced 51 and 47 respectively. 
  • None of us sold any crystite, food, or energy, as is customary at the end of the game.

The final score:

Overall, the colony succeeded... extremely well. You can now retire in elegant estates!



I saw no need to break this down by revenue type. My lead from turns 6-8 came from high food and energy prices, but the late game gravy train was all crystite.

The mechtrons beat us soundly, but is this outcome so bad? Maybe I could have become first founder had I been even more ruthless, allowing the mechtrons' underpowered mining operations to fail rather than selling them any energy, even at highway robbery prices. But despite "losing" we all got lavish retirements - even poor old smithore codger Green. A victory by sabotaging the mechtrons would have lowered the colony's score, and given us all more meager livelihoods. It's a centuries-old critique of meritocratic capitalism - pursuit of personal gain can encourage wasteful behavior.

But there's an important question I sought answers to. How badly does the computer cheat? We've already established that they always win land grabs, which is a pretty unfair advantage already. They move with greater efficiency than seems possible, especially with food shortages. They seem suspiciously adept at assaying, as they identified the last of the crystite deposits by turn 4. They even get extra starting cash. And I had a sneaking suspicion that they get unfairly high mining yields.

To test that last suspicion, I took a screenshot of the turn 11 yields, added a "crystite heat map" indicating where the deposits were located, and annotations to show projected crystite yields.

With heatmap

Without heatmap

"D" was right. The computer cheats like a mafia accountant. Most blatant of all is that both red and purple are mining crystite in areas where there isn't any. And while this is possible in the game rules - the adjacency and learning curve bonuses still apply even in plots without any naturally occurring resources, it shouldn't be this high for anyone. For instance, Purple's yield in the top row, third column, gets six crystite units in a barren plot - the learning curve rule should only grant a +3 bonus to a base yield of zero, and the adjacency rule shouldn't apply at all here.

For other crystite yields - I've drawn boxes to show how much should be mined - the computer players overperform more often than they underperform, while for me it's the opposite. Consider too that Purple has an energy shortage, and still produces 47 crystite in ten plots of land, and a "house edge" is challenging to deny.

In spite of all that,

GAB rating: Good

It's been slightly longer than a year since the last time I awarded a harpoon, but M.U.L.E. deserves it. Economics made fast, fun, and accessible on a 48KB machine, with only the most rudimentary of BASIC predecessors to draw influence from - who would have thought it possible? Equally impressive is how it teaches market economics lessons - nothing as in-depth as Cartels & Cutthroats but nonetheless ones that apply to the real world - in an organic manner through gameplay experience. Supply and demand, speculation, economies of scale, diminishing returns, market failures, interplay between cooperation and competition, and all without a single lecture or explanation. You learn through experience. Its simple-looking exterior hides an incredible amount of depth and breadth of strategy. Forget Monopoly, or even Settlers of Catan - nearly 40 years later, M.U.L.E. kicks.

It's entirely possible that I may revisit M.U.L.E., should I get a chance to play it again the future, and that the game proves interesting to write about. For now, though, I am moving on.


  1. The mountain Wampus is a reference to "Hunt the Wumpus" right?

    1. The manual refers to "wampus hunting," so it's got to be.

  2. I have graduated high school and you have been a big part of my high school years

    1. Congratulations, and good luck with whatever comes next!

  3. LOL the robot won. Y'all suck at M.U.L.E.

    Fire in the store on turn 3. Well, it's something. Best event in the game, clears out the stock and the prices can skyrocket. Other players want a resource you have? Let's see that price up to 300.

    There will only be two Pirates events per game, so getting them both out of the way early was good.

    At least you got elegant estates, I guess. It's not lap of luxury but it'll do.


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